I’ve been reading these four books simultaneously the past few weeks as I try to understand the Alice in Wonderland ”We’re All Mad Here” dynamic that seems to define the participants of America’s political culture:
Touched with Fire: Manic Depression and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison argues that bipolar disorder fuels artistic and creative ability. She documents how the symptoms for a number or mood disorders appeared in the lives of many of the past centuries’ most prominent writers, painters, composers, and especially poets. Jamison explains how the manic depressive’s experience of swinging from mood to mood allows the artist to continually create and analyze from a variety of perspectives, thus being able to create groundbreaking new works. (I mentioned Touched with Fire and the relationship between bipolar and cool in this article from October about Cool and Baby Boomer culture.) In the political contests we see the same thing — the ability to launch off some cool retort to a debate moderator comes from the same psychic well as the poet’s verse. Psychological abnormalities fuel magickal ability and can be utilized regardless of whether the spell is a political slogan, or rock lyric, innovative line of computer code, or illicit barroom seduction.
John D. Gartner’s The Hypomanic Edge builds on Jamison’s thesis and applies it to American businessmen, explorers, and entrepreneurs. In six chapters he examines the psychology of Christopher Columbus, John Winthrop, Roger Williams, William Penn, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Carnegie, the Hollywood mogul families of the Selznicks and the Mayers, and the human genome scientist Craig Venter. Gartner puts forth a startling thesis: the American character and personality is innately different at the genetic level because we are a nation of immigrants. We’re just naturally going to have more of these intense, emotional, risk-taker, sometimes self-destructive people than other non-immigrant countries. Gartner writes,
A small empirical literature suggests that there are elevated rates of manic-depressive disorder among immigrants, regardless of what country they are moving from or to. America, a nation of immigrants, has higher rates of mania than every other country studied (with the possible exception of New Zealand, which topped the United States in one study)…. While we have no cross-cultural studies of hypomania, we can infer that we would find increased levels of hypomania among immigrant-rich nations like America, since mania and hypomania run together in the same families.
Thus it’s no surprise that this would be the nature of our leaders today — it was centuries ago.
Nassir Ghaemi’s A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness focuses on political and military leaders (this Washington Times review is a good, quick summary, here’s an excerpt):
In “A First-Rate Madness,” he employs a case-study approach, using outstanding figures from history to illustrate how bipolar mentality can disable or enhance the ability of leaders to cope with crisis. His subjects are William T. Sherman, Ted Turner, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Adolf Hitler. In each of these cases, there was early history of mood swings, some dominated by depression, others by ebullient, thymic personality (FDR in particular).
The first three chapters of Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals explore the amoral lives and cruel personalities of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Percy Shelley, and Karl Marx. All three fit the same pattern: deeply magnetic, magickal creativity and intellect capable of manifesting world-changing ideas. And absolute personal life disasters with hateful, arrogant, uber-narcissist temperaments. They abused everyone they loved. Shelley is also featured prominently in Touched with Fire.
These books examine the unmasked, inner worlds of major figures in the political, economic, and cultural life of the West. How much of our political culture are symptoms of psychologically disturbed, destructive people trying to project their own personal misery onto the rest of us? How much careerist workaholism is a tragic attempt to avoid dealing with one’s own brokenness? Are radicals attracted to apocalyptic political narratives of a dying world and collapsing society because such visions mirror their own internal mood swings? Is Johnson really on to something when he links Marx’s early poetry to the destructive political theology later defined in Das Kapital? Is it a coincidence that Marxist and Rousseauian political theory — which have proven suicidal for societies — were conceived by self-destructive men? What does it mean that we can see depression among several of the founders and other historical defenders of freedom such as Lincoln and Churchill? Does it mean that the great battles of human history — that stretch out across the millennia and involved hundreds of millions of people — boil down to contests between those who have mastered their demons and those mastered by them?
I don’t know yet but it’s a subject I’m going to keep exploring.
Back when I was a Chomskyite “progressive” in college I always used to look down on the “simple-minded” people who supposedly made their presidential vote on something superficial: which candidate would I rather have a beer with? At a time when I believed religiously that the United States was committing genocide over in Iraq, this question almost seemed offensive.
And of course I resented this argument because in my bones I knew that it made George W. Bush beat John Kerry. Yet even after my intellectual migration to Tea Party conservatism I still maintained an almost “elitist” mentality when it came to how one should vote. “Think about the issues! Who cares if you like the person or not? It’s the policies that matter! We need to vote for the ideas that will fix this country. That’s what we need in our leader: someone with the right ideas who understands how our government is supposed to actually function.” (Not coincidentally this is basically the argument for Gingrich.)
But what if actually the superficial approach is right? What if we should follow our hearts instead of our heads? What if actually we should gravitate toward whoever in the race is the most decent, most moral, most ethical, most friendly, most likable, most sincerely spiritual and religious, and above all most upstanding person?
This is just a rephrasing of the question I posed on the first page which I now submit for debate and discussion to PJM’s commenting community:
Who among the GOP presidential contenders most has their personal demons in check?
Update: Check out my new article today following up on this piece: Can Herman Cain Rise Back Up on a Cloud of Marijuana Smoke?
Check out my previous PJ Counterculture articles: