Friday, May 6, 2011

It's bite is worse than its bark (Books - Darkness Visible by William Styron)

William Styron is best known as the author of the novels, The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice, books about moral responsibility. He suffered from episodes of major depression, once facing hospitalization for it. Darkness Visible is his memoir of that experience. It is as cuttingly brief and eloquent a literary description of the deep suffering of depression as you are likely to find. I found it interesting how frequently Styron made reference to the experience of depression as indescribable, while producing a volume on it - quoting many other writers on the themes of depression, suffering, and suicide - William James, Albert Camus, and Dante. The inadequacy is exemplified by his dissatisfaction of the fitness of the word itself - depression - a the descriptor our age is stuck with.
"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 a 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. It may be that the scientist generally held responsible for its currency in modern times, a Johns Hopkins Medical School faculty member justly venerated - the Swiss-born psychiatrist Adolf Meyer - had a tin ear for the finer rhythms of English and therefore was unaware of the semantic damage he had inflicted by offering "depression" as a descriptive noun for such a dreadful and raging disease. Nonetheless, for over seventy-five years the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.

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 in the brain, which is indeed what a clinical depression resembles like nothing else - even the uninformed layman might display sympathy rather than the standard reaction that "depression" evokes, something akin to "So what?" or "You'll pull out of it" of "We all have bad days." The phrase "nervous breakdown" seems to be on its way out, certainly deservedly so, owing to its insinuation of a vague spinelessness, but we still seem destined to be saddled with "depression" until a better, sturdier name is created.
Styron's literary evocation of being in the hole is relentless, and even while his discussion on medication and presumed mechanisms is dated, the way he captures being inside of it has not lost its bite. I'm beginning work on a paper on geriatric depression for school and although journal articles on psychological and neurobiological mechanisms is going to be its mainstay, literature seemed the place to start. I'm looking forward to reading Styron's Lie Down in Darkness this summer, once the term has ended, so taken was I with his voice. I found a copy on a curbside bookseller's table a few years back.


Criticlasm said...

I read this book a few years back (when I lived in NY and was going through a depression, in fact) and found it helpful. Different from Noonday Demon, which I found a little challenging to slog through during a depression because of its length, I liked this book because of its economy and visceral descriptions of his depression.

I also liked the description of the other men he'd found who went through it as well - for some reason I found that comforting. I haven't revisited it, but I liked it very much.

Ted said...

I just read Noonday Demon as well - horrifying but quite amazing. I really thought a lot of it. I'm hoping I'll have a chance to write about it here but I'm in the middle of a 30-page paper.