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  • Scott M Williamson

Someone in a tree...

Updated: Aug 7

...one in an ongoing series of mental health posts...


2011 was an eventful one. It was the first time I’d been fired after 20 years on various jobs. I thought my fury would strike Pulp Fiction vengeance upon them and... Yeah... A decade on, I'm grateful for those challenges, and the quick path to the mental/nervous breakdown I had that summer, following my first known episode of seizures.


Last year I had a similar experience with seizures, and this time EMS was called and the neurologist was seen. (No news is good news?) That episode helped prompt this mental health blog. A year later I feel better than I have since the start of 2020...


The summer of 2011 was eventful for other reasons. A New England road trip included a stop at the Bard Music Festival (NY) to hear friends sing in “Sibelius and his World.” The weekend included a symposium-recital featuring a leading psychiatrist in bipolar disorder among artists, Kay Redfield Jamison.


The symposium discussion centered on the composer’s famous 35-year creative “silence” which followed his 7th Symphony and his Finnish winter-Landscape tone poem, Tapiola.


Jamison and Festival director/Bard President Leon Botstein discussed whether or not Sibelius (1865-1957) may have been more creative in the last third of his life if he’d taken Lithium? Or might the “leveling effects” bipolar pharmaceuticals can have on manic-depressive temperaments have curbed his creativity? How do treatments and its side-effects, seasonal cycles, and the creative temperament work together? What role(s) did the accompanying illness of addiction play(s) on the subject’s fate?


This symposium led me to her engaging, both fascinating and unsettling book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and Artistic Temperament. It concludes with an appendix of “Writers, artists, and composers with probable Cyclothymia, Major depression, or Manic-depressive illness.”


Venice, alluring city of death for Wagner, Browning, Stravinsky, Nono and Joseph Brodsky. (Author photo, 2016)

It is a staggering list. The poets alone number 84, and include such eminent figures as Blake, Burns, Byron, Coleridge, Dickinson, Eliot, Hopkins, Hugo, Keats, Millay, Pasternak, Pushkin, Shelley, Tennyson and Whitman. Nearly two-dozen suicides number among these poets. The vast majority of suicides are victims of mental illness. Addiction, too, is an illness. That is yet another discussion. Back to Touched with Fire.


Here are a few resonant, ever-timely quotes included by Jamison, an astute, literate encyclopedist:

Endless night, fierce fires, and scramming cold.. (Dante)


Violent rushes of blood, unspeakable fear, momentous unconsciousness, alternate quickly.

(Robert Schumann)


The melancholy I have all my life been subject to has become of late years not indeed more intense in its fits but rather more distributed, constant, and crippling… my state is much like madness .

(Gerald Manley Hopkins)

Lorenz Hart (L) and Richard Rogers. Hart suffered from depression and addiction, and was gay in a less tolerant time...

No worst there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,

More pangs will, schooling at forepangs, wider wring.

… O the mind, mind has mountains: cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed…

… Life death does end and each day dies with sleep. (Hopkins)


Here’s one for my Leo siblings, from the "mad" 20th c. poet, Theodor Roethke:


For no reason at all I started to feel good… I knew how it felt to be a tree, a blade of grass, even a rabbit. I didn’t sleep much… One day I was passing a diner and all of a sudden I knew what it felt like to be a lion. I went into the diner and said to the counter-man, “bring me a steak. Don’t cook it. Just bring it.” So he brought me this raw steak and I started eating it. The other customers made like they were revolted, watching me. And I began to see that maybe it was a little strange. (in Jamison, p. 28).

Dante bust, guarded by Lion, Arsenale, Venice (author, 2016)

[Mania is] a magical orange grove in a nightmare (Robert Lowell).

Also recommended: Jamison’s medical-biography, Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire.


Some other distinctive "art as life" examples from the ever-dramatic George Gordon, Lord Byron:

Their Life A Storm Whereon They Ride… The Mind’s Canker in its Savage Mood…


Sondheim (1930-2021), literally in his own words: the artist creed which frames "Sunday in the Park with George."

Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021) could turn a single song into an entire scene by capturing a character’s situation and distilling it all into 3 minutes of lyrics, melody and accompaniment. From romance, adventure, entrepreneurship, danger, vulnerability, and facing death, he’s written a song (or a show) for it. A somewhat random top-10ish favorites include:


I’m Still Here, Losing My Mind, Too Many Mornings (Follies)

The Ladies who Lunch, Being Alive (Company)

Children Will Listen, No More (Into the Woods)

We Do Not Belong Together, Finishing the Hat, Move On (Sunday in the Park)

Not a Day Goes By (Merrily We Roll Along)

Johanna (Act 2 quartet from Sweeney Todd)

Someone in a Tree, (Pacific Overtures, a Sondheim personal favorite)

No One Has Ever Loved Me, Loving You, (Passion)

What Can You Lose (Dick Tracy, film)

Here are 2 more voices in Jamison’s Touched with Fire. Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick:

This going mad of a friend or acquaintance comes straight home to every man who feels his soul in him, - which but few men do. For in all of us lodges the same fuel to light the same fire. And he who has never felt, momentarily, what madness is has but a mouthful of brains.


Crowned lion head with bat wings, Venice

Here is Edgar Allan Poe, speaking for many artists blessed with creativity and burdened w. illness:

I am suffering under a depression of spirits such as I have never felt before. I have struggled in vain against the influence of this melancholy – You will believe me when I say I am still miserable in spite of the great improvement in my circumstances.

And yet this (any) season can bring new energy, phoenix-like renewal and Leo’s unmistakable, resilient roar. Music and art are literally therapeutic for me, particularly in perennial, neurotic seasons.


Beauford Delaney's portrait of singer and civil rights activist Marian Anderson (VMFA, Richmond)

I was there then / I am here still...


It's the fragment, not the day / It's the pebble, not the stream

Not the building but the beam / that is happening...


...only cups of tea / and history / and someone in a tree!


(from Pacific Overtures, Sondheim, 1976)


PS: Check out this concert from the BBC Proms: It features two contemporary Finnish scores: Kalevi Aho's Theremin concerto, "Eight Seasons," and a new spectralist tone poem by Kaaija Saariaho. Rarely accused of under-programming, BBC ends w/Shostakovich's 15th, final symphony, a manic-depressive, witty-sardonic homage and pastiche; as raucous a ride as his 19-year old precocious First.


I'm looking forward to listening to it with my noise/world/claustrophobia - cancelling headphones...

(First visit to Venice, 2009)

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