Into the fire: the complex relationship between mental illness and creativity

Kay Redfield Jamison, an elegant, generous writer, is that rare thing: a healer who is also in search of healing

 Kay Redfield Jamison: has made her life’s work the contemplation of the complex relationship between mental illness and creativity. Photograph:  Robert Sherbow/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Kay Redfield Jamison: has made her life’s work the contemplation of the complex relationship between mental illness and creativity. Photograph: Robert Sherbow/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

 

“These days of poems and depression –
what can I do with them?”

Robert Lowell, Notice

There can be few writers who have written about the relationship between mental illness and art with as much insight, eloquence and compassion as Kay Redfield Jamison. Her recent extraordinary and forensic “psychological account” of the life and mind of the poet Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire, seems like her crowning achievement.

Lowell, who famously was besieged by manic-depressive illness – and I know these easy terms are troubling – appears to have been with her from the start, a sort of poetic shadow or guide. For, as a writer, a psychologist and an eminent professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, Kay Redfield Jamison has made her life’s work the contemplation of the complex relationship between mental illness and creativity.

But Redfield Jamison has gone further than most in this. As she has charted the dizzying arc of Robert Lowell’s repeated descent into mania in this most recent book, she has also previously chronicled her own struggles with manic depression (she doesn’t like the term bi-polar) and suicide in previous books such as Night Falls Fast and An Unquiet Mind. This took both considerable personal and professional courage, admirably placing her on both sides of that dubious line in the (shifting) sand: sanity.

She is that rare thing, a healer who is also in search of healing. An elegant and generous writer, Redfield Jamison has also brought an astute clinician’s eye to her broader exploration of manic-depressive illness and the artistic temperament in Touched with Fire.

Any fracture between our imaginative lives and what passes for our quotidian reality appears to lead inevitabily to some sort of instability

In this, she avoids the cliched view that all artists are prone to “madness” but notes that certainly a larger proportion of them are touched by depressions of some sort or other. The price paid, perhaps, for those precious moments of imaginative transcendence. The balancing of our psychic scales.

For most, the imaginative world belongs to the realm of pleasure, to our quieter moments, the world of reading or day-dreaming or fantasising. A place of escape really, a momentary respite from the voracious demands of our present reality. Any fracture between our imaginative lives and what passes for our quotidian reality appears to lead inevitabily to some sort of instability, down some path towards madness. “Don’t be mad!” our friends exclaim at the least provocation. “You’re losing your grip on reality” is the ultimate sanction.

But, for the artist, of course, this is an occupational hazard. A call to arms. A badge of honour even. In her fine book, Kay Redfield Jamison reflects on this mutuality. She quotes Elegy, Seamus Heaney’s tribute to Robert Lowell:

You were our night ferry
thudding in a big sea

the whole craft ringing
with an armourer’s music
the course set wilfully across
the ungovernable and dangerous.

But this dangerous and ungovernable world is the rightful place for a writer to venture forth. The voyage to the edge of – and even beyond – sanity is, perhaps, even essential for the artist. The roll call of these artists who skirted the edges of accepted realities is long and legend. Robert Lowell knew the score and could count the cost. He had walked those lonely corridors. From his defining poem Waking in The Blue:

I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases, said
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.

We expect our artists to be mad, to tip beautifully over the line between sanity and its opposite. They are the ferry men – to overdo Heaney’s analogy – transporting us to the other side. To a world of dreams and visions. But, for us, most of us anyway, we have bought a return fare. The artists, mostly, play the game too, straddling the worlds of art and action with aplomb. For they, thankfully, come home as well, arriving at dawn bearing little more than a few scars or the heavy head of a hangover.

But some are not as lucky. Some go the whole nine yards. Their prize is one of immortality, although that is scant consolation for those left behind. Among the ranks of those liminal names: Sylvia Plath, of course, the pin-up girl of artistic suicide, but others too – Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman, Hart Crane, Vincent van Gogh, David Foster Wallace, Paul Celan, Virginia Woolf, Osamu Dazai.

One needs to be careful not to romantise all this. This is delicate and troubled territory

Closer to home, Tom Murphy explored the relationship between the psychological and creative in his masterpiece The Gigli Concert, dedicated, of course, to radical psychiatrist and self-confessed old quack Ivor Browne. A younger playwright – and huge admirer of Murphy’s – Arnold Thomas Fanning, has written movingly and brilliantly about his own struggles in Mind On Fire. Our great poet Paul Durcan, too, has taken a walk down those dark corridors with Robert Lowell.

But one needs to be careful not to romantise all this. This is delicate and troubled territory and Kay Redfield Jamison’s gift is to lead us through it with a gentle hand and a perceptive eye. And she is no lily-livered liberal either. Having turned her back back on medication as a young woman, she now partly credits lithium with her salvation. (Robert Lowell, too, found much comfort in lithium.) And, like so many other artists, she has not only been touched by fire but burnt by it too. Thankfully for us, she has emerged, fragile but wholly – if tentatively – intact. As she concludes An Unquiet Mind:

“Even when I have been most psychotic – delusional, hallucinating, frenzied – I have been aware of finding new corners in my mind and heart. Some of those corners were incredible and beautiful and took my breath away. Some were grotesque and ugly and I never wanted to know they were there or to see them again. But, always, there were those new corners and – when feeling my normal self, beholden for that self to medicine and love – I cannot imagine becoming jaded to life, because I know of those limitless corridors, with their limitless views.”
 

Kay Redfield Jamison appears at the Amergin Festival on Sunday June 23rd at 3pm in the Anthony Clare Memorial Session.  She will also lead a three-day workshop at the festival.  More details available on amerginpoetry.com. She will be in conversation with film-maker Alan Gilsenan on Monday, June 24th, 6.30pm, at Poetry Ireland, 11 Parnell Square East, Dublin 1. Tickets: €12/€10.

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