Last Updated: November 4th, 2019

Front cover of Touched with Fire

TOUCHED WITH FIRE: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament

Kay Redfield Jamison

[Free Press, 384 pages]

If you read one book covering the link—or even the association—between the manic-depressive and the white heat of creative inspiration, make it this book. It was written in 1993, but it remains the central book on that subject.

Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison is that rare book that’s informative and scholarly, but is still easy to read. The book offers extensive references, footnotes and citations, but also a glimpse into the lives of a variety of classic authors, from Alfred Lord Tennyson to Virginia Woolf.

We see their work and their choice of words—a choice that seems on the surface at all times, instead of being buried deep within their consciousness. We see Mary Shelley composing Frankenstein`s monster and talking about deep, disturbing secrets; we see Dante [Alighieri] describing a “shramming cold,” and Hemingway`s bare prose, and any person who calls himself or herself a writer understands just how high the bar is.

What these authors had in common

What many, if not all of these authors had in common was moodiness, often in the extreme. Each could talk up a storm and then retreat into a dark, solitary mood. They all craved company, but needed solitude in order to immerse themselves in their own worlds.

According to one of the many charts in this book, they had almost no need for sleep or social contact during their creative jags, but their senses were all heightened and at their most intense. Enthusiasm, the fluency of thoughts and the ability to concentrate—among several other measures—all were at the maximum level possible.

This sounds like a drug-induced high, and many of these artists did use drugs and alcohol, either to help them reach their highs or to blunt the terrible lows. It’s no wonder that creative types can be hard to live with, even for themselves!

And many did commit suicide. They chronicled their moods, and one pattern quickly becomes clear: Their creativity was consistently paired with a noxious black cloud, from which they often barely escaped.

As mentioned, the book contains charts covering all aspects of the characters whom Jamison chose to write about, and there are many: Herman Melville, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Schuman, the James family, Robert Samuel Coleridge, Ernest Hemingway. Mary Shelley, and the list goes on and on. Just to read samples of their work is like walking through a pastry shop and grabbing a taste of all that’s on sale!

Not madness or insanity

Ultimately, these authors all had serious problems with being the creative manic. They weren’t insane, as madness severs one’s ties to reality. These people were well-connected to the world and their own perception of it—perhaps too much for their own health, but none of them would’ve traded their life and its output for a more stable and less fulfilling one.

This book doesn’t tell the reader how to be creative. That may not even be possible. But it does delve into a controversial (even painful!) subject, and is a joy to read.

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image 1: Pixabay