Bwog’s Saturday Daily Editor, Lauren Kahme, attends “a conversation about the relationship between mental illness, psychic suffering, addiction, and creativity, focused particularly on the poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman.”

The event began with introductions by Phillip Lopate (CC ’64) who outlined the structure for the rest of the night; there would be speeches from two authors, a moderated questioning period, and an opportunity for audience members to ask questions.

Clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison of Johns Hopkins University presented excerpts from her book Setting the River on Fire, which explores the interplay of mania and creativity, focusing on the life of author Robert Lowell. Kay described Lowell’s ambitious and expansive imagination as being consistent with manic disorders and manic temperaments. Lowell felt an intense and persistent notion that he needed to be one, could be one, and was one of the “greats.” Kay included an anecdote about how Lowell invented and was original, and he would talk about historical figures with such vividness; he sometimes believed that he could see them and speak to them, that they were present there with him. The mania Lowell experienced only drove him further to desire more as a writer. As Kay put it when referencing genius writers, “they swing for the fences. They write to change the game.” Lowell’s ambition carried great risk–the risk of veering into a mind of grandiosity and, ultimately, madness. Lowell also believed that fables were history and that history was fact, so he would often assert the validity of stories that were nothing more than folklore in reality. His delusions started to be used interchangeably with his imagination, and Kay admitted that in a way, Lowell’s artistry was influenced by his mental disorder.

Next, the audience heard from Kay’s niece, Leslie Jamison, author of The Recovering, a story revolving around addiction, alcoholism, and poet John Berryman. Leslie spoke primarily of the damage caused by the mindset that art and genius can only be produced when one indulges an addiction. Leslie spoke of how Berryman tried tirelessly to get better for his family, for his career and public image, and for himself. He even sought to one day write a guide book or a kind of “12-Step” about recovering from alcoholism. He never had the chance to fully complete his vision, but we must acknowledge the willingness that Berryman possessed even amidst such difficult circumstances. Leslie also talks about the archetype of the drunk, angry, genius poet that perpetuates the delusion that one must rely on their addiction for poetic or artistic success. While the deep emotional stupors that can be induced by alcohol may guide a writer in their work, it cannot be and is not the sole factor determining whether an author is valuable or considered “great.”

During the questioning period, the audience saw a much more expansive view of both books and both authors. Kay and Leslie, being aunt and niece, let the conversation flow naturally, and I watched them on stage with ease. They both focused on the humanity of both of their subjects; both Lowell and Berryman knew that they committed atrocious acts when manic and intoxicated, respectively. Despite these horrible acts, they both carried on living their lives, and it must take great courage and strength to face the life your manic or drunk self left in their destructive wake. When asked how to remain sympathetic as an author, writing from a quite clinical standpoint, Kay responded with “nobody signs up for mania. No one signs up for madness. Lowell didn’t; he was terrified of it.”  In this sense, it becomes much easier to empathize with these extremely ill figures; they are humans who feel remorse and guilt and regret and longing, perhaps for a different life. Leslie remarked that “writers start out wanting to be unique; it’s not so important to focus on originality but rather the commonality between you and others.”

These are extreme cases of creativity and the desire to be something unique or great, but they demonstrate the bounds that are pushed at the hands of pursuing artistic success. Both authors were hospitalized over their lifetimes, and both authors’ conditions had profound consequences on their personal, social, and professional lives. Ultimately, Lowell and Berryman developed a tender camaraderie due to their mutual understanding of being authors with abnormal behavioral temperaments. In the end, we, as audience members, cannot divorce the greatness from the illness, and we must not separate the author from the human.

work by van Gogh via Wikimedia Commons