Horrors of the mind
Are books meant to make us feel good? Are they meant to make us cheerful? I don’t think so. Not always.
Books are meant to make us feel awed and humbled. The pleasure they provide – the pleasure of the mind, the joy of seeing worlds created by words – is undimmed even if they are about catastrophic subjects, even if they are nihilistic in their approach or end in tragedy or are untouched by redemption.
Is Anna Karenina a very happy novel? Is Madame Bovary? Are the novels by Richard Yates?
I thought of all this again on reading in one breathless sitting the great American writer William Styron’s memoir of madness. Read the New York Times review here.
In the 1980s, Styron suffered from clinical depression. It was a debilitating malaise that turned him into a wretched, broken, suicidal man.
“Depression,” Styron tells us in the opening pages of this slim, harrowing book, “is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description.”
He does a remarkable job of putting into words the ineffable, of showing how the “gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain”: the slow disintegration of the mind, the parallel shutting down of the body, the medication, the tendencies of self-destruction, the unremitting gloom.
In the end, Styron – a peer of Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal – did emerge from his depression. But this memoir remained his last major book, an afterword, as Karl Miller wrote in the London Review of Books, to “his novels, with their stress on suicide and gloom”.