A Matter of Routine
At one moment in his memoir on depression, Darkness Visible, William Styron suspects that "much obviously remains to be learned...but certainly one psychological element has been established beyond reasonable doubt, and that is the concept of loss." In this short book detailing his own skirmish with despair, Styron devotes much of it to the very struggle with depression, with trying to describe it and cope with its presence after he gave up alcohol at sixty. He would never write under the influence, but accepted that it contributed to his creativity. But if drink had helped stave off for many years not so much the blues, but what Samuel Johnson called the 'black dog', Styron realised that he had been acknowledging it in his work. "In rereading, for the first time in years, sequences from my novels - passages where my heroines have lurched down pathways toward doom - I was stunned to perceive how accurately I had created the landscape of depression in the minds of these young women, describing what could only be instinct, out of a subconscious already roiled by disturbances of mood, the psychic imbalance that led them to destruction."
Perhaps Styron was able to do so because while he wasn't given to depression until quite late in his life, its capacity for presenting itself had been there for many years. "Loss in all its manifestations is the touchstone of depression - is the progress of the disease and, most likely, in its origin." One need never become clinically depressed to 'know' depression. Now to know is not the same as to experience the disease, but it is as if Styron had constantly known about it enough to write about it in his work and to accept its presence in other people's lives.
As he looks back on people he was personally acquainted with and others whom he never knew, he wonders about their psychic state. He never quite met Albert Camus (he planned to meet him in France in the summer of 1960, but Camus died in a car crash not long before he arrived), and mused over whether his death was an accident or contained an element of a literal and figurative death drive. "Although Camus had not been driving he supposedly knew the driver, who was the son of his publisher, to be a speed demon; so there was an element of recklessness in the accident that bore overtones of the near-suicidal, at least of a death flirtation." Thinking of poet Randall Jarrell he asks whether his death had really been an accident. Struck by a car and killed, the immediate assumption was suicide, but Jarrell's widow protested and a coroner's jury ruled the death an accident. Styron is sceptical, noting "only a few months before his misadventure on the highway, and while in the hospital, he had slashed his wrists."
Then there were friends, like Romain Gary and his ex-wife Jean Seberg. The latter's "fragile and luminous blond beauty had disappeared into a puffy mask. She moved like a sleepwalker, said little, and had the blank gaze of someone tranquillized (or drugged, or both) nearly to the point of catalepsy." He talks about a lunch someone had with Gary that was quite light-hearted, but nevertheless this "twice winner of the Prix Goncourt...hero of the Republic, valorous recipient of the Croix de Guerre, diplomat, bon vivant, womanizer par excellence - went home to his apartment on the rue du Bac and put a bullet through his brain." These were tragedies on the edge of Styron's consciousness. They weren't irrelevant concerns, but they weren't quite pertinent ones either. Just as he could write about certain experiences he had never endured, so he could comprehend something of his friend's pain. But comprehension and experience are not one and the same, even if they are close enough cousins for Styron always to show an interest in and concern for those whose deaths might not have been accidental; for those whose deaths were probably suicides, and who could have been suffering from severe depression. Looking back on reading Camus's The Fall he says: "the guilt and self-condemnation of the lawyer-narrator, gloomily spinning out his monologue in an Amsterdam bar, seemed a touch clamorous and excessive, but at the time of my reading I was unable to perceive that the lawyer was behaving very much like a man in the throes of clinical depression. Such was my innocence of the very existence of this disease." Yet there wasn't quite an ignorance of it either. If he could show such concern for his friends, and fret over whether writers had taken their lives, then there seemed at least a hint of understanding.
Perhaps Styron could show such interest partly because the depression that would visit him later on in life owed its presence to moments early in his existence, and this resides in the problem of loss as well as a genetic predisposition. Styron's father had bouts of depression for much of his life time, and "had been hospitalized in my boyhood after a despondent spiralling downward that, in retrospect, I saw greatly resembled mine. The genetic roots of despondency seem now to be beyond controversy." "But I'm persuaded that an even more significant factor was the death of my mother when I was thirteen." Such a loss, Styron says, "appears repeatedly in the literature on depression as a trauma sometimes likely to create nearly irreparable emotional havoc." This is especially so if there has been "incomplete mourning", if one feels there has been no catharsis to the grief. Now a book about the genetic dimension to depression would be a medical work, but Darkness Visible is of course an aesthetic work, with the importance of environmental factors allowing Styron to look at his depression as an existential enquiry, to borrow Milan Kundera's term from The Art of the Novel: "A theme is an existential inquiry."
What then are the themes of Styron's life, the preoccupations that can lead someone at the age of sixty to the point of suicide as he finds it increasingly difficult to live with the black dog? One was of course alcohol: "a substance I had been abusing for forty years." The second is the magnitude of loss. "I felt loss at every hand. The loss of self-esteem is a celebrated symptom, and my own sense of self had all but disappeared, along with any self-reliance. This loss can quickly degenerate into dependence, and from dependence into infantile dread. One dreads the loss of all things, all people close and dear." The third is incomplete mourning, "the young person...has, in effect, been unable to achieve the catharsis of grief, and so carries within himself through later years an insufferable burden of which rage and guilt...are a part." It is as if alcohol allowed him to cope with the incomplete mourning of loss; allowed Styron to create without having to confront the source of the pain. If he could invoke despair in much of the work, alcohol insulated him from confronting the misery inside him directly. One doesn't so much face life, nor turn away from it, but find an angle upon which to attack it without falling into nave optimism or denial.
Yet, although Styron emphasises the importance of alcohol, he says little in the book about his habits, well explored in an obituary on the writer in the New York Times. "It was an unconventional routine he stuck to: sleep until noon; read and think in bed for another hour or so; lunch with Rose around 1:30; run errands, deal with the mail, listen to music, daydream and generally ease into work until 4. Then up to the workroom to write for four hours, perfecting each paragraph until 200 or 300 words are completed; have cocktails and dinner with the family and friends at 8 or 9; and stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, drinking and reading and smoking and listening to music."
It is odd that Styron doesn't say more about this routine. After all the New York Times calls it unconventional even by the standards of writers and artists, and the detailing of one's habits has a literary purpose: it fits very well into the existential enquiry, and tells us a great deal about a collapse of meaning when one's habits are broken. According to the New York Times, Styron followed the routine for thirty years, suggesting that it wasn't only the absence of alcohol that could have generated a crisis, but also the alteration this would inevitably have made to his routine. This ritualised behaviour which had taken up precisely half his life, must have forced upon Styron a crisis when a key component of it was removed. Styron focuses almost entirely on the liquor and hardly at all on the leisurely nature of a life that could fit four hours of writing into a day that was lazily regimented, but regimented nevertheless. Meaning can easily collapse when existence is suddenly altered. Styron might have believed he had created a routine to get the work done, but maybe he did so because life could only be lived in this way, and he had kidded himself for many years that this was about the work and not about the life. The New York Timesreports that "on the door frame outside his workroom, he tacked a piece of cardboard with a quotation from Flaubert written on it: "Be regular and orderly in your life, like a good bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work." But the work can prove a great cover for a life of habit that could seem hopelessly neurotic if devoid of the creative alibi. It can become the life's great excuse, so that the writer doesn't write because they have something to say, but because they have something to hide. What gets expressed in the work is what allows existence to be hidden in one's life. This needn't be a great secret, but that the work is instead a great secretion.
After all throughout this period of despair that came upon Styron, he was still able to write: it was alcohol that had been removed from his world, not his typewriter. At one moment halfway through the memoir Styron mentions amongst others Paul Celan, Anne Sexton, Cesare Pavese, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and says: "when one thinks of these doomed and splendidly creative men and women, one is drawn to contemplate their childhoods, where to the best of anyone's knowledge, the seeds of the illness take strong root; could any of them have had a hint, then, of the psyche's perishability, its exquisite fragility?"
One way in which to protect oneself from this 'exquisite fragility' is to build an existence that makes safe the world that had earlier been made fragile. Now some might wish to see in the depressed person a sense of failure. That they are no longer at the height of their powers as an artist, a filmmaker, a lawyer or athlete. They no longer win the prizes they once did. This might be pertinent, but perhaps still more so is the notion of failure of habit over failure of success. If everyone were to take their own lives because they weren't enormously successful or not as great as they once were, the world (the western world at least) would be enormously depopulated. But if we look at despair (whether it manifests itself in suicide or 'merely' depression) as a failure of sustaining one's routines, of finding it difficult to remain coherently oneself in the actions one does, then this could lead to the exquisite fragility Styron talks about. Now one reason why childhood proves important to many accounts of depression and that Styron sees as vital to understanding the disease, is that a shock has altered one's expectations. This can seem an enormously trivial way of looking at a parent's death, but perhaps a very useful way of looking at a person's depression. That habits of mind and habits of existence get lost in a tragedy is finally more important to the survivor than the death itself. As Styron says "the danger is especially apparent if the young person is affected by what has been termed "incomplete mourning" - has, in effect, been unable to achieve the catharsis of grief, and so carries within himself through later years an insufferable burden of which rage and guilt...are a part, and become the potential seeds of destruction."
Let us be provocative here by suggesting that central to the notion of incomplete mourning is the incompleteness of expectation. For a young child it isn't especially that a parent has died that might matter; more that the death interrupts one's routine. As Jean Piaget says in The Child's Conception of the World: "Thus, in a new sense, the child begins by confusing his self and the world - that is to say, in this particular case, his subjective point of view and the external data - and only later distinguishes his own personal point of view from other possible points of view. In fact the child always begins by regarding his point of view as absolute." Piaget looks at children between the age of two and fourteen, and clearly claims made for a two year old will not be the same as those made for those twelve years older, yet Piaget sees examples of superstition and erroneous thinking in many adults too, as though we never quite rid ourselves of thinking that is far from rational, pragmatic and realist. "In moments of anxiety the adult sometimes manifests the processes described in the case of the child, such as the desire to observe even the most insignificant details of the ordinary routine so that the balance of things shall not be upset." A major loss in someone's existence isn't only a loss of a person; it is a transformation of situation. We might accept that we cannot get that person back, but we can try to replicate the feelings of safety and security that the person's presence provided and that their absence destroyed. It seems odd that Styron's short book on depression finds no space at all to discuss the regimented aspect of his life.
Indeed Styron doesn't say very much about his mother's death either, or how it transformed his life at the time. "William's mother, Pauline Margaret Abraham Styron, was born into a long line of Pennsylvanians, and died when William Jr. was just 13. After his mother's death, William Jr. started rebelling. In order to discipline the unruly teen, his father sent him to Christchurch School, a small Episcopal boys' preparatory school in Middlesex County, Virginia." (Bio) None of this is mentioned in Styron's book, yet surely any trauma he felt towards his mother's death was greatly exacerbated by being sent away to a prep school elsewhere? It seems thereafter, as an adult who had control over his life, Styron was determined to make it as secure and consistent as he possibly could. Giving up alcohol might have released certain demons, but it also impinged on the routine; meant that he had to live just a little differently, just as a boy after his mother's death had to live very differently indeed. The incomplete mourning Styron mentions, and that we will further discuss, shouldn't be underestimated, but neither should the breaking of habit.
What is a childhood supposed to be after all other than a safe place, a place of habits and rituals, obligations and expectations, that are often hardly our own, and feel all the more secure because of this? If we have school to attend, dinner at six, bedtime by eight and so on, then this establishes in our life a feeling of security that one wouldn't expect to call into question until an event from the outside dictates that it isn't so natural as it seems. Camus offers his adult equivalent of this breaking of habit in The Myth of Sisyphus. "Rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm - this path is easily followed most of the time." Camus then suggests that one day the "why" is asked, and the natural dimension of one's life no longer holds. Imagine however that this coherent world is shattered not as an adult where, however limited our choices, we may have felt that many of them were self-made, but when we are a child, feeling that this consistent life has been removed without any meaning from the outside, and any agency on our part. Why wouldn't someone then try and spend the rest of their life as an adult trying to create a pattern of existence that they can trust and rely upon?
It is the need for consistency that one finds in the New York Times obituary, but that Darkness Visible eschews investigating. Although alcohol is frequently mentioned in accounts of depression and suicide, in this instance we may wonder what sits behind the desire to drink, and muse over whether the need for alcohol is as important as the habit of its imbibing. It is a point Sartre makes over smoking, quoted in a book by Richard Klein. "A few years ago, I was led to decide to stop smoking. The beginning was rough, and in truth, I did not so much care for the taste of tobacco that I was going to lose, as for the meaning [le sens] of the act of smoking." (Cigarettes are Sublime) Sartre believed a "whole crystallization had taken place. I used to smoke at performances, morning at work, evenings after dinner, and it seemed to me that in ceasing to smoke I was going to subtract some of the interest of the performance, some of the evening dinner's savor, some of the fresh vivacity of the morning's work." (Cigarettes are Sublime) This we could call the idle loss of a habit, where an aspect of our day is losing something of its pleasure. But what about devastating loss that removes from life something of its meaning? How do we know when we give something up whether we have merely lost a pleasure or whether we have chasmically lost some meaning in the process?
Styron couches the loss of alcohol in his life as a shield that had been taken away. Perhaps it had been, but not only for the reasons Styron proposes. "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." Styron here indicates not so much that alcohol's absence resulted in a loss of meaning as we are suggesting, but that it shored up meaning: that it worked like self-medication. Yet often medication in one's life does not become ritualised as alcohol, nicotine or hashish happen to become. We might have to take it two or three times a day, but it is usually a private, even secretive activity. Obviously on occasion this is true as well of alcohol and cigarette smoking. The alcoholic father hiding his addiction from his wife and children; the mum who has a quick fag outside in the garden as soon as the kids have gone off to bed. They become aberrant activities, an aspect of one's life that is so unacknowledged socially, habitually, that most of its ritualised meaning lies outside the realm of the self as it perceives itself. In other words, the person may not even see themselves as a smoker or drinker, just as someone who takes medication does not regard themselves as a medicator. It is an anomolous dimension to one's life, not an augmentative one. When Sartre discusses the importance of smoking to his day, it is an acknowledgement of how he sees himself, quite different one suspects from the person taking anti-depressants or sleeping pills. To give up on the latter wouldn't impinge on one's habits; it would just be risking a sleepless night. To give up alcohol in Styron's case was to risk three things: the loss of pleasure, the loss of meaning and the loss of self-medication. Styron emphasises the self-medication chiefly. "I was emotionally naked, vulnerable as I had never been before." We wouldn't want to underestimate Styron's chemical deprivation here, but we don't want to lose sight of the habitual loss either. It might have seemed to him that he had only lost the pleasure of alcohol on the one hand and the comfort to his nerves on the other, but we think that the ritual role it had in his life could have been much more significant than the book credits it with being.
Does this lead to a flaw in the book not only as a work of confessional memoir, but also as a piece of literature? When the New York Times describes Styron's routine, we might wish for more of this description in the book itself, as though we wish for a greater understanding of Styron's character, and feel we might have found it in the delineation of a life before it fell apart. Styron's wife and the writer's friends get the occasional mention, but this is usually after the onset of depression and they remain vague and anonymous. "At dinner I was barely able to speak, but the quartet of guests, who were all good friends, were aware of my condition and politely ignored my catatonic muteness." Who these friends were we never find out, but Styron knew many well known figures. He gets more than a passing mention in Carlos Fuentes' Diana, and the New York Times mentions a circle of friends including Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, James Jones and the Clintons and the Kennedys. This isn't asking for gossip, but when Styron feels removed from the company he is keeping, we might want to know a little bit more about who these people are, whether drink was generally involved, and that this could be part of the alienation. One wants neither to underestimate the disease, nor insist that names should be named; more that we often want in a work of literature a vivid sense of place.
Styron might understandably say that people are named when it matters. We have noted his discussion on Camus whom he almost met, and Jean Seberg and Romain Gary whom he knew well. We know about them because he believes they also suffered from depression. Why mention the others unless they are pertinent to the subject matter? Yet if you come across the New York Times obituary after reading the memoir, you might feel you have come across a revelation missing from the book, and wonder why it wasn't included. Why wasn't more made of Styron's milieu of habit, and the people who frequented his life? It seems a failing on two counts. Firstly because it appears to be relevant to the development of the disease; secondly it would have added texture to the book. When we notice that for Styron vital to depression is the notion of loss, then this needn't only be about the losses in one's childhood, but also those in our everyday lives. It is the combination surely of both that makes an event devastating, as though we suffer an attack from two sides of time: from the past and from the present. If it were only the present that was the problem then one could recover from the crisis, see it for what it is. If it happened only to be a problem from one's past, then it would generally remain there, unless triggered by a present crisis.
While many a writer is given to creating routines that allow the work to get done, Styron's appears more regimented than most and yet slacker than many. If Graham Greene had his five hundred words each morning, Anthony Trollope three thousand before going off to work in the post-office, and William Trevor for many years getting up at four every morning to write, Styron's seems more of a lifestyle choice masking an emotional chasm. Yet perhaps this is what one has to do to ward off the instability of the past; to avoid the past chaos returning as present despair. How to keep at one remove not so much the childhood trauma, but the consequence of that trauma? There is often nothing we can do about the losses in our lives, but we can frequently as adults possess the agency to shape our life and routine in a manner that was beyond our control as the catastrophe struck when we where young.
In The Drama of Being a Child, dealing extensively with depression, Alice Miller says "when the patient has emotionally worked through the history of their childhood and thus regained her sense of being alive, the goal of therapy has been reached. She will then be able to use the tools she has learned whenever feelings from her past are triggered by present events." Miller adds, "the therapist must leave it up to the patient to decide whether she will take a regular job or not; whether she wants to live alone or with a partner; whether she wants to join a political party, and if so, which one." But just as Miller believes the therapist's purpose is to explore the drama of being a child, we might wonder how often this might need to manifest itself in the mise-en-scene of adulthood. If we fail to possess a consistent narrative as children, do we have to become the set designers of our adult years? Perhaps a properly worked through childhood could release us from the need for such ruthless organising of our contemporary time and space. Yet when we often look at the lives of the creatively depressive - from Ingmar Bergman to Graham Greene - we can see that habit proves vital to their well-being. Whether it happens to be writing everyday in Greene's case, or watching a film each day at three in the afternoon in Bergman's - we often notice that the drama of the child becomes the careful control of the adult.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus says: "In certain situations, replying 'nothing' when asked what one is thinking about may be pretence in a man. Those who are loved are well aware of this. But if that reply is sincere, if it symbolizes that odd state of soul in which the void becomes eloquent...then it is as it were the first sign of absurdity." Styron of course wonders if this is less the existentially absurd than the psychologically depressive: that Camus creates a philosophy around a clinical illness. If Styron wants to see Camus's work though depression, then perhaps we in turn can see Styron's book as about the absence of mise-en-scene, and accept that the absurd, depression and how one shape's one's life in the present, are all part of a deeper problematic that of course has its roots in an existential philosophy that precedes Camus: Heidegger's notion of throwness, of being thrust into the world. We don't want to turn this essay into an involved account of existential thought, so let us quote Simon Critchley in the Guardian on Heidegger's concept: "Such moods disclose the human being as thrown into the 'there' of my being-in-the-world...Thrownness (Geworfenheit) is the simple awareness that we always find ourselves somewhere, namely delivered over to a world with which we are fascinated, a world we share with others."
This is the void that none of us can deny, but many of us need never have to confront. We are thrown into the world but the tumultuousness of an existence without meaning is often quickly compensated for by parental affection and security that leaves the void covered over, a breach that needn't again be confronted. But what happens if into this world into which we are all thrown, we find ourselves thrown again, and spend the rest of our lives trying to live in a manner that closes the chasm. One that leaves us feeling we haven't conquered the world, in common and trivial parlance that perhaps allows for such often useless assumptions about depression and failure, but conquered the void.
There was no sense that Styron was a failure: early in the book he had recently received an award in Paris that in other circumstances he would have been more than happy to win. "The Prix del Duca was to me so straightforwardly nice that any extensive self-examination seemed silly, so I accepted gratefully." The world had been conquered in any literary sense. Sophie's Choice won the National Book Award for Fiction, The Confession of Nat Turner won the Pulitzer. He was famous and successful: whatever one might think of the film adaptation of Sophie's Choice it was a big movie, Oscar winning and profitable, making $30m in the domestic market. The world as it happened to be was not one he needed to beat. It was the past that had come to haunt it that he needed to overcome.
Of course to say simply that all we need if we have a childhood full of insecurity is an adulthood made up of routines that will allow us to stave off that past, would be both simplistic and enormously limiting to the self who is expected to devote the rest of their days to navigating consistently safe and secure environments. Our point is more that Styron's book surprisingly all but ignores the traumatic nature of an apparently minor change - the habit of alcohol - for other priorities. It makes a very fine work seem slightly lacking, a book that tries hard and mainly successfully to depict a disease difficult to describe, and then foregoes aspects that would have been relatively easy to look at. Such scenes, the drama of an adult, the mise en scene of depression, would have helped give us a broader perspective on both the disease and also the life of its sufferer.
© Tony McKibbin