Book Review: William Styron’s “Darkness Visible”

Many consider William Styron’s “Darkness Visible” must-have reading for those experiencing depression or those who want insight into the experience.

Indeed, “Darkness Visible” is more appropriately an essay than a novel, but its brevity does not reflect the content’s quality. Having read Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness,” it appears the author has not lost his touch in describing with subtlety and precision the meaning of despair, whether through the doors of fiction or non-fiction.

Opening the essay with a quote from the Book of Job, we as readers are reminded immediately that often pain has no explanation; it simply falls upon us no matter how virtuous we think we are. A quote from the Myth of Sisyphus also reminds us, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”

Styron explains how depression is like diabetes, but is closer to cancer, as there is no cure. Depression fills your mind with “anarchic disconnections” and even takes a toll on you physically, aging you quicker than you thought possible. Melancholia and hypochondria were terms used interchangeably up until the 19th century, but still our minds often refuse to admit its own illness, and therefore we pass off mental illness as illness of the body.

In regards to Abbie Hoffman’s suicide, among other friends of Styron who died by their own hand, the author describes how suicide, in being a voluntary act, somehow unfortunately decreases a person’s character vs. if the person died from natural causes.

Styron tells how depression is a wretched word to describe an even more wretched disease, and how so many factors go into suicide that it’s impossible to name them all yet irresponsible to disregard any of them.

Despite there being many books written on the subject of depression, Styron takes it a step further by delving into the subject of suicide as well. Perhaps all of the other authors decided that their will to live outweighed their will to die, and therefore didn’t feel the need to mention suicide’s taboo.

Still, Styron’s work only falls short in the way that all works on this subject do; everyone’s experiences with depression are different (as he mentions) and so reading one’s diary of pain is equally both enlightening and frustrating. Styron’s work doesn’t provide answers but does strip away the nebulousness of the disease, presenting it in a refreshing and succinct picture of clarity.


“Of the many dreadful manifestations of the disease, both physical and psychological, a sense of self-hatred or, put less categorically, a failure of self esteem is one of the most universally experienced symptoms — “

” — If the pain were readily describable most of the countless sufferers from this ancient affliction would have been able to confidently depict for their friends and loved ones (even their physicians) some of the actual dimensions of their torment — ; such incomprehension has usually been due not to failure of sympathy but to the basic inability of healthy people to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience. For myself, the pain is most closely connected to drowning or suffocation– but even these images are off the mark.”

Of Randall Jarrell’s suicide, which some claimed was an accident:

“He did so not because he was a coward, nor out of any moral feebleness, but because he was afflicted with a depression that was so devastating that he could no longer endure the pain of it.”

Of Primo Levi’s suicide, in regards to how people reacted (including writers and scholars):

“It was as if this man whom they had all so greatly admired, and who had endured so much — had by his suicide demonstrated a frailty, a crumbling of character they were loath to accept.”

“Although as an illness depression manifests certain unvarying characteristics, it also allows for many idiosyncrasies; I’ve been amazed at some of the freakish phenomena – not reported by other patients- that it has wrought amid the twisting(s) of my mind’s labyrinth.”

“Alcohol played a perverse trick on me when we said farewell to each other; although, as everyone should know, it is a major depressant, it never had truly depressed me during my drinking career, acting instead as a shield against anxiety. Suddenly vanished, the great ally which for so long had kept my demons at bay was no longer there to prevent those demons from beginning to swarm through the subconscious, and I was emotionally naked, vulnerable as I had never been before.”

“Our perhaps understandable modern need to dull the saw-tooth edges of so many of the afflictions we are heir to has led us to banish the harsh old-fashioned words; madness, asylum, insanity, melancholia, lunatic, madness. But never let it be doubted that depression, in its extreme form, is madness.”

” — Many of the artifacts of my house had become potential devices for my own destruction — Yet in truth such hideous fantasies, which cause well people to shudder, are to the deeply depressed mind what lascivious daydreams are to persons of robust sexuality.”

“It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. So the decision-making of daily life involves not, as in normal affairs, shifting from one annoying situation to another less annoying– or from discomfort to relative comfort, or from boredom to activity– but moving from pain to pain. One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes.”

” — In science and art the search will doubtless go on for a clear representation of its meaning (depression), 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.”