Kay Jamison's brilliant work, based on her lifelong studies as a clinical psychologist, reveals that many artists subject to exalted highs and ...Show synopsisKay Jamison's brilliant work, based on her lifelong studies as a clinical psychologist, reveals that many artists subject to exalted highs and despairing lows are, in fact, struggling with clinical manic-depression. Jamison applies what we now know about this illness to the lives of van Gogh, Byron, and others. National publicty.Hide synopsis
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Kay Jamison'd thesis is an interesting one, especially to a writer and poet like myself who is diagnosed with a form of 'rapid cycling bipolar disorder.'
A lot of what Jamison posits is interesting and will definitely enlighten many a reader, but my one issue is the reductionist method of retro-diagnosis.
When dealing with an artist like Jackson Pollack, who was a contemporary twentieth century artist and who was actually diagnosed as manic-depressive is fine, he recieved a diagnosis (whether accurate or not it does not matter), but when going back several centuries to composers like Robert Schumann who committed suicide, or Lord Byron who led a life of misery and debauchery while creating some of England's greatest verses, I don't think you can automatically assign a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or manic depression.
Vincent van Gogh has been retro diagnosed as having temporal lobe epilepsy by one psycho-historian, another posits that van Gogh was manic-depressive, while in van Gogh's own time he was diagnosed with absinthism.
Overall Jamison's 'Touched by Fire' is an intelligently written book with many biographical details that illumine the various writings and compositions of the artists dealt with, my only grievance is that great art cannot-and ought not-be reduced to a specific form of psychopathology.
In Touched with Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison combines clinical expertise about bipolar disorder with persuasive evidence of the numerous writers and artists who have suffered from that disorder.
Without romanticizing manic depressive illness, she does show the linkages between its severe highs and lows, and the creative productivity that can sometimes occur. In fact, she raises the moral question of whether the eradication of the illness would reduce the possibility of art and literature being produced by the likes of Lord Byron, Van Gogh, Robert Lowell and others.
If anything, Jamison's "case histories" of writers are so copious as to overwhelm the less casual reader--who, perhaps, is intimate with someone who has bipolar illness--and her assertion that the risk of suicide for those who are shuttling between manias and depression isn't comforting.
Still, Touched with Fire will be of interest to clinicians and general readers alike, or anyone who has had some experience with the fire and abyss of bipolar disorder.
Kay Jamison writes from within the experience of Manic Depressive Illness, which makes particularly interesting her study of highly gifted artists whose achievements may well have been molded in the crucible of that illness. Her scientific exposition is convincing, and her conclusions solid and well balanced. What she is not saying is as important as what she does say. She is not saying that one has to be ill to produce great art, nor that all great writers, artist, poets and playwrights have been mentally ill. What she does present is a picture of a disproportionate number of creative persons who have displayed definite symptoms of mental illness, and a description of how the ups and downs of that illness may have influenced the development of gifts already present. The presentation is truly fascinating, especially since Manic Depressive Illness has a genetic basis, and Dr Jamison traces family patterns of disease in the cases of several great artists.
I wondered about a category of artists she has not studied--great actors. Perhaps that is to come, since this form of art might prove to be the most intimately invasiveof the human personality.
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