Part 1: Darkness
— Calvin Luther Martin, PhD
“Midway in the journey of life,” begins the narrator of Dante’s “Inferno,” “I came to myself in a dark wood.” (Full stop. Take a breath. Now go on to the next paragraph. These notations are for me, by the way, not for you, the reader.)
So did I. Literally. (Those four words are difficult to write.) “Ah, how hard it is to tell the nature of that wood — savage, dense and harsh,” continues the speaker, “the very thought of it renews my fear.” (The very thought renews my fear. Oh god, yes! More than once in the past day or two I’ve considered aborting this essay — going AWOL, as it were.)
“It is so bitter, death is hardly more so.” (Re-read that line. This isn’t merely a fragment of text from one of the world’s great masterpieces, Dante’s Divina Commedia — the Divine Comedy. The words breathe. Are sentient and conscious. Like Death, the words know my name. They know the name of many of us, alas.)
The narrator presses on. “But to set forth the good I found, I will recount the other things I saw.”
So will I. Had I not found “good,” I would not be alive today. Insofar as I can put words to it, this is my journey through the dark wood. The journey of my entire life, I now realize. Although now it’s a good journey — one I embrace and welcome. One I would not trade for anything.
I saw blackness. I saw the image, above — without the match. A black void. The cosmic abyss. Milton, clearly no stranger to this experience, called it Chaos and Old Night. What I write is no exaggeration. Not literary license. Every noun and adjective carefully, painfully chosen. I was consumed by a darkness that had texture, substance, and an eerie, pulsing, throbbing life of its own. In this blackness I was absolutely powerless. If there is a hell, this was it. I was completely, definitively undone. Pulverized. Ground to dust. Mind. Spirit. Body. Helpless. Prisoner in a realm heretofore unimaginable, inconceivable.
Now, I was being forced to conceive of it. I had no choice. Nor was there any way out, except by dying, which at first didn’t occur to me. Later, it did with a kind of sublime beauty. (How pitiful to read these words.)
“It’s like drowning.” I don’t know who said this. Perhaps it is for some people. For me, it wasn’t. It was more of a thick dark mist. And an annihilation.
The irony is I always thought I could never be brought to this pathetic state. I valued my intellect above all other faculties and possessions. Which is why I never took drugs or drank in excess. If I had one plea in life, it was, “Take anything from me — health, loved ones, my means of support, even my life — but don’t take my mind.”
Which of course is precisely what was taken from me — my mind. It disappeared in an impenetrable fog. The fog of despair and fear. Massive, unreasonable, insurmountable, impregnable fear and anxiety.
No, not drowning. Not for me. But solitude. Intense solitude. And distance. As if something had hurled me to the farthest reaches of the universe. I felt as if I were watching a movie wherein everyone around me, including my wife, was alive and living normally — living a life I had suddenly been expelled from. Banished. I was not part of what they were saying, doing, or thinking. I could barely speak. I appeared to be alive (if indeed this could be called “alive”) in another dimension of reality, removed from the daily routines going on around me.
The author, William Styron, laying bare his own depression in “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness,” recalls “a sense that my thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world.”
“What I had begun to discover is that, mysteriously and in ways that are totally remote from normal experience, the grey drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb.
“It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this cauldron, because there is no escape from the smothering confinement, it is natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.”
Styron was convinced it’s impossible to describe depression in words — “so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.” Healthy people, he declared, are unable “to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience.”
I agree. He objected to the very word “depression” — a bloodless word that fails to convey the full catastrophe of the disease in its most brutal form. “For over seventy-five years, the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.”
I agree with this, too. The physician who introduced the word “depression” to the clinical literature seems to have never had it.
Though not so this ancient Semitic poet:
O Jehovah, God of my salvation, I have wept before
You day and night.
Now hear my prayers; oh, listen to my cry,
You have thrust me down to the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavy on me; wave after wave
You have made my friends to loathe me, and
they have gone away. I am in a trap with no way out.
My eyes grow dim with weeping. Each day I beg
Your help; O Lord, I reach my pleading hands to You
O Lord, I plead for my life and shall keep on
pleading day by day.
O Jehovah, why have You thrown my life
away? Why are You turning Your face from me, and
looking the other way?
Your fierce wrath has overwhelmed me. Your
terrors have cut me off.
They flow around me all day long.
Lover, friend, acquaintance-all are gone.
There is only darkness everywhere.
— Psalm 88
Nor the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke:
It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock
in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space: everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.
I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief —
so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
then your great transforming will happen to me,
and my great grief cry will happen to you.
— trans. by Robert Bly
Elsewhere, Rilke writes:
My entire body was a wound. The world
that blooms and ripens in things
had been torn out of me with its roots,
with my heart (it seemed), and I lay
like churned-up earth and drank
the cold raining of my tears,
which out of dead eyes ceaselessly
and softly streamed, the way from empty heavens,
when God has died, the clouds fall.
— from “The Blind Woman” (trans. Edward Snow)