Books For The Dark Night Of The Soul


In his late thirties, F. Scott Fitzgerald experienced a series of emotional and mental breakdowns, many of which he wrote about in a series of random essays and observations collected under the title, The Crack-Up.

At the beginning of the self-titled essay, he writes:

“Of course, all of life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work — the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside — the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once.

There is another sort of blow that comes from within — that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.”

His words are severe and unforgiving but I find them comforting, expressing, as they do, a nakedness of the soul which only the truly damned can pull off.

Elsewhere in this collection, in an essay about insomnia, he says something to the effect of: “In the long dark night of the soul, it is always three in the morning.”  If you’ve ever woken in the dead of an industrial-smelling night and reached for the warm haunches of someone who will never be there again, you might know what he’s talking about.  Loneliness is rooted in the blood and guts. You can out-think it, but the muscles remember what’s missing.

Or, if you’re not lonely, you might get insomnia just from thinking too much about sex and failure and cancer.  There’s plenty of reasons not to sleep soundly.  I read The Crack-Up too early in my life during an innocuous lull when real dread and pain could simply be written about or read about without any visceral investment. But I just picked it up recently, or rather found it in the storage unit of my ancestral home, and was bitten raw by his words.

They were the words that I needed to hear. They were in sync with exactly what was happening inside of me.

Now, I’m about a foot deep into my early thirties, and I just moved for the eighth time in seven years.  My relationship of two and a half years recently ended and I think I have an undiagnosed stomach problem.  Money has come and gone but mostly the latter. My friends have intervened with saintly actions.  Liquor has flowed more liberally than I would have liked.  I’m happy to say though that I now occupy a cozy, third story room with a pleasant view of warehouse windows and with space enough for a desk and a bed.

In fact, I can roll right out of bed and start writing — or looking at porn which, when recently single, is more depressing than I ever realized.

A friend of mine worked through the process of a terrible break-up by reading The End Of The Affair by Graham Greene. A long time ago when all I did was stay up all night and walk the streets of my city, I read a book called Mt. Analogue which changed my despondent heart for the better.  Any book by Jean Rhys captures that dizzying sense of loss, almost as a rarefied kind of boredom that animates the tiny rooms her characters live in.

Terrific life changes, of course, require sad music best imbibed with alcohol. But what of the books we must read, or accidentally did read at dark nights in our life?

What are they for you?

Michael Berger is a barely-published writer and book-seller living in San Francisco. He is one of the founding Corsairs of the Iron Garters Bike Club and is currently pursuing a degree in applied pataphysics. He sometimes eats oatmeal for dinner. More from this author →