In this little “Memoir of Madness,” first delivered in abbreviated form at a symposium on affective disorders sponsored by the Department of Psychiatry of The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and then greatly expanded for publication in Vanity Fair, William Styron recounts, and attempts to account for, his descent into a mental depression that led him to the brink of suicide. What finally enabled him to escape his life-threatening despair is never, almost needless to say, made clear; he just somehow lived through the depression, aided to be sure by the solicitude of family and friends, and by a seven-week stay in the hospital. Although he confesses that the Croup Therapy in the hospital did nothing more than make him seethe, “possibly because it was supervised by an odiously smug young shrink, with a spade-shaped beard,” it probably did him no harm. And although the “organized infantilism” of the Art Therapy sessions seemed to him little better, they probably helped him regain his sense of comedy. It is, more than anything else, that sense of comedy or humor, as H.L. Mencken once noted, that keeps a reflective and skeptical man alive. In any case, Styron outlived his depression (or Melancholia, as he prefers to call it), and near the end of his hospitalization had his “first dream in many months, confused but to this day imperishable, with a flute in it somewhere, and a wild goose, and a dancing girl.”

Styron dates the onset of his illness from the time when he discovered that the least amount of alcohol, even a mouthful of wine, caused him “nausea, a desperate and unpleasant wooziness, a sinking sensation and ultimately a distinct revulsion.” But that is not to say that his deprivation from alcohol was the cause of the depression; it may just as well have been an effect, since by that time he had begun to suffer from insomnia and, concurrently, from the tranquilizers that had been prescribed to relieve him from that malady. He notes, incidentally, that his drug-induced sleep was invariably dreamless—hence, the great sense of relief when he began to dream again.

In his effort to explain what is apparently inexplicable he posits other possible causes. Perhaps he had been floored by his turning 60, “that hulking milestone of mortality,” a temporal marker that coincided with his malaise. Or was it the vague dissatisfaction with the way his work was going, stronger during that period than ever before? He finally concludes that his morbid condition had its origin much earlier, that it was in fact genetic in nature; his father, he recalls, had “battled the gorgon for much of his lifetime.” But, not quite content with that either, he believes an even more significant factor was the death of his mother when he was 13, too young to achieve the “catharsis of grief,” and thus doomed to carry with him the burden of rage and guilt, “potential seeds of self-destruction.”

But then all such suppositions are mere guesses, and riot very convincing guesses at that. I can of course understand and sympathize with Styron’s effort to comprehend his “madness,” nor do I dispute his contention, stated earlier on in the essay, that in its extreme form depression is madness and that it “results from an aberrant biochemical process.” But I seriously doubt that we know, or can know, any more than we have ever known before about what actually triggers the aberration. In one of several poems she wrote on the affliction, Emily Dickinson hypostatized despair as “that White Sustenance,” and in “There’s a certain Slant of light” she most memorably calls it “An imperial affliction / Sent us of the Air”—in effect admitting that it comes from we know not where, and then departs in equally mysterious fashion:

When it comes, the Landscape listens—

Shadows—hold their breath—

When it goes, ’tis like the

Distance On the look of Death—

The despair described by Dickinson is but a step removed from the “cosmic loneliness” of Meursault, the hero of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, a novel that haunted Styron, he tells us, even though he did not read it until he was in his 30’s. I find it interesting that when he set out to write The Confessions of Nat Turner, his best novel it seems to me, he employed Camus’ “device of having the story flow from the point of view of a narrator isolated in his jail cell during the hours before his execution.” Styron prefaces his commentary on various writers, some of them personal friends, whose despair ended in suicide by quoting Camus’ famous, and for me quite puzzling, pronouncement at the beginning of The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Such a statement doubtless seems silly to the majority of people, and not just ordinary people either—that is, to all those who are happily free of any such pondering, or else have decided that such teleological concerns are too far removed from our diurnal affairs to have much meaning or importance. After all, one may decide, as great multitudes of people no doubt have decided, that it matters little whether life has any meaning or not; one still gets on with the business of living. Besides, there’s a good deal of truth in Freud’s remark that when one inquires about the sense or value of life, one is sick. But now I’m going in a circle. Styron’s essay, after all, is about sickness—the sickness called despair. To be sure, most people who periodically suffer from extreme depression survive the pain, apparently none the worse for their experience. Many of those unable to escape its clutch destroy themselves—ironically in self-defense, as it were.

As a piece of writing, Darkness Visible contains all the woodnotes and the autumnal color one has learned to expect from its author. If a few passages reveal an unwonted kinship—stylistically, that is—to his fellow Virginian E.A. Poe, they are nonetheless in keeping with the subject of his discourse. For example, the following commentary on the perverse trick played on him by alcohol, which had for years acted as a shield against anxiety, might have been forged in Poe’s Gothic workshop: “Suddenly vanished, the great ally which for so long had kept my demons at bay was no longer there to prevent those demons from beginning to swarm through the subconscious, and I was emotionally naked, vulnerable as I had never been before. Doubtless depression had hovered near me for years, waiting to swoop down. Now I was in the first stage—premonitory, like a flicker of sheet lightning barely perceived—of depression’s black tempest.” Another example, this the opening sentence of the essay: “In Paris on a chilly evening late in October of 1985 I first became fully aware that the struggle with the disorder in my mind—a struggle which had engaged me for several months—might have a fatal outcome.” And off we go on this fascinating tour of darkness.


[Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron (New York: Random House) 96 pp., $15.95]