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Goethe, Brahms, and William Styron's Darkness Visible.

In Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (NY: Random, 1990), William Styron relates his descent into depression and eventual recovery from despair. The turning point in his condition takes place "late one bitterly cold night," when, on the verge of suicide, he watches the tape of a movie. "At one point in the film," he writes, "the characters moved down the hallway of a music conservatory, beyond the walls of which, from unseen musicians, came a contralto voice, a "sudden soaring passage from the Brahms Alto Rhapsody" (66). After the sound prompts him to recall "all the joys the house had known" (66), he wakes his wife, telephone calls are made, and the following day he enters a hospital to begin treatment for his illness (67; West, 440-41 [below] identifies the movie as The Bostonians and discusses it in detail). The Brahms piece plays a brief but critical role in Styron's memoir. While the Alto Rhapsody is sometimes mentioned in relation to Darkness Visible, its greater significance to the memoir has largely been overlooked. In citing the piece, Styron engages in an intertextual dialogue with Brahms and with Goethe, upon whose poem the Alto Rhapsody is based.

Brahms had secretly loved Julie Schumann, and in response to her September 1869 marriage to Count Vittorio Radicati de Marmorito, the betrayed and devastated composer crafted his Alto Rhapsody, ostensibly as a bridal gift for her. He had reached a crucial turning point in his life, after which he apparently lost hope in the consolation of love and instead devoted himself to his music (Jan Swafford, Johannes Brahms: A Biography [NY: Knopf, 1997]: 348-53). In his Alto Rhapsody, Brahms draws upon a fragment of Goethe's "Harzreise im Winter" ("Winter Journey in the Harz Mountains") to tell the story of an alienated, depressed man lost in the woods. The alto voice of a woman questions who he is, this solitary figure being swallowed by the waste wilderness. "But off there to the side--who is it?" the woman asks. "The barren waste swallows him up." (Johannes Brahms, Alto Rhapsody; in Alto Rhapsody, Song of Destiny, Ndnie, and Song of the Fates, in Full Score, trans. Stanley Appelbaum [Mineola, NY: Dover, 1995]: p.1, lines 1 and 6). This initial recitative is followed by an aria asking who can heal the pain of the solitary man who finds only hatred of mankind in his heart:
   Ah, who can heal the pains
   Of a man for whom balm has become poison,
   Who imbibed hatred of mankind
   From the abundance of love?
   (Brahms p. l, lines 7-10)


At the end, a chorus prays for God to help the man see the beauty around him and thus regain his connection to the world:
   If in your psaltery,
   Father of Love, there is a tone
   Perceptible to his ear,
   Refresh his heart!
   Open his clouded gaze
   To the thousand fountains
   Alongside him as he thirsts
   In the wilderness.
   (Brahms p. 1, lines 15-22)


While the fragment from Goethe's poem ends with the bleakness of the wanderer in the wasteland, Brahms ends on a decidedly more hopeful note, with the sustained repetition of "Refresh his heart!" pp. 16-21).

The situation in both Goethe's poem and Brahms's composition parallels that of Styron's persona in Darkness Visible. Like the characters in "Harzreise im Winter" and Alto Rhapsody, Styron's suicidal persona finds himself in the metaphoric dark wood of despair. Goethe's narrator prays that the wanderer will wake to the world around him and become one with it; Brahms's chorus emphatically repeats the prayer; and Styron's persona, moved by the song as if it were the divine psaltery of Goethe and Brahms, gains a sense of connection to the joys of life. Styron mentions the Alto Rhapsody near the end of his book, and a few pages later he quotes the opening lines of Dante's Commedia to describe melancholia:
   In the middle of the journey of our life
   I found myself in a dark wood,
   For I had lost the right path. (83)


Styron acknowledges the broad significance of Dante's lines when he remarks: "One can be sure that these words have been more than once employed to conjure the ravages of melancholia" (83), and he adds that "The vast metaphor which most faithfully represents this fathomless ordeal, however, is that of Dante" (82-83).

In James L. W. West Ill's account of Styron hearing the Alto Rhapsody, the composition is significant chiefly because Styron's mother used to sing it. West explains that the song "had been his mother's favorite musical work" (William Styron: A Life [NY: Random, 1998]: 441), and that "as a child he had heard her sing it many times, without accompaniment, as she moved about the house or worked in her flower beds" (441). West explains that the song affected Styron "almost as if his mother were reaching out to him, reminding him of what she had endured and lost" (441). But in Darkness Visible, Styron places less emphasis on the connection of the song to his mother. Near the end of his book he writes "my own avoidance of death may have been belated homage to my mother. I do know that in those last hours before I rescued myself, when I listened to the passage from the Alto Rhapsody--which I'd heard her sing--she had been very much on my mind" (81). This explanation agrees with the account in West's biography. But Styron does not mention his mother when, earlier in the book, he recounts listening to the piece and deciding not to kill himself (66-67). He does mention, though, the many joys of the house, including "the children who had rushed through its rooms, the festivals, the love and work, the honestly earned slumber, the voices and the nimble commotion, the perennial tribe of cats and dogs and birds" (66-67).

As West observes, Darkness Visible "is a shaped tale of selected incident and a meditation on the larger problems of depressive mental disorder" (452-53). As a literary work, it is laden with references to other writers, suicides, drugs, literary texts, and various other subjects. In drafting Darkness Visible, Styron makes his hearing of the Alto Rhapsody one of those selected incidents. The loss of his mother is part of the background of Styron's memoir, and the loss of Julie Schumann is behind Brahms's Alto Rhapsody. Despair and alienation define the characters in both works, and the remembered voice of Styron's mother calls out to him like the concerned female voice in Brahms's composition. Following Goethe, Brahms has his chorus pray for the lost soul to witness the thousand springs around him. Styron's narrative persona likewise wakes to the multiplicity of life and activity that had filled his home. While Styron's depression is ultimately cured through science, his evocation of the Alto Rhapsody points to the transformative power of art, he blames the drug Halcion "for at least exaggerating to an intolerable point the suicidal thoughts that had possessed me before entering the hospital" (70; also, see Styron, "Prozac Days, Halcion Nights," The Nation 4 [Jan. 1993]: 1, 18, 20-21). And though he criticizes art therapy as "organized infantilism" (74), science and art ultimately work together to explore the depths of the soul. "But in science and art the search will doubtless go on for a clear representation of its meaning," Styron writes of melancholia, "which sometimes, for those who have known it, is a simulacrum of all the evil of our world" (83). The Alto Rhapsody, then, is for Styron a testament to the power of art to forge healing connections with the larger world outside the individual psyche, whether in the case of Goethe, Brahms, or Styron himself. Styron's allusion to the Alto Rhapsody places Darkness Visible within a tradition of despair explored by Goethe and Brahms, a tradition in which regeneration comes from the restoration of the individual's ties to the community.

George E. Butler, Fairfield, CT
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Author:Butler, George E.
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Date:Mar 1, 2009
Words:1320
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