Touched with Fire, by Kay Redfield Jamison

Touched with Fire, by Kay Redfield Jamison

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Reviewed by: Brett Jones
Touched with Fire, by Kay Redfield Jamison

“We of the craft are all crazy, some are affected by gaity, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.” This quote by Lord Byron referring to himself and other poets is the start of Touched with Fire by psychiatry professor Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D. at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine. This well thought out and controversial book discusses the possible link between manic-depressive illnesses and the artistic temperament.

Jamison explains that the comparison of madness and creativity has a rich, persistent, and controversial history. “By the time of Plato and Socrates, common lore held that priests and poets communicated with the gods through inspired madness and sacred enthusiasms.”Jamison very elegantly speaks to what is often unspoken of about mental illness; that is, the creative exploration often seen in those with these ailments. This book is ultimately about the temperament and moods of these creative minds and voyagers, and addresses the arguments and controversies that surround “madness” and artistic genius.

The book starts by outlining to a lay reader what mood disorders such as depression and manic-depression entail. Jamison describes an “awful chaos” in the context of artists who were afflicted. The book often quotes them to give an artistic and clinical perspective on what they felt. For example, Edgar Allan Poe noted, “My feelings at this moment are pitiable indeed. I am suffering under a depression of spirits such as I have never felt before.” The book also uses the words of some of the world’s greatest artists such as Byron, Van Gogh, Schumann and Woolf to describe the feelings of sadness, loss of interest, suicide, grandiosity, substance abuse, and general mania felt by these artists.

Jamison uses several approaches to examine the relationship between mood disorders and artistic creativity. She uses biographical anecdotal evidence by quoting leading authorities of the time. She mentions how artists such as Aristotle have constantly questioned, “Why is it that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry or the arts are melancholic?”She outlines that it is clear that historically a large proportion of artists suffered from mood disorders. However, though these arguments are compelling, anecdotes are not conclusive evidence. Jamison goes on to examine recent population studies, which show that mood disorders are higher in proportion in the artistic population compared to the non-artistic population. She also examines the creative achievements of affectively ill patients while considering the familial link of psychopathology and creative accomplishments. Though the evidence put forward is compelling and interesting, it must be taken with a grain of salt. Jamison points out that biographical reports from artists may be biased as they often come from a single perspective. In addition, she argues that since the assumption that within artistic circles mood disorders, substance abuse and suicide are “normal,” it is important to parse truth from expectation.

Biological and psychological evidence are also explored in the later chapters of the book to further substantiate the author’s argument. Jamison explores ideas such as the observed similarities in thought patterns and behaviors in the artistic and manic-depressive mind. She also argues for links in the seasonal patterns of manic-depressive disorder where the same patterns of productivity are observed in artists such as Robert Schuman and Vincent Van Gogh.

The purpose of Touched with Fire was to outline the association between two temperaments, the artistic and the manic-depressive. The book is full of interesting and controversial arguments, which are both scientific and anecdotal in nature. It is clear and in plain language, though at times reads as more of a thesis than a typical work of non-fiction. The minds of artists and the minds of those affected by mental illnesses are mysterious and complex. Touched with Fire successfully outlines what can be deduced from our current state of knowledge on the association between the artistic mind and the manic-depressive mind.