Book: Touched with Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison

Some interesting information, but a bit of a chore to read

Kay Redfield Jamison
Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament
Simon and Schuster, 1993
ISBN: 0-684-83183-X
260 pages (main text)

Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament is an interesting book, but it's a bit of a chore to read. As its subtitle suggests, it's about bipolar disorder (also called manic-depressive illness) and its connection to artistic creativity. There are plenty of neurotypical artists and there are plenty of people with bipolar disorder who aren't outstandingly creative, but bipolar disorder is over-represented among creative people. No one knows just why that is, but manic episodes, as long as they're mild enough, can fuel the intuitive leaps of creative thought. And mild depressive episodes can even be useful for reflection and editing. There may be less-obvious connections as well. Of course, not all mood swings are mild and the disease can take a terrible toll on its sufferers and the people who interact with them.

After a short introduction that sets the stage for the book, there are chapters on the disease and the way it manifests itself, the history of our understanding of the disease and its genetic component, and the relationship between the disease and artistic temperament. Following those, there's a reasonably detailed biography of Lord Byron with reference to his disease, and another chapter with shorter biographies of other artists who were bipolar. Finally, there's a chapter on the implications of treating artists for bipolar disorder when their creativity may be considerably diminished by treatment.

That organization is very tidy and it may not be a coincidence that the author, Kay Redfield Jamison, is a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and has co-written the standard textbook on the disease. Indeed, this book reads a bit like a textbook. The prose is uninspired and the discussion is somewhat repetitive. There's interesting information here, but probably not more than you'd expect to find in one tightly-writen article.

Still, the book is the fruit of considerable knowledge and considerable research. If you're willing to think "Please get on with it" a few times, you'll learn a good bit. Even, that according to suicide statistics, May, not April, is the cruelest month.

There are a couple of minor errors in the book. There's a typo of "back wards" for "backwards" ( p. 8). It's Earth's axial tilt, not its elliptical orbit that causes the seasons (p. 134). And since Professor Jamison is writing for a general audience, "paresis" (meaning impaired movement in the limbs) should probably have been defined (p. 205).

Posted: Sun - January 6, 2008 at 08:39 PM   Main   Category: