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Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness ()


Modern Library Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century (55)

    To a liberal, life is a tragedy; to a conservative, a comedy
            -An Accurate Aphorism

William Styron suffered a clinical depression in 1985, after he ended 40 years of alcohol abuse.  He subsequently turned that experience into a lecture, a Vanity Fair article and this extremely slight (84 pages) memoir.  The process of explaining his mental illness seems to have rendered him schizophrenic, if he was not already.

When I reviewed Sophie's Choice (see Orrin's review; Grade: C), I noted, without knowing of his depression, that Styron seemed to have some psychological problems.  I based my belief on his decision to write his novels from non-white, female or other ethnic perspectives; he seemed like a man who was so profoundly uncomfortable with himself and consumed by White Liberal guilt, as to be unbalanced.   It can hardly have come as a surprise to anyone that he descended into a nearly suicidal spiral of depression.  But, lo and behold, it surprised him and this is symptomatic of the problems with the book.  On the one hand, Styron seems to want to bare his soul and win our sympathy for others like him, but on the other hand he is so dishonest and/or obtuse, that he offers little of value to his audience.

I'll just point out two other areas where his analysis fails the reader.  He labors mightily to exonerate the depressed from moral judgment and portray them as mere victims of an organic condition, but as he notes, the chemical changes in the brain that exacerbate depression are preceded by some prior, purely psychological, condition--stress, guilt, what have you.  Now, I do not mean to suggest that susceptibility to Depression is necessarily indicative of moral weakness, surely we can all understand and sympathize with the bereaved parent or spouse who falls prey to depression after losing a child or partner.  But I am suggesting that in many cases, the mindset and moral philosophy of the sufferer seems to be a contributing factor in the development of depression.

This seems especially clear, and is annoyingly ignored, when Styron discusses the other famous sufferers of depression, most of whom committed suicide--Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, Sylvia Plath, etc.  It escapes his notice that these are all figures of the Left, plagued by the same tormented liberal guilt as he.  The two friends and fellow victims who he discusses are Art Buchwald and Mike Wallace; the three of them have moped through the past forty years, attacking their country, their society and the inequities they perceive.  Of course, they are depressed, they hate themselves and the world they live in.  Significantly, the two great conservative sufferers, Churchill and Lincoln, both great believers in the ultimate goodness of man and democracy and their countries, were able to overcome their black moods without psychiatry or pharmacology.  It seems logical to suppose that the group of catterwauling suicidal wretches that Styron associates himself with are predisposed to self-destructive depression by their political pessimism and moral anxiety, but this issue is not addressed, so we'll leave it for another day.

This is a mildly interesting trifle about a unique manifestation of depression.  It in no way belongs on this list.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -INTERVIEW: A Conversation with William Styron (NEH)
    -CYBERCAST: Discussion with Novelist William Styron (Library of Congress)
    -PROFILE: WILLIAM STYRON ON HIS LIFE AND WORK (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times Book Review)
    -BOOKLIST: Strictly Southern: THE AUTHOR OF "SOPHIE'S CHOICE" PICKS FIVE GREAT CONTEMPORARY SOUTHERN NOVELS (William Styron, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of  FORTUNATE SON By Lewis B. Puller Jr. (William Styron, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Dear Dirty Dublin: My Joycean Trek With Philip Roth (William Styron, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: THE LITERARY EYE; Death Row  (William Styron, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY:  William Styron: In the Jungle, NY Review of Books
    -ESSAY: William Styron: NAT TURNER AND "DRED", NY Review of Books
    -ESSAY:  William Styron: Hell Reconsidered, NY Review of Books
    -REVIEW: William Styron: A Farewell to Arms, NY Review of Books
        A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo
    -REVIEW: William Styron: In the Southern Camp, NY Review of Books
        Mary Chesnut's Civil War edited by C. Vann Woodward
    -REVIEW: William Styron: MacArthur, NY Review of Books
        Reminiscences by Douglas MacArthur
    -REVIEW: William Styron: Tootsie Rolls, NY Review of Books
        Candy by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg
    -REVIEW: William Styron: A Southern Conscience, NY Review of Books
        A Southern Prophecy by Lewis H. Blair and Introduction by C. Vann Woodward
    -REVIEW:  William Styron: The Habit, NY Review of Books
        The Consumers Union Report on Smoking and the Public Interest
    -REVIEW: William Styron: An Elegy for F. Scott Fitzgerald, NY Review of Books
        The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald edited by Andrew Turnbull
    -REVIEW: William Styron: Overcome, NY Review of Books
        American Negro Slave Revolts by Herbert Aptheker
    -REVIEW: William Styron: New Editions, NY Review of Books
        Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas by Frank Tannenbaum
    -REVIEW: Philip Rahv: Through the Midst of Jerusalem, NY Review of Books
        The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
    -REVIEW: Eugene D. Genovese: The Nat Turner Case, NY Review of Books
        William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond
    -REVIEW: Robert Towers: Stingo's Story, NY Review of Books
        Sophie's Choice by William Styron
    -ESSAY: A VISIT TO THE BROOKLYN OF 'SOPHIE'S CHOICE'  (LESLIE BENNETTS, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: A Sojourn in Dante's Wood, and the Path Back (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: A Howling Tempest in the Brain (VICTORIA GLENDINNING, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of A Tidewater Morning Three Tales From Youth By William Styron (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of A TIDEWATER MORNING Three Tales From Youth. By William Styron (Richard Bausch, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THIS QUIET DUST And Other Writings. By William Styron (Thomas R. Edwards, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THIS QUIET DUST By William Styron (Anatole Broyard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of DOG EAT DOG By Edward Bunker Introduction by William Styron (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: 'Authenticity,' or the Lesson of Little Tree (Henry Louis Gates Jr, NY Times Book Review)
    -'GREAT BOOKS' WE NEVER FINISHED READING (NY Times Book Review)
    -PROFILE:  JAMES BALDWIN-REFLECTIONS OF A MAVERICK (Julius Lester, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: BRINGING 'SOPHIE'S CHOICE' TO THE SCREEN (JANET MASLIN, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: MODERN NOVELS; THE 99 BEST (Anthony Burgess, NY times Book Review)

GENERAL:
    -Wings of Madness: A Depression Guide
    -The Eclipse of Hope, a sermon by Rev. Barbara Davenport

Comments:

Since concussions are known to produce later life depression, where do they fit into your theory? Is there something, somehow weak or immoral about a concussion?

- Hank

- Apr-17-2008, 11:29

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To suggest that Styron suffered depression because of "Liberal guilt" is despicable. It would be like suggesting Ronald Reagan had Alzheimer's because he's a dopey right-winger. I understand that your site has a political agenda, but I don't think that's any excuse for the disservice you do to the recently deceased Mr. Styron here. Incidentally I think that Sophie's Choice is an amazing book that can easily be appreciated by people of any political stripe. Perhaps it's time you put politics aside and appreciate great literature for what it is. I find many of the finest books can transcend political views. You should too.

- Tristan Maack

- Nov-12-2006, 22:21

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