A Story of Fire

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Biology 202

2006 Book Commentaries

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A Story of Fire

Carolyn Dahlgren

Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, is a book which explores the relationship between madness and genius. While piecing together the life stories of many well-known poets, writer, and other artists, Kay Jamison, the author, demonstrates how prevalent and pervasive mood disorders are in artistic communities and families. Mood disorders have affected many well-known artists from Lord Byron to Van Gogh, from Robert Burns to Edgar Allen Poe. Jamison begins her book by quoting Byron, "We of the craft are all crazy" (p 2). Jamison says that "poetic or artistic genius, when infused with these fitful and inconstant moods [of manic depressive illness], can become a powerful crucible for imagination and experience." (p 3) She raises the question that, perhaps, artistic genius is the product of mental illness.
According to the information in the psychological diagnostic manual, the DSM IV, a person must fulfill at least five of these criteria in order to receive the diagnosis of depression: 1) depressed mood most of the day and nearly every day, 2) diminished interest or pleasure in activities, 3) weight loss or weight gain, 4)sleep disturbances, 5) being restless or sluggish, 6) loss of energy nearly every day, 7) feelings of worthlessness or extreme guilt, 8) diminished capacity to think or concentrate, 9) recurrent thoughts of death. A manic episode is a distinct period where mood is abnormally and persistently elevated and which is accompanied by at least three of the following symptoms: 1) inflated self-esteem or grandiosity, 2) decreased need for sleep, 3) more talkative, 4) racing thoughts, 5) more distractible, 6) increase in goal directed activity or psychomotor agitation, 7) excessive engagement in pleasurable or risky activities. Manic-depressive Illness occurs when these psychologically unstable situations combine. There is a cyclic succession of the upper limit of ebullition and invulnerability which plummet to the very depths of despair and melancholy. The result is an unstable personality and lifestyle. The contrast between mood states may give artist insight into the emotion and humanity that, perhaps, would not be accessible to a more stable person.
Jamison briefly touches on the causes of Manic-Depressive Illness. She describes it as something that is located in the brain but that it is not yet fully understood.
The neurochemical and anatomical processes responsible for the cognitive changes occurring during both pathological and highly creative states are poorly understood. It will remain for molecular biology, neuropsychology, and the new neuroimaging techniques to provide us with more sophisticated understanding of the underlying changes in thought and behavior that are enhanced, left unaffected, or impaired by shifting patterns of mood. (p 112)

She does not go into the details of what exactly causes mental illness. She quotes one of Edgar Allen Poe's poems, "and by a strange alchemy of the brain/His pleasure always turn'd to pain" (p 120). A 'strange alchemy' is appropriate way of describing any brain. The brain is a sea of firing neurons awash with neurotransmitters. Chemical and electrical signals enervate tissues. Sensory information provides input and motor signals produce behavior. Meanwhile, through corollary discharge and other signals, interneurons keep tabs on the multitudinous processes of the brain. Signals create patterns and patterns are followed or recreated or ignored. There is disorder, yet, at the same time, there is life and thought and behavior. Look at what arises out of the tangled intricacies of the brain: humanity. It seems only logical that a more disorganized brain would be more creative; that the erratic brain of a Manic-Depressive would produce artistic masterpieces.
While Jamison does not concentrate on the etiology of mental illness; she does, however, allocate a section of her book to tracing the emerging drug therapy designed to combat and cope with mood disorders: lithium, antidepressants and anticonvulsants. She emphasizes the fact that drug therapy has been a crucial advancement in the treatment of psychological disorders and that drugs save lives. Even though modern artists may voluntarily forgo treatment, artists now have choices and options when seeking relief from mental illness. Jamison quotes Virginia Woolf as saying "I feel certain that I am gong mad again" (p224). There is a sense of dread which accompanies her words. After the advent of lithium drug therapy, poet Robert Lowell was quoted as saying to his publisher, Robert Giroux, "It's terrible, Bob, to think that all I've suffered, and all the suffering I've caused, might have arisen from the lack of a little salt in my brain." (p 250)
Jamison does not examine the work of artists who have not been documented as suffering from some type of mental disorder. She does, however, point out that artists who do not have some type of psychological illness are in a minority.
Many writers and artists have no family history of these illnesses, nor do they themselves suffer from depression or manic-depressive illness... not all writers and artist are depressed, suicidal, or manic. It is, rather, that a greatly disproportionate number of them are; that the manic-depressive and artistic temperaments are causally related to on another. (p 237)

Also, there are cases where symptoms may have been subclinical. Cases may have been undiagnosed or covered up. Symptoms may also have simply been ignored, disregarded as artistic quirks. In the case of poet Robert Lowell, Hardwick, Lowell's wife, was 'convinced that Lowell was sick' but could not convince his colleagues that something was wrong; "what to her was 'mad' was to them another mark of Lowell's genius." (p 5) "Biographic studies indicate that writers, artists, and composers often describe in great detail their periods of melancholy or depression, but that other aspects of mood swings... and even at times overt psychosis, are subsumed under 'eccentricity,' 'creative inspiration,' or 'artistic temperament.'" (p 58)
"Certain lifestyles provide cover for deviant and bizarre behavior, and the arts, especially, have long given latitude to extremes in behavior and mood." (p 57) So what exactly is art? Is creativity the product of a mentally disturbed mind? Is art is the product of genius or madness? Could it be a product of both? How different are genius and madness from on another? Where does art and creativity come from? Is it the brain? The 'I function'? Can an artistic genius produce masterpieces without being aware of doing so; like a sleepwalker with a paint brush? This idea conflicts with the clichéd image of the struggling artist; especially one who is mentally ill and anguishing over life and work. Perhaps creativity is the result of an overactive neocortex, the storyteller in the brain. The storyteller takes in too much, it cannot filter information and it is overwhelmed. Signals of the brain which are usually ignored stimulate stories that are beautiful and poignant when penned on paper but which are disruptive for the artist to have in the brain.
Where is creativity and artistry in the brain? Are they connected to manic-depressive illness and other psychological disorders? In her book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Kay Jamison asks, "Do artists create in spite of their often-debilitating problems with mood...or is there something about the experience of prolonged periods of melancholia –broken at times by episodes of manic intensity and expansiveness – that leads to a different kind of insight, compassion, and expression of the human condition?" (p 102) Genius and madness seem to be related and, perhaps, like Emily Dickinson wrote in her poem, "Wider than the Sky", "the one the other will contain". When exploring art and mental illness, specifically Manic-Depressive Illness, it is easy to see a relationship between the two.
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. (p105)

Yet, there is still the question of how the two are related. Is art the product of madness? Is madness genius or vice versa? What is normal? And, if creativity arises from madness yet is also considered a human trait, are not we all, then, a little mad?

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

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