Kay Jamison's Exuberance.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 20 2004 12:56 PM

Goodbye, Darkness

The new science of exuberance.

Book cover

What does the good life feel like? I mean the life worth living, the life we should and do admire. For most of the last century, that question was answered in terms derived from the study of depression, schizophrenia, and the anxiety disorders. A person in touch with the times would suffer existential angst and social anomie. To be wise was to experience ambivalence about important matters and to feel alienated from the culture.

If I am reading the tea leaves right, our fascination with emotional paralysis may be nearing an end. Philip Fisher, a literary scholar at Harvard, recently made the case for "the vehement passions" in a book of that title. Fisher is referring to emotions dear to the ancient Greeks—anger, pride, obstinacy, and rashness.

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The passions are precisely not modern. Those who hold them lack double-mindedness; their perspectives are not tinged with irony. Passionate grief, for example, leads to bold action. Think of Electra or Antigone; think of Achilles roused to battle with Hector.

Of course, melancholics have always written in praise of a simplicity that they could not attain—while secretly taking pride in their own inner complexity. But we seem now to have entered an era in which intellectuals praise whole-heartedness and mean it wholeheartedly. Our aesthetics have undergone a sea change.

This shift in taste is now becoming apparent in books meant for a general audience. In January, Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist whose work is grounded in Buddhism, will offer up Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life. And this month, Kay Redfield Jamison contributes Exuberance: The Passion for Life.

Jamison, a psychologist in the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins, is best known for her account of her own manic-depression, An Unquiet Mind. She is the author of Touched With Fire, an exhaustive study of the relationship between mood disorder and creativity, and the co-author, with Frederick Goodwin, of Manic-Depressive Illness, the definitive resource on bipolar mood disorder. It is no slight to the newest book to say that it is one of Jamison's less substantial works.

Jamison does not so much argue the case for exuberance as illustrate it, through a flood of examples of men (mostly) whose optimism and energy led them to success. Exuberance opens with a thumbnail sketch of Teddy Roosevelt, our most insistently enthusiastic president. Like its subject, the portrait is relentlessly positive, praising Roosevelt's vitality, his good humor, and even his immaturity. "You must always remember," a British diplomat says, regarding Roosevelt's apparent age, "the President is always about six."

To any reader still inclined to melancholy, this opening may seem a false step. Aren't we Americans already too prone to blind optimism, not least in our military adventures? Other biographers have called San Juan Hill an unnecessary battle conducted in a fashion that put Roosevelt's men at excessive risk. Perhaps now is a time for less certainty and greater self-doubt—more waffling and flip-flopping, if you please.

As a rule, Jamison underplays exuberance's downside. She presents Carlton Gajdusek as a model of the successful exuberant scientist, and of course he is. Working with a Stone Age tribe in New Guinea, Gajdusek and his colleagues discovered the progressive brain disease kuru. They then traced its origins to a slow virus, transmitted through cannibalistic rites. This work forms the basis for our understanding of mad cow disease—and it led to a Nobel Prize for Gajdusek.

Jamison does not mention that Gajdusek later pleaded guilty to two counts of child abuse and spent over a year in jail, based on a relationship with a teenage boy he had brought to the United States from Micronesia. In his scientific journals, Gajdusek had written openly about this sort of arrangement; the striking aspect of the story is Gajdusek's unworldliness. Nor is Gajdusek the only possible example of the precept that poor judgment goes hand in hand with exuberance. A treatise on well-meaning men who made grave missteps might include many of the same characters Jamison discusses here. 

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