Thursday, 10 March 2011

22/111 - Darkness Visible by William Styron

This is another memoir of depression by a writer, although this time told from a male perspective of Styron’s episode of depression in the mid-80s. It’s a very teeny book – only 85 pages! So I read it all in one sitting, and enjoyed it very much. I also decided it was an appropriate time to read this, as it was published 20 years ago this week.

I haven’t read any William Styron, and having read this, I would like to. It might be a little exhausting, though. He doesn’t waste a single word when he’s writing, and his sentences are so precise that I feel like I’m getting the value of two or three regular sentences when I’m reading them. It's a little tiring to process that much information. On that basis alone, the book could therefore count for about 300 pages.

It’s not heavy-going, though. There is a lot of information but I’m just kidding when I said it’s exhausting – it’s not laborious to read, just intense, which is good in small doses like this one.
Styron doesn’t go into great depth about his depression like Sally Brampton does, he merely touches on each subject briefly – therapy, medication, sleeplessness, anxiety etc. The parts that I found most interesting happened to be quite funny. His bewilderment at recognising depression in himself is both comic and slightly horrifying, and he talks about how many depressives who have been through the cycle before know what the warning signs are, but that they can end up being sidelined until you are much sicker than you ought to be.

He also chronicles the depression and subsequent suicides of several artists and writers that he knows, and I really enjoyed the way he talked about Albert Camus, who he had very much wanted to meet before he died. He quotes Camus’ 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.”

I’m not sure how I feel about this statement. Styron was also confused when he first read it. I haven’t read Sisyphus so I don’t know what it goes on to talk about. I guess I feel that it's a little simplistic - I doubt that suicidal people are in their minds answering a philosophical question when they kill themselves. But I understand why it could seem that way. I guess it depends on whether you think people who kill themselves are choosing to die. That they are committing the act themselves is not in question - but when a mentally unwell person does anything I think it's probably safe to call into question whether they really know what it is they're doing. That they believe they would be better off dead is a response to their illness rather than a response to a philosophical longing, I think (although there is definitely some overlap there).

Again, one of the overall themes of this work is to outline depression as an illness – in Styron’s case he often describes it as a terminal illness, which I found quite interesting. It’s a perspective I had not really considered before. Diseases like cancer are considered terminal – it is taken for granted that the sufferer can easily die from it if they do not respond to treatment. Since one of the symptoms of depression in the desire to die, then this too is a terminal illness. If the sufferer does not respond to treatment then they will die from the disease.

I liked this very much, especially the language. I sort of wanted to read parts of it aloud. Delicious.

Next time: The Coma by Alex Garland

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