The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Angels and Demons of Genius: Robert Lowell on What It’s Like to Be Bipolar

The Angels and Demons of Genius: Robert Lowell on What It’s Like to Be Bipolar

In contemplating art as experience, philosopher John Dewey argued that the rhythmic highs and lows of life are essential to its creative completeness. Almost a century later, in her marvelous meditation on the pursuit of happiness, artist Maira Kalman observed: “We hope. We despair. We hope. We despair. That is what governs us. We have a bipolar system.”

Although this oscillation might be an indelible part of the human condition, its clinical malignancy — bipolar disorder, first termed manic depression for its alternating extremes of psychotic elation and paralyzing depression — is one of the most debilitating forms of mental illness. Alongside clinical depression, it is also one of the most common conditions afflicting the artists who compose the long lineage of the relationship between creativity and mental illness.

Among them was the great poet Robert Lowell (March 1, 1917–September 12, 1977), whose 1947 Pulitzer Prize made him one of the youngest recipients of the coveted accolade. The feat was followed by one of the most severe bipolar episodes in a lifetime with the disease, which first began bedeviling young Lowell decades before Bipolar Disorder was included in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and even before its progenitor, the term manic-depressive reaction, was coined in the early 1950s.

With his uncommon poetic potency and mastery of language, Lowell has provided what is perhaps the most piercing account of what it’s like to live with this tragically common and woefully disorienting disease.

Robert Lowell at the Grolier Bookshop in Harvard Square in the 1960s (Photograph: Elsa Dorfman)
Robert Lowell at the Grolier Bookshop in Harvard Square in the 1960s (Photograph: Elsa Dorfman)

In a letter from August of 1957, found in Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (public library) — which also gave us Bishop on why everyone should experience at least one prolonged period of solitude in life — Lowell captures the anguishing intoxication of the manic phase:

I see clearly now that for the last few days I have been living in a state of increasing mania — almost off the rails at the end. It almost seems as if I couldn’t be with you any length of time without acting with abysmal myopia and lack of consideration. My disease, alas, gives one (during its seizures) a headless heart.

In a testament to the perils of pharmacology in the face of our incomplete understanding of the mind, Lowell describes his experience with an antipsychotic drug that has since been banned from human use and is only administered in veterinary medicine:

I am taking my anti-manic pills — 75 mgs. of sparine, no more than what my doctor prescribed on the bottle but too much to drive a car or even see people much. The effect is something like the slowing and ache of a medium fever. One’s thoughts are not directly changed and healed, but the terrible, overriding restlessness of one’s system is halted so that the mind can again see life as it is.

By the next morning, he has descended from the manic high:

Yesterday was mostly bed, sparine and letting my beard grow. Today I feel certain that I am not going off the deep end. Gracelessly, like a standing child trying to sit down, like a cat or a coon coming down a tree, I’m getting down my ladder to the moon. I am part of my family again, I love my lovely family again.

Despite the medication, the disease continued to afflict Lowell, resulted in multiple hospitalizations, and frequently interfered with his interpersonal relationships, including his deep, sincere, lifelong friendship with Bishop. One of the most agonizing aspects of mental illness is that we come to confuse our neurochemistry with our personhood, mistaking how we are for who we are, and come to feel deep shame about the states spurred by our clinical condition. Accordingly, Lowell often found himself self-flagellating and apologizing for his disorder. In a 1958 letter, he beseeches Bishop:

Let’s not let my slip into the monstrous cloud our love.

By the following year, he has taken a more modern approach to mental illness, combining medication with therapy. In an unusually optimistic 1959 letter to Bishop, Lowell seeks to reconcile his art and his illness into a working relationship:

My therapy (three days a week) is really doing great things, and I begin to hope that by this time next year the knot inside me will be unsnarled. I do so want to live on into gray and white hairs, still growing. All the battering of the last ten years now seems to be paying off.

My trouble seems (just one angle for looking at it) to be to bring together in me the Puritanical iron hand of constraint and the gushes of pure wildness. One can’t survive or write without both but they need to come to terms. Rather narrow walking — I can always go off the beam into hallucinations, or lie aching and depressed for months.

As psychopharmacology evolved, Lowell tried a number of different drugs, all of which have since been replaced by newer ones. (A decade later, while on a new meprobamate treatment, he would write to Bishop: “Well, I’ve weathered my excitements and everyone’s astonished. It’s party Miltown, a drug that somehow soothes, without the heaviness and depression, preliminary panic.”) With the help of medication and therapy, he did “live on into gray and white hairs,” winning a second Pulitzer Prize and the $10,000 National Medal for Literature. He captured his lifelong tussle with mental illness in one of his most evocative poems:


Like thousands, I took pride and more than just,
struck matches that brought my blood to a boil;
I memorized the tricks to set the river on fire —
Somehow never wrote something to go back to.
Can I suppose I am finished with wax flowers
And have earned my grass on the minor slopes of Parnassus…
No honeycomb is built without a bee
adding circle to circle, cell to cell,
the wax and honey of a mausoleum —
this round dome proves its maker is alive;
the corpse of the insect lives embalmed in honey,
prays that its perishable work lives long
enough for the sweet-tooth bear to desecrate —
this open book … my coffin.

Words in Air is a beautiful and wholehearted read in its totality. Complement this particular aspect with William Styron on what it’s like to live with depression, Tchaikovsky on finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, and astrophysicist Janna Levin on the relationship between genius and madness.

Published February 26, 2016




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