The Passion for Life
By Kay Redfield Jamison. Knopf. 405 pp. $24.95
"I was fortunate to grow up around exuberance," writes Kay Redfield Jamison in her latest investigation into the link between moods and creativity. "My father . . . was surrounded by ebullient friends and colleagues who were scientists or mathematicians," she recalls. "They were utterly captivated by the same things that enthrall children -- stars, fireflies, wind, why a frog is marked the way it is." Exuberant personalities, she argues, respond to the world differently from the rest of us -- with more passion and with the desire to engage. The word itself derives from the Latin (ex + uberare), "to be fruitful, to be abundant," and Jamison illustrates how exuberance can transform mere curiosity into the quest for knowledge and, ultimately, the discovery of new worlds. She also argues for a genetic predisposition for the exuberant personality and makes a rather startling claim in the book's final chapter.
Jamison's landmark 1993 book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, demonstrated a high correlation between poets and madness -- more specifically, manic-depressive or bipolar illness (Jamison prefers the former, older label because it's more descriptive). The best way to convey the experience of a mood disorder, she argued, is to turn to those who have written about what it's like to suffer from one. Citing scientific studies as well as personal accounts from diaries, essays and poems written by bipolar sufferers (including a pantheon of great poets, such as Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, Gerard Manley Hopkins and her lodestar poet, Lord Byron), Jamison illustrated how the altered brain chemistry of manic states enhances word association, improves rhyming skills, elevates energy and inspires grandiosity -- all useful ingredients in the making of a poet. The poet William Meredith described one of Lowell's manic attacks in which "he writes and revises translations furiously and with a kind [of] crooked brilliance, and talks about himself in connection with Achilles, Alexander, Hart Crane, Hitler, and Christ, and breaks your heart."
What prevents this equation from sounding reductive is Jamison's deep knowledge of and respect for artistic achievement; she's that rare writer who can offer a kind of unified field theory of science and art. A clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry, an author of a standard medical text and numerous scientific papers on mood disorders, Jamison was also granted an honorary professorship of English at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She introduced her study as "a book about artists and their voyages, moods as their ships of passage, and the ancient persistent belief that there exists such a thing as a 'fine madness.' "
In Exuberance, Jamison's fourth book, she describes her subject as a desirable and nonpathological state of heightened awareness that gives rise to courage, discovery and creativity. She places it along the continuum leading to mania but shows how exuberance differs from its pathological neighbor: "Although most exuberant people never become manic," she says, "those who have bipolar illness often have an exuberant temperament." Where Touched with Fire illustrated a link between manic depression and poetic achievement, Exuberance correlates this emotion with qualities of leadership, courage and discovery in various fields of endeavor. Her exemplars, among many others, include Theodore Roosevelt, naturalist John Muir and mathematician Richard Feynman.
Jamison begins by noting the link between extraversion and exuberance, emphasizing the importance of play in children and in the animal kingdom. Play encourages fearlessness -- that is, the readiness to explore one's world. She describes play as "a kind of controlled adventure" that tests boundaries, rewards flexibility and prepares one for the unpredictable. Humans, she notes, "are uniquely playful and exploratory animals," and she cites studies correlating high playfulness in children with high creativity. "Play is not a luxury," she reminds us -- it's a necessity and one that's dwindling in our culture. She notes that today's children have 40 percent less free time to play than 20 years ago.
Though Jamison cites studies suggesting the genetic basis for an exuberant temperament, humans -- and animals, for that matter, from mice to elephants -- have found ways to induce exuberance. After all, exuberance excites the brain's pleasure centers, and Jamison takes us on a fascinating tour of activities and substances that serve as enhancers. There are the usual euphoriants (alcohol, cocaine, hashish, ecstasy), which produce the desired state but always exact a price ("pharmacological law: what goes up must come down"). In the 18th century, nitrous oxide was all the rage, enjoyed at dinner parties and at "laughing gas evenings" in London theaters. Poet Robert Southey described it as "oh, excellent air-bag! . . . I am sure the air in heaven must be this wonder-working gas of delight!" The euphoriant gas ethylene, she notes, escaped through a fault line at the Delphic oracle, inspiring the seers to prophesy after they inhaled Delphi's "sacred fumes." Dance (preferably of the orgiastic variety) and anticipation of pleasurable events (dinner with a friend, for example) are also euphoriants, as are gambling, music, the thrill of discovery and the lure of the unknown. More surprisingly, according to an ethnobotanist she cites: fasting, thirsting, self-mutilation, sleep deprivation, bleeding, immersion in ice water, self-flagellation, hypnosis, meditation, drumming, chanting, pungent scents and sweat lodges have all been used to induce euphoric states.
Jamison describes how two exuberant personalities came together in the early years of the last century to recognize the importance of preserving wilderness -- wildness -- in the American continent: Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir. Roosevelt's high enthusiasm for life was so remarkable that one journalist wrote, "You go into Roosevelt's presence . . . and you go home and wring the personality out of your clothes." His enthusiasm for natural history and the American landscape met its match in the Scottish immigrant John Muir, whose book, My First Summer in the Sierra, was described as a journal of "a soul on fire."("Exhilarated with the mountain air," he wrote, "I feel like shouting this morning with excess of wild animal joy.") The two men hiked the Sierras together in May of 1903, and shortly after that trip Roosevelt announced his intention to protect America's forest lands for future generations.
America itself, Jamison points out, was explored by Pilgrims and pioneers whose exuberant, questing spirit was passed on to their descendants. Americans seem to value optimism and enthusiasm; "in a country that gave birth to Walt Whitman and John Philip Sousa," she writes, "invented jazz, square dancing, and rock and roll, gave the world Chuck Yeager, Ted Turner, and P.T. Barnum, created Oklahoma!, and glories in Louis Armstrong and Theodore Roosevelt -- Americans see enthusiasm as an advantage." Her most startling claim derives from what she sees as the necessary exuberance of America's pioneers. Because "high rates of manic-depressive illness have been observed in American immigrant groups," she wonders if "individuals who sought the new, who took risks that others would not, or who rebelled against repressive social systems may have been more likely to immigrate to America and, once there, to succeed." Though Americans have long prided themselves on being of courageous, adventurous stock, Jamison suggests that the scientific evidence may bear that out.
Jamison draws on the accounts of a wide range of exuberant personalities, from Winston Churchill, Robert Louis Stevenson, Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley (who through his obsession with snowflakes famously discovered that no two were alike), to P.T. Barnum. Indeed, her wide sampling of personal accounts of exuberance enlivens what might otherwise be a rather dry tour of twin and animal behavior studies. One occasionally misses the harrowing narrative of her own journey through the horrors of manic-depressive illness as recounted in her autobiographical An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, published soon after Touched with Fire. Instead, she often leavens the science with whimsy. For example, to find descriptions of exuberant personalities in popular culture, she turns to children's literature, quoting from The Wind and the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins -- and even citing cartoonist Charles Schulz's occasional embodiment of exuberance, Snoopy. "Snoopy is a seriously exuberant animal," she writes. "He is also independent, quirky, debonair . . . and an incurable romantic." She revives "galumphing" from Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark and Through the Looking Glass, a word that "completely captures the joy and bounce of play."
But her wit does not undermine her serious investigation of a seldom-studied mood. Jamison reminds us that exuberance, because it is not a pathological state, has been given short shrift as an object of study. "Exuberance . . . has never been a mainstay of psychological research," she writes. "For every hundred journal articles on sadness or depression . . . only one is published about happiness." The relative paucity is understandable; why study a condition if it's not a problem? For Jamison, however, the origins and mystery of creativity have long been her holy grail, and she argues -- with her usual wit, ingenuity and panache -- that exuberance is one of its wellsprings.
Jamison has by now produced an impressive and thorough investigation of moods and mood disorder studied from all angles, including the most personal. She has gone far in expanding her field to include creativity and the arts in her quest "to understand passion, imagination, and the nature of human greatness." *
Nancy Schoenberger, a poet and biographer, is author of "Dangerous Muse: The Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood" and co-author of a biography of Oscar Levant.