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With Manic Depression and Creativity, Hershman and Lieb update their 1988 book, The Key to Genius: Manic-Depression and the Creative Life. Written for a general audience, the book explores the stereotype of the "mad genius": are madness and genius truly inextricably linked, and how has mental illness affected the lives of those geniuses whose mental illness can be historically documented? After beginning the book with chapters on the concept of genius and the phenomenon of manic depression, Hershman and Lieb devote the majority of the book to biographical analyses of four well-known historical figures and manic-depressives: Isaac Newton, Ludwig van Beethoven, Charles Dickens, and Vincent Van Gogh. They conclude with a discussion of how manic depression can both diminish creativity and augment genius, including treatment recommendations.
Hershman and Lieb argue that "manic-depression is almost indispensable to genius because of the advantages that it can supply, and that if there have been geniuses free from manic-depression, they have been a minority" (11). This argument is based not on scientific premises (they believe that case studies, retrospective histories, and research studies will never be able to definitively settle the question), but logical premises; given two people of equal talent and training, the one who is manic-depressive will on average be more original, have more ideas, work harder (all of the former in manic phases), and be more perfectionist (in depressive phases). She will thus most likely best her non-manic-depressive counterpart. Hershman and Lieb admit that a few individuals may be so talented as to not need the advantages manic depression can supply to achieve the rank of genius, and that the illness itself may well destroy any talent and/or productive capacity in an afflicted individual. They contend, however, that those born with both prodigious talents and manic depression are predisposed to become geniuses.
Unfortunately, the evidence Hershman and Lieb go on to present in the book does not entirely support such a bold claim. The four biographies which make up the heart of the book do an excellent job of demonstrating how the subjects genius, accomplishments and manic depression are deeply intertwined: how mania brought floods of inspiration which were hammered out in more quiet times into novels, symphonies, or theorems on gravity. Also well illustrated is the often devastating effect the subjects manic depression had on their personal, economic, and family affairs. The biographies alone make the book worth reading. It should be noted that the authors go beyond the scope of other books on this subject, such as Kay Redfield Jamisons Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, by considering genius in non-artistic disciplines such as the sciences and mathematics. Creativity is certainly of value in fields other than the arts.
To support a claim that manic depression is "almost indispensable to genius," however, requires more. The authors have clearly demonstrated a link between manic depression and genius for some great figures in the arts and sciences, but there is a huge difference between some and all or even most. Little effort is given to showing why the non-manic-depressive will have a significantly more difficult time achieving genius (in a sense, why the manic-depressive has an edge over the "control group"). Hershman and Lieb speak of the advantages mild manic depression can offer, such as originality, productivity, perfectionism, and facility with language, but there are other sources of these traits besides manic depression. While this book proves its case with some geniuses, more work remains to be done to show that manic depression is crucial to genius.
Manic Depression and Creativity is nonetheless almost revolutionary in putting forward the notion that there are positive aspects to manic depression, especially in its milder forms. It forces one to consider the notion that a manic depressive who is willing and able to control her condition through treatment may actually be better off than her non-mentally ill counterpart. And it lets us know that there may just be something to the idea of the "mad genius" after all.
Lara Winner is a graduate student in philosophy with a concentration in medical ethics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
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