February 20, 2006 Touched With Fire
Touched With Fire” by Kaye Jamison Redfield explores the connection between Bipolar Disorder and the Artistic Temperament. Many authors and artist suffer from what Patty Duke calls A Brilliant Madness. There does seem to be a strong correlation between mental illness and creative genius. The question is why? Is it necessary to suffer in order to be great? Can only the tormented provide insight into the human heart? Does wellness equal a world without literary heroes? Redfield seems to lean in that direction but Kramer—in his book Against Depression—leans in the opposite direction. Kramer recognizes the Romanticizing of melancholy, but refuses to believe that artist should have to be afflicted in order to create.
I’ve heard comments from students, complaints mostly, that all the authors I cover are too depressed. “Oh no! Not another author who committed suicide! Aren’t there any happy authors?” they ask. There are plenty of authors who lead relatively “normal” lives. It just seems as if the bipolar lead the most interesting lives or at least the most dramatic.
The question really becomes is illness necessary for a profound and intense experience? Some people can manage great depth and range of emotion without succumbing to a mood disorder. Illness isn’t the only way to experience a heightened sense of emotion. You don’t have to be suicidal to suffer nor do you have to suffer to be noble. Normal ups and downs can be enough to inspire creativity.
So why the correlation or the connection? Why romanticize melancholy, depression or bipolar disorder? Well, I think it goes back to what I said before. We are neither emotional animals nor intellectuals alone. It is our ability to understand our emotions that make us superior. A person, who can understand their emotional experiences, be it basic or complex, shallow or deep, unhealthy or healthy, is of a higher order. Authors and artists, by their vary nature, examine and explore humanity in all of its many hues. Their quest for understanding, communication and communion allow for greater depth and range. The illness does not make them great, rather their understanding of it makes them great. Redfield pointed out the Byron, in all of his madness, still managed to write clearly. His lucidness, even in deeply troubled times, made for particularly brilliant work. If he’d been befuddled by his emotions then he wouldn’t have been capable of such sharp observations. Virginia Woolf was much the same. An ability to see things from the inside and the outside seems necessary for true insight. Complete madness—insanity to the point of losing one’s sense or self-consciousness—rarely makes for a good readable work of literature. It is awareness that is the key.
The problem comes, I think, in being aware, but not able to comprehend. If you are overloaded, overwhelmed and unclear about things then you do become crazy. The fire of creativity is fueled by emotion, but too much or too little emotion is counterproductive. Creativity and emotion are inexorably linked, but they are not interchangeable. Creation requires energy and emotions ARE energy.
In the end we find that creativity requires a bit of a mystical mind set. Rather the artist acquires this state of hypersensitivity and awareness through meditation, mental illness or drugs it does not matter. There are many paths, but just one goal. The writer and mystic seek the fire of life. “To know where it all did begin.” Divinity and the collective unconscious are sought by those who desire enlightenment, but also by those who seek to create. Though separate; enlightenment, creativity, beauty and truth overlap. To seek one you must embrace all.