On Obsession by Malcolm Knox
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a short book in an unusual format, say 110 pages and just small enough to hold in your handbag and read on the way to and from work.
I read it in a couple of hours and loved it.
When I finished, I went up to my wife, FM Sushi, and held it out in front of me like an offering.
"If you read this book, you will understand obsession."
She looked at me. "Yes?"
"If you understand obsession, you will understand my obsession."
Now she was staring at me more intently, almost scornfully. "Yes?"
"If you understand my obsession, you will understand me."
Her face softened and she laughed. She laughed at me. "Honey, I don’t need to read this book. I am your wife. I know the meaning of obsession. I live with you."
I retreated to the study and started to write this review.
If you read this review, you will understand me.
My Own Private Self
Malcolm Knox starts his essay with a description of his maternal grandfather, someone who appeared to be respectable and content, but who actually had a hidden life, documented in a box containing private notes and musings (mostly about his obsession, the weather), "pregnant with unseen life".
Malcolm inherits some of his qualities, the focus, the string of autodidactic enthusiasms, a trance-like power of concentration, a ferocity in his devotion, an enduring passion for books, the desire to read everything, later whittled down to a more realistic desire to read all of the significant novels ever written.
Before he is 20, he encounters Samuel Butler, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann and, finally, Proust, whom he has read three times in his life to date.
He marvels that someone like Proust can know him like he does.
"He consoled me for falling in love with women who could never make me happy and whom I didn’t even like. It was not a burden I had to carry alone. If nobody understood my pain, then I had a friend in Charles Swann."
Malcolm continues to obsess about women in real life:
"...the pattern for my obsessions [was] blithe girls, indifferent to my subtle charms, noisy and vivacious and full of themselves, promiscuous with others if not me, boisterous good-timers who, if I ever let slip that I was in love with them, would tear me to shreds with their pitying generous laughter."
Still, he fixes on them, he fixates on them, he desires to possess them, to incorporate them into his life with some degree of fixity. Instead, they flood his consciousness and they torment him.
"Few people understand either the purely subjective nature of the phenomenon of love, or how it creates a supplementary person who is quite different from the one who bears our beloved’s name in the outside world, and is mostly formed from elements within ourselves…
"This Albertine was little more than an outline: everything else that had been added to her was of my own making, for our own contribution to our love…is greater than that of the person we love."
The Object of My Obsession is Not Enough
Paradoxically, the object of our obsession does us no good, it harms us like an addiction, it doesn’t make us happy.
Proust on Gilberte:
"Since I loved her, I could only ever see her through the confused desire for more of her, which when you are with the person you love, deprives you of the feeling of loving…though I thought of nothing else but of not going a single day without seeing Gilberte...yet those moments when I was with her and which since the day before I had been awaiting so impatiently, for which I had trembled, for which I would have sacrificed everything else, were in no way happy moments."
His obsession gave him "not one atom of pleasure", no joy.
Real Live Girls, Here
Malcolm Knox starts to realise that his embrace of Proust actually glorifies the worst of his own self-pity:
"What I saw as a quest for purity was, in retrospect, a retreat from life. If I could bury myself in a lifelong quest, then…it could relieve me of wondering what to do. If I could immerse my romantic life in a poetry of suffering, I could glorify, through literature, my basic cowardice…
"Single-mindedness is our kind of trance. It is our vacation. When we are lost in our dream, our time is accounted for, we…are on a holiday in our own company, hidden in plain view. The one-track mind is our fortress, our safety zone...It is the most pointless thing, and all the more seductive for its pointlessness."
The challenge is how to stop obsessing.
Then, he comes to the ultimate realization:
"Instead of floating out of my depth with Proust…I should have talked with and listened to more real live girls."
He even wonders whether Proust himself intended his work to have a comic tone that has been underestimated to date.
An Obsession with Family, Instead of a Family with Obsessions
Ironically, Knox was never able to come to this realization within his own life.
It is only when he sees his six-year old son mimicking his own qualities, that he sees obsession for what it really is.
This book, then, is his attempt to say to his son and to us that we should be neither too proud nor too afraid to deal with the underlying reality of our obsessions.
We owe it not just to ourselves, but to those around us.
Because, just as we are like our parents, our children are like us.
Knox doesn't attempt to define true love. We have to arrive at our own definition.
I suspect that it's less possessive, less impatient, less ferocious, less single-minded than obsession.
Perhaps it's the product of time, space, openness, mutuality, reciprocity, sharing, patience, respect, encouragement, care, affection, admiration, humour, gentleness and two minds acting in unison. [I didn't set out to create a list, but I see that one emerged anyway.]
Love is an activity, not a state. It's a verb, not a noun (even if, um, my list is all nouns and gerunds). It's something you do, not something that happens to you.
As my two teenaged daughters would say, "Whatever, Dad, just do it."
Monty Python - Summarize Proust Competition
[Note the two different pronunciations of "Proust".]
Alan Rickman - Proust Recitation
Alan Rickman - Being Sexy
Why can't I find a copy of "Truly Madly Deeply"?
Alan Rickman - Kissing
ABC - "All Of My Heart"
Savage Garden - "Truly Madly Deeply"
GLEE - Full Performance of "Everybody Talks"
"Hey baby won't you look my way
I can be your new addiction
Hey baby what you gotta say?
All you're giving me is fiction."
[Rhyme of the Century]
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