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Daphne Merkin

Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison

The idea that great psychic suffering is conducive to art—that mental illness and creativity are somehow intertwined—is a longstanding one, going all the way back to Aristotle, who opined that “no great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness.” Similarly, the Romantics, like Lord Byron, were persuaded of a connection between having literary talent and being a bit off in the head: “We of the craft,” Byron noted, “are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.” That this conviction, intuitive rather than rigorously empirical, holds allure makes eminent sense—if only as a compensatory principle, a way of righting the scales of human endowment. Beginning with the 19th century, this belief became a source of scientific interest via anthropological research, while today the connection between creativity and madness is explored in genetic and neuroimaging studies as well as taken up as the subject of conferences. Although there have always been those, like Lionel Trilling, who remain suspicious of the notion of the troubled genius, what’s clear is that the formulation—whether it rests on anecdotal evidence or a relatively new theory that proposes a state of “cognitive disinhibition” shared by both creative and disturbed people—is here to stay.


“Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire” is the latest work by the writer Kay Redfield Jamison to consider the link between manic depression and creative gifts; her earlier books on the subject include “An Unquiet Mind,” an account of her own struggle with manic depression, and “Touched With Fire,” a study of the relationship between bipolar illness and the artistic temperament. In writing this biography—or, rather, this “psychological account of the life and mind of Robert Lowell”—Ms. Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, interviewed many of the people who knew Lowell well, including Harriet Winslow Lowell, his daughter by his second wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick. She also had access to Lowell’s medical records as well as to previously unpublished drafts and fragments of his poems, and she is as at ease with critical reading as she is with deconstructing the medical terminology that pertains to our “promising, scrambling, pelting age of neuroscience.”...


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The Wall Street Journal | March 31, 2017.

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