Thank god for obsession, without it what would be left for
literature? We’d have no immortal opening lines that muse upon What
is in a name?: Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, my
sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of
three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee.
No, if Humbert Humbert weren’t obsessed with the sprite Lolita,
he’d wait until he became a wealthy old codger then acquire a trophy
wife to satisfy his whim (whim not obsession) for a woman many years
his junior. She’d be one of these optimists who come to Hollywood
after taking second place in a county-wide beauty contest, or some
young woman he’d spotted in a shampoo commercial. Oh there’s a novel
in that I suppose, but not a great one, not a dangerous one, not
Nabokov’s, not the manuscript he nearly burned.
Lolita tells the story of an accursed desire, but if obsession
we’re sucked (with a straw?) out of the collective psyche we’d also
lose the colossal, towering accursed hatreds—poof! There goes
Captain Ahab and his crazed pursuit of the great white
water-dwelling creature. Poof! There goes all that Biblical
and Miltonic language, the enflamed and inflated: “What I’ve
dared I’ve willed, and what I’ve willed, I’ll do! They think me
mad—Starbuck does but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened.… The
prophesy was that I should be dismembered and—Aye, I lost a leg. I
now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer.”
Had Ahab been less obsessed and more pragmatic he’d have given up
the chase long ago: O.K., so I couldn’t sink a harpoon into Moby
Dick. Well— oh well, as the saying goes, there’re other fish in the
In life, however, obsession takes many forms, most of them
disagreeable. One can have monomania, a Greek-sprung word. One can
have something French, an idée fixe. One can have an Italian pecurliarity, a chiodo fisso. Literally, that foreign phrase
for obsession means “hobby horse”. At least that’s what the Google
translation tool tells me. However, when I separate the words and
insert one at a time it becomes a compound noun, “fixed nail”—a nail
that’s been nailed, very suggestive. It’s true then, as they say,
language rises from metaphor.
Disagreeable obsessions produce unpleasant results: therapy
bills, restraining orders, legal fees, divorce, bankruptcy or—a
house full of stones and pebbles. That last would be obsession in
the form of addictive behavior, the sort that plagues one hapless
woman featured in the low budget cable TV program “My Strange
Addiction”. This particular addict likes rocks. She likes a hundred
thousand of them, so there they sit, the smooth, the jagged, and the
rippled, heaped in her yard, resting in bowls and receptacles on
every surface of her home. She especially enjoys washing the outdoor
heaps. See, now she’s showering her stones with a hose….
At this point I snapped off the TV. I felt depressed. This was
not an ennobling obsession, not a cursed one either, not even an
interesting one. And the next episode would delve into an even
bleaker compulsion, which involved a person who’d squandered her
fifteen minutes of fame licking cleaning powder from her palm in
front of a hand held camera. Ajax. I felt an obsessive-compulsive
resistance to watching any part of that.
However, in others of my explorations I discovered that an
obsession for flowers is called anthomania—now that’s pretty—and
balletomania involves “an abnormal fondness for ballet”. (How does
that work I wonder.) And I’ve found a reference to potichomania, a
craze for imitating Oriental porcelain. Perhaps it takes just one
case for an original new mania to be entered into the books.
Someone’s psychiatric patient, an idea nailed to his brain, rocking
incessantly on his metaphorical wooden horse, must have driven
himself to shame and ruin trying to paint vases with river scenes
typical of the Qianlong Period.
But that sort of thing, a compulsive fixation on a small matter,
it’s not what I want from an obsession. No, as J. A. Prufrock’s
companion might have said, had he spoken up, and had she replied,
“that’s not what I meant, that’s not what I meant at alI.”
It’s this sort of thing: whatever overpowering ambition or fierce
curiosity or sense of honor or obligation or deep ineffable need
drove Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton to sail the Nimod into
the merciless Kingdom of Ice then lead his team out into the frozen
tundra, mile after mile, all them frostbit, snow blind, mouths
bloody from the cold that had stripped the skin from their lips,
I mean, what was that about?
He’s remembered as one of noblest explorers of the 20th century
and, in some respects, nearly the last of his kind. Through his
brilliant leadership and his willingness to go to any length to
ensure his fellows’ safety, even at risk to himself, he managed to
bring every one of his team back alive. In the end he died broke,
buried not by drifts of snow but by debt. With his brains and
gumption he could’ve stayed on dry land, started a business and
enriched himself but, no, he wanted to reach some far latitude where
no one but empire penguins had set foot. Something drove him. What?
And this: In 1972 Diana Nyad jumped into the sea and set out to
become the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida. Forty-one
hours and forty-five minutes later she was still swimming, but by
now she was laced with jellyfish stings and gagging uncontrollably,
crying out from hallucinations triggered by exhaustion. (She
envisioned barracudas winding around her.) But she was swimming.
At forty-one hours and forty-nine minutes her team pulled her out
of the water, a few miles yet from the coast.
She didn’t achieve her goal, but—imagine. I couldn’t do anything
for forty-one hours and forty-nine minutes. I couldn’t walk, read,
eat, blow bubbles, chew gum, watch television, write, drive, talk,
think, sleep or stay awake. The only non-stop activity I can manage
for that stretch of time is breathing.
At age 60, Nyad will make the attempt again later this year, Cuba
to Florida. So what’s that about? Probably “obsession” is the wrong
word—certainly Nyad does not give it that name. She calls it a
“dream,” and explains her motivation this way: “Turning 60 pissed me
Maybe callings of a higher order than mere obsession drove
Shackleton and Nyad. Even so, I want to think obsession played a
role. I want to romanticize obsession, not obsessively, just a
Others also want to romanticize the idea of obsession, often for
commercial purposes, as in Obsession—no, not just the old 80s scent,
the latest one. Chandler Burr, perfume writer for The New York Times
Style Magazine, declares that the new fragrance invokes, “the scent
of twilight, the smell of shadows lengthening over an early autumn
Cobble Hill street: the leaves turning, the scent of the bark of the
trees from the park, the sophistication of all those renovated
brownstones. And there’s a scent from the local bakery: cake, or
spice bread, or cookies.”
He’s describing the spawn of Obsession.
See, there’s your basic Calvin Klein fragrance and the sequel,
the company’s re-styled, re-mixed, twilighty, shadowy, spice
bready, renovated brownstoney Secret Obsession.
I’ll bet that new one smells nice, and yet the corporate world
shouldn’t glamorize obsession, really, since that is, after all,
what led John Hinkley to fire a 22 caliber revolver into President
Regan because the former had gotten all mixed up about Jodie Foster
and a character
in a movie. And it didn’t improve the disposition of Mark David
Chapman or Jared Lee Loughner either.
Even so, obsession retains its selling power—something about its
association with passion, desire, intensity. Apathy, indifference,
blah-dom, those moods don’t work for the cosmetic industry. Though
the phrase rolls easily off the tongues of cool and pre-cool
adolescents, no one would buy a perfume called Whatever…
Whatever. Thankfully I’ve never had an obsession.
I had one —but it’s over now, I’ve recovered myself, my sanity.
For a time, though, over a six month period, I purchased Bakelite
bangles on eBay. I didn’t bid on the rarest and most expensive. Most
came in at $30 or less, and only two exceeded $100, nevertheless I
“won” and paid for an un-frugal, imprudent, un-wise, ridiculously
frivolous and extravagant twenty-nine Bakelite bangles. (Or, to be
precise, it wasn’t the objects that were imprudent and unwise but my
purchase of them.)
Why did I need so many variously colored hard, shiny bracelets
made out of thermosetting phenolformaldehyde resin with a wood flour
filler, a precursor to modern plastic invented in 1909 by the
Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland? Why!? What drove me?
In any case, I’m now cured of my eBay binge-buying, so I don’t
believe I’ll have to admit that I’m helpless in the face of the
addiction and submit to a higher power. As of this writing I’m nine
days and three hours since I've purchased or bid on a new Bakelite bangle. In that
time I have not bid on or shelled out money for polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, which is, in fact, its formal
name. And isn’t it good I’ve recovered, because otherwise I’d have
to add “mania” to all those consonants and vowels and admit to the
world I suffered from it.
And yet without my mania I feel—how should I say it?—strangely,
sadly mania-less. If only some object, or enterprise, could replace
it. Some grand passion.
This must be what Shackleton experienced, when he returned to
U.K. city life and English gardens. What was Eliot’s phrase (on
quite a different subject)? It beckoned to him, “the boredom and the
horror and the glory”. Could it be that during those six months of
my own madness I had a version of—a sort of distant cousin of, or
nephew—that call of the wild that drew Ernest Shackleton into the
frozen wilderness to plant the British flag on some icy meridian?
No, it couldn’t be, because when Shackleton’s team faced
starvation he gave one of his last biscuits to his sick fellow
explorer whereas I only ruthlessly outbid my fellow Bakelite maniacs
and threw money away on baubles, money that would’ve been better
spent on necessities. And yet…
And yet… Doesn’t some mysterious, ineffable, sacred and profane
link exist between all forms of obsession? Even now I feel a deep
and growing kinship with Sir Ernest Shackleton and his heroic
endeavor. And I find myself starting to believe that had he not died
long ago, age 47 exhausted, spent, and aged beyond his years, he
would surely have felt the same about me....