Book Commentary of Kay Jamison’s Touched with Fire

Cayla McNally's picture

Kay R. Jamison’s book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, discusses the traditional view of the “artistic temperament,” with the telltale traits of moodiness, dark creativity, and temporary bouts into mania, with the symptoms linked to manic-depressive illness. In many cases, the artists themselves knew that there was something unique about their states of mind. Of his friends, Lord Byron once said, “We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched” (Jamison 2). Jamison focuses on those who have, over the years, been revered and stigmatized for being “more or less touched.” Many artists, such as Vincent van Gogh and Ernest Hemmingway, were known as much for their manic-depressive disorders as for the profound and unique musical and literary works they produced. Some of these artists were able to move past their disorder to lead a ‘normal’ life; others, such as Anne Sexton and Virginia Woolfe, were unable to overcome their illnesses, and ended up either in a psychiatric hospital, some eventually killing themselves.

The concepts that Jamison lays out for the reader are similar to the topic that was discussed in class relating to universal truth and perspective. The class devised that it was to be based on the general consensus, because if most people saw something the same way, that is almost inevitably how it is. Insanity became outside the range of the standard deviation of the collective perspective, which is not a good enough answer to account for what afflicts tens of millions of people. The madness that Jamison describes is not quantitative in any way, but in a range of certain symptoms and disorders. Jamison explains, “Manic-depressive, or bipolar, illness encompasses a wide range of mood disorders and temperaments. These vary in severity from cyclothymia- characterized by pronounced by not totally debilitating changes in mood, behavior, thinking, sleep, and energy levels- to extremely severe, life-threatening, and psychotic forms of the disease” (Jamison 13). It is very possible for some people to be temporarily affected in minor ways, such as being sad and having energy to do things, but it is also possible for the minor afflictions to turn into an almost unstoppable mental disease, which could end in the sufferer harming himself or someone else. While there can be predispositions to the diseases, there is no real way to tell which brain will get the disease, let alone what gradation of the disease.

While the entire purpose of the book is to couple the artistic temperament with the manic-depressive affliction, Jamison is quick to warn the reader of the hazards of making generalizations and inflexible rules when dealing with the two. She states, “Labeling as manic-depressive anyone who is unusually creative, accomplished, energetic, intense, moody, or eccentric both diminishes the notion of individuality within the arts and trivializes a very serious, often deadly illness” (Jamison 3). When dealing with something as common and as serious as manic-depressive illness, it is easy to grow accustomed to dealing with it and to make conclusions about people based on generalizations about a disorder or disease. It becomes very easy to say that any historical figure who had a different temperament than those around him was affected by madness, by a mood disorder; however, by doing this, one runs the risk of using what is known about a disease such as manic-depressive illness to rewrite a history that no one can know for sure, as well as to stereotype people who suffer from manic-depressive illness into a set category, thus ignoring the range of the severity and scope of the disease.

The points that Jamison makes in her book are completely valid, because not only do they describe the dispositions of many well-known artists, but they also show the connection between the physical and the intangible, the scientific and the unknown. If one wants to “get it less wrong,” one must abandon standard deviations and instead come to terms with the differences that can occur not just between people, but also in the same brain during a lifetime. The book acknowledges that there is not a set category of madness, that someone will either be a part of or not, and can further the lengthy discussions about reality, perception, and madness in the brain. It is not a deviation from the normal, because the normal does not truly exist; it is only something that the masses decided on, and varies from society to society.


Works Cited

Jamison, Kay R. Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.



sandy's picture

living with bipolar/ artist

I would love to talk with you,I am a artist I do art quilts,hand paint my own fabric/I use batik/screen print/any technique that excites me,I also have post-polio fatique.I am under mental health care and take several control
my moods.I am sober 25 years,this disorder has been a life time thing.I have had some real adventures.Gold mining in the backwoods,just a hint.I live close to the oregon border,come visit we will put you up.I have my quilts all over my walls.I have had two shows and my friends are incourging me to have another
if you are interested in me,I will send pictures.If you arent oh well..sandy

nicol elias's picture

documentary project - creativity and mental illness

I'm a photographer in the L.A area researching
artists who struggle with mental illness.
Any direction to specific artists, books, conferences
or other information that may be helpful
would be most appreciated.

thank you..

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