Kay Jamison celebrates exuberance exuberantly

October 03, 2004|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,Sun Staff

Exuberance: The Passion for Life, by Kay Redfield Jamison. Alfred A. Knopf. 405 pages. $24.95.

Psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison opens her new book with the intriguing observation that she and her colleagues have worked harder to understand the dark moods, such as anxiety, depression and anger, while neglecting the positive ones. "We have given sorrow many words," she writes, "but a passion for life few."

Her last book, Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, was an authoritative and revealing look at suicide, including her own struggles with manic depression.

In Exuberance: The Passion for Life, Jamison plunges into the light, celebrating exuberance as a powerful life force that fuels discoveries, inspires us, and even helps us survive.

Jamison writes of the scientist who stood outside in freezing New England winters to capture and photograph snowflakes, of a researcher so eager to get to work that he didn't wear shoes with laces. She tells of a museum director so enchanted by the sight of cherry blossoms that he stopped his car in traffic and jumped out to savor them.

Jamison's delight and enthusiasm for these tales often soars off the page. But the author succumbs to the risk of exuberance that she so vividly describes -- the tendency to fall too much in love with every detail, to overreach.

She gallops from example to example, a piling-on that renders each less compel-ling. She ascribes many achievements to exuberance that seem to be as easily attributed to enthusiasm, ambition, mania or love. Even as she tries to define the borders among these, she blurs them.

Still, the book is an important look at this emotion, and the qualities that made her previous works so absorbing are well in evidence here.

A professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Jamison has done a massive amount of research, weaving in examples from literature, science and history. Her writing is captivating. So often in this book, as in her others, the reader comes upon sentences that stop one with their beauty and power.

Deep into the book, Exuberance finds its rhythm when Jamison puts us in the room with scientists so excited by their work that they cannot sleep or eat. Jamison also looks at the flip side of this energy. Her section detailing the exuberance soldiers can develop for killing is particularly relevant and shocking.

But the reader may be troubled whether all of this is exuberance, and whether Jamison is right, that only a lucky few experience this magic. Until exuberance gets more scrutiny from science, this champagne of emotions will remain hard to define.

As for Jamison's personal experience with exuberance, readers who savored her striking writing about her manic depressive illness may be disappointed this time. She doesn't delve into her own life.

Perhaps she doesn't need to. This book is evidence enough of her own exuberant temperament.

Diana K. Sugg covers medicine for The Sun. She won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting.

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