Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

I know, I know, I know.  Paris in July is supposed to be a celebration of all things Parisian.  And it is not very celebratory to read a little piece chronicling someone's descent into depression, even if that someone is William Styron.  But Styron's thin volume (which originated as an address at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and then became a long essay published in Vanity Fair) is a fascinating exploration of his particular struggle with mental illness and with the fabric and reality of mental health at the time.  It also examines some of the capital-T-Truths about this disease regardless of time or circumstance.  As one of the "millions more who are relatives or friends of victims," (35) I took especial interest in his ability to explain, his willingness to discuss what was going on at the time.  Many sufferers never feel comfortable talking about the full depth of what they were experiencing at the time.  And of course, those that commit suicide have no way of making their loved ones understand. 

Styron begins his tale at the peak of his decline.  He acknowledges that he had been suffering and struggling for some months, but it was a trip to Paris in 1985 that revealed to him the true nature of his illness.

The moment of revelation came as the car in which I was riding moved down a rain-slick street not far from the Champs-Elysees and slid past a dully glowing neon sign that read HOTEL WASHINGTON.  I had not seen that hotel in nearly thirty-five years, since the spring of 1952, when for several nights it had become my initial Parisian roosting place.  . . . It reappeared, however, that October night when I passed the gray stone facade in a drizzle, and the recollection of my arrival so many years before started flooding back, causing me to feel that I had come fatally full circle.  I recall saying to myself that when I left Paris for New York the next morning it would be a matter of forever.  I was shaken by the certainty with which I accepted the idea that I would never see France again, just as I would never recapture a lucidity that was slipping away from me with terrifying speed.  (3-4)

Because of the subject matter, there is nothing here to recommend Paris to the reader.  But it is Styron's attachment to the place, the force of feeling that attachment withdrawn, that causes him to see his condition for what it truly was - even though he was in little position to control it at the time. 

As he describes his descent into (and subsequent emergence from) the "darkness," Styron notes that he suffered from hypochondria and makes reference to the 17-century perception of melancholia and hypochondria as interchangeable concepts. 

It is easy to see how this condition is part of the psyche's apparatus of defense: unwilling to accept its own gathering deterioration, the mind announces to its indwelling consciousness that it is the body with its perhaps correctable defects - not the precious and irreplaceable mind - that is going haywire. (44).

This astute analysis caused me considerable reflection.  It is true: we can much more easily replace a failing body part (knee, hip, even heart) than we can repair a mind that is broken.  Thankfully, Styron's great mind did return from that brink.  And even though he contributed nothing else to the literary canon after that break,  this memoir offers something to those who need to hear his voice.  To see the evidence of his healed mind.  To attempt to understand the unknowable.

As a companion to this little memoir, I read the Paris Review interview with Styron (1954) collected in The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. IV.  Perhaps the most interesting moment of collide is when Styron actually admits to hypochondria and nervousness - when he's not writing.  In the memoir, he made it sound like the hypochondria was a fairly recent addition to his symptoms in that declining period.  Instead, he reveals in the interview the ongoing nature of the thing and the ability of the written word to somehow save him from that struggle. 

Now - even though I know I am really stretching the boundaries of Paris in July here, I am actually using this concept as a launching point for a new challenge.  I have the complete set of these fantastic interviews, and each of the authors included has at least one work that I have yet to read.  So, my goal is to regularly (time-frame yet to be established; watch for official launch post next month) read an interview alongside one of the TBRs from these masters.  There are 16 interviews in each collection, which totals 64 authors.  Should I go in the order they were collected?  Chronologically?  Your thoughts, questions, concerns, or even excitement about such a challenge are welcomed. 

Finally, I leave you with this quip from Styron:

Interviewer: Do you enjoy writing?

Styron: I certainly don't.  I get a fine, warm feeling when I'm doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day.  Let's face it, writing is hell.


  1. What an interesting post! Really enjoyed this, and am looking forward to your challenge announcement next month -- I'm not familiar with the Paris Review Interviews, but in just reading your analysis and overview, might suggest that you go in the order that they were collected. It might be a nice treat following that route? Looking forward to your posts!

  2. That is such a cool idea for a reading project! I read Volume 4 of the interviews a little while ago, and they got me interested in several writers I wasn't previously familiar with - John Ashbery and David Grossman primary among them - as well as providing delightful glimpses into some of those I already admired. (And in some cases, like the Philip Roth interview, I was a bigger fan of the interviewer [Hermione Lee] than the subject.) Doing a more in-depth work/interview juxtaposition is a great call - maybe I'll copy you a time or two. :-)

    The only Styron I've read is The Long March, but that was very good.

  3. -Coffee: Thanks for the feedback. The order they were collected is interesting; each volume is chronological, so each time I finished one volume, I'd start back in the 50s again.

    -Emily: You haven't read Sophie's Choice? Heresy! Get to it, girl. I haven't read The Long March, though, and Lie Down in Darkness is on my TBR shelf, so I can't really talk. I'll post a complete list at some point soon, so feel free to read along if something strikes your interest.