Title: Darkness Visible
Author: William Styron
This was a short read about a terrible illness. Styron writes consciously and matter-of-factly about his depression. Consciously because even before he had given it a name, so unaware of the extent to which the disease could be debilitating, he was well aware of his progression into the darkness of it.
He opens with a telling of how, at the height of his career, whilst in Paris to receive the prestigious Prix Mondial Cino del Duca he’d suddenly become so overcome by the sadness, mania and mental confusion that often accompanies the disease that he’d realised that if he did not seek help he’d surely end up killing himself.
Throughout the book he makes references to other writers he’d admired, like french writer Albert Camus, who had grappled with and died (accidentally) as a result of his own depression, and how there had always been something in their writing that had always drawn him.
Styron writes of his frustration with living with a disease, which at the time, one might say that even today, was often misunderstood, misdiagnosed and stigmatised. He humourously muses over even the name of the disorder; depression, stating that:
“Melancholia” would still appear to be a far more apt and evocative word for the blacker forms of the disorder, but it was usurped by a noun with bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness.
Whilst he had always been aware of a mild form of his depression in his earlier years, it had never impeded on his writing, he had always known that the emotional and physical effects of it often overtook him in the afternoons – an anomaly to most depressives who tend to be rendered incapable of functioning from early morning. As his depression progressed and overtook him, he was well aware of his gradual descent into it, and he fully acknowledged the seriousness of the disease.
Going home, I couldn’t rid my mind of the line of Baudelaire’s, dredged up from the distant past, that for several days had been skittering around at the edge of my consciousness: “I have felt the wind of the wing of madness.”
Our perhaps understandable modern need to dull the sawtooth edges of so many of the afflictions we are heir to has led us to banish the harsh old-fashioned words: madhouse, asylum, insanity, melancholia, lunatic, madness. But never let it be doubted that depression, in its extreme form, is madness.
Eventually, on realising the extent of his illness he goes against the advise of his then physician who thought that hospitalisation should be avoided at all costs owing to the stigma the author might suffer, has himself admitted. Of this, Stryon writes:
I had thought psychiatry had advanced long beyond where stigma was attached to any aspect of mental illness, including the hospital.
Styron writes that his hospitalisation saved him from what could have been a fatal end, but it brought him no closer to understanding the reasons for his decline into the illness. He believed that, in his case, genetics played a great part because his father had also suffered from the disease.
I have added, my list of books-to-read, The Confessions of Nat Turner, deemed his most celebrated work.