DARKNESS VISIBLE: A MEMOIR OF MADNESS, By William Styron. New York: Random House. 85 pp., $15.95 IF Dante's descent into hell and out again were to be retold in the language and the symbols of our times, such a book could well be a lucid prose description by a talented writer of his own dark journey through a profound mental disturbance.
This is exactly what William Styron has given us. His fearsome experience of clinically defined depression almost ended in suicide, but concluded instead - after a prolonged life-and-death struggle - in his restored capacity for normal living. It's a story of survival and hope, which finally rise undestroyed out of a dark, oppressive mental mire.
In Styron's own words: ``... one need not sound the false or inspirational note to stress the truth that depression is not the soul's annihilation; ... it is conquerable.''
Styron, who has written his share of great fiction, started to do a novel about depression after going through it himself. But he has instead written a factual, literate, reflective account of his own trauma. Although fiction can be enlightening, his decision for a factual account was fortunate; articulate information on the problem, prepared by people with developed powers of analysis and introspection, is rare.
This lack of reliable knowledge about depression shows how misunderstood and underrated the challenge remains. Depression, he says, is a ``wimp of a word'' for an illness he calls ``despair beyond despair.'' It's a problem that has forever puzzled and still puzzles even its most careful investigators.
The condition results in many suicides, as Styron reports, which continue to baffle, shock, and embarrass even the most well-informed people. He relates how the suicide of Primo Levi, for example, and others, ``mystified worldly writers.'' People want to deny suicide, he explains, because of the shame attached to it. Yet they don't grasp the ``indescribable'' horror of experiencing the ``insidious meltdown'' of one's mental control.
The book, already a bestseller, may well prove salutary for a society awash in mental and moral turmoil and apparently ignorant of the causes.
Still, some readers may well wonder why Styron was willing to detail such an intimate experience, especially since the disease involves a total loss of self-esteem, which had to be depicted, however painful the describing. Perhaps there is a private purging in sharing the ordeal with impersonal wit and penetrating candor. Writers do find themselves in writing. The personal trauma became a vehicle carrying the writer to the kind of mental light that begs to be shared with others.
He tried what he characterizes as the uncertain efforts offered by doctors - both drugs and psychotherapy. While these efforts didn't help him, he does not attack the medical fraternity. At one point he credits his cure simply to time and isolation, which he found in a hospital.
Yet just before committing himself to a hospital, he had been empowered to reject suicide when a few bars of music reminded him of the joys of his family life. He writes: ``In a flood of swift recollection I thought of all the joys the house had known.... All this I realized was more than I could ever abandon...''
He says that stress is behind the chemical changes in the brain linked to the problem by researchers. The stress, he feels, is connected to some profound sense of loss, which seems to multiply to the point that the sufferer completely loses his or her sense of self worth.
Also of interest are the comments about drugs. Styron links the onset of his bout with depression with sudden withdrawal from fairly heavy use of alcohol. But this is only one factor in a complex of events, he says, extending back in his life. He also faults a drug called Halcion, a depressant, for inducing strong suicidal tendencies in him. This drug has been banned in the Netherlands, he reports. He also faults the ``insouciant'' doctor who prescribed a related drug for him, resulting in his addiction to this family of drugs.
Styron generously thanks his wife, Rose, to whom he dedicates the book, and others who helped him - notably Art Buchwald, who himself had to fight through depression right before Styron's bout. Buchwald is referred to in the book only as a famous columnist, but Styron has identified him in interviews.
Styron's writing is so open and candid that he seems to be inviting readers to take his description of depression as an opportunity to draw some of their own conclusions. He has avoided, at all costs, preaching on the subject.
Remarkably, the book itself is not depressing. It bears more than one reading, since its profundity is stated so simply. And the short volume can be easily reread, saving time to think on the needs of those who struggle with this awful malady.