All I’ve suffered, and all the suffering I’ve  caused, might have arisen from the lack of a little salt in my brain.”

Robert Lowell

I have been reading Kay Redfield Jamison’s Robert Lowell. Setting the River on Fire: a study of genius, mania and character. It is a lusciously detailed and clinically informed study of Lowell bipolar disorder, its treatments and the endurance of his writing through the many crises his madness bestowed on him.

In the late 60s Lowell began to take lithium for his illness. Lithium, this strange and ancient salt, would change Lowell’s experience of illness and mania. For the next 15 years the frequent, yearly or more, attacks of mania would subside. These attacks had harrowed Lowell’s soul and left him with a constant fear of the recurrence of mania. Jamison insightfully compares the trauma of mania or other psychotic episodes to the trauma of war. After lithium Lowell could live through a late peace.

There is a debate about the quality of Lowell’s poetry in these years of less strife and torment. Jamison takes the view the lithium gave Lowell more years to write without the ravages of madness. Jamison can speak with authority. She has known those manias and the falls, and has written a wonderful account of her own descent as a psychiatrist into her personal bipolar hell. I share her view, knowing in my own life how a little pill can school an errant mind.

Surely poetry, literature, art do not demand the sacrifice of the poet, writer, artist, prophet to the destructive gods of madness. Surely we can shift the inner circles of body and mind, just as we remake nature with culture which is after all part of nature. Surely we can make this small offering of a little salt or a pill to appease the gods of destruction.

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7 thoughts on “Strange salt

  1. i wouldn’t mind getting my mitts on Jamison’s book. i’ve read quite a bit about it. It’s quite remarkable how many poets of that generation suffered with madness: Lowell, Berryman, Roethke, Plath, Sexton & a little before them or rather overlapping, Delmore Schwartz & Hart Crane (who doesn’t overlap). & all of them so good.
    It makes you wonder about the likelihood of that much madness in such a brief time, maybe, 20 odd years?

    “shift the inner circles of body and mind, just as we remake nature with culture which is after all part of nature.” This is a very strong line & idea. I like the analogy to Dante in the “inner circles of body & mind” & i think you strike a contested idea with culture as nature. i am sure many would not agree. i am on the fence at the point in my life. It does seem that anything that exists is a part of nature, & so culture being a constantly emerging & receding thing must work out of a nature of sorts. But i can see how people may feel uncomfortable with culture as nature when they think of nature as something pure.

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    1. I have also been rereading Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s One foot in the river – why our lives changes and the limits of evolution. It is from there I got the idea that culture is part of nature, but it does not mean it is fixed. It is a very interesting argument that integrates biology and culture, which I will write a post on soon.

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      1. i look forward to reading it. i used to read much more, but when there is no bookshop at arms length then i tend to just re-read what little i have or turn to decent journals online, i miss book shops though or having the set-up to buy online.

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      2. Cheers Jeff. i’ve ummed n’ argghhheedd about a kindle, but i don’t think i’ll do it, if only because i imagine i’ll be one of those who buys stuff on a whim & never get around to reading it. i’m best as i am actually, though i sound as if i’m having a moan, because i re-read, which is actually quite a good habit to get into.

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  2. I like the analogy to Dante in the “inner circles of body & mind” & i think you strike a contested idea with culture as nature.
    “shift the inner circles of body and mind, just as we remake nature with culture which is after all part of nature.

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