Most people would give a strong negative answer to this question, with absolute certainty. And they would have plenty of support for their position. Schizophrenia, if it recurs or is persistent, ruins lives: sufferers may never be able to work despite treatment, or form stable relationships; they may even commit crimes that put them in jail. Depression can cast a long-lasting cloud over a person’s life, inhibit action, career development and, in all too many instances, end in suicide. Obsessive compulsive disorder can take over everything else, being tied to rituals that prevent the normal richness and variety of everyday existence. All of us hope we never experience these disorders. Though our understanding and treatment of mental disorders has improved over the years, it is still far from what we would like it to be. As King Lear said: “O! let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven; Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!"
But there may be one exception, though it is an arguable one. Kay Redfield Jamison has written a psychological biography of Robert Lowell, the poet. You may remember an earlier book of hers, An Unquiet Mind, which is an account of her own bipolar disorder (sometimes called manic-depressive psychosis). Deservedly, it's become a modern classic. She combines her own experience with her professional knowledge (she is a clinical psychologist) and a considerable literary talent to give us a compelling account of what it’s like to be bipolar and the consequences it had for her life. Now she brings the same talents to her story of Robert Lowell, one of the giants of modern American literature.
For Robert Lowell had bipolar disorder. As for many others (but not all) with this illness, there is a strong family history. Dr Jamison traces Robert Lowell’s to his great-great-grandmother, who was committed to a mental hospital and died without recovering. Scattered throughout the Lowell genealogy is evidence of a similar condition, but also considerable achievement, including academic, literary and political careers of eminence. They include a famous astronomer, a President of Harvard, a civil war hero, congressmen and federal judges and prominent businessmen. And, of course, Robert.
Dr Jamison is known for her proposition that bipolar illness is more common than expected by chance in those with creative talent, by which she really means writers, artists and poets (scientists seem different: a topic for another occasion). She has collected biographical evidence to support her claim. In her book she charts his psychiatric history, and relates it to the composition of his poems. It’s a compelling, learned, insightful and eye-opening account. One of the striking questions she raises is how his recurrent episodes of mania interacted with his enormous literary talent. Despite treatment (which during his earlier years was primitive even by current standards) he experienced recurrent periods of serious mania throughout his life, though somewhat less frequently after he was given lithium. Dr Jamison records how these periods disrupted the poet’s life, and that of those around him, with disastrous results in many instances. But the really interesting topic is how Lowell’s mental state affected his creativity.
It wasn’t all bad. As he entered a manic phase, Lowell would compose dozens of poems in a frenzy of creativity. As he reached a crescendo of mania, he wrote gibberish. But when he had returned to a more settled state, or was even depressed, he would revise these poems (he was a constant reviser), finding even in the most manic ones ideas of interest and originality which he could use in a more conventional way during his periods of equilibrium. In some of his poems he used his experience of bipolar disorder, and the consequences it had for him and those around him; but as Dr Jamison points out, many of his most famous poems were not concerned with his psychiatric state or had anything to do with it. Lowell himself recognised that incipient mania was a great driver of his creativity. And, like many others with periodic mania (including Dr Jamison), he found the manic experience highly enjoyable, even though it resulted in social and personal disasters, and, once recovered, he dreaded the next one.
So the question Dr Jamison raises is this: does mania enhance creativity? That is, are those with bipolar more likely to be creative than they would otherwise be? Or does mania simply activate latent creativity, so that those who have natural talent are stimulated to exercise that talent? Her account of Robert Lowell’s literary life suggests that both may occur. He wrote compulsively when he was entering a manic phase, suggesting that he had been triggered in some way; but the fact that he may have written things during the height of mania that he would otherwise never have thought about suggests that the manic state itself can induce creative acts. There must be many more ordinary souls with bipolar who never produce a major play, poem, novel or painting. Bipolar disorder is not a pre-requisite for creativity. But in those with talent, it may open doors that might otherwise remain closed. Nevertheless, great talent can be expressed without the need for bipolar moods : so far as we know, neither Shakespeare nor Bach were manic-depressives.
Writers and poets may write for themselves, but the rest of us can enjoy the experience of reading what they write, opening our own doors and windows of perception. In those with great talent, like Robert Lowell, is the cost/benefit ratio positive or negative? If we can assume that, had he not had bipolar, Lowell would not have been such a great poet (an uncertain position) then does the benefit to the rest of us, or his status as a poet, outweigh the cost his disorder had on his own life? Finally, come the day when all bipolar patients are treated effectively and for the long term, does this mean a loss of creativity to society in general? If so, is this a price we would accept?
 Kay Redfield Jamison: Robert Lowell. Setting the River on Fire