It’s that locked down quality that I’m thinking of, like a bulldog latched and focused on a limb. Dante, in his Inferno, sets the obsessive and compulsive in the outer circles of hell. The obsessive and compulsive are not as bad as the violent in the middle circles or the liars in the inner circles, but they are tragically incontinent, unable to control their impulses, whether to gluttony or sex.
So there’s an issue of weakness traditionally associated with the obsessive and compulsive, of an inability to exercise a governing will over one’s passions.
And yet our passions make for life. Evolution gave animals obsessions and compulsions as part of their survival toolkit. They are among the Dionysian energies that a Nietzschean will attempts to transfigure into an Apollonian project. And what is a project but another form of obsession?
So are obsessions and compulsions symptoms of one’s freedom or slavery? Is happiness immediate gratification or delayed gratification? Which is the more satisfying? Should we be at full liberty to pursue both immediate gratification and delayed gratification?
In Buddhism and Hinduism, one meditates in part to decouple from the constant rush of sense impressions and thoughts and to treat them as passing clouds, to say as it were “Ah so” to whatever comes and goes, be it pleasure or pain, beauty or ugliness.
The below song from 1976 is pretty fascinating as a meditation upon obsession and compulsion. It’s played by a Southern band, and I don’t like the Confederate flag in the background at the beginning of the video, but it disappears from view rather quickly and doesn’t poison the performance for me too much.
But it does poison it for me a bit. In fact, let me be truthful. The flag bothers me. It’s an insult to black people for white people to wave it after the Civil War and civil rights movement. It makes me want to latch onto the image and if I were at the concert, I might feel something well up within me to run over to it and tear it down, disrupting the performance as a form of social protest. You might say I could become determined to do it, compelled to do it. Obsessed with the idea of doing it.
And yet the idea of freedom of expression for the band members might intervene to dissuade me. I might lock onto that idea obsessively and compulsively, overruling my other impulse. Or maybe I’d just enjoy the song and go with its flow, doing my best to block out the thought that there is a Confederate flag off to the corner of this band, proudly being displayed by people who are quite clearly fuckers.
In any case, there’s some link between obsession, compulsion, and a sense that there are things that matter, that some things are of paramount importance (whether it be to pull down a flag, express oneself freely, or enjoy a concert).
But what if nothing matters? Maybe nihilism ends the pain of obsession and compulsion writ large. Perhaps therein lies the attraction of nihilism: relief from urgent passions. And nihilism opens windows of insight normally closed to those lost in the drama of their own existence. The irony that accompanies nihilism cleanses vision and makes it both broad and acute. Nihilism is taking off a tight shoe.
But I think Sartre would call nihilism “bad faith” for this reason: it’s not engaged. It’s a way of avoiding the human condition, which is to choose your poison.