Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Review of the Book: Touched With Fire

Last night I finished reading Kay Redfield Jamison's book: Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, and I would like to share with you some of the things that I've learned from her book.

Jamison makes it clear that many people with extraordinary artistic abilities were (or are) manic-depressive, and that the manic-depression they suffered from no doubt contributed—positively—to their creative works. She also points out that, for the average person (meaning those who are not especially gifted with high intellectual and creative abilities), manic-depression can simply be a destructive and debilitating condition which interferes with their otherwise average and ordinary lives.

Jamison studies, at length, the lives of many famous artists (mostly writers) whose works have undoubtedly been influenced, positively, by their having been (most of the artists' lives she studies are now dead) manic-depressive. What I found fascinating was just how similar these artists experience with manic-depression, as related to us by Jamison, in their words, mirrors my own experience.

Jamison makes a good case by showing how these artists' manic-depression gave them an unusual ability to create works of art that were (or are) exceptionally transcendental in character because it gave them the ability to create, from both extremes of mania and depression, especially creative and holistic visions of the world as they perceive it to be. Without the two extremes of manic-depression, Jamison doubts that these artists' works would have been as inspired and inspirational to others as they are. These artists' manage to create—from of the depths of their despair and from the highs of their mania (or hypomania)—works of art that transcended the world as it is perceived by most people.

As I mentioned, Jamison makes it clear that most people who suffer from manic-depression are not creative. For these people, manic-depression is a hindrance to their living what would otherwise be ordinary, normal lives. But for those whose manic-depression is coupled with keen insight, artistic temperament, and high intellectual abilities, the results are often the unusual artistic ability to communicate to society a unique vision of the world that far surpasses the ordinary vision of the world had by "normal" individuals.

Jamison points out how artists with melancholy temperaments tend to brood over things, like the meaning of life, which most people will only give thought to occasionally. They seem obsessed with forming a larger (metaphysical) view of the world and, when coupled with the highs and lows of manic-depression, they are enabled to put together, as a whole, that which otherwise would be simply scattered thoughts, emotions, and life-experiences.

In the depths of their depression, an artist with manic-depression can contemplate the deeper meanings of thought, emotions, and life-experiences, which allows them to form a holistic view of the world from their many and varied experiences of the world itself. The world is filled with examples of such polar opposites in nature: day and night, summer and winter, joy and sorrow, and these aspects of the natural world are mirrored the minds of manic-depressive artists. In the highs of mania or hypomania, the artist with manic-depression is able to work and to create with extraordinary energy and drive, which gives them a distinct advantage over the artist who do not suffer from manic-depression.

Jamison points up the fact that artists who are not manic-depressive certainly do create extraordinary works of art, but the main point of her book is to say that there is a distinct and undeniable link between artistic creativity and manic-depression in some people. And she is also careful to point out the very real dangers of manic-depression, especially if left untreated. For one thing, she informs us that suicide is the leading cause of death for those suffering from manic-depression; surpassing even cancer and heart disease as the leading causes of death. Not only that, but those suffering from manic-depression—more so than those suffering from any other mental illnesses—are the most likely to take their own lives (especially when they are in a mixed-state condition).

This fact, Jamison assures us, cannot and should not be overlooked. And she tells us that the person who is manic-depressive, but who is not of above average intellectual and artistic ability, should be taking psychotropic medications (such as lithium) in order to help them to control their moods. But, on the other hand, she reminds us that psych meds can also inhibit some artist's ability to create great works of art.

She concludes her book with a frightening vision of the near future; of how medical science will continue to seek a "cure" for manic-depression through genetic manipulation and gene therapies and of the potential loss---both for the artistic individual suffering from manic-depression and for our society—of great works of creative genius, birthed from the artists' struggles with both deep depression and high energy mania, which would otherwise never exist. And that, for me, is a very frightening thought.

As Jamison tells us, most artists who are manic-depressive seek psychiatric help, but many of them do not; and some even choose, willingly, to suffer the highs and lows because they fear they will lose their unique perspective of the world around them and their relationship to it if they were to begin a regime of multiple psychotropic medications. For these artists, being manic-depressive is an important part of who they are and they do not wish to be medicated into mediocrity. I sympathize with these artists, because I, too, fear what would become of me if I were to medicate my condition. The fact that I am more sensitive emotionally and intellectually to the world around me, and to God, makes me who I am; and I have no desire to change who I am. Yes, it is very difficult, at times, to feel the emotional weight of the world's suffering on me, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. I think I bear only a tiny fraction of the anguish that God himself must feel and I feel privileged to be allowed to feel that weight. I think God wants me to learn from it, to express it to others, and to produce artistic works that will communicate those feelings.

Jamison's book is very well executed and very informative. Perhaps, like me, you suffer from similar psychological and emotional anguish; perhaps, like me, you don't think you need to read her book because you don't think you are manic-depressive. Well, I finally realized that I was, which is why I finally read the book, and if you read her book you may realize that you are manic-depressive too. As Jamison tells us, manic-depressive illness is, sadly, often (and easily) misdiagnosed. She also points out that, contrary to popular belief, manic-depressives are quite normal and in good mental health most of the time. It's hardly full blown insanity, unless and until one finally goes over the edges of either of the two emotional extremes.

One, very important thing that I noticed about the lives of the artists Jamison examines is how few (if any) of them had any relationship with Christ. Call me crazy, but if it weren't for the fact that the hope which Christ provides me is the anchor for my soul (Greek: psuke; meaning: psyche, or soul; see Hebrews 6:19), I probably would have become a raving lunatic a long, long time ago.

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