Swans Commentary » swans.com April 20, 2009  



Depression Redux


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - April 20, 2009)   Submerged as we are in a recession, it is normal to have harrowing reminders of the l930s and to fear the possible onset of a Depression. But if we put aside the social connotation of the word and think of it strictly in psychological terms, the "depression" is already with us. Hundreds of thousands of people losing the normal pattern of their lives in house foreclosures, loss of employment, and the sudden disappearance of lifetime savings have already submerged millions of Americans into the shadow world of personal depression; the loss of those objects and amenities on which they had founded their lives and patterned their future. That depression is already with us and although it is frequently referred to simply as "hard times" or "a temporary downturn," it has thrust millions of Americans into a limbo from which there is no escape in sight.

It is the enormity of our national dilemma that has caused me to revisit William Styron's Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness that first appeared in l990, almost a full decade before the nation's economy slithered into the present quagmire.

The book's subtitle is somewhat misleading as it wasn't madness per se that caused Styron to crack up between l985 and l986 but the onset of an acute, miasmic stagnation, triggered, ironically, by his decision to give up alcohol -- a weakness that had enabled him to turn out novels such as Lie Down in Darkness, The Long March, and Sophie's Choice. Like many American writers, the bottle was as necessary to the early Styron as it was to Hemingway or Scott Fitzgerald.

In Darkness Visible, using the same incisiveness and psychological penetration that empowered his fiction, Styron managed to define the lineaments of depression more finitely than they had ever been defined before -- not in technical terms but employing the searing and acute literary gifts that made him a top-rank American novelist. "The term itself," as Styron wrote, "simply does not do the malady justice. 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."

Styron plays around with other nomenclature such as brainstorm ("which has unfortunately been preempted to describe somewhat jocularly, intellectual inspiration"). He points out that the inadequacy of the term invites rejoinders such as "You'll pull out of it" or "We all have bad days," which belittles the depth of the illness and doesn't begin to define the existential horrors that thoroughly debilitate persons suffering from the disease. It's similar to those people who comfort victims of the present economic meltdown by saying things like: "We're used to booms and busts; you'll see, it will all come rolling back." And despite an onslaught of catastrophes: "Don't fret; the American economy is fundamentally sound."

Styron theorizes that one possible cause of clinical depression may be "incomplete mourning" as in his own case. When his mother died and he was only thirteen, the wound was never allowed to heal as it should have done and he never experienced what he calls "the catharsis of grief." But he accepts that there are a variety of possible causes for the condition and it is unlikely that any two sufferers are rooted in the same circumstances.

The severity of Styron's condition was brought on by a return to Paris where he was to be awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca. Subconsciously, he felt he was not worthy of the honor (it was given mainly for the success of his first novel, Lay Down in Darkness.) In a Freudian slippage during the dinner that followed, he misplaced the check for $25,000, which was the monetary sum accompanying the award, and he and an entire table-full of well-wishers, crawling on their hands and knees, began a frantic search of the dining room. The check was eventually found under an adjoining table, but as Styron admits, it was subconsciously misplaced because he didn't really believe he was entitled to it.

It is the author's microscopic awareness of how his symptoms debilitated his normal functioning that gives fresh insights into the nature of depression. He makes it frighteningly clear that the agony that accompanies the disease is daily and almost ubiquitous. Trips through long, black, empty alleyways full of confusion and pain, and a constant awareness that, despite temporary respites, the demons will always return.

It was only when normal life became insupportable that he asked to be admitted into a hospital and it was only when he was ensconced there that a gradual healing process began to take place. It was with professional help, and the security blanket in which his wife Rose enveloped him, that after a year's turmoil he was able to kick the disease.

Styron examines conditions similar to his own among the large number of writers and artists whose lives, like his own, were distraught from the malady -- so much so that suicide became a viable option. He points out that suicidal depression was the cause of death in the cases of Abbie Hoffman, Randall Jarrell, Hart Crane, Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Romain Gary, Vachel Lindsay, Sylvia Plath, Mark Rothko, John Berryman, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, William Inge, Anne Sexton, and may even have been a factor in borderline cases such as Albert Camus.

Having experienced the terrors himself and having gone so far as to begin drafting a suicide note (subsequently trashed), Styron can vouch for the tempting impulse to escape the agony of depression by taking one's own life. He makes it shockingly clear how the pain that depression inflicts has a philosophical motive -- to conquer the pain by annihilating life.

In many cases, the disease, anguishing as it is, can be borne and cures are certainly possible; Styron himself exemplifies that statistic. But there is an existential factor that underlies the victims of depression, and suicide becomes, or appears to be, the ultimate alternative to perpetual pain. What Styron's book does better than any other I know of is to delineate the schizoid world of the depressive who, on the face of it, may be "getting by" the rigors of his or her daily life, but is constantly being eaten up by relentless misery -- a crisis that one is tempted to solve by deliberate intervention.

After annihilating his demons, Styron went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award, and the William Dean Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Darkness Visible is, in many ways, the least of his literary accomplishments, but it is the one in which he bares his soul to the readers and treats them to an agonizing act of brutal honesty; a book comparable to the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal.

The parallel here is that for people whose lives have been derailed by the social consequences of the recession, a Styron-like depression may well be in the cards. One cannot uproot families, force them out of their homes, eliminate their incomes, rob them of their professions, destroy their personal sense of dignity, and expect their psyches to remain intact. When depression hit Styron, it drained his creative powers as well. He was no longer a writer, and so central was that to his existence that he felt he had become a non-entity. Office workers, janitors, teachers, plumbers, journalists, salesmen -- everyone who was habitually employed and is now jobless, loses more than their wages; they lose their identity -- and that is a sliding-pond into depression.

It may be temporary and even manageable for some who can ride out the storm or quickly retrain for other occupations, but when the damage extends to millions, vestiges of the Great Depression come thundering back. We may not have reached the point of recruiting apple sellers or opening soup kitchens yet, but the psychological damage is for many a threat to their quotidian lives. If you are without work and without a domicile you can call your own, you are not the person you were before the shit hit the fan. You don't have to be William Styron to have your world collapse around you. When the meaning of your life blows up, the collateral damage is strewn everywhere.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/cmarow135.html
Published April 20, 2009