Myth or Madness? Mania and the Artistic Genius
(A Book Review of
Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament
Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D.)
Diana C. Applegate
That person that I was -
And this One - do not feel the same -
Could it be Madness - this?"
Those of us who enjoy the arts, either as participants or avid fans of the creative process, are very much aware of the so-called "myth of the artist" and other similar stereotypical sketches that link the artistic genius to an inner, emotional world of tumultuous highs, lows, and sheer "madness". Mental illness, particularly manic depression, has somehow become an inseparable part of the successful artist's experience in the romanticized biographies of famous poets, painters, and musicians of our time. In her book, Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison lends some evidence to this widely-recognized cultural myth, and exposes a very convincing relationship between the mood cycles involved with manic depression and the creative process.
Jamison does not assume the reader has any clinical knowledge about manic-depressive illness. She starts from scratch, explaining the condition in traditional scientific terms, and also illuminates manic-depressive illness throughout the book by sharing the poetry and prose of those who lived with it. After thoroughly defining and describing the disease, Jamison presents biographical and scientific evidence suggesting a relationship between manic depression and artistic creativity. In her next chapter, she forges even further ahead, discussing the psychological and biological arguments in support of an overlap between madness and art. Before concluding with a chapter on the problems with, and objections to, the treatment of manic-depressive illness, as well as the ethical concerns surrounding the possible isolation of a gene or genes responsible for the disorder, Jamison devotes an entire chapter to George Gordon, Lord Byron, a famous poet who suffered from manic-depressive illness.
So what exactly is Jamison's evidence? Her biographical sources linking manic-depressive illness and the artistic temperament include personal accounts such as letters and other autobiographical excerpts from the likes of Robert Lowell, Robert Burns, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Schumann, Theodore Roethke, Edgar Allen Poe, Vincent Van Gogh, Lord Byron, and others. In addition, Jamison occasionally analyses the work of these artists, which often describe, in detail, the emotional and intense highs and lows they experienced. The author's scientific discussion of manic-depressive illness allows the reader to recognize the similarities between the artists' accounts of their symptoms and the clinically accepted symptoms of manic depression that are used in diagnosis today. Furthermore, Jamison includes numerical figures which indicate that writers, in particular, have a vastly disproportionate rate of manic-depressive illness as compared to the general population.
Even more compelling is Jamison's discussion of moods as they relate to creative productivity: "Many of the changes in mood, thinking and perception that characterize the mildly manic states - restlessness, ebullience, expansiveness, irritability, grandiosity, quickened and more finely tuned senses, intensity of emotional experiences, diversity of thought, and rapidity of associational processes - are highly characteristic of creative thought as well." (105) She notes that two aspects of thinking, in particular, seem to show up in both creative and hypomanic thought: "fluency, rapidity, and flexibility of thought on the one hand, and the ability to combine ideas or categories of thought in order to form new and original connection on the other." (105)
Manic-depressive illness, of course, is a mood disorder, and those afflicted with the condition experience alarming variations in mood, ranging from energetic, euphoric highs to melancholy, listless lows. Some have suspected that the melancholic periods experienced by so many artists are key in determining why, if at all, they are possibly more attuned to the subtleties of human emotion and experience. However, Jamison argues that one must pay equally close attention to the manic phase of the disorder, and that, perhaps, it is even more crucial to understand and appreciate the interplay between these two interacting cyclic stages or phases of manic-depressive disorder and how they relate to one another when assessing how mood may affect creative output. For example, the birth of new ideas often takes place during the manic phases, but the refinement of such thoughts may occur during the artist's melancholic periods. The creative process requires a certain amount of emotional involvement as well as a more logical perspective in order to put the new ideas into practice. Jamison also relates creative productivity to the cyclic nature of the seasons and months of the year, mapping mood cycles on top of natural cycles with very interesting results.
What interested me in particular was Jamison's discussion of treating manic-depressive illness, and the resistance that artists may have to drug therapy. Those who experience such a range of highs and lows often become accustomed to them, and do not wish to give them up. Furthermore, if artists are more productive during a certain phase of the illness, they fear that medication will change that. And, in some cases, it does. Lithium, one of the more commonly prescribed drugs to regulate the manic's highs and lows, often has the effect of making the transition from one mood to the next a lot less pronounced. The stability that the drug offers to patients can make them feel almost lifeless in comparison to the dramatic mood swings experienced during manic-depressive illness. However, Jamison stresses that manic-depressive illness can end in suicide if not treated, and, of course, there are many creative and productive people in the world who do not experience the symptoms of manic depression. Therefore, it is still possible to create, even when undergoing drug treatment. Changes in productivity levels will vary from person to person.
Jamison's Touched With Fire is highly relevant to this course, and our continuing discussion of whether or not the brain really equals behavior. The author does not discuss manic-depressive illness in neurobiological terms. However, she draws a parallel between the behavioral characteristics of manic-depressive illness, and those experienced during the creative process. Earlier in the course, a few students objected to the brain=behavior idea by saying, "What about creativity?" Jamison's book does not provide us with any answers, but it raises several new and interesting questions. If the behavioral characteristics of the creative process are similar to those of a genetic, neurobiologically-related disorder, then it is conceivable that creativity arises from the interaction of certain neurons in the brain. Nevertheless, creativity is still very much a puzzle for neurobiologists and psychologists alike, and further study is needed in order to come to any definitive conclusions.
I recommend this book to artists and scientists alike, and appreciate the way that Jamison connects these two, often very separate, realms of study in an engaging manner. She presents an overwhelming amount of serious evidence in support of her hypothesis. I felt that the chapter focusing on Lord Byron was a little unnecessary and out-of-place, but his case study did reinforce many of her ideas regarding manic-depressive illness and the creative process, and also fit in with her discussion of the disease as genetically-based. Jamison focuses her investigation on famous artists perhaps because they are of interest to the general public, and their biographies have often already been written fairly well. However, she points out that it is difficult to diagnose retrospectively. I would be interested in finding out whether or not there have been similar studies done on less famous groups of artists, where success might be defined by awards they have won so far as opposed to a posthumously-created legacy.
Related WWW Links1) A Brief Bio on Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison , on the Random House Reader's Club Website
2) Live from Lincoln Center: Interview with Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison , on the Lincoln Center Backstage Website
3)"Research explains lithium's dual anti-manic/anti-depressive effect" , on the University of Wisconsin - Madison Website
10/25/2005, from a Reader on the Web
is sensitivity also part of this too? i have been considered a manic depressive since i was 12, but sent to doctors and psychologists and therapists etc, whom i flet didn't really understand the extent of what was 'wrong' with me. (i'm now nearly 30) i have grown to realise for myself that i have an extremely high sensitivity to all things. for example, i'm a musician whom also composes music, and i hear the actual note (perfect pitch) and 'feel' it in my gut. i also hear the notes of people if you can get what i mean, and have to hold my breathe whilst walking past certain strangers to try not to 'pick up' their frequencies because i get overwhelmed by their energy (normally not a pleasant energy). i can sense things like if someone has been cruel, if someone is capable of violent acts, also if someone has empathy etc. i'm sure being so sensitive a person is what originally led me to try to take my own life when i was 17, because i felt the agony of our world so intensly that i didn't think i could live with it. i must go now