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Not a book for people who like to think critically
am 4. Dezember 1999
I chose to read this book because I have had personal experience with manic-depressive illness in a close friend of mine and have always wondered if her abilities would be less were it not for her illness. Today though, I wish I had made a different choice.
As Jamison herself writes, the main purpose of the book is to show that there is a significant correlation between artistic temperament and manic-depressive illness. At least to me, this simple thesis has always seemed relatively uncontroversial and could have been addressed in a few dozen pages before moving on to more interesting issues such as, for example, what this teaches us about the nature of art and the nature of manic-depression. Instead, we get about two hundred endless pages consisting of a deluge of quotations, literal or paraphrased, from artists, researchers and philosophers rained down ad nauseam on the hapless reader with precious little critical thinking in between. Although some might argue that more data is always better than less, it seems doubtful that anyone not convinced of the artistic/manic-depression association by a few well chosen arguments will see the light because they have been force-fed extra verses from yet another romantic poet. To compound the problem, the book is completely lacking in the systematic analytical thinking that one would expect from a scientist; to give a single example, what is meant by artistic temperament is never elucidated. Considering that entire tomes are devoted to the meaning of art, a definition by context is a cavalier treatment indeed.
After a brief introduction, the book begins with a catalogue of mostly descriptive quotations by various famous artists and their close ones describing mood and behavior patterns which can be recognized as fairly typical of manic-depressive illness. The reader is spared nothing; instances of depression, mania, sleep disturbances, anxiety, psychosis, drug abuse, suicidal ideation and so on are all carefully documented in a numbing drone.
The book then moves on to the epidemiology which I find convincing, especially for the 40% prevalence of bipolar disorder among a sample of writers. One always wonders about various systematic effects but this is probably as good as the data are going to get.
At last, the book makes an attempt to study the influence of manic-depression in artistic production and this is where it fails miserably. If we assume an association between artistic creativity and manic depression this means that either: · manic-depressive illness makes some people artistically creative, or · artistic creativity makes some people manic-depressive, or · there is an unknown trait that can make people both artistically creative and manic-depressive. But even such an elementary discussion is not readily apparent and instead we are drawn in a long winded reargumentation of the association between manic-depression and artistic production. Here I cannot resist quoting a few beginnings of paragraphs related to temporal periodicity: "Life is partitioned by time - years, months, days, minutes - into events that tend to recur..." "Rhythmic patterns and disturbances in manic-depressive illness are apparent in many ways..." "The very cyclicity (sic) of manic depressive illness constitutes a type of rhythm..." ... "Clearly everyone experiences seasons and patterns of light..." ... "Every artist and writer has his or her own pattern of moods and creative energies... "
The editor should probably get a public spanking for letting such unbearable platitudes through.
The book partially redeems itself with a well researched and well thought out life of Byron. Unfortunately, the level is not kept up and progressively deteriorates through subsequent short biographies and genealogies of Tennyson, Schumann, the James family, Melville, Coleridge, Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, Mary Shelley, Boswell, and Van Gogh. Again, the main point seems to be to support the connection between artistic creativity and manic-depression by tracing the heredity of the disease; isn't the author getting tired of rehashing this? I know I was.
The last chapter is short, perhaps mercifully, but it should have been one of the longest, dealing with implications of therapies for manic-depression on artistic creativity. A dash of lithium here, a sprinkle of human genome project there, and another telephone book of artists in between and we are done, phew!
This book gives the feeling of a quick job; the meandering stream-of-consciousness organization within individual sections, the near-absence of pages without either direct or paraphrased quotation, the stylistic clichés and repetitions, and the lack of analytical thinking with an author who is obviously capable of much better all point in that direction. I cannot help myself but wonder if this opus was not meant to ride on the coat-tails of the successful and probably very good Unquiet Mind with a view to sell copies to the manic-depressive patient/family/friend customer who must find comforting the notion of a connection between the disease and Greatness. It is a shame, the world is already so full of bad books that it would behoove those who can actually write good ones to take the time and effort to do so.