Kay Jamison’s Saturn and the meaning of mania

Kay Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind is the personal account of manic-depression by a well-respected psychologist who happens to be the co-editor of the massive standard reference work, Manic-Depressive Illness. Her narrative of her experiences in the manic state resonate with mine in many ways, but her take on the thoughts and feelings of mania differ from mine in some important ways.

Her chapter on “Missing Saturn” tells of her psychotic flight past the moons and rings of that planet. She was elated by the “inconstant but ravishing colors laid out across miles of circling rings” but laments that it was not real in any meaningful sense of the word “real.” For her, “Saturn and its icy rings took on an elegiac beauty, and I don’t see Saturn’s image now without feeling an acute sadness at its being so far away from me, so unobtainable in so many ways.” The beauty of the experience made it difficult to believe that the illness was one she should willingly give up. However, she accepted the medication which took away the flight to Saturn because she recognized that the harms of flying there outweighed the benefits.

OK, not a bad call. She sees Saturn as part of the seductive pathology of a brain condition; it is powerfully appealing, but it is pathology nevertheless. Saturn is part of the problem of mania, and giving it up is part of the solution.

My reaction on reading this chapter was rather different. Consistent with my view that many manic symptoms have meaning and purpose, I immediately saw something with a deep and powerful meaning. Dr. Jamison writes elsewhere in her book of her “mercurial” temperament which had so often driven her to move fast, think fast, and keep things in motion at an accelerated pace throughout her life and career.  Her meteorologist father had introduced her to the night sky when she was young. She was aware that Mercury is the fastest of the planets in its orbit around the sun. The word “mercurial” derives from this fact, which was well known in the ancient world and which made Mercury the symbol of quick and light movement. Having a mercurial temperament is a fine thing, but it creates problems of its own and, if not balanced by other influences, leads to many mishaps.

Saturn, on the other hand, is the slowest of the naked eye planets in its orbit around the sun. It plods along for months through a single zodiacal constellation, and often slows down, stops, and plods back in the other direction across the night sky. It has long been a symbol of phlegmatic movement, of restriction, lethargy, pain, and depression. It represents everything which her constitutionally mercurial biases reject, seeing only the destructiveness of the saturnine influences of gloom, coldness, and slowness to act.

But her unconscious mind knows better. Saturn is slow and leaden, but it is also steady and deliberate. Behind its cold and restrictive energy, there lies a wisdom which brings to her the very balance she requires. Her mania is showing her that this rejected aspect of being has an elegiac beauty of its own; Saturn is not part of the pathology of mania, but an essential part of its cure. The message of the madness is that Saturn needs to be brought inside and integrated into her being; if she accepts it, it will provide the ballast and balance which Mercury requires. Saturn is not something that needs to be given up, but is an inalienable part of the wisdom of the entire soul.

Under my reading, the manic experience of Saturn has meaning and purpose; it has happened for a reason. Saturn is not far away and unobtainable, but it rests deep within her own being, and it will continue to manifest its own form of beauty if she will recognize its contribution to her very own inalienable sanity, which depends not on exogenous medication but on the understanding and prosaic common sense which the influence of Saturn brings.

Carl Jung somewhere mentions a passage from Paracelsus to the effect that the influence of Mars on the strong is to endow them with warlike courage, but its effect on the weak is to make them peevish and quarrelsome. Similarly, the influence of Saturn on the unwise is to make them frustrated, defeated, and depressed. But its influence on the wise is to make them deliberate, centered, and imperturbable in circumstances which send the unwise into a tizzy.

That dance past the moons of Saturn happened for a reason; it is only the frame of reference of the medical model of mania which seeks to get rid of it as a manifestation of disease and disorder.

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