Wednesday, December 5, 2018

In the Dark

William Styron's Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness was a late substitution for two longer and more difficult books, with the aim of making progress while end-of-the-year challenge deadlines loom.

I started Lincoln in the Bardo and struggled upstream against my resistance to its creepiness, deciding early on it was more suitable for summer reading, when nightfall doesn't come so early. The substitution, The Road, was decidedly worse and I abandoned it promptly, but not before it impressed itself on my consciousness in a way I'm still trying to shake (discussion here, if you're interested). The "dread factor" for both of those books is very high for me.

I wish I was a more robust reader, but I'm not and never have been. This is a good thing when I read inspiring and positive works, and may explain how I ended up as an animal-loving, tree-hugging, socially conscious environmentalist when neither of my parents showed much inclination in those directions. Early literature probably deserves the credit. Fodder for a future post, no doubt. 

Meanwhile, Styron's memoir proved very relatable to the sensitive side of my character. Styron describes very accurately the feeling of teetering on the edge, maintaining with considerable effort a functional life and persona while knowing it's largely an act of appearing normal while feeling anything but. Styron's depression took a horrible toll on him and his family, yet he manages in this book to pull together the clinical and the personal with a writer's eye for detail, a beautiful carefulness and clarity of prose, and a robust lack of self-pity.

Perhaps most meaningful for me, he relates to his depression a waxing and waning inability to function and fit in: visiting Paris to accept a literary prize (which would normally have been a joyful, affirming event), he manages to make a mess of things with the prize's benefactor by refusing to attend the post-ceremony luncheon because he has double-booked his schedule; he then backtracks to attend the luncheon after all, but with an understandably strained result. It was the first time he explained his behavior by telling a stranger that he had a psychiatric problem.

This book remains relevant for its exploration of Styron's depression experience. His feelings of disconnection, of simple schedule management being too difficult to accomplish, of what can be accomplished being so much less than satisfactory: revelations at the time, hallmarks of depression today.     


My annoyance over all this [mystification at the "frailty" of a person who'd committed suicide] was so intense that I was prompted to write a short piece for the op-ed page of the Times. The argument I put forth was fairly straight-forward: the pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain. Through the healing process of time--and through medical intervention or hospitalization in many cases--most people survive depression, which may be its only blessing; but to the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer.

Note: I read this book for the Color Coded Reading Challenge (black). It also counts toward the Mount TBR Reading Challenge               

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