Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Touched With Fire

SerendipUpdate's picture

Biology 202
2003 Second Web Paper
On Serendip

Touched With Fire

Elizabeth Damore

In Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Kay Redfield Jamison explores the compelling connection between mental disorders and artistic creativity. Artists have long been considered different from the general population, and one often hears tales of authors, painters, and composers who both struggle with and are inspired by their "madness". Jamison's text explores these stereotypes in a medical context, attributing some artists' irrational behaviors to mental disorders, particularly manic-depressive illness. In order to establish this link, Jamison presents an impressive collection of artists who have suffered from mental illness, whether diagnosed correctly during their lifetime or discovered in hindsight. Well organized and interesting, Jamison provides an ideal introduction to this still evolving idea, providing the reader with as many thought provoking questions as answers, and leaving the door open for further study.

Jamison begins with a brief explanation of manic-depressive illness and its effects on human behavior. The term "manic-depressive illness" refers to a variety of mental disorders which share similar symptoms, but range greatly in severity. These disorders alters one's mood and behaviors, disrupt established sleep and sexual patterns, and cause fluctuations in energy level. Manic-depressive illness cause cycles of manic, energized highs followed by debilitating, lethargic lows. Such disorders usually develop early in life and intensify over time, leading to maniacal highs and devastating lows. The manic energy associated with mental disorders may cause a person to require less sleep while raising energy levels increasing one's rate of thinking. These symptoms stimulate creativity and lead to an elevated level of productivity. Conversely, during the attendant lows associated with mental illness, the afflicted person experiences lethargy and hopelessness. Artists, in particular, often experience a creative block during their depressive periods, resulting in an intense frustration with their decreased productivity. In turn, this frustration may drive an artist to substance abuse, or even suicide. Depression is not the only cause of detrimental and possibly dangerous changes to one's behavior. Mania, of course, does not simply produce more creative energy. During a manic period, one tends to lose their grasp on reality, which could prompt irrational impatience, excessive spending, and impulsive sexual relations. Both manic and depressive periods alter behavior significantly and pose a threat to the patient's life.

After outlining the effects of manic-depressive illness on human behavior, Jamison presents profiles of some of the numerous artists who have suffered from some sort of mental disturbance. Among the most notable manes are Picasso, van Gogh, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Poe. Additionally, Jamison discusses a number of lesser known artists who were affected by manic-depressive illness. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder if these men and women were prevented from reaching greater career heights by their mental disorders. Many studies concerning the link between creativity and mental illness have been conducted in recent years, with compelling results. For instance, a study by Dr. Colin Martindale of eminent English and French poets found that over half of these artists had suffered nervous breakdowns, been institutionalized, or suffered from hallucinations and delusions. Likewise, a study by Dr. Arnold Ludwig found highest rates of "mania psychosis and psychiatric hospitalization [were] in poets" (1). Poets, of course, are not the only artists to suffer from manic-depressive illness. Indeed, Jamison lists a staggering number of painters, sculptors, and composers who also lived and created with severe mood disorders. Additionally, Jamison presents a detailed account of the madness of George Gordon, Lord Byron. Included are shorter, but equally compelling, case studies artists describing their mental illness and tracing the progression of their disease through family bloodlines.

However compelling the link between creativity and mental illness are, there are some flaws to consider. For instance, and most obviously, not all creative and productive artists have a mental disorder. Some writers and painters lead perfectly normal, healthy lives, finding their inspiration and creativity in other sources. One must not imply that creativity stems from madness, although many of the artists discussed by Jamison attribute their particular genius to the manic drive associated with mental illness. Also, one could also argue that madness hinders creativity rather than encouraging it. Many artists lose months of time to the stifling depression that follows manic periods, spending these potentially productive months unable to create. This depression, severe enough on its own, can increase greatly when an artist is frustrated with his or her inability to produce work at the manic level they once enjoyed. Additionally, it stands to reason that not every creative person suffers from a mental disorder. Indeed, although manic-depressive illness is more common among the artistic community, the majority of artists do not suffer from any sort of mental illness. This fact is easy to overlook when one considers the caliber of artists who have suffered from mental illness. Many prominent artists have been very upfront about their illnesses, and some even attribute their abilities to "madness". This gives the general public an impression that all truly great artists suffer from some form of dementia, which, of course, is a false assumption.

Jamison ends her book with a short discussion of how the medical community can deal with manic depressive illness through medication. This is a complicated issue, as many artists feel heavy medication will deprive them of their inspiration and interfere with their creativity. It is a thorny, and relatively new, question, and Jamison merely outlines the controversy without offering an opinion on what should be done to rectify the situation, leaving the door open for further research. Mental illness in artists is a fascinating subject, and Jamison does an excellent job of providing a through portrait of many artists who have grappled with manic-depressive disorder, in addition to exploring how these disorders affect creativity and productivity. Jamison also maintains an awareness of the objections to her attempts to draw a correlation between the mental illness and the artistic community, and addresses these issues accordingly.



1) Jamison, Kay Redfield. Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic
Temperament. Ontario: Free Press, 1993.



Continuing conversation
(to contribute your own observations/thoughts, post a comment below)

01/03/2006, from a Reader on the Web

I read a review of the book 'Touched with Fire - the manic-depressive illness and the artistic temperament' by kay Redfield Jamison and was impressed by the availability of information on this condition which I have been living with for twelve years (three years diagnosed)and the issues that surround it. It is hard to make sense of what is happening to you when half the time you are dead to the world and the other half you are up in the stratosphere. Just having such detailed reviews of books that can give you information is really reassuring that people do understand and perhaps there are ways to deal with the mood changes and somehow lead a normal life - these things stem from an original awareness of the condition. I lived in hell for years before a colleague of my mother's suggested that my erratic behaviour and alcoholism (set against spurts of intense artistic ability that could not be duplicated at other times) may be a sign of manic-depressive disorder. I'm still dealing with it all but I;m better and easier to live with now that I have better information about what is going on.


Additional comments made prior to 2007
I came to your website looking for another book by Dr Kay Redfield Jamieson.(I just finished an unquiet mind). I'm looking forward to read this one too. I'm also suffering from bipolar disorder since years but only diagnosed in 1999. My way of dealing with the illness is painting. I'm very much encouraged by my GP to do so. My creative periods go very much together with my 'high' pics. Reading the point in view of Dr Kay Redfield Jamieson is very reassuring as she knows what she's talking about having to deal with the illness herself ... Veronique, 15 March 2006



I am a artist and over the years the highs and lows are extreme I search for that calmness only a few give to me....I will read the book but to see others have suffered this is rare. Extreme is a understantment, I'm soaring and productive or recovering from injury not able to do anything and yet I see. My desires and creativity only deepen as I age, and yet to be understood by someone screams in my soul ... Reader on the web, 14 January 2007


Sikuku Martin's picture

What causes the other, creative energy or bi-polar disorder?

I am a practicing artist who has taken special interest in art therapy. I have suffered great consequences of what I believe is hypo-mania. I resorted to a self healing process using artistic creations. The results have been quite positive. Iam now doing my research on Transformation of hypo-manic tendencies to productivity inspired by this quote 'When you are hypo-manic you create and you are depressed you edit'. But I am wondering what causes the other!

Anonymous's picture

This is a complicated issue,

This is a complicated issue, as many artists feel heavy medication will deprive them of their inspiration and interfere with their creativity.

Kevin Black's picture

I aM BiPolAr

I forgot to add that there is little to no help available as this internal homicidal behavior of the brain on itself. I am dying from the inside out. Everything I touch spoils, howver, in my professional life I have moments of pure genius. That is where I achieve past expectations. In my personal life though I often describe the portrait to appear as a scene from a WWI battlefield: trenches, artillery, rudimentary tanks, poison gas, and the rotting carcasses of fallen soldiers. At every turn I self-destruct. However, on the job I make magic occur everyday, form the most important relationships in the World (seriously!), mentor...essentially do my part to make my little corner of the world the best place it can be. And we, come rather close.None of this matters though because I am a self-destructing "piece of shit" who will hopefully die a painful death soon due to the fact that I deserve it. And you think a doctor or some pills mass-marketed by corrupt, scum-bucket capitalists can change that? I think not!