Thursday, November 1, 2012

What I read in October

Darkness Visible by William Styron. The harrowing account of Styron's own descent into deep, suicidal depression and eventually ascent out of it. It's short, more of an essay than a book, but it packs a wallop. Styron reminds the reader often that, really, there's no way to communicate the depth of suffering experiences during depression, but he tries his hardest. He notes that what often makes suffering bearable is the knowledge that it will pass, but his depression made him believe it never would, which made it unbearable and pushed him nearly to suicide.

A historical note. Styron writes: "And soon I was in the throes of a pervasive hypochondria." Hypochondria here is a symptom of depression, or deep melancholy, and Styron defines it: "Nothing felt quite right with my corporeal self; there were twitches and pains, sometimes intermittent, often seemingly constant, that seemed to presage all sorts of dire infirmities...It is easy to see how this condition is part of the psyche's apparatus of defense: unwilling to accept its own gathering deterioration, the mind announces to its indwelling consciousness that it is the body with its perhaps correctable defects--not the precious and irreplaceable mind--that is going haywire." He notes that "hypochrondria" and "melancholia" were often interchangeable until the 19th century. I was reminded of the letters of Abraham Lincoln, who sometimes wrote of the "hypo" he experienced. He was depressed. One of the unexpected benefits I found in Styron's book was a little insight into what Lincoln meant, and what he felt, when he spoke of his own hypochondria.

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. Let me preface this by saying that East of Eden  and Of Mice and Men are two of my favorite books. Travels with Charley sucks. It's phoned in. There are maybe three or four passages of startling insight or beauty in the book, and they come either in the prelude to the trip or when Steinbeck travels through Salinas and its surrounding areas. That's great, but it's not like Steinbeck needed to take a huge road trip to wax poetic about Salinas some more. The rest of the book is a haze, nothing much of note or interest happens, and I got the impression that most of it was made up anyway. Having returned pretty recently from a cross-country road trip of my own, I sympathize with Steinbeck's attempts to turn something that seems profound, but really isn't, into something profound for people who don't know any better. But I don't think he did a very good job.

Sick From Freedom by Jim Downs. Historical monograph addressing the health crises of freed slaves in the wake of emancipation and during reconstruction. This book expanded my understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction, post-war freed slave experience, and the nature of freedom in America. It reconstructs a heretofore forgotton smallpox epidemic in the freed slave population in 1866, explaining how the great population displacements of the war helped it spread. There was little effective response from the federal government, which had a stated interest of getting freed slaves back to work on their former plantations to restart the southern economy, and feared that too much federal aid in the form of food, clothing, or healthcare would make freed slaves dependent.

I can't remember the name, but I was reminded reading this book of the abolitionist society that disbanded after the 13th amendment was ratified, claiming that their work had been completed. Ever since the Civil War there has been a persistent belief that the nation's responsibility to former slaves was over once they had been freed. Certainly as time has gone on "reparations" has become more and more of a punchline. Sick From Freedom finds the origins of this feeling. It's in the freedman's bureau, too worried about slaves becoming "dependent" to worry about the thousands and thousands who died of disease or exposure because they had no healthcare, land, or housing. It's in the journalists of that time, who editorialized that the health crises of freed slaves signified that slavery was a moral good, and that without slavery the African race was doomed to extinction. It's almost incomprehensible.

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