Donald Hall on Bi-polarity, from “The Way to Say ‘Pleasure’”
Literature is largely although not entirely the product of maniacs.
Any notion that connects genius with abnormal psychology is routinely dismissed with the epithet romantic. Conventional minds need to dismiss the notion of functional aberration. But discovery necessitates eccentricity because the center is already known. Of course it must be noted that neither mania nor anything else guarantees discovery.
The incidence of bi-polar mood disorder in artists, especially in writers, rises high in proportion to the rest of the population. Bi-polarity implies gross swings of mood, but not necessarily the madness of delusion or suicide. Some manic-depressives—including Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke—enter institutions for thought-disorders not just mood-disorders. In any case, bi-polarity is painful and wasteful: Mania is self-deceptive and depression self-destructive. At extremely manic states one lacks judgement so thoroughly that one is unlikely to write well; in extreme depression one cannot lift a pencil. Recent pharmacological discovery allows many patients respite from these extremes.
But also: Manic inspiration can make great art. The confidence and energy of a limited manic state is the divine afflatus, the sense of possession or transport, inspiration, the vatic voice that speaks unbidden. Mania characterizes not only poets but saints, mystics, mathematicians, and inventors. The poet’s inspiration is a heightened ability to perceive and embody previously unrecognized identities. It reaches past pleasure to joy. Pleasure is the body’s and allows the poem its entry. Joy is the spirit’s and responds to what mania provides: the insight that recognizes and establishes connections and resemblances. Metaphor is the spirit’s rhetoric as mania is its chemistry; the psyche which we experience as immaterial works through material means.
Mania is essential to the survival of the species, and to the large machine of civilization; it enhances not the individual but the collective. Manic-depressives may kill themselves when they are down but when they are up they give birth. Creation needs destruction. By inventing epics and wheels when they are inspired, manics provide for the whole machine. When they are low they provide nothing—but they do not break the machine. (They break themselves and people around them.) When they write books they write out of their experience, much of which is hopeless. They report on loss and despair, which are endemic to all life, in the flesh and body of their art which is pleasure. This marriage of dark and light, this wedding of pain and pleasure, makes literature’s bi-polar wholeness. Poetry weds the unweddable and embodies the conditions we live under: twigs of dread, nest of pleasure.