Peter Chow: Touched By Fire – Bipolar Manic Depression and Creative Genius: Lord Byron

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MAD, BAD AND DANGEROUS TO KNOW 

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

Thus mellowed to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impaired the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress,

Or softly lightens o’er her face;

Where thoughts serenely sweet express,

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow,

But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent!

 

We’ve all heard this one in high school English class.

It features one of the most famous opening lines in the history of poetry — one so ubiquitous it almost seems cliché.

It was written in 1814 by Lord Byron, the 19th-century English Romantic poet, a man who also struggled with Bipolar Manic Depression.

His level of celebrity was mind-boggling, a “Byromania,” akin to a Regency Elvis Mania, where the Byronic look was mimicked everywhere in mirrors, in the hope of catching the curl of the upper lip, and the scowl of the brow.

George Gordon Byron, the most extravagant rock-and-roll bad boy poet of the Romantic Period, was best known for his narrative poems Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, as well as his notorious sexual escapades and scandals and aristocratic excesses.

He was a true English eccentric, possessing a fascinating aura which few men and still fewer women could resist.

The most flamboyant and notorious of the major English Romantic poets, Lord Byron, was likewise the most fashionable poet of the early 1800s.

He created an immensely popular Romantic hero—defiant, melancholy, haunted by secret guilt—for which, to many, he seemed the model.

He is also a Romantic paradox:  a leader of the era’s poetic revolution, he named Alexander Pope as his master;  a worshiper of the ideal, he never lost touch with reality;  a deist and freethinker, he retained from his youth a Calvinist sense of original sin;  a peer of the realm, he championed liberty in his works and deeds, giving money, time, energy, and finally his life to the Greek War of Independence.

In his dynamism, sexuality, self-revelation, and demands for freedom for oppressed people everywhere, Byron captivated the Western mind and heart as few writers have, stamping upon 19th-century letters, arts, politics, even clothing styles, his image and name as the embodiment of Romanticism.

“We of the craft are all crazy,” Byron once wrote of his poetic ilk.

“Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.”

With a family history of suicides, financial problems, and Chronic “Madness,” Lord George Gordon Byron came from an aristocratic family.

His father abandoned him at a young age and his mother was Schizophrenic.

He had a frenetic energy inherited from his womanising Navy father, “Mad Jack”, who cut his own throat.

Rampantly bisexual, Byron had affairs with both men and women while a student at Trinity College in Cambridge and thought “men were cleverer but women kissed better.”

After a long relationship with his half-sister (leading to one child), he had affairs with actresses, married society women and many young men, so that by the age of 21, he had raging cases of Gonorrhoea and Syphilis.

Love didn’t come in a triangle for Byron but something closer to a pentacle.

Fellow hedonist, albeit in female form, Lady Caroline Lamb famously described him as “MAD, BAD AND DANGEROUS TO KNOW.”

At age 20, he wrote his first volume of poetry, Hours of Idleness, which received poor reviews.

As payback, he wrote a satirical poem, “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,” which won him praise in the literary community.

He would go on to write a vast anthology of poetry, including two narrative poems, “Don Juan” and “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” for which he became famous during his lifetime.

Kay Redfield Jamison, an American clinical psychologist and writer, is a Professor in Mood Disorders and Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

She has been named one of the “Best Doctors in the United States,” was chosen by Time as a “Hero of Medicine,” and was also chosen as one of the five individuals for the public television series Great Minds of Medicine.

Her work has centered on bipolar disorder, which she herself has had since her early adulthood.

Kay Redfield Jamison studied 47 British writers, painters, and sculptors from the Royal Academy and found that 48% had been treated for bipolar disorder.

In particular, over half of the poets (the largest group with manic depression) had needed medication or hospitalization.

“We poets in our youth begin in gladness / but thereof come in the end despondency and madness . . .”

–   William Wordsworth

 

One interesting aspect of bipolar affective disorder is the extreme creativity of many of those afflicted.

This is not the normal creativity experienced by above-average people on the scale of creativity.

 

This creativity is creative genius, which is so rare.

The question is not whether a link between bipolar disorder and creative genius exists, but why it exists.

Creativity and mania  –  the overwhelming highs that bipolar individuals often experience  –  share some common traits, such as a tendency for “thinking outside the box,” flights of ideas, the speeding up of thoughts and heightened perception of visual, auditory and somatic stimuli.

Many people with bipolar disorder feel powerful emotions during both depressive and manic phases, potentially aiding in creativity.

As well, because hypomania and mania decrease social inhibition, performers are often daring and bold.

Biologically speaking, the manic state is physically alert.

That is, it can respond quickly and intellectually with a range of changes (i.e. emotional, perceptual, behavioural).

The manic perception of life is one without bounds.

This allows for creativity because the person feels capable of anything.

It is as if the walls, which inhibit the general population, do not exist in manic people, allowing them to become creative geniuses.

They understand a part of art, music, and literature which normal people do not attempt.

However, the problem with bipolar disorder today is that drug treatment often vanquishes the creativity in the patient.

In earlier days when drug therapy was not implemented, the creativity would be free, unleashed.

Some bipolar patients even today refuse treatment because the their highs are so enjoyable, so exhilarating and so productive.

 

The list of creative geniuses known to have bipolar disorder is long and glorious:

 

Writers:

Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, Virginia Wolff, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, Patricia Cornwell, Charles Bukowski

Poets:

William Blake, Sara Teasdale, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Keats, Lord Byron, Robert Lowell, Roddy Lumsden, Theodore Roethke

Composers:

Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky,  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, George Frideric Handel, Gustav Mahler, Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz, Hugo Wolf

Artists:

Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keefe, Salvador Dali

Singers:

Amy Winehouse, Sinead O’Connor, Connie Francis, Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Wilson (Beach Boys), Kurt Cobain, Dusty Springfield, Kanye West, Demi Lovato, Sting, Mariah Carey, Judy Garland, John Denver, Adam Ant, Selena Gomez, Charlie Pride, Rosemary Clooney, Allison Moyet, Phil Ochs, Dolores O’Riordan, Ray Davies (The Kinks), Nick Drake, Bebe Rexha, Nina Simone, Britney Spears, Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots)

Musicians:

Charles Mingus, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, Glen Gould, Lou Reed, Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Odean Pope

Comedians:

Robin Williams, Jonathan Winters, Jim Carrey, Don Rickles, Stephen Fry, John Cleese, Richard Pryor, Dick Cavett, Freddie Prinze, Tony Hancock, Richard Jeni, Peter Cook, Rosie O’Donnell, Russell Brand, David Feherty

Movie stars:

Patty Duke, Vivien Leigh, Carrie Fisher, Catherine Zeta Jones, Robert Downey, Richard Dreyfuss, Margot Kidder, Ben Stiller, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Linda Hamilton, Kristy McNichol, Kim Novak, Charlie Sheen, Rene Russo

Winston Churchill, believed to have had Bipolar II Disorder (hypomania/depression), called his intense bouts of depression the “Black Dog.”

However, he also experienced periods of hypomania that vaulted him to historical immortality.

Psychoanalyst and author Anthony Storr (1997) said of Churchill, “Had he been a stable and equable man, he could never have inspired the nation. In 1940, when all the odds were against Britain, a leader of sober judgment might well have concluded that we were finished.”

 

Isaac Newton, one of the greatest geniuses of all time is also the hardest to diagnose, but historians agree he had a lot going on.

Newton suffered from huge mood swings, suggestive of bipolar disorder.

His inability to connect with people could place him on the autism spectrum as well.

Ted Turner, the founder of Turner Broadcasting and CNN has spent much of his life battling bipolar disorder and depression.

Despite that, in a period of hypomania, Turner took a small independent television station in Atlanta and turned it into a global media conglomerate.

At one blazingly hypomanic point, he simultaneously founded CNN, owned the Atlanta Braves baseball team and the Atlanta Hawks NBA basketball team, married Jane Fonda and skippered the yacht that won the America’s Cup.

The manic part of bipolar manic-depression contributes to an increased frequency and fluency of thoughts due to the cognitive difference between normalcy and mania.

Manic people often speak and think in rhyme or alliteration more than non-manic people.

Given this, many rap artists are bipolar:  Kanye West, Eminem, L’il Wayne, Jay-Z, Chris Brown, Chance the Rapper, DMX, The Game, Charles Hamilton, Kendrick Lamar, Scarface, Yung Lean, Yo Yo Honey Singh, Krizz Kaliko and Kid Cudi.

“No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness”- Aristotle

 

“Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament” is Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison’s exploration of how bipolar disorder can run in artistic or high-achieving families.

 

As an example, she cites Lord Byron and his relatives, especially his daughter, Ada Lovelace, a mathematical genius and often regarded as the world’s first computer programmer (in 1842!!).

“Heir to madness, virulently melancholic, and in lifelong fear of going insane, Byron represents the fine edge of the fine madness — the often imperceptible line between poetic temperament and psychiatric illness,” writes Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison in her book “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament,” which shines a spotlight on the lives of bipolar artists, including Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Allen Poe, and Virginia Woolf.

 

Like many manic-depressives, Byron was suicidal, as he alludes to in this letter dated 1817: “I should, many a good day, have blown my brains out.”

“The mind of Lord Byron was like a volcano.

Full of fire and wealth, sometimes calm, often dazzling and playful, but ever threatening.

It ran swift as the lightning from one subject to another, and occasionally burst forth in passionate throes of intellect, nearly allied to madness.”

Madness.

You wouldn’t actually think there was an element of madness if you were to read selections of Byron’s poetry.

Much of it is about nature, love or atheism.

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is society, where none intrudes

By the deep sea, and music in its roar

I love not Man the less, but Nature more.

— “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”

 

For unconditional, genuine love, there were always animals in Byron’s life.

While he was studying at Cambridge, he was told all pet dogs were banned (wanting his bulldog Smut living in his dorm).

Byron was so annoyed he bought a tame bear instead.

He’d walk the bear around the grounds on a chain like a dog and got great pleasure from the terrified reactions.

Byron tried to get the bear enrolled as a student.

He said, ‘I have got a new friend…a tame bear…they asked me what I should do with him, and my reply was, “he should sit for a fellowship.”

Later in life in his palazzo in Venice, he kept a menagerie.

His close friend Percy Shelley describes this arrangement:

“Lord B’s establishment consists…of ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon…just met on the grand staircase five peacocks, two guinea hens and an Egyptian Crane.”

Byron had a fascination for the supernatural.

The reputedly haunted seat of the Byron family, Newstead Abbey, became a favourite venue for Byron’s entourage.

His gothic flamboyance perpetuated this sense of the spooky.

A coffin stood at one end of the dining room, which Byron had turned into an indoor shooting gallery.

Skulls of the monks who had been at buried at the abbey and Byron’s own ancestors from the family crypt were used as flowerpots that lined the walls.

He also had a drinking mug made from one of these monkish skulls and served drinks in others.

Byron and his friends even wore long, dark, hooded robes as worn by medieval monks, for their soirees.

When Percy Shelly was cremated, Byron asked if he could keep Shelley’s skull but he was refused because of his fetish for using them as goblets.

During his summer with the Shelleys at Lake Geneva in 1816, Byron suggested the group spend a rainy afternoon writing ghost stories.

Mary Shelly wrote “Frankenstein” and Byron’s doctor William Polidori wrote “The Vampyre,” the story that inspired future interpretations from Dracula to Twilight.

This vampire story was read all over Europe and based on a literary idea by Byron himself (the story was first published under Byron’s name originally explaining the great interest).

The type of vampire in the story was wholly new.

Previously the vampires in European folklore were peasants and villager spectres, dirty with talon-like fingernails as seen in Nosferatu.

By contrast, Polidori’s vampire is rich, aristocratic and weighed down by ennui — much like Byron himself.

The vampire is called Lord Ruthren, a name that can be linked back to Byron, as one of his former lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, created a villain called Lord Ruthren Glenarvon, incidentally written as revenge against Byron.

Lord Ruthren has cold grey eyes, it is impossible to know what he is thinking and he mixes with the cream of high society.

He is liked, but is a secret predator eager to lead the virtuous astray with his charms — traits which are familiarly Byronic.

Byron was a world traveler, travelling to Portugal, Spain, and the Near East, and spent the last eight years of his life abroad — in Switzerland, Italy, and Greece.

In 1823 in Greece, he was invited to support the struggle for the country’s independence from the Ottoman Empire.

He spent 4,000 pounds of his own money to restore the Greek naval fleet and trained troops in the town of Missolonghi.

In 1824, Byron became ill.

The exact cause of his death is unclear, but he died on April 19, 1824 at the age of 36.

“The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very very brightly Roy.”- Tyrell in Bladerunner

Alfred Tennyson would later recall the shocked reaction in Britain when word was received of Byron’s death.

The Greeks mourned Lord Byron deeply, and he became a national hero.

It has been said that if Byron had lived and had gone on to defeat the Ottomans, he might have been declared King of Greece.

His remains, minus his heart, which the Greeks buried at Missolonghi, were sent to England for burial in Westminster Abbey, but the Abbey refused for reason of “questionable morality”.

Huge crowds viewed his coffin as he lay in state for two days in London.

He is buried at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in  Nottinghamshire.

A marble slab given by the King of Greece is laid directly above Byron’s grave.

His daughter, Ada Lovelace, was later buried beside him.

Ada Lovelace was Byron’s only legitimate child.

Byron separated from her mother a month after Ada was born and left England forever four months later, eventually dying of disease in the Greek War of Independence when Ada was eight in 1824.

Ada’s mother remained bitter towards Lord Byron and promoted Ada’s interest in mathematics and logic in an effort to prevent her from developing what she saw as the insanity seen in her father.

However, Ada remained interested in Byron despite this (although he never had a relationship with her) and was, upon her eventual death, buried next to him at her request.

Ada became a brilliant mathematician and worked with fellow mathematician Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine, a mechanical computer for which she wrote the world’s first algorithms.

She was the first to develop a vision of the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching.

She has been referred to as “Prophet of the Computer Age.”

Ada is considered the world’s first computer programmer (in 1838!!) and the programming language ADA was named in her honour.

Ada Lovelace died at 36, the same age as her father.

In her final years she was like her father in other ways, including romantic scandals, problems with alcohol and opium, and gambling debts.

“Symptoms consistent with mania, depression, and mixed states are evident in the descriptions of Byron given by his physicians, friends, and Byron himself,” writes Jamison.

“His mood fluctuations were extreme, ranging from the suicidally melancholic to the irritable, volatile, violent, and expansive.

Symptoms of depression included ennui, despair, lethargy, and sleeplessness.

He thought of suicide and discussed it with others, to the extent that his friends and wife were at times concerned that he would take his own life.

To a degree he saw his involvement with the Greek independence cause as a probable road to death, and it is likely that had he not died in Greece he would have killed himself in another way.”

It is extremely rare for a poet to become famous during his lifetime, but Byron did.

An early death didn’t hinder his prolificity.

Lord Byron’s oeuvre is colossal.

He wrote a countless number of poems and at least seven finished plays.

However, Byron clearly longed for death, as can be seen in Canto IV from “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.”

 

But I have lived, and have not lived in vain

My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,

And my frame perish even in conquering pain,

But there is that within me which shall tire

Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire.

But words are things, and a small drop of ink,

Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces

That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think;

‘Tis strange, the shortest letter which man uses

Instead of speech, may form a lasting link

Of ages; to what straits old Time reduces

Frail man, when paper – even a rag like this –

Survives himself, his tomb, and all that’s his.

 

Touched by fire  –  a flame that burned fast and furious and then snuffed out like a candle in the wind.

 

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