Thursday, 3 January 2013

Darkness Invisible

A few months ago I picked up Styron's Darkness Visible. It's a short book, but I'm a slow reader, so I was surprised to find myself reading it through in one sleepless night. I was disappointed. It's a succinct, no-nonsense account of an abrupt, extreme, psychotic and suicidal depressive episode experienced by an apparently unsentimental as well as "accomplished" old writer, and as such might serve as a good counter-argument to people doubting the validity of clinical depression in general or their own experience of it as a serious disease. What it conspicuously lacked, in its irritatingly laconic prose, reminding me of how bored I was reading Hemingway, was a vision of darkness.

More recently I tried to read Paradise Lost. I got bored of that pretty quickly. Pretty much as soon as I came across the phrase "darkness visible" and saw that it wasn't likely to play a major part in the poem. I've got Dante's Inferno lying around somewhere, so we'll see how that goes.

In spite of myself I feel a need to apologise for the apparent morbidity of this preoccupation, but I'm going to acknowledge the feeling rather than act on it. I think darkness is a major unacknowledged feature of clinical depression, disappointingly absent from my admittedly non-methodical ventures into its literature. A drive for darkness, I should say, because as well as being an overwhelming and almost unendurable reality, it also becomes a seductive promise and almost an object of yearning in its too complete disappearance or withdrawal. I think much of the widespread rumination about death has to do with this aura rather than (at least rather than exclusively) exasperation with life. I'm convinced that the tendency to stay in bed, to neglect yourself, has to do with some kind of suppressed fantasy of hitting rock bottom and thereby achieving some kind of release from the vapid mundanity of brightly flashing everyday fakery.

I'm vaguely familiar with a Freudian concept of a "death drive" but I really don't think this is it, at least not at its core. I think it's to do with an acknowledgement of an underlying and pervasive feature of reality as well as an appeal to mystery.

In a post that it almost three fucking years old and makes me feel like a dinosaur, I suggested that the appeal of the Greek Gods, to which from this distance I can also add that of the wrathful, fairly ruthless and terrifying Old Testament God, had exactly to do with the apparently paradoxical moral ambiguity, with the sense of danger and dark secrets. If nothing else, it suggests a human need to cultivate this kind of sinister adventurism, to tell creepy German fairy tales to shocked and exhilarated little kids.

In fact, we don't need to go very far to find evidence of this need. We can see it in black humour, in the strange fact that so many people willfully seek out movies that will make them scared or sad, in the fact that so-called more discriminating viewers will derive immense pleasure from such deeply dark and pessimistic TV shows as The Sopranos and The Wire. It helps explain to me why I get so irritated (and sometimes a little depressed) by the loud, aggressive chirpiness of all those anonymously worry-free sitcoms hatefully and eternally emblemised for me by my mortal enemy "Friends" for some reason.

It's alluded to absolutely brilliantly, I think, in Dexter's "Dark Passenger", which must be hidden at all costs if he is to stand a chance of fitting into society. It's echoed in the new Doctor Who's Doctor's shady and tragic (and suppressed) recent past. It's exemplified in Hamlet's bearing, despite all the moralising. The war on personality is also a war on darkness.

Much of this darkness revolves around the amoral. One obvious contrast with my life is that I'm a nice guy. I'm quite okay with being a nice guy, and I intend to keep on at it, and don't particularly want to hurt people, though I probably am a little overly anxious to avoid hurting them. On the other hand, much of morality is a crock of shit. There is no essential difference between the dynamics of the adult citizenry condemning a criminal for wrongdoing and the teenage group condemning a kid for the wrong haircut. I know because I had the educational privilege of growing up around a strangely deeply shallowly religious peer-group where to swear or smoke or dress immodestly was considered uncool.

If I wanted to create a representative image of this phenomenon, it might be of a group of Texans of deep moral conviction, draping their white bodies in white robes and pointed hats, off to lynch a black guy for sexually contaminating a pure member of their community in a love affair. It's all an infantile, obstinately simplistic conflation of colours and images, designed to keep everything as much the same as possible by means of any available sophistry and intimidation. The end result is all-around dehumanisation.

Part of the mysterious seduction of depression is that its darkness does not represent nothingness exactly. It's heavy to carry around, a kind of vacuum - occasionally it reminds me of The Nothing in The Neverending Story - it's a piercing hollowness that screams of the absence of something else, something meaningful that exists but is not at hand - that is at risk of not having any room for itself around and between all the buckets of bullshit that flood your insides.

It's not a question of overcoming depression. It's a question of integrating its lessons. I think depression, in its very sabotage of "functioning", is a cry out to be recognised as a person for your emotions rather than for your productivity; for your capacity for truth rather than your ability to satisfy others. A sad, thoughtful, and meaningful life is better, I am convinced, and ultimately happier, than a cheerful, mindless and insipid cruise towards death. It all hinges on the question of ultimate meaning. I can't say that I know what it is but I do feel it exists. And I feel that the attempt to limit my emotional horizon is robbing me of my opportunity of pursuing it.

It's probably significant that darkness and pain are where creativity comes from. Something happens, in that act of creation, of uncompromising truth. It's worthwhile giving it credit, rather than deciding you're smarter than your emotions and trying to engineer them towards winning some meaningless competition. I don't want to fucking play.

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