October 01, 1990 12:00 PM

by William Styron

Darkness Visible is a reworking of an article that the author of Sophie’s Choice originally published in Vanity Fair magazine in 1989. Although he has expanded it, the work seems either woefully incomplete or, at almost 100 pages, more than you would want to know about Styron’s history of melancholia.

It’s not that depression is an uninteresting topic. The problem is that writers seem to have the same difficulty doctors do in defining depression and its causes. That a writer as talented as Styron cannot really explain how depression feels says more about the condition than it does about his attempt to describe it.

Styron tries. In one inspired passage, he decides that the word “depression” is inadequate. “Depression,” he tells us, “is a noun with a bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness.” A better choice, he says, would be “brainstorm” because one experiences “a veritable howling tempest in the brain.” Most of the book is more historical than evocative: Styron tells us about other famous people who’ve suffered from depression (actress Jean Seberg and her novelist husband Romain Gary, Albert Camus, Abbie Hoffman) and about how society does not always view the condition as the disease it is. He indulges in shrink-bashing, calling his group-therapy leader “an odiously smug young shrink, with a spade-shaped dark beard (der junge Freud?)” and art therapy “organized infantilism.” As these judgments are in contrast to the melancholy descriptions that come earlier, perhaps we’re meant to see that Styron’s condition has improved; he is no longer the traumatized, passive patient, but again the detached journalist/observer.

It appears that one of our finest writers is well again and may soon get back to doing what he does best: writing fiction. (Random House, $15.95)

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