08 February 2009

Darkness Visible, by William Styron

I remembered hating this book when I read it years ago, but I figured I'd give it another try. It's short, only 80some pages, and the topic ought to be of interest to me. The book is an essay on depression - a memoir of madness, as Styron puts it. Now, madness is of great interest to me, particularly in autobiography, because it involves a kind of split in the self, between the crazy self and the sane one who can write about it. Autobiography generally involves a spooky sort of tension between author and subject, but madness greatly exacerbates the problem - the subject may become completely unrecognizable to the author. Depression is particularly interesting, because it doesn't mean going completely bonkers and losing contact with reality, but rather, being really unhappy, which means that your grasp of the world is warped, but not entirely lost. I'm currently finalizing a syllabus for a course on autobiography, and I was hoping this text might be a nice addition, a day of respite for my students in terms of reading load, but full of interesting questions. But as it turns out, I still hate this book.

To start with the good things, an interesting point that Styron makes is that depression is actually very difficult to describe to someone who's never experienced it. Because it's a specific kind of emotion, it's impossible to explain - you've either felt it or you haven't. This means that depression is damn near incomprehensible to a non-depressed person. I found this interesting, because in my experience it's quite true, but also something I find extremely frustrating. Something about the way Styron put it made me appreciate how difficult it is to explain. Although even the happiest person has bad days, the way they process emotion is just different somehow. I dunno. Actually, what clicked for me was that it's a similar problem to plenty of other kinds of literature - how to make someone EXPERIENCE what it describes. How do you make your reader laugh, or cry?

On the the flaws. Great allowances must be made, as Gulliver would say, for a book on depression written over 10 years ago. The cultural landscape of mental illness has radically changed since the writing of this book, more medications are available, and more is known about mental illness. So you've sort of got to take all that with a grain of salt. Ok.

What's infuriating about the book is that Styron doesn't actually try to describe what it's like to be depressed. Sure, as he's said, it's difficult or maybe impossible to do, but at least make an effort, eh? Our view of events is entirely external. "I went to lunch. I was tense and strained. I thought I'd lost a check. Turned out I hadn't." Bo-ring.

That alone would be obnoxious, but as the text develops, it gets worse. Firstly, when Styron describes the "cure" - apparently depression can be cured! Who knew! A week in the asylum and you're right as rain, free of any problems. This artificial happy ending astounded and infuriated me. My ire was exacerbated when Styron went on to hunt down the culprit, the cause of his problem. Well, he tells us pompously, of course there was probably some inherent biological tendency that he was gifted with, and perhaps some psychological reasons to be found in his youth, but there was also this evil crook doctor who gave him sleeping pills and told him to pop 'em like tic-tacs if he wanted. Well! Ok, don't get me wrong - I have no doubts that this sort of thing could, and did, happen. And still does. It's a major problem. But there's something about the insistent, complaining way that Styron keeps returning to it that annoyed the hell out of me. There's a kind of petulant snobbism to it, like how dare he! To ME of all people!

All in all, not a very good book. And makes Styron seem like a real prick, which you know, he might not have been, so what a pity.

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