Skip to content

Miraculous Feelings

The varieties of literary obsession

The exclamation “You’re obsessed,” no matter how it’s uttered, amounts to a layman’s diagnosis or charge, a way of saying something’s wrong with you, and thus a spur to recognition and betterment by the one exclaiming, since the knee-jerk assumption is always that obsessions aren’t very good for you. Writing aboutThe Birth of a Nation, James Baldwin marshals a phrase I’ve never forgotten: “the Niagara force of an obsession.” I’d say that gets at the pith of it: obsessions are internal weather events, great gales of prompting and disturbance. Obsession, from the Latin obsidere, “to lay siege to,” and if you’ve ever been in the clamp of one, you’ll recall just how helplessly besieged you were.

In his book Obsession: A History, Lennard J. Davis writes this: “We live in a culture that wants its love affairs obsessive, its artists obsessive, its genius fixated, its music driven, its athletes devoted. We’re told that without the intensity provided by an obsession things are only done by halves. Our standards need to be extreme, our outcome intense.” Obsession is irrational, unreasonable, illogical; it doesn’t care for your judiciousness or coherence. Davis points out that “there are obsessives, and there is obsession. Obsessives, if their obsessions are too obsessive, will be treated by medical doctors . . . if not too obsessive, they will be humored or even admired.” Yes, but bear in mind, while you are full of humor and admiration, that, as Davis says, “the obsessed human psyche transforms into the diseased human psyche by a few twists of the conceptual dial.” So, while obsessives in their vigor can be an endearing lot, they can also be insufferable wastrels and louts, and this is part of what makes them such live options for storytelling.

Role Call!

Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in Lolita might be named the five resident obsessives of the Western novel.[*] About Lolita, Azar Nafisi makes a wise claim in her memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran: of Humbert’s myriad crimes, the largest is the imposing of his own pernicious obsession upon the girl. “He doesn’t see Lolita’s reality,” writes Nafisi, because for him, the girl is only “an extension of his own obsession.” In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff’s obsessive desire for Catherine morphs into his obsessive lust for revenge against Hindley. Havisham in Great Expectations is obsessed with the roilings of her past, with being left at the altar, as it were, her nuptials snatched from her. Ghoulishly morose, robed always in her wedding gown, Havisham shows that there’s not much difference between the heft of being haunted and the buzz of being obsessed. There is even a disorder named for her, the Miss Havisham effect, in which sufferers have an intractable obsession with what is lost, and the effect suggests that they take some measure of delight in such anguished pining. Victor Frankenstein, for his part, is infected with enormously destructive traits, not least among them hubris and zealotry, but such darkling drive doesn’t make much sense without the animating oomph of obsession, “the tremor and passionate ardor,” as Shelley writes, which take the place of “wholesome sensation and regulated ambition.”

And Captain Ahab, well, in his every move he is obsession made flesh. Here he is in what remains, for good reason, one of the novel’s most cited passages:

Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereupon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!

Megalomaniacal, yes, and also a matchless assertion of the obsessiveness that hums along his spine. Writing about Moby-Dick, Toni Morrison aptly employs the words madness, audacity, and obsession in the same sentence.

Obsession is irrational, unreasonable, illogical; it doesn’t care for your judiciousness or coherence.

Deviate from those five resident obsessives, and you still find obsession’s role in so much of the narrative literature of the West; you hardly have a masterwork in which some element or degree of obsession does not factor. Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas, Dorian Gray, Melville’s Bartleby: all are spurred forward by obsession. James Gatz is obsessed with becoming Jay Gatsby, with an American metamorphosis that has Daisy as its aim. In the placid lunacy of his apotheosis and the demonic barbarity of his aims, Colonel Kurtz in Heart of Darkness is both obsessed and possessed. Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary are both romantically obsessed, each in her own nineteenth-century way, before passion and its consequences rub them out. Sherlock Holmes’s genius is motored by the tremblings of obsession: frequently, the only way he solves a case is by obsessing over it, often to the detriment of his health, usually to the exacerbation of Watson, and sometimes to the defilement of the law.

Ideal Perception Meet Sad Demise

In the darkest corners of Edgar Allan Poe and Franz Kafka, as in Guy de Maupassant’s great story “Le Horla,” you get Toni Morrison’s point about how obsession can be indistinguishable from madness. Obsession rarely works alone; it has to couple with other states to be destructively effective: not only madness but escapism, addiction, delusion, each feeding the other. The line between obsession and delusion, then, can be difficult to discern. For Macbeth, it takes a delusive hubris through the refinement of obsession, and not through mere avarice, for him to carry out the regicide that ruins him. Consider the obsessiveness of thought in Hamlet and in Milton’s Satan, both of whom teach us that such thinking cannot be disentangled from the anguish it engenders—“Where but to think is to be full of sorrow,” as Keats has it.

Augustine believes that “it is yearning that makes the heart deep,” and what is obsession but yearning honed and doubled? Milton’s Satan is humanistic yearning personified, and if you take yearning too far, as Satan does, you get the hubris of obsession:

But what will not ambition and revenge
Descend to? Who aspires, must down as low
As high he soar’d; obnoxious, first and last,
To basest things.

The obnoxious obsessive: I wonder if there is any other kind. Obnoxious or not, Satan is an extremist, and all extremists are obsessives; it’s the obsession that births the extremity. Once in hell, though he has his anxieties, doubts, and doldrums, Satan simply will not accept his defeat. He begins plotting a new war to replace his failed war, and it takes an obsessive to think this way, to refuse vanquishment, to stay intent on wounding the unwoundable God who spurned him. After the conference with his generals, Satan swerves from a passion for overthrowing God in outright warfare to a patient, obsessive dedication to clandestine warfare against God’s beloved creation.

I’m usually not one to quote Jacques Lacan, but I recently came upon a line that’s worth it: “To be an obsessional [sic] means to find oneself caught in a mechanism, in a trap increasingly demanding and endless.” Say what you will about obsessives, but they know suffering, and they know suffering because they know sacrifice, and they also know sacrifice’s confederate devotion. We don’t hear much about devotion these days; tepid commitment or dedication perhaps, avarice and ambition certainly, but sacrifice and devotion, with their inherently religious tinge, don’t get around as much as they should. Our immersion in the cyber hell we’ve concocted is too insubstantial for the gravitas of true devotion, but obsessives are clobbered by it. Devotion is what they do, and never better than when they are devoted to their own destruction. With scant exception, that is the chief lesson of obsessiveness in literature: destruction. In one of his short stories, Barry Hannah has a seeker say, “All we are is obsession and pain. That is all humans are.” You see Hannah’s formula: the obsession prefaces the pain.

But in a letter to a friend, W. B. Yeats makes this comment: “We free ourselves from obsession so that we may be nothing.” Usually when Yeats employs “nothing,” you know he’s thinking about death, and he appears to say here that without an obsession, a variant of what Arthur Schopenhauer calls Will, an individual life is denuded of its meanings. Yeats knew what he was talking about; his interest in Celtic occultism and theosophy didn’t remain a mere interest for long but tipped into obsessional wackiness. And, in keeping with Yeats, there’s a line in Honoré de Balzac’s novel Le Cousin Pons that has set me wondering: “Obsessions result in miraculous escapes and miraculous feelings.” In Balzac’s novel, Sylvain Pons, an aged and once renowned musician, has a pair of guiding obsessions: the accumulation of art and antiques, and the eating of fine food. Meanwhile, Pons’s flat mate, the pianist Wilhelm Schmucke, has his own quiet obsession with Pons himself. When Pons’s relatives discover the worth of his art collection, they begin maneuvering to deprive him of it. And because Pons is something of a patsy, they succeed.

Balzac’s barbed contempt for the obsessive greed of the bourgeoisie finds vent in Pons’s vulturine relatives, but the above line about miraculous escapes and miraculous feelings applies to Pons’s unstinting passion for art and food—for pleasure, in other words: the aesthetic pleasure provided by art, and the bodily pleasure provided by food. It applies also to Schmucke’s unstinting love for Pons. Art, food, love: the miraculous escapes Balzac means are from the dumb vileness of society and routine, and into the elevated sensations provided by obsession. Why miraculous? Balzac hitches “miraculous feelings” to “miraculous escapes” because in a society designed to strip us of every delight, it seems an outright miracle that one can escape vileness and routine at all. But once obsession achieves that miracle, equally miraculous feelings will follow. So, while it is obsession’s life-wrecking work that gets most of the notice, Balzac’s line amounts to a shimmering endorsement of it.

And Balzac isn’t alone in that view. The Australian-English critic Clive James once pointed out that “‘obsession’ is not far from being the right word when our minds are being navigated by an ideal perception.” J. G. Ballard once had this to say: “I quite consciously rely on my obsessions in all my work . . . I deliberately set up an obsessional frame of mind. In a paradoxical way, this leaves one free of the subject of the obsession.” Nelson Algren believed that only through and with the risk of obsession could literary artists achieve their ideal work. “Obsession,” he said, “remains the price of creation.” You get George Sand’s point, then, when she calls the making of literary art “a violent and indestructible obsession”—she says that admiringly. Readers, too, are zapped by obsession. Here’s Virginia Woolf writing about the astonishing effects Sarah Bernhardt’s memoirs played upon her:

The more you are under the obsession of a book the less of articulate language you have to use concerning it. You creep along after such shocks, like some bewildered animal, whose head, struck by a flying stone, flashes with all manner of sharp lightnings. It is possible, as you read the volume, to feel your chair sink beneath you into undulating crimson vapors.

And here’s Norman Mailer: “Obsession is the single most wasteful human activity, because with an obsession you keep coming back and back and back to the same question and never get an answer.” But in literature the answer is always ancillary to the question, and while the carrying out, the activity, of obsession might be wasteful from a practical angle, the psychology of obsession is not. Our obsessions are not arbitrary minutiae or trivialities glommed onto our selfhoods; rather, they expose or enact what thrives at the hub of us. Every obsession is secretly or not so secretly about longing or deprivation. An obsession, like an appetite, strives to be sated, and this is part of what Mailer means: the appetite can’t be sated because it has no rational traction, no means of ever fulfilling its own desire, which is why, in literature anyway, obsession usually comes to a bad end.

Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina are examples of the obsessiveness we see most frequently in literature: not the sort on the grand scale of Satan’s sublime mission to overthrow Heaven or Aeneas’s fraught calling to found Rome, but rather the obsessiveness of Eros. Bovary and Karenina, like the beautiful and doomed Giovanni in James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room, show that obsessional Eros is what happens when passion becomes unrequited. What obsessive love really wants to be is possessive love—all obsession has that futile aim: to possess the obsessed-over. In twentieth-century fiction, this obsessional Eros is perhaps most famously depicted in Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice, in which Gustav von Aschenbach’s obsession with the teen stranger Tadzio leads directly and swiftly to Aschenbach’s abject end. At first seeing Tadzio, he is “struck with amazement, indeed even alarm, at the truly godlike beauty possessed by this mortal child . . . the face of Eros, with the yellowish glaze of Parian marble.” The boy becomes “the beloved object that enflamed him”—because beauty incites obsession as nothing else can.

But with an obsession this all-encompassing, and with an aim that is wholly mysterious to Aschenbach—he knows almost literally nothing about Tadzio—the obsession must be about some force central to Aschenbach’s understanding of himself. And if it’s true that all obsession concerns longing or deprivation, then I’m certain that the real, if unconscious, aim of Aschenbach’s obsession is his own lost boyhood. You can see this in the pained nostalgia of the novella’s fourth chapter, when he pines for Tadzio’s seeming innocence, his “lazily irregular life that was both recreation and rest, filled with lounging, wading, digging, catching, resting, and swimming, watched over by the women on the platform who called to him.” Aschenbach’s memory then “dredged up ancient images passed on to him in the days of his youth, thoughts not until now touched by the spark of his personal involvement.”

We Were Happy Weren’t We

All obsession is a by-proxy return to childhood or to some primal Eros or Eden now gone. If Death in Venice is implicit on this point, Iris Murdoch’s astonishing novel The Sea, The Sea is achingly explicit, a story about the Proustian way in which obsession tangles with memory, and how the imaginative past infiltrates the waiting present. (What is Proust but obsession with memory and possession by memory.) Murdoch’s narcissistic narrator, Charles Arrowby, has just retired, alone, to an English seaside village, after a long and victorious career in the theater. In a fateful coincidence, Mary Hartley Fitch, the youthful love to whom he was passionately fixed, and who disappeared on him to marry someone else, resides with her husband in the same village. It doesn’t take long for Charles to become turbulently obsessed with reclaiming her, no matter what he must ravage in order to do so. After seeing Hartley in the village, Charles says, “There had been a slaughter of all my other interests, and upon the strange white open scene of the future only one thing remained”—Hartley herself. Of course, only an obsessive reasons that way, and of course, it isn’t reason at all, but desperation. Potent obsession—is there any other sort?—is always the face of desperation.

Charles senses how his obsession with Hartley is tied to his boyhood: “I reverted to the past when she was the unspoilt focus of my innocent love, seeing her as she had been when she seemed my future, my whole life, that life which had been taken from me and yet still seemed to exist somewhere as a packaged stolen possibility.” In his zeal for the memory of the childhood sublime, Charles is more Wordsworthian than he realizes, except that he has replaced the sublime of nature with the cynosure of Hartley—with the bathetic notion that she can make him a boy again. Acknowledging that he is “reliving the whole history of my love for Hartley” does nothing to mitigate his “fetishistic private obsession.”

Obsession rarely works alone; it has to couple with other states to be destructively effective: not only madness but escapism, addiction, delusion, each feeding the other.

Charles admits, “I felt out of control, heavy, dangerous”—and so he will prove. If he were a danger only to himself, we might grant him a pass, since no obsessive chooses to be obsessed. It is, in that way, something of a sickness. Or, if you like, an addiction, and addicts, like obsessives, don’t respond to reason. To echo a Swiftian quip, you cannot reason people out of a belief they have not been reasoned into. But if addicts are mostly helpless to war against their addictions alone, then obsessives are entirely helpless to war against their obsessions at all. The addict’s poison exists in the blood, but the obsessive’s poison is in the soul, which is annexed to the past. There’s no altering the past and not much help for a soul hijacked by the intensities of impossible longing. To be obsessed with and to long for are eternally synonymous.

At the apex of his obsession, after he has kidnapped her, Charles tells Hartley, “We were happy, weren’t we? When we were on our bikes. That was youth, like it ought to be, joyous, perfect. I’ve never loved anybody else.” You see he trips himself up there; he goes from idealizing their youth to saying he’s never loved anyone else, but what he really means is that he’s never loved anything else: only his boyhood. Murdoch is never entirely exact about what is so awful in Charles’s adulthood to necessitate such a remorseless pining for his boyhood, though perhaps she doesn’t have to be; adulthood typically loses when matched against childhood. Here is one of Hartley’s replies to Charles’s bullying recollections of their extinct days: “It’s something childish, it isn’t part of the real world.” Isn’t part of the real world: she could be speaking of ghosts, and in more ways than one, she is. All obsession becomes a ghost in the end.

Charles’s calculated mania for Hartley will result in two deaths and the displacement of a family, and in that carnage Murdoch’s novel adheres to literature’s admonition on the upheavals of obsession. Charles wonders, “Obsession, romance, does one grow out of them?” Yes, but one can’t accelerate that growth because an obsession is a kind of parasite on the psyche, and the parasite will feed until it’s full and then take its leave, by its own way, on its own terms. In an essay called “Society, Morality, and the Novel,” Ralph Ellison speaks of the novelist’s “obsessive need to play with the fires of chaos.” Fires of chaos might be shorthand for what our obsessions can force upon ourselves and others, but for narrative literature, those fires keep the characters lit from within, and provide the warmth necessary for them to undress down to the warped severity of their own souls.

[*] Correction: A previous version of this misidentified the author of Wuthering Heights. The novel was written by Emily Brontë.