Friday, 20 February 2009

Milton to Dante: Pondering William Styron's 'Darkness Visible'

Milton said it perfectly in 'Paradise Lost'. 'No light, but rather darkness visible served only to discover sights of woe', and it is this quote which gives William Styron the title for his moving book, which deals with the dark journey through his own depression.

Writing is, for the most part, a solitary profession. In my case, (save for the occasional school visit, convivial lunch with agent or editor or fellow authors, or annual publisher's party), I sit in a room, on my own, making stuff up and setting the visions in my head down on a screen. It is hardly surprising that, living as I do in a daily mindworld where dead girls speak, dragons rise from the earth and green-toothed elves dance in warning, my own mind should sometimes rise up against me, telling me that what I do is unutterably useless and pointless. It is at this point that the Beast bites. Styron describes this as his thought processes 'being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world.' Reading his words was, for me, a recognition akin to a light being turned on in a dark room. With this book I did what I never do (being a respecter of the sanctity of the printed page). I underlined and made comments and wrote 'YES!!' in large capitals in many places. I felt as if, finally, I had found a fellow wanderer in an empty desert who could describe not only what and how I am feeling, but also do it in words simple and direct enough that others--those 'healthy people' on the outside of this condition--might be able to understand too. When Styron speaks of the 'weather of depression', I understand precisely what he means. For him its light is a 'brownout', for me a greyish fog impossible to see anything in except blurred shapes and outlines.

Maybe you cannot understand how strengthening and comforting it felt to read something which made sense of my own experience, and reminded me gently of how many other writers have been in the pit too. Shakespeare understood it--how else would he have written Hamlet? Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Camus, Manley Hopkins, Beethoven, Van Gogh...and so many more. I am in good company when I find myself in Dante's 'dark wood', and so, when the Beast is once again at its most savage (which it surely will be), I will remind myself of this. For now, the fight to climb upwards will go on. I am not quite there yet, but thanks to William Styron's book, I am closer to the place where I will come forth to 'riveder le stelle'--to 'behold the stars once more.'


Anonymous said...

It's so good when you read something that makes you feel you're not alone! I must get hold of that book.

"unutterably useless and pointless"

Urgh, know what you mean. I get struck now and then by the paralysing thought that there are just so many children's books in the world, and why mine too?

Pauline said...

Depressives unite! Sometimes I have the manic conviction that what I'm writing is 'the answer to life, the universe and everything'! But more often, I hold the more reasonable, but depressed, view that there are so many talented writers already doing such wonderful things that it's idiotic of me to imagine I could join their numbers - ever. Everything I do seems pathetic and weak; when friends and relatives try to be positive and encouraging, I assume they just feel sorry for me... But I've noticed that I'm definitely more creative when totally miserable. It's as if pleasure insulates the brain and deadens the logical processes.

Frankie Anon said...

I recognize myself in your comment about thinking there are so many talented writers out there that it's crazy to think I could join them. It is a stifling, often murderous inner voice that kills creativity. I'm enjoying your blog (found it through your posts on BlogCategory), but I'm not sure how to add it to my follow list. (I'm a total newbie; my blog is mosly about things and the stories they conceal.)

Finch.R. said...

I, too, read Darkness Visible,with a jolt of recognition. I suffer from depression, and have for many years. The weather of depression to me is a dark mist, through which it is impossible to see clearly, and which seems to emmanate from oneself, like a malignant force. I am not a wrier, but a visual artist working with text, so that writing is important to me. Like other people who have commented here, I feel that there are so many extremely gifted writers and artists in the world as to render my contribution worthless, a feeling that makes working well nigh impossible.
Darkness Visible is a powerfully moving work, reading it helped me to understand that although I suffer alone, I am not alone in suffering, and furthermore, that recovery is possible.

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