“Since antiquity — in the tortured lament of Job, in the choruses of Sophocles and Aeschylus — chroniclers of the human spirit have been wrestling with a vocabulary that might give proper expression to the desolation of melancholia. Through the course of literature and art the theme of depression has run like a durable thread of woe — from Hamlet’s soliloquy to the verses of Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, from John Donne to Hawthorne and Dostoevsky and Poe, Camus and Conrad and Virginia Woolf. In many of Albrecht Durer’s engravings there are harrowing depictions of his own melancholia; the manic wheeling stars of Van Gogh are the precursors of the artist’s plunge into dementia and the extinction of self. It is a suffering that often tinges the music of Beethoven, of Schumann and Mahler, and permeates the darker cantatas of Bach. The vast metaphor which most faithfully represents this fathomless ordeal, however, is that of Dante, and his all-too-familiar lines still arrest the imagination with their augury of the unknowable, the black struggle to come:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
Che la diritta via era smarrita.
In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
For I had lost the right path.
One can be sure that these words have been more than once employed to conjure the ravages of melancholia, but their somber foreboding has often overshadowed the last lines of the best-known part of that poem, with their evocation of hope. To most of those who have experienced it, the horror of depression is so overwhelming as to be quite beyond expression, hence the frustrated sense of inadequacy found in the work of even the greatest artists. But in science and art the search will doubtless go on for a clear representation of its meaning, which sometimes, for those who have known it, is a simulacrum of all the evil of our world: of our everyday discord and chaos, our irrationality, warfare and crime, torture and violence, our impulse toward death and our flight from it held in the intolerable equipoise of history. If our lives had no other configuration but this, we should want, and perhaps deserve, to perish; if depression had no termination, then suicide would, indeed, be the only remedy. But one need not sound the false or inspirational note to stress the truth that depression is not the soul’s annihilation; men and women who have recovered from the disease — and they are countless — bear witness to what is probably its only saving grace: it is conquerable.
For those who have dwelt in depression’s dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of the poet, trudging upward and upward out of hell’s black depths and at last emerging into what he saw as ‘the shining world.’ There, whoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair beyond despair.
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.
And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.”
From the closing pages of Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, William Styron’s register of his descent into depression.
Thanks D. for recommending this one to me.
William Styron was born today in 1925. Darkness Visible, his most intensely revealing and personal book, is an utterly haunting chronicle of madness and melancholy — one which drags you, as Virgil does through the inferno, down Styron’s steep and rocky path into the depths of psychological suffering. The book opens with Styron, an acclaimed author of fiction, arriving at a lavish Paris hotel to accept a coveted literary award. This rainy Parisian night, however, is the moment wherein his own “brain storm” emerges over the horizon, bringing with it an enervating disease of the mind which he comes to call melancholia. The remainder of the short text is an utterly brutal yet lucid look at just what this afflication is and is not.
The passage above is the book’s ending, and it finishes Styron’s story, as Dante’s, in the clarity and serenity of a long desired return to sunlight and air. It also illustrates handsomely Styron’s unmatched technical skill as a writer.
From a Spring 1954 interview with Styron in the Paris Review:
Does your emotional state have any bearing on your work?
I guess like everybody I’m emotionally fouled up most of the time, but I find I do better when I’m relatively placid. It’s hard to say, though. If writers had to wait until their precious psyches were completely serene there wouldn’t be much writing done. Actually— though I don’t take advantage of the fact as much as I should —I find that I’m simply the happiest, the placidest, when I’m writing, and so I suppose that that, for me, is the final answer. When I’m writing I find it’s the only time that I feel completely self-possessed, even when the writing itself is not going too well. It’s fine therapy for people who are perpetually scared of nameless threats as I am most of the time—for jittery people. Besides, I’ve discovered that when I’m not writing I’m prone to developing certain nervous tics, and hypochondria. Writing alleviates those quite a bit.
I think I resist change more than most people. I dislike traveling, like to stay settled. When I first came to Paris all I could think about was going home, home to the old James River. One of these days I expect to inherit a peanut farm. Go back home and farm them old peanuts and be real old Southern whisky gentry.