75 of 87 people found the following review helpful
Who Are You To Claim You're Normal?
, November 6, 2000
This review is from: Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (Paperback)
It's long been considered a fact of life that seems to go with the territory that creative people are not only "abnormal" or "outside the mainstream"--but that many of them are just plain loopy. Doubtless, some of that kind of thinking owes a big debt to the narrowing--and often stereotypical--definitions of "normal" in American society. However, the gradual merging of biology and psychology over the last two decades shows a scientifically verifiable correlation between the "artistic temperament" and "manic-depressive illness."
Want to know more about what psychological researchers have been discovering about this long-acknowledged link since the Prozac Revolution? Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins, presents as "evidence" a series of recent statistical studies of creative men and women that reveal a definite relationship between the long-ellusive and hard-to-diagnose illness and the personality traits researchers suspect are inherent in successful creative activity. While that's not anything particularly new or groundbreaking--the dry opening chapters are perhaps a little too technical for the information Jamison seeks to convey to a general audience--"Touched With Fire" may help to dispel some of the confusion among "normal" family members and friends who are often too quick to label the artists and writers among them as "messed up" or "weird" or "skitzy."
Once Jamison gets down to the brass tacks and begins to present details from specific cases--Byron, Van Gogh, Melville and Woolf--the book presents a fascinating gathering of poems, notes, letters and testimonies that could shatter the idea that history's most creative people were also exceptionally well-behaved and mannerly. The fact they weren't is testimony, of course, to art's ability to sculpt an illusion around its creator, but the revelation does more than that. After all, still-murky distinctions between the artistic temperament and insanity bring up ethical questions regarding the ultimate meaning and direction of normality in America--who is to be included in the "Pantheon of the Normal" and who is to be barred at the door--but Jamison merely glosses over this area. Since social morays often change the meaning of "normality" over time--and since what we consider "normal" today was by no means "normal" 200 years ago--studies of this relationship that limit themselves to diagnostic criteria and subjective symptoms are bound to be far too limited to provide even the most superficial understanding of how creativity interacts with madness and other discomfiting developments.
One of the book's quirks is that Jamison--doubtless due to scant information--limits the subject's medicinal applications to the effects of lithium on creativity and creative individuals with bipolar illness. What she doesn't tell her readers is that the discovery of Prozac and other SSRIs has advented a new age in the treatment and understanding of all forms of depression. In fact, depression seems to have distinct components in many cases that psychologists never understood until the unintended effects of Prozac revealed them. Prozac has been found to have a positive effect on obsessive/compulsive behavior, Tourette's Syndrome and even in cases that had previously been misdiagnosed as schizophrenia. Depression has been found to cut a far wider swath through the psyche than researchers have previously acknowledged--even to themselves.
Furthermore, Jamison completely omits--perhaps due to a dearth of research--possible linkages between the creative activities of writers and artists that may someday be found to precipitate mania and depression. Writing and art supposedly clear the mind. What happens to the artist, poet or writer who inadvertantly clears--or, to put it into the technical vernacular, "kindles"--the mind a little too much? How do the stresses of the craft mitigate the illnesses we associate with creator/victims? How does the impression of a powerful stimuli--a trauma, drug or alchol use, or the "high" of creating a powerful poem or painting--set up patterns in psychic response and in the process of how we relate to less-powerful stimuli? Needless to say, we've got a long way to go before we completely understand manic-depressive illness and its strange tendency to appear in the psyches of creative individuals. Jamison's book might be entertaining and comforting to those of us who have to live with the disease--even if parts of it parse like a research paper--but we're only scratching the surface of something that deserves much more in-depth investigation than we've undertaken.
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