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CREATIVITY AND DEPRESSION AND MANIC-DEPRESSION
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON, a report on a presentation 1 by Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., 2 Smooth Sailing, SUMMER 1996
Man is not truly one, but truly two. â€” Robert Louis Stevenson
Dr. Kay Jamison's colorful presentations are highlights of the annual mood disorders symposium. Her particular interest is well expressed by the subtitle of her recent book (Touched With Fire; available through DRADA): Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. Each year she discusses the family and medical history of an artist, writer, poet, or musician, pointing to evidence of manic-depressive illness.
This year the spotlight fell on Scots writer and poet Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), best known for works such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Using family trees, photos, sketches, and quotations, Dr. Jamison documented not only that Stevenson had manic-depressive illness himself, but also that his father died during a deep depression and that he was a close relative of several others with the illness. Stevenson wrote that his father had a most "profound underlying pessimism and tragic view of life; his innermost thoughts were ever tinged with the Celtic Melancholy."
Stevenson called that same pessimistic outlook in himself a "malignant hypocrisy." He described himself as "given to explaining the universe" - because he was "Scotch, sir, Scotch." By turns charming, then nervous and excitable, he was subject to sudden fits of rage-followed, just as suddenly, by heartfelt remorse. He developed fiery loyalties to family, friends, and political causes. After Stevenson's death, his friend J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan) said that although Stevenson may not have been the greatest of literary figures, he was "the one we would like best to come back."
Stevenson showed symptoms of manic-depressive illness early in life; once, reminiscing how as a child he would lie for hours in bed in a "miserable exaltation," he flawlessly described symptoms of dysphoric (uncomfortable) mania, an atypical manic-depressive irritability, for example, and inability to finish projects once begun. He moved about the world, partly in search of relief for his tubercular condition: first to England, then France, then the United States, and, finally, Samoa.
His manic-depressive illness also bore some characteristics of seasonal affective disorder; the nature and intensity of his symptoms varied with the season of the year and the latitude at which he was living. On a winter day, he wrote "Let me get down on the hearthrug, full of laudanum grog, or as easy as may be, into the nice wormy grave." He had an unmistakable breakdown in October of the same year that, according to a friend, he had "sped summer nights and days along" urgently.
Stevenson's major commercial success followed publication of his novelette, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The book, unlike film versions, places Hyde already within Jekyll, awaiting the catalyst for his emergence. The seemingly cool and rational Dr. Jekyll finds his inner self in the sensual and immoral Hyde. When Hyde materializes unannounced, he assumes an attractive disguise: perhaps charming eloquence or irrefutable logic, or perhaps utter clarity. From personal experience, Stevenson understood Hyde's seductiveness to Jekyll; Hyde may be a metaphor for Stevenson's hypomanic self. Stevenson knew that hypomania can be addictive and fun.
Stevenson died in his beloved Samoa at age 44-primarily because of his tubercular condition, but his life was probably shortened somewhat by his manic-depressive illness. Through it all, he persevered courageously and was writing up to the time of his death, struggling to complete his work.
His tomb sits upon a Samoan hillside, bearing an epitaph he selected from his poem "Requiem": "Glad did I live and gladly die," reads the epitaph; "I laid me down with a will"; and "Here he lies where he longed to be." Is this enigmatic epitaph the poet's final metaphor for his life and his manic-depressive "death-in-life" - together, united, blended at last?
Dr. Jamison concluded her presentation on Stevenson by playing to the still-dimmed house, a recording of one of his ballads, sung appropriately by noted folk singer Jean Redpath, who is Scots, sir, Scots.
1 Presented at the DRADA/Johns Hopkins symposium, Baltimore, Maryland, April 199
Order Touched by Fire, by Kay Jamison
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