I am SO grateful to Frankie who suggested I read William Styron‘s piercing and affecting ‘memoir of madness’, Darkness Visible. It was back in July that I ordered it, but only this last Saturday when I read it. It is brief – only 80 pages or so – but gripping. I read it one sitting. It felt like a compulsion – but I know that I will return to it, with greater patience and scrutiny. It was only published in 1990, but is now a classic of its kind. Deservedly.

Styron’s 1985 trip to Paris (a place of many memories for him) to receive the garlands and affirmation of a famous literary prize, was the unexpected trigger for acute depression and even suicidal thoughts.What is so compelling about this book (and which sets if far apart from the misery memoir publishing industry) is thathe applies his novelist’s eye to his experiences, gnawing away at a predicament until the right turn of phrase emerges. And that is special – because the dark nature of mental illness is that it is impossible to describe.

Compounding the anguish of depression is the fact that it isolates us from those closest who want to help but can’t understand.

That the word ‘indescribable’ should present itself is not fortuitous, since it has to be emphasized that if the pain were readily describable most of the countless sufferers from this ancient affliction would have been able to confidently depict for their friends and loved ones (even their physicians) some of the actual dimensions of their torment, and perhaps elicit a comprehension that has been generally lacking (p14)

“Depression” just doesn’t cut it

But what is the right terminology?

Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode, although the gloom, ‘the blues’ which people go through occasionally and associate with the general hassle of everyday existence are of such prevalence that they do give many individuals a hint of the illness in its catastrophic form. (p5)

Exacerbating the problem is the sufferer’s common experience being unable to get any words out at all. Here Styron describes a meal with friends after the award ceremony.

At this point the ferocious inwardness of the pain produced an immense distraction that prevented my articulating words beyond a hoarse murmur; I sensed myself turning wall-eyed, monosyllabic, and also I sensed my French friends becoming uneasily aware of my predicament. (p17)

But after his recovery, Styron looks back, groping for the best way to encapsulate it all. This I found hugely helpful – for the word ‘depression’ really doesn’t help anyone at all.

As one who has suffered from the malady in extremis yet returned to tell the tale, I would lobby for a truly arresting designation. “Brainstorm” for instance, has unfortunately been preempted to describe, somewhat jocularly, intellectual inspiration. But something along these lines is needed. Told that someone’s mood disorder has evolved into a storm – a veritable howling tempest int he brain, which is indeed what a clinical depression resembles like nothing else – even the uniformed layman might display sympathy rather than the standard reaction that ‘depression’ evokes, something akin to ‘So what?’ or ‘You’ll pull out of it’ or ‘We all have bad days.’ The phrase ‘nervous breakdown’ seems to be on its way out, certainly deservedly so, owing to its insinuation of vague spinelessness, but we still seem destined to be saddled with ‘depression’ until a better, sturdier name is created. (p37)

The madness of depression is, generally speaking, the antithesis of violence. It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk. Soon evident are the slowed-down responses, near paralysis, psychic energy throttled back close to zero. Ultimately, the body is affected and feels sapped, drained. (p46)

Yes! A storm is exactly the mot juste – in all its unpredictability and fears. And while he’s right that ‘brainstorm’ doesn’t have quite the right connotations, it is on the right lines. So I’ve been toying with the variation on the theme by using brain-blizzard. It alludes to the unpredictable violence of a storm – but it also grasps the visceral sense of blindness that comes from a white-out – you can’t just distance, perspective or sense of place. It might also point to the blinding snowdrifts that get left in its wake.

I’m not sure. I’ll need to think on it for a while. But would be interested in your thoughts or alternatives.

The Rhapsody Turn

Styron did recover. But he was terrifyingly close to ending it all – he seriously wrestled with what Camus saw as the ultimate philosophical problem: “judging whether life is or is not worth living”.

He was rescued though. And the means of that rescue is very affecting indeed.

My wife had gone to bed, and I had forced myself to watch the tape of a movie in which a young actress, who had been in a play of mine, was cast in a small part. At one point in the film, which was set in late-nineteenth-century Boston, the characters moved down the hallway of a music conservatory, beyond the walls of which, from unseen musicians, came a contralto voice, a sudden soaring passage from the Brahms Alto Rhapsody.

This sound, which like all music – indeed, like all pleasure – I had been numbly unresponsive to for months, pierced my heart like a dagger, and in a flood of swift recollection I thought of all the joys the house had known: the children who had rushed through the rooms, the festivals, the love and work, the honestly earned slumber, the voices… All this I realized was more than I could ever abandon, even as what I had set out so deliberately to do was more than I could inflict on those memories, and upon those, so close to me, which whom the memories were bound. And just as powerfully I realized I could not commit this desecration on myself. I drew upon some last gleam of sanity to perceive the terrifying dimensions of the mortal predicament I had fallen into. I woke up my wife and soon telephone calls were made. The next day I was admitted to hospital. (p66)

Everyone’s different. Every experience is in some ways unique. And the extent to which Styron’s descriptions resonate will of course vary enormously. But to have such a skilled wordsmith attempt his own memoir is an act of supreme generosity, for which gratitude is the minimal response.


While we’re on the subject, here are a couple of recent responses which some may find helpful.

The first is an animation based on the wonderful black dog books by Matthew Johnstone.

And a friend Dr Sunil Raheja has just set up a blog which will hopefully grow to have various resources on this and other areas.

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This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Lauri Moyle

    along the lines of the brain-blizzard, I think the effect that the lights in a supermarket can have, at the fringes of what we see are similar. The coldness of choice, even the meaninglessness of choice we are given in a supermarket, the repetition, ceaseless repetition of narrow choices, familiar choices in the isles and how the light in the supermarket encapsulates the nothingness of that choice around the eyes. There is light but it does not shine, and at the fringes it turns dark. Its where our eyes stop accepting the neon, at the fringe of what we can see, even though there is light, distracting as it may be, but blizzardly, like the choices we have in each isle. Perhaps a paradoxical inversion of lite-sight?

    1. quaesitor

      Thanks Lauri – v interesting, esp familiar to those returning to the West from living in the majority world

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