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Obsession



Photo (c) 2011 Richard Beban

 

 

 

Suzanne Lummis

 

Obsession Obsession

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. Ta.

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 sea.

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, starving....

 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 off”.

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 little.

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.

O.K.

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 it's been 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....

 

 

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Speechless Spring 2011
Copyright © 2011 Published by
Tebot Bach