Monday, June 18, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“TOUCHED WITH FIRE – Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament” by Kay Redfield Jamison (first published 1993)

            Reading Your Unselfish Kindness, a selection of Robin Hyde’s unpublished autobiographical pieces written while she was in psychiatric care, I am forcefully reminded of how much literary creativity has been linked with mental disturbance. Roy Fuller’s famous line about poets’ “fertile lack of balance” springs to mind.

            So I retrieve from my notebooks comment on the best and most accessible book I have read on the topic, Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched With Fire.

            Jamison is a Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In clinical terms, she knows what she is talking about. She is the author of a number of standard textbooks on manic-depressive illness. But she assesses the topic from the inside as well as from a professional viewpoint. As her autobiography An Unquiet Mind (1995) makes clear, she herself is an extreme manic-depressive who has moved between exhilarating highs and suicidal lows. Candidly she confesses to appalling social embarrassments and disorientation brought about by both states. She chronicles her own bouts of institutional care, even as she was pursuing a career in medicine.

            In Touched With Fire, Jamison argues for a well-attested connection between artistic creativity and “bipolar disorder”, for which she prefers the more robust older term “manic depression”. Clearing away some rubble to begin with, she notes that in spite of a popular mythology about it, schizophrenia is not demonstrably conducive to creativity. The myth that it was generally came from insufficient data or a mis-assignation of data.

            Manic depression, sub-categorised into full manic-depressive illness and the milder cyclothymia, is more prevalent in the professional and upper-middle classes than in any other level of society. Thinking people suffer from it. Be cerebrotonic, use your brain most of the time, and your brain bites back. Manic depression is also far higher in incidence among creative people than among the general (middle-class) population. And it is hereditary. It literally “runs in families”. Hence those ancient myths of “family curses” as propounded by the likes of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Edgar Allen Poe. All manic-depressive creative people have manic-depressive relatives (Jamison reproduces many family trees to underline the point). Jamison stresses that it is a matter of genetic inheritance, not of nurture. Creative adoptees who are manic-depressives have manic-depressive biological parents, not adoptive ones.

            Among the creative people whose illness can be traced, poets are the most commonly afflicted, followed by musicians, then novelists, then painters, then architects. As a non-specialist, I see the logic of this, architecture being the most technical, and least intuitive, of the arts.

            Once she has laid the theoretical ground-work, Jamison proceeds to specific case studies.

            Much to my surprise the longest one, to whom she devotes a whole chapter and whom she sees as the supreme example of creative manic-depression, is Lord Byron. She chronicles his mania and his extreme depression, but notes the permanent sanity of his mind as opposed to his temperament. In the face of his extreme emotional instability, Byron willed himself to write polished, witty, urbane poetry (often revising and re-working it carefully). In a phrase, he was like William Collins or Christopher Smart writ large – those mentally-afflicted poets who willed themselves to write in strict measures to get some control of their psyche (Collins’ Ode to Evening, Smart’s Song to David if not his more brilliant and chaotic Jubilate Agno).

            After the chapter on Byron, there follow case studies on the following, the affliction of all of whom proves to be hereditary – Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Schumann (attempted suicide – died in insane asylum), the brothers William and Henry James, Herman Melville, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Virginia Woolf (suicide), Ernest Hemingway (suicide), Mary Wollstonecraft, her daughter Mary Shelley, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell and Vincent van Gogh (suicide – sort of). If she were a New Zealander, Jamison might have added something about our best-known artistic and literary suicides – Robin Hyde, John Mulgan and Bob Lowry – and she might have been tempted to write about the mental-health status of Janet Frame.

            In the final section, Jamison deals with treatment, noting the real perils of the disease and, of course, the obvious point that the great majority of sufferers from manic-depression are not notably creative. While the affliction might be associated with the artistic, it does not of itself make artists. For most people who suffer from it, manic-depression simply means misery and grey days of utter hopelessness alternating with grandiose delusions. There is the further obvious point that many great artists and poets have not been bipolar.

            Some of the issues raised in this book are very uncomfortable ones. There is the suggestion that for some manic-depressive creative people, appropriate medical treatment could in fact have stamped out the distinctive and admired form of their creativity. (“Here Vincent, take this lithium and you’ll never want to paint crazy crows in cornfields again.”) The mentally-unstable poet Robert Lowell is quoted as marvelling that the appropriate balance of salts in his brain could have saved him so much mental anguish – but it would also have meant that he didn’t write some of his best poetry.

            So how do we balance a work of art against the artist’s happiness?

            At this point, the whole eugenics argument is mooted by Jamison (a member of America’s advisory council on Humane Genome Research), and the scary idea that mental disorder could be averted by appropriate selective breeding.

            My flesh crawls. I do not want selectively-bred human beings any more than I want chemically-controlled ones. But I do not deny the connection between a mental disorder and much creative work. 

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