Mania is a fraud that Dr Jamison’s unquiet mind overlooks

May 27, 2008

Mania is a narcotic: speed and cocaine together. It’s a high, for sure, a powerful one. Work is easy and you get a lot of it done. Ideas flow freely, new concepts arise without effort. Creative output is voluminous. You don’t tire, don’t sleep, you keep at it, whatever it is. You have confidence and, in particular, self-confidence, enough to tackle audacious projects and dissolve social inhibition. Productivity and imagination is immense, be it prose, poetry, music, philosophy, mathematics, computer programs or whatever.

But one utterly crucial characteristic of mania is loss of critical judgment. You are convinced of the originality of your ideas, the beauty of your art, the power of your music and the life-changing significance of the concepts you have understood. You are essential, inspired, brilliant, shining like a sun, superhuman — the evidence is everywhere but you don’t have the critical sense to know if it is real or an illusion.

When sobriety returns it does so with embarrassment. Even if there is no depression in the aftermath there is the evidence of your creative bender. Bad poetry, unfinished texts full of confused ideas, art that is after all neither original nor good. The philosophical theories you thought would change the world turn out to be incoherent.

It’s trite, worn-out and banal to mention it but what they say about the 90% perspiration is true. Inspiration is involved but seldom is it sufficient. Great works require a great amount of work. And they require the critical editorial eye. You didn’t produce a masterpiece throwing paints around all night in a hypomanic flight of virtuoso inspiration before going at dawn for coffee and deciding instead to write an opera. To your sober self what is on the canvas is a worthless embarrassment. Mania can’t make you superhuman — nothing can make you capable of producing works of genius with ease. It may give you inspiration but it robs you of the sense to judge which inspirations are worth anything.

Mania is a narcotic — your work is garbage but it makes you feel like god.

Mania is a fraud.

In her book, “An Unquiet Mind”, Kay Jamison avoids exploring this aspect of manic depression. And that’s very strange. It would be one thing if she were just talking about herself, if she were just a bipolar sufferer who refuses to discuss the evidence that the upside of mania is fake. But she’s a practicing clinical psychologist treating manic depressive patients and a scholar specializing in mood disorders with status as a world-class authority on the topic.

So she must have encountered this aspect and dealt with many patients who were dubious of the value of their manias. I spoke to my own therapist about this and she said that there are some patients she’s had who cherish their manic experiences, associate them with creativity and would fear loss of that part of their lives but that there are many others who, like me, are skeptical and fearful of mania and the intoxicated trash it generates.

Towards the end of her book she writes nostalgically of her earlier manic episodes. In the epilog where she says she would rather have the disease than not, she avoids making claims that anything of value came from the manic episodes but elsewhere in the book she does not. For example, she speculates about the possibility of eradicating the disease from the world and what a loss to society that would be: “The disease appears to convey its advantages [to the individual and society] not only through its relationship to the artistic temperament and imagination, but through its influence on many eminent scientists, as well as business, religious, military, and political leaders.” The astonishing thing here is the bald presumption that the disease confers any benefits at all. To Dr. Jamison this appears to go without saying. But many of us with intimate experience of the disease (I’ve had it for 25 years) disagree. I prefer my artistic temperament and imagination sober — the productivity may be lower but at least the product sometimes has value.

This book is not just a personal memoir. Dr. Jamison uses her platform as respected expert in the field to offer also an objective layman’s introduction to the disease. As such I consider it irresponsible to omit mentioning that it is nothing more than her personal opinion (and indeed a controversial one) that the disease has benefits and can, in balance, be a good thing.

Mania and hypomania obliterate critical judgment and reliable self-appraisal. Recognizing this, as Dr. Jamison does in her account of her manias, how could one fail to be suspicious of the accuracy of the memory of the experience or of the work products? One would have to have a motive to ignore this blindingly obvious line of thought.

I can understand that it may be hard to accept that what one recalls as the most creative moments of ones life were perhaps hollow or that which has distinguished ones life from the ordinary was possibly nugatory. I can see why people would avoid exploring these possibilities. But I cannot accept that this, of all books, should seek to avoid their mention. With her books such as this, Dr. Jamison seeks, among other things, respect and acclaim as a professional and an expert. I accord her that. But I consequently expect corresponding standards to apply. By those standards, I regard this obvious omission as irresponsible.

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