Erudite, sometimes overly dense exploration of “the history of a disorder that was often considered a disease.”
Actually, the word obsession was used in its earliest Latin incarnation to characterize the success of a siege, asserts Davis (English, Disability and Human Development, and Medical Education/Univ. of Illinois, Chicago; My Sense of Silence, 2000, etc.). To possess a city was to have invaded it thoroughly, inside and out. To obsess a city was merely to surround it, with the citadel remaining intact. Later, these paired words came to refer to a soul’s assault by the devil: When one was obsessed, the demon had incomplete control and the person remained aware of their abnormal state. Still later, obsession came to occupy a place in psychological studies; clinically, obsessions are abnormal preoccupations that the person is aware are profoundly unusual. Today, it is sometimes even seen as a praiseworthy state in popular culture. Tracing the word’s evolution through these various manifestations is the aim of this generous work. Davis delves into medical texts from the 18th century, the case histories of Samuel Johnson (long supposed to have had Tourette’s Syndrome) and Emile Zola (examined by the scientists of his day, whose conclusions illustrated “the developing contradiction of obsession as a social and cultural category”), and Freud’s early theories of obsessive fixations. He also deconstructs modern Calvin Klein perfume ads and the work of visual artists like Max Klinger and Adolf Wölfli. From romantic obsessions to artistic obsessions to the neural underpinnings of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (from which the author and several relatives suffer), no aspect of the word or concept is left unexplored. Davis does not neglect the important question of why we medicate clinically obsessive people, yet laud those who are obsessed by their music, art, sports or other vocational calling.
Beautifully written and impeccably—perhaps obsessively—researched: important reading for anyone interested in inescapable fascinations.