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Darkness at Noon


by Gail Caldwell

The imagery in the literature of depression, from Dante’s dark wood to Julia Kristeva’s black sun, is as vast and varied as the scourge depicted, but the place itself — a landscape where time and color have little meaning — always seems to possess a hue of infinite gray. It’s as though the state of despair, brutal thief of the outside world as well as of the internal ability to perceive it, tests the powers of literal description: Virginia Woolf saw it as wave after wave of crashing pain; Emily Dickinson as “an element of blank”; Hamlet as “the pale cast of thought.” Bleached of texture and the physical laws of motion, this static atmosphere has no use for either language or the hope to employ it — both of which hold the promise of tomorrow, as ludicrous to the depressed as the memory of a better past 

Like a spate of memoirists in recent years, Andrew Solomon has known firsthand the cruelties of clinical depression, but he has also traveled the world over to probe the universal aspects of this bleak human condition. Several years in the making, The Noonday Demon is an ambitious compendium of fact, anecdote, and insight, viewing depression through the prisms of cultural, medical, and political circumstances. Much of what Solomon relays is both heart-rending and fascinating; the book has a scope and passionate intelligence that give it intrigue as well as heft.

…Educated at Yale and Cambridge universities, Solomon has published two previous works — a novel and a study of Soviet artists — and his erudite curiosity bestows The Noonday Demon with a particularly generous point of view. He is also, one hastens to add, the son of a pharmaceutical industry executive; this insider position informs his stance but does not define it. A social and political liberal, he believes that the regimen of drugs he takes has saved his life, and that the recent miracles in the field of antidepressants — the SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors — have given us an arsenal of weaponry against the consequences of depression.

But he is no shill for Prozac nation or any magic-bullet phenomenon, nor does he succumb to the other shortcut arguments on the etiology of depression that can so limit our understanding. Instead he examines its history (as old as our ability to describe it); its treatment (from bloodletting to Bedlam to Freud); its occurrence in the aftermath of war or weather or grievous personal loss. He has read all the literature — Bowlby and Winnicott and Klein and Kristeva, as well as the poets and philosophers — and he seems willing to go anywhere: a state hospital in Pennsylvania, a mood-disorders support group in New York, a treatment center for the indigent depressed in Maryland. He travels to Greenland, where the local Inuit population has to battle inclement weather and isolation as well as a high rate of depression. Trapped in close quarters for most of the year, they have a taboo against complaining — or did, until three women elders in the village Solomon visited began to talk to one another. At church one morning, the women announced they had begun a group where people could come to talk about their problems — a radical notion that went against the community’s mores. By the end of a year, every woman in the village, unbeknownst to any of the others, had made her way to the elders’ doors.

The Noonday Demon is full of such stories and heroes, like the Cambodian woman — herself a victim of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge — who set up a treatment center in the displacement camps for post-traumatic depression. Solomon went there to interview her; he went, too, to Senegal, where he was bathed head-to-toe in the blood of a slaughtered ram. A good-sport Westerner, he describes the ndeup ceremony with the open mind of an amateur anthropologist, noting that the animist ritual contains potentially healing elements of community, mystery, and the promise of cause and effect. Perhaps more remarkable, or at least more wrenching, are the accounts of personal resilience: the little girl who, rendered mute by despair, covered her doctor with a sea of Post-it notes that said what she needed to say.

Because Solomon’s far-reaching work is a book about pain, some readers will find it painful to read. I found it consoling and even uplifting, if only for its narrator’s derring-do ability to meet the beast head-on. The minute but exquisite triumphs recorded here tend to underscore the ordinary victories of a day. Whether Solomon is quoting Schopenhauer or the man whose grandmother committed suicide in Nazi Germany the day before her exit visa arrived, one is continually reminded that human consciousness all but ensures a certain propensity for misery: what the 91st Psalm calls “the destruction that wasteth at noonday.”

…The book is smart and compassionate, its narrator blessed with insight and a charming — probably healing — sense of humor. “I’m sorry, I’ll have to cancel Wednesday,” Solomon, spiraling downward, told friends when they called. “I’m afraid of lamb chops again.” But this, too, as we know from Chaplin and Perelman and other great wits, is one of depression’s multitude of faces, many of them unmasked here with candid grace.