By William Polkowski
“Touched With Fire,” written by psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, is described well by its subtitle: “Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.” Dr. Jamison, who lives with manic-depression herself, has been the author of numerous books on bipolar disorder over the years, including her autobiography: “An Unquiet Mind.” Though published in 1993, “Touched With Fire” remains a definitive work on the relationship between artistic creativity and manic-depression. The main purpose of the book is to make a literary, biographical and scientific argument for their association.
The book begins with an overview of manic-depressive illness: what it is, whom it affects, and how it shows itself. (An appendix lists the defining diagnostic criteria for the various kinds of mood disorders.) Dr. Jamison points out that most people who have manic-depressive illness are without symptoms (they are psychologically normal) most of the time. There is a continuum of degrees of mania. Works inspired by a mild or even a psychotically manic state may be partially edited while their creators are depressed and put into final form during times of normalcy.
The lives of several writers, composers and artists are examined in some depth. Often there is a seasonal pattern to productivity, corresponding with seasonal manias, evident in the lives of Robert Schumann, Vincent van Gogh and others.
Manic-depression is highly heritable, and genealogies of various highly creative families are diagrammed. The interrelationships of family members can be readily observed for three or four generations, and we can see which members have some form of mental illness and which don’t. Included in these descriptions are incidences of bipolar disorder, depression, suicides and attempted suicides, and psychiatric hospitalizations or commitments to insane asylums. Of particular interest is an appendix which lists dozens of poets, writers, composers and artists who have manifested manic-depressive disorder, listing suicides, attempted suicides, hospitalizations and commitments.
Many highly creative and productive writers, composers and artists do not have manic-depressive illness, but the numbers who do are vastly out of proportion to those who have great accomplishments in other fields, some of whom also manifest the illness. Poets are particularly vulnerable. Almost 100 famous poets are listed who have manifested manic-depression, and tragically about thirty of them attempted or completed suicide. Included are William Blake, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Emily Dickenson, T.S. Eliot, John Keats, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edgar Allan Poe, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Walt Whitman. Among writers of prose are Hans Christian Andersen, John Bunyan, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James and William James, Herman Melville, Eugene O’Neil, Robert Louis Stevenson, Leo Tolstoy, Tennessee Williams, and Virginia Woolf. There’s quite a list of composers and artists, too.
In the last chapter, Dr. Jamison grapples with ethical issues concerning treatment. Ultimately, writers and artists, like everyone else, decide for themselves whether or not and how they will be treated. Some end up choosing medical treatment; others, some idiosyncratic version of treatment; and still others, no treatment at all in spite of recognizing the suffering they may endure. Depth and intensity of feeling must be part of artistic creation.
Unlike decades and centuries ago, modern psychopharmacology offers new choices, where extremes of despair and psychosis can be avoided. Yet manic-depressive illness is a genetic disease; Dr. Jamison is concerned about the future of genetic treatments. What if the complex of genes that causes the illness were discovered? Should they be altered and the illness, eliminated? Perhaps this could even be done in utero. Genetic testing might lead to choices for abortion.
But manic-depressive illness confers advantages, as well as disadvantages, to the individual and society. There are reasons not to eliminate the illness. With advances in psychopharmacology, the most severe symptoms might be ameliorated without leading the artist to a bland life of normalcy.
“Touched With Fire” is well worth reading if you are interested in thinking through issues of imagination and creativity and their relation to manic-depressive illness.