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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.
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am 10. April 2000
As one not far removed from the struggles faced by those with bipolar and depressive illnesses, I found, as I did with reading THE UNQUIET MIND, that Kate Jamison's insight into the issue of creative talent and mental illness is sensitive, far reaching, and compassionate. But unlike that first book, TOUCHED WITH FIRE tends more toward the academic, complete with voluminous footnotes. It was a good read, though I suspect that many will find her theorems are so laboriously supported (and documented) as to be meant for the academic world, not the lay person. It could be laborious, read cover to cover. Read this book to learn the nature and texture of mental illness, but treasure it much more than that for it's many references to our famous poets, authors and artists, complete with historical letters and quotes. Be patient, and be willing to simply skip part of a chapter to save valuable time and find yet another gem of some first hand account about an author or poet you always thought must have suffered to have the insight they do!
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am 12. Mai 1999
I really wish people would quit associating creativity with mental illness, especially the so-called "experts" in the field such as the author of this book. She wrote the book on manic depressive illness back in the day, she suffers from it herself and yet she could not refrain from what constitutes bad science in the scholarship of this book. How do we know the artists and poets in this book were bipolar? We do not as they are long dead, of natural causes or by their own hand. Anne Sexton was mentally ill most of her creative life, but was never correctly diagnosed and spent her time between thorazine and alcohol, self-medicating with the latter up until her suicide. We do not know that she was bipolar though. Nor do we know that of Sylvia Plath or TS Eliot. If this book is meant to bring some meaning to the bipolar person's creative existence, it succeeds, but at the expense of the bipolar's sanity. A person should not quit meds in order to get in touch with the creative self. The author does not condone this, but it sure doesn't look that way when you read this book and find yourself convinced of her premise: madness and creativity go hand in hand. I do not know any bipolar people who plan to quit lithium and get in touch with the inner muse, and the bipolar people that I do know are pretty disgusted with this book overall. Left untreated, lots of people could end up like Van Gogh (was he indeed bipolar?), but couldn't a room full of chimps on typewriters also come up with one Shakespeare manuscript?
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am 10. November 1999
I don't think Dr. jamison did anything irresponsable here. Nor did I find her grasping at scientific straws as I've heard it implied. My sister who read the book brought up the concern that I read here several times, which is, how did Dr. Jamison know these ppl were bipolar? She never claimed absolutely that they were. She did however point out very suspicious and in my opinion serious patterns and events that matched what we now know of bipolar. The illness is not *that* hit and miss. I think the ethiccal questions she raised were important. No, every bipolar is not an artistic genius, though overall bipolars are *more* creative than non bipolars. What happens to this creativity when we cure bipolar disorder? It's a good question. And a good book. People's personal distaste for or fear of mental illness notwithstanding, any open mind will find it's not making false claims, or glorifying pain. It's just examining some questions that should be brought to light.
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am 30. Oktober 1999
The best thing about Kay R. Jamison's book "Touched With Fire" is the biographical content. But the worst thing is not her contention that the handmaiden of creativity is bipolar disorder; it is her insistence that genes are responsible for the disorder. The debate has raged in my family for years. One brother, who receives Freudian counselling for what he believes is depressive illness, claims the defective gene infects our entire family. He cites as evidence books like "Touched With Fire," and the fact that an aunt has spent the majority of her life institutionalized for mental illness. Depending on the label de jour, said brother has diagnosed her psychotic, schizophrenic, manic-depressive, and now psychlothymic and bipolar. She was badly abused by an alcoholic husband early in her life. She retreated into a fetal position and eventually unfurled with aid of pharmaceuticals. Whether the abuse triggered a predisposition to psychosis or simply destroyed her will to live and function, is open to speculation. But to extrapolate from her tragic condition a diagnosis of defective genealogy on an entire family is a travesty that is perpetuated by pop-cult theory, exemplified by authors like Kay R. Jamison. And to argue that a great many psychiatric professionals concur with the gene theory is ad-populum falaciousness. Another anecdote will serve to illustrate the damaging potential of the gene theory. I was engaged to be married to a woman whose only brother and sister, both diagnosed manic-schizophrenic, committed suicide exactly a year apart. I told my fiance about my aunt's mental illness. My fiance did not think it a concern until somebody in my family convinced her of the then new genetic theory regarding schizophrenia. Our wedding was cancelled. Though I disagreed, I had to empathise with my fiance's decision; as a young girl in a loving family she had twice endured the worst imaginable tragedy. And I don't blame my family for their guileless concern. I do, however, take exception to a defective-gene theory based strictly on anecdotal evidence, a theory that for some unexplained reason ignores the possibility that a defective familial philosophic epistemology skews the perceptual transition to conceptual comprehension of reality in susceptible offspring. This means that for children in the tabula rasa state parents are a powerful cource of information when it comes to interpreting reality. Philosophies, namely those of the Platonic, Hegelian, Kantian variety, convey dichotomies wherein mysticism reconciles reality in lieu of empirical evidence. In particular, Kant, considered by many the modern world's most influential thinker(ad populum), teaches that reality exists only in the subjective experience of the perceiver. One of the symptoms of advanced manic depressive illness and schizophrenia is a condition known as solipsism, where the afflicted individual believes he or she is in complete control of reality, able, for instance, to will the weather to change -- reality exists only in the subective experience of the perceiver. When Kantian philosophy is given to children who are naturally credulous, they ofen suffer cognitive dissonance, dissociative disorder, and possibly depressive illness borne of difficulty reconciling reality with Kantian philosophy. When Kay lends the weight of her credentials to the gene theory, she is promoting something tantamount to reasoning that racism is genetic, which it isn't. Racism is handed down generation to for further reading, a book by Luis A. Sass, titled "Madness And Modernism -- Insanity In The Light Of Modern Art, Literature, And Thought."
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am 24. Juli 1998
Dr. Jamison's study of creative artists demonstrates a definite correlation between their creativity and psychological suffering--but, in the final analysis, that is all it shows. This notion--the suffering artist--is nothing new. Her questionable conclusion is that the bulk of these artists suffered from manic depressive illness, now technically known as bipolar disorder. But what exactly is "bipolar disorder"? Jamison--and the vast majority of her mainstream psychiatric colleagues--claim it to be a biochemically caused disease or illness. Indeed, in this book, Jamison makes a compelling biological argument for the genetic and biochemical determinants of bipolar disorder. Yet there is still inadequate data to support such strident claims--despite the relative efficacy of lithium therapy in controlling (but not eliminating) the symptoms. As in most other mental disorders of varying severity, biological factors are practically impossibl! e to isolate from psychological factors, making such dogmatic claims somewhat suspect. Thus, Jamison's reducing creativity to the byproduct of a specific psychiatric disorder is dubious. It amounts to the medicalizing or pathologizing of the creative process in extremis. That creativity comes from wrestling with one's inner demons--depression, isolation, and especially anger or rage--is more to the point. Jamison--who herself suffers from bipolar disorder--seems to diminish the dignity of constructively struggling with and expressing what I call "the daimonic" in favor of a disease model of both madness and creativity. But I submit that what all great artists (and each of us to some lesser degree) truly have in common is this existential confrontation with the daimonic, some being more successful in directing it creatively than others--not merely some brain, neurological or biochemical imbalance.
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am 23. März 1999
Though merely a layman, I enjoyed this book im mensly, and continue to refer to it on occasion. My husband purchased a copy for me while was confined to our local hospital's "mental ward" for deeply suicidal depression. At the time I could scarcely comprehend a single line of it, however, as I grew more coherent I was able to absorb and relate to the torment, as I am manic-depressive myself. I tend to be more melancholy and introspective. When I am hypomanic I usually take apart the entire house, and completely re-arrange EVERYTHING. I've also gone running in the dark thinking God was my puppeteer and somehow cosmically/intrinsically connected to my Nikes. I dont believe I have ever run so fast in my life. I am not well-versed with the poets' and I am unable to share in the depth of passion of Dr. Jamison's feelings, and unfathomable descriptions,however, she is quite adept at portraying the joy, terror, and torment of these gifted beings; I am able to relate to that--the alcohol and drug abuse; the destruction of relationships; writing fervently for days, then not lifting a pen (or these days), not touching a keyboard for months or perhaps longer. Anyway, this is to be a review and I am straying. Thank you Dr. Jamison for your depth in searching, depth of caring, and also shortly afterward, sharing your personal experience. Touched With Fire is certainly aptly titled. There are few books that are worth reading on the topic of manic-depression; they are either poorly written, or else they simply chronicle an individual's family's experience in diary format.
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am 12. Februar 1999
It's interesting. I'll give her that much. But first of all, Jamison has some misleading information in that not everyone she lists was necessarily suffering from bipolar. She has pulled out and listed every Byronic hero in the art, literature, and music community when half of these people are long dead and there is absolutely no way to prove such conjecture.
I have bipolar, and this book makes me a little bit angry because it purely glorifies this illness by pointing out the star achievements of all those who supposedly had it, giving very little focus to the tragic, rollercoaster lives many of them led. This illness is not a "magic madness" or a "dark gift" or any of the other stupid things I've heard it called. It is an extremely difficult, extremely challenging bitch of a disease that is owed control and respect, but for heaven's sake don't write a book portraying it as if it's some kind of blessing. I know this was not Ms Jamison's intent, but this book paints a very romantic picture of an illness there is nothing romantic about. If I didn't know better, I'd almost think I should quit taking my lithium in order to be BRILLIANT.
As a manic depressive herself, Ms Jamison should have known better.
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am 28. August 1999
Touched With Fire is by far the most life changing book I have ever read. Having suffered with Cyclothymia as long as I can remember, and also being an extremely creative person, I thought I was losing my mind...then I read this book. Kay Jamison explores the relationship between creativity and manic depressive illness in an amazing way. The excerpts of letters, etc., of great artists, writers and composers of the past are enlightening, inspiring, and devastating to read. They open up a new understanding of these individuals and what they lived with. This is a must read not only for those suffering from forms of manic depressive illness, but also those who are associated with them. Wonderful reading. INFORMATIVE, ENLIGHTENING, AND AMAZING.
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am 19. November 1999
The biographical content and thesis of this book are wonderful. However, for a lay audience it sometimes wanders into the academic arcane. At some moments, KRJ lapses into a discourse clearly meant for her professional colleagues who aren't quite up to date on either the science or history of this disorder. The rest of us just have to wait these intervals out. I recommend this book for those interested in poets and poetry, and for those who teach about them.
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