Artists and manic-depression:The price of genius runs high

April 11, 1993|By Gerri Kobren

TOUCHED WITH FIRE. Kay Redfield Jamison. Free Press. 370 pages. $24.95 George Gordon, Lord Byron, was born into a family notorious for eccentricity, if not downright insanity. On both sides -- the Gordons and the Byrons -- they were moody, emotionally extravagant, suicidal. Little wonder then that the young Lord Byron was described as having "tumultuous passions" while still at school or that he would write privately of his own periods of deepest grief, his mercurial angers and fear of going mad.

His genetic inheritance, his writing and behavior were signs and symptoms of manic-depressive illness, argues Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, in "Touched With Fire." The disease, she says, has co-existed with great talent in a disproportionate number of -- though definitely not all -- musicians, artists and literary figures, poets in particular.

In broadest outline, the theory is not new. Plato and Aristotle thought artistic types were touched by madness, and notions of a "fine madness" and of madness a hair's breadth from genius have carried to the present day.

Those are simplifications and, when the particular madness is assumed to be schizophrenia, probably wrong, according to Dr. Jamison. Manic-depressive illness, or its less florid variant, cyclothymia, are more likely explanations for the writers', musicians' and artists' reported (and self-reported) swings from frantic highs to deepest melancholy, often related to the seasons and interspersed with periods of emotional normalcy; their alcohol and drug abuse; their flights of fancy and wild combinations of images and ideas; their prodigious output; and their suicides -- much of which ran through their families as well.

Their published works bear traces of their inner turmoil. The author's case is even stronger when she quotes from their private journals and correspondence.

Here, for instance, is poet Robert Lowell describing the "pathological enthusiasm" of a manic period.

And poet Theodore Roethke: "For no reason I started to feel very good. Suddenly I knew how to enter into the life of everything around me. I knew how it felt to be a tree, a blade of grass, even a rabbit. I didn't sleep much."

More often, however, she shows us their depressions. Leo Tolstoy would carefully remove rope from his bedroom "so that I would not hang myself from the beam between the closets."

"I am wretched, and know not why," Edgar Allan Poe wrote to a friend. "Console me. . . . But let it be quickly -- or it will be too late."

Berlioz "lay groaning on the ground, stretching out abandoned arms, convulsively tearing up handfuls of grass and wide-eyed innocent daisies, struggling against the crushing sense of absence."

These are agonies reduced to aching eloquence; it is no wonder that so many of these people are on the suicide roll in the appendix: Randall Jarrell, Vachel Lindsay, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Sara Teasdale, Ernest Hemingway, William Inge, Virginia Woolf, Vincent van Gogh, Mark Rothko, among others; Hart Crane, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Joseph Conrad, Isak Dinesen, Maxim Gorky, Paul Gauguin, Eugene O'Neill and Hector Berlioz are listed as among the attempted suicides.

This congruence of pain, panic, madness, death and artistry raises some interesting questions, the author notes. If manic-depressive illness and great talent are overlapping conditions and the disease is medicated into quiescence, what happens to the talent? And, she points out, given the genetic nature of the disease and the advancing arts of prenatal diagnosis and treatment, manic-depression might be cut off before it begins. But then, what will happen to art?

Dr. Jamison's language is, on occasion, brilliant: "The mingling of the Byron and Gordon bloodlines," she writes, "was bound to raise the temperature of the already fiery gene pools," creating in the poet a temperament that was "a field of tectonic plates clashing and grating against one another. "

Her form, in contrast, is academic and linear, moving like a thesis from proposition to explanation to demonstration.

"The main purpose of this book is to make a literary, biographical, and scientific argument for a compelling association, not to say actual overlap, between two temperaments -- the artistic and the manic-depressive," she tells us early on; and she does exactly that.

For the lay reader, however, the proposition seems weighed down in its multiplicity of proofs, and all that pain, elegantly stated, becomes depressing.

Ms. Kobren is a copy editor at The Sun.

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