I shouldn’t be too harsh on William Styron. The book was published in 1989. Benatar hasn’t published his antinatalist manifesto yet. Alt-suicide-holiday probably didn’t exist back then. If it did, it was still fairly obscure. As Styron admits, suicide was a huge taboo at the time of writing. Many considered it shameful and tried to erase it out of the stories of people they admire. Pessimistic philosophy always existed, but Styron is oblivious to it.
Depression is harsh. It’s a disease and chemical imbalance has things to do with it. Yet Styron never confronts the question of whether his depression was right. Often you hear about how depression lies to you, but that’s the end of it. We’re hard-wired to believe depression is indeed a liar. Our genes don’t care about us so long as they can continue to exist. Love and affection also result in a chemical reaction, yet does that make them invalid? Not wanting sex with someone can easily be written off as a chemical imbalance. With the right chemicals, you can make anyone attracted to anyone.
Styron clearly suffered a lot. This is a slim volume and every line is dripping with pain and humility. Some snobs will scoff at Styron for feeling bad while winning awards, but depression’s grip on him is so strong. He’s aware of his privileges. He’s smart enough to complain about his state of mind, rather than how horrible it is when you win awards. Most of the book isn’t so much a recollection of events but salvaging a few thoughts from the depression era in order to understand it.
Yet how can you understand depression if you don’t address the perspectives it brings? How can you argue against depression and ‘defeat’ it, if you just write it off as a liar? Calling anyone a liar without proving it is barely an ad hominem. This is how it feels like when you attack someone’s depression. In fact, this is closer to gaslighting than helping.
Gaslighting is a technique of mental abuse that makes someone doubt their perception. By constantly insisting that the depressed person is wrong, that the world and their situation isn’t so bad you’re doing something remarkably close to this. If Jerry said his room is full of spiders but everyone else told him they don’t exist, yet he sees it, how will we feel? Of course he’ll feel even worse, since maybe his mind is so wrecked he’s seeing things that are not there. This idea is effective in horror stories, and the brilliant video game series Five Nights at Freddy’s uses it effectively.
He should know more than to write off depression so quickly. He admits constantly that depression is a mystery, one that we can know more about but never truly solve. The book’s best parts are when he details what depression feels like. At its worst, depression is a crippling disease. Yet it’s not a huge wound bleeding for everyone to see. It affects behavior and mood, which are dynamic and can’t be measured easily. The account of depression – the inability to get out of bed, anhedonia, the grinding hopelessness is addressed. Even as a fairly depressed (undiagnosed) individual whose worldview is pessimistic, Styron’s account was valueable in helping me understand it better. Many in my camp – the right-to-die supporters and antinatalists – view depression as another invented disease. Darkness Visible is a decent argument against it.
The last part of the book deals with recovery, and it’s also a disappointment. That’s not surprising, since recovering from depression also means defeating it in an argument. Styron didn’t address the philosophy behind the depression. What the pessimistic philosophers claim, which is often ignored, is that depression is a reaction. Just as you can’t blame someone for bleeding when they’re cut, you can’t blame someone for being depressed when their mother dies or they reach old age or lack of sex.
Unlike bleeding, what causes depression is varied and all over the place. Pro-choice suicide forums have people with all kinds of troubles – from people who have it all and are bored, to chronically ill to ugly outcasts. Your problems are right there in front of you. Listen to these people, listen to why exactly they’re so depressed. Styron is wise enough to admit that each person needs a different kind of treatment, but why is that? That’s because depression isn’t just a chemical reaction but a conclusion. The account of recovery is empty since either Styron couldn’t understand why he was depressed. Dependency takes most of the blame, but the death of his mother and old age get mentioned too.
If only he delved deeper into what these things mean. Things don’t just make us sad – that much he knows. Even sadness can be hard to communicate since it affects us differently. Sometimes it gives us a drive to fight, sometimes it makes us hate someone or something or another. Sometimes it makes everything around it seem pointless. There will never be enough words. We will never reach complete understanding of our anguish and sadness and all the other negative emotions, but we must try.
I forgive Styron, because his depression was clearly severe. Every lines feels like he went through great pains just to write it. Maybe his pain was too great for him to stare into the abyss. We’re wired for pleasure, so it’s reasonable for Styron to want more to escape his depression than confront its meaning. It’s enjoyable enough and worthwhile, but every mental disease deserves a much better book for its defining literary work. I hope writing this helped Styron, but it won’t contribute much to our understanding of suicide, depression and pessimism.
3 awards out of 5