On Obsession

October 14, 2008 at 2:16 am (Uncategorized)

I found myself rambling at length over at the New Donestre Social Club, and I decided to spare Jacob and move my rambling over here.

Picking up where I left off, talking about Eileen Joy’s use of the word ‘obsession’ in a couple of her introductions at SEMA, and why they didn’t bother me one bit, or even strike me as odd…

I was talking to some folks at the banquet, and was laughing with one at how I am seemingly always, as the lone student medievalist in my department, asked “why medieval lit?”  Nobody asks that question in quite the same tone of voice of anyone else, if they ask it at all.  Anyway, I was explaining that what I say and what I really want to say when people ask me that question are two different things.  What I often say is something along the lines of, “I like to begin at the beginning” (I focus on Anglo Saxon), or “’cause that’s where the money is” (nobody laughs). What I really want to say is, “because I have a completely irrational love for Anglo Saxon poetry.”  I have definitely called it an obsession before.  I know how to make the right noises about why I study what I study – heck, I had to interview to get into this program, so I even had to practice those noises out loud.  But it’s completely appropriate to describe me as being obsessed with what I do.

The questions I engage return, or I return to them – maybe I don’t make the distinction between ingress and egress, between actor and acted upon, that used to exist when the word “obsess” was younger than it is now, but a quick glance at the OED shows that the distinction was not always observed in more remote times, either.

You see, I have a hard time feeling apologetic about my academic obsessions, or about my use of the term obsession.  I have learned to frame them in appropriate ways, to talk about them in less appetitive terms, and to avoid sounding like some wide-eyed, wet-behind-the-ears “But I want to get a PhD because I Love Literature!” type.  I say sensible things and I do philology and I teach old-school, hard-nosed rhetoric – not French theory – to my composition students.  But without that irrational, obsessive love, I couldn’t get through this long haul that is graduate school, and I wouldn’t be here in the first place, anyway.  I think that’s true of anyone who ends up here. The difference is perhaps the willingness to use what might at times be surprising, and even seemingly inappropriate, language to talk about this stuff.  You would not be the first person to tell me that my language choices are sometimes odd, that it’s not really kosher, not really professional, to talk about tenor, vehicle, and desire all in the same breath.  Whatever.

One of Jacob’s visitors remarked that the word obsess comes from obsidere, to besiege.  Well, ok, but as we all surely use the OED, we all surely know that there is a hell of a lot more to it than that, yes?  Here’s our Latin root: obsidere, “to surround in a hostile way, to beset, assail, press, to besiege, occupy, possess.”  And here’s a sample from its ingress into English.  “Originally: to beset or harass (a person, the mind) in the manner of a besieging army or evil spirit; (now) spec. to fill the mind of (a person) continually; to preoccupy; to haunt, trouble, or interest as an obsession. ” (quotes from 1531)

Those interested in religion and/or the demonic might be interested to note this entry: “1. trans. Of an evil spirit: to control (a person) from without; to haunt, harass, torment. Now rare.    Normally denotes external visitation, in contrast with possess (POSSESS v. 4) which is used to denote the control or tormenting of a person from within, although the distinction is not always preserved (see e.g. quot. 1541).”

So we’ve lost the distinction between inside and outside origins of these matters and ideas that might be said to obsess.  I don’t particularly have a problem with the notion of obsession being used to describe the sort of liminal space one might occupy when working on matters of alterity, desire, connection, distance, pathos and ethos.  I don’t have a problem with thinking of my interests as occupying me, rather than their being something that I in all my disinterested and rational scholarship should more properly describe as objects of study, objects under my control, fixed and patterned at will under my microscope, or pen.  I don’t have a damned clue why alliterative stressed lines move me more than iambic pentameter.  I also don’t have to answer that question or problem, as an academic, but I think about it anyway. But I’m not ashamed of the irrationality behind my adoration, nor of being aware of the sometimes obsessive nature of my literary fixations.

You see, for me it’s all about desire, and I don’t find the connotations of violence bothersome either (though I admit that ‘obsess,’ for instance, doesn’t carry the immediate association with irrationality [as excluding reason] and compulsion in my mind that it did in Jacob’s when he first jotted down his thoughts. That might be because I work more on affective piety than on psychoanalysis).  I have no problem admitting that my relationship with medieval poetry resembles nothing so much as a fumbling towards an articulation of affect.  Sure, I can give you etymology all day long, and I will, too – and I think it’s valuable.  But I am having trouble empathizing with thinking that would seem to set up reason and affect as mutually exclusive.

A rare usage of ‘obsess’ as a noun, obsolete sometime after the 17th century, is that of “siege” or “blockade.”  Maybe it’s my military background, but I don’t find the notion of siege un-useful when thinking about the ideas and questions I, for one, keep returning to, nor do I find the notion of blockade problematic. For me, it evokes shades of strategy as well as an awareness that ingress is limited, is somehow removed from my normal avenues of approach.  I like it when that happens.  I like it when John Donne’s speaker imagines a relationship with God in terms of a power imbalance:

BATTER my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.

This is a siege; this is obsession. This is also nothing to be ashamed of.

If my obsessions mean that the things I return to continually fill and even trouble my mind (see obsession, n., sense 3), then so be it.  I am not ashamed of being troubled by them.  I would rather admit to being troubled by my various research questions than set myself up as someone for whom all these petty questions are solved, someone who prefers to hold forth from on high with an unassailable persona of surety, someone who hides both doubt and desire in their own engagements with the critical enterprise.

I do not, as a rule, dream of demons, do not dream of possession.  But I dream often of angels, and in fact, given that I’ve been writing about them so much lately, it would be surprising if I didn’t.  I don’t laugh at these dreams, I don’t dismiss them as excessive flights of fancy from the benighted and superstitious poets of the past.  The people who wrote the poetry I am reading took them seriously enough to write about them.  I am not going to treat the poetry I’m reading as the childish effluvia of a benighted culture without access to the infinite purity that is Enlightenment thought and reason.  I’m trying my best to meet them where they are, with full knowledge that that is an impossible task.  I rather like the idea of obsession when dealing with problems of access and temporality.  I find the notion of “touches across time” to be quite fruitful – and I don’t see any reason why we must pretend those touches are always gentle.  I’m much more interested in the touches that aren’t, in the touches that shake us from our complacency, that don’t fit our taxonomies, that trouble, that disturb.  I am quite comfortable with referring to my preoccupations with those moments as obsessions, not in spite of but because of my awareness of the various shades of meaning the word has accrued.  I am fascinated by the Beowulf poet’s use of the word gebolgen, by the “Solomon and Saturn” poet’s use of the word insceafte.  I will sit here and read and translate and breathe dust for the rest of my life for a chance to get closer to the state of his mind, to his own working context, when he chose that word.  Yes, there are much more rational, disinterested ways to phrase that research interest, ways that don’t make me sound quite so… obsessed… and I know how to use them.  For the moment, however, I choose not to.  I choose, instead, to frame my questions appetitively, in terms of desire.  I want to know.  I want to understand.  I want to appreciate the art.  I want to glimpse as much as I can of a time I can never occupy.  I am willing to dissect, but only if I can reassemble.  And I am not ashamed of my desire.

P.S.  I think it’s absolutely preposterous for those in this profession to pretend that the meanings of words never change, or that they do not shed and accrue connotations over time through usage.

End soapbox.  Sorry about that, Jacob.



  1. Eileen Joy said,

    Wow; you said all of that a lot better than I could have. I am especially struck by your thinking regarding how you can be occupied/besieged by certain objects & interests & affective desires. Thank you for this post.

  2. Jacob said,

    I agree with Eileen here; well done indeed. I think you’ve recovered, or at least assuaged the doubts about, this word for me. (Well, that, and re-teaching the Aeneid, which to my mind one cannot but describe as “obsessed with history.”)

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