Thinking about Obsession and Compulsion

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.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Thinking about Obsession and Compulsion

  1. For me, OCD is how I continue to ascertain that the world is how I percieve it. Compulsions and passions are how we interact with the world around us. It is why such are not seperable from life completely. We can but mitigate them with tolerance and practice. We, I posit, often confuse the as yet unexplained workings of our brains with how life works when it is plain that how life works does not require us to think at all. Thinking only complicates the process. We attempt at all times to reconcile our senses with what we think. We often enough intend to force our thinking onto the world so that the two do reconcile easily in our own minds yet there are so many minds attempting to do this that it is a messy, political process.

    This business of reconciliation is how we know that we are not insane or completely missing the point. Fox news soothes the complacent in their need to reconcile by telling many what they should be worried about or thinking about and how they should think about it. Religion is exactly this process of false reconciliation.

    When one seeks truth and honest examination of life and the artifacts of it which are available to us there is is no reconciliation… only understanding. In a way which is both nihilistic and anti-nihilistic, life is. If we must check on it or compel ourselves to change it, it does not change. Such is strictly remanded to the realm of our own understandings of it.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      You raise the issue of collective obsessions, where people share a fixation on an anxiety or desire, explaining it to themselves, celebrating their insular solution, and drawing energy and comfort from one another.

      In a way, you’re talking about outsourcing. What we can’t deal with alone, we pay others to deal with for us, or seek out a support group that will encircle us and keep out the world. A warm womb.

      All of this embeds us in a tissue of lies. It’s Maya.

      But are these necessary illusions?


  2. In the pursuit of understanding of intelligence to support the access to artificial intelligence I have come to understand that humans necessarily convolute things. The program, if you will, in our brains is not perfect. Not even close. At best it approximates what will be the minimum requirement for survival. There are thousands of things that can go wrong with that kind of programming. Despite what anyone tells you we really are simply trying to survive. All this thinking complicates survival and what that means so it is sadly necessary that there will be evidence of complications… many of which will appear as these illusions.

    The simple test here is to reconcile the compulsion to have a new iPhone and figure out how that fits into the fight for survival. The very logic and research required to do so will reveal (I’ll wager) that we have transferred fit for purpose mechanisms in our brains to processes and situations that were not available during the more developmental evolutionary stages. We have all but eliminated selective pressures on our species, so what was useful in the past is no longer applicable and we lack the infant or child mortality rate to stop us from propogating bad models. We even work to prevent birth control now. Selective breeding is how you get a desired outcome with evolution, otherwise evolution supports anything that does not die. This is not a call for eugenics but rather an explanation of why things are as fucked up as they are. Education is the answer yet we resist (as a species) even this simple cure to ills that do not have to exist.

    We seek support groups and outsource understanding because it is the most efficient model for survival. What the elder tells us about saber tooth tigers should be good enough, they know best. We can check that ourselves, but it is dangerous. For those of us who have some doubt OCD helps to ensure that things are what we think they should be. An unlocked door which has no need to be unlocked represents a risk. We can ignore it or pay extra attention to the risk. Is it odd to check 7 times that there are no saber tooth tigers about?

    This translation of much older needs to current situations is necessarily messy.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I agree that double-checking can enhance survival, but obsessive-compulsive anxiety and fear can also lead people to be cowardly and not take risks. Religion, because it is essentially nihilistic, downplaying the value of this world, may balance this out in people who are highly obsessive-compulsive and anxious.

      As to having a lot of people around who might have died a few generations ago (such as Type 1 diabetics), that is probably not the issue you imagine. We’ve only had insulin, antibiotics, and vaccines in broad distribution for about 60 years. It hasn’t changed the composition of the human family in a dramatic fashion yet (at least not at the genetic level). It certainly may over the next thousand years. But we’re going cyborg anyway, and the genetic code will be directly manipulated a century from now. The mix of human beings living today are similar to those living a century or two ago.

      The selective pressures on humans nowadays are on intelligence, tolerance for living in cities, etc. Resources still accrue to people who have a particular mix of traits. Evolution hasn’t stopped.


      • We can dis/agree on various points. There are fewer genetic sources active in the gene pool today that are susceptible to avian flu than there were a century ago. There are subtle changes which take several generations to instantiate. The plague rid the gene pool of quite a few contributors and that effect is still being felt.

        That whole going cyborg thing means longer life spans and further complications for population and food sources. There are a number of problems that must be tackled at the same time.

        Did I read this right:
        Religion, downplaying the value of this world, may balance this out in people who are highly obsessive-compulsive and anxious, because it is essentially nihilistic.?

    • Alan says:

      I would like to suggest a Darwinian rejection of ‘…an explanation of why things are as fucked up as they are.’ Estimates of the human population from M. H. Wolpoff, J. Diamond and others (necessarily controversial, but life just isn’t geometry) 100,000 years ago are about 50,000 humans of various sub-species. Today there are over 7 billion and growing – a textbook case of things going really well for humans. Never been better.

      • Staffan says:

        And the growth is strongest in Africa and the Middle East but much lower of even negative in Western Europe and Japan. And yet, Africans risk their lives to get to Europe. Well, something is fucked up, that for sure.

      • Alan says:

        It’s all relative, of course. The better it gets, the better we want it to be.

    • Alan says:

      Aside from the general tone on the comment (too negative), I agree on most points. To pitch another nit, though, consider the ‘elder’s wisdom’ about saber tooth tigers – older teens and young men appear to have been selected by natural means to ignore their elders – they do so today, and probably always have (at least the successful ones)! It is those tigers who are now extinct, after all, not rebellious humans.

      • One might be inclined to think that you’ve never had anything to do with raising children. One might also say those rebellious ones are those that make the Darwin Awards and the smart ones that evolution favored were those that listened to their elders, at least long enough to avoid getting on the menu. What your suggesting has a tone to it as well, and is just hypothetical. By your logic, those that die have been selected. You’ve paid no attention to why teens and young men seem to ignore their elders as well as assume that all or most of them do so and have always done so.

      • Alan says:

        I was not suggesting that tone was a problem, just that I am in disagreement with the notion that things are tougher for humans now than in the past. I also doubt that anyone who works with young adults is a stranger to rebellious behavior – there is nothing hypothetical about that observation – or that most of the rebellious (in my experience) grow up and start families. Nor, in my experience, are the rebellions less intelligent and certainly they are not less industrious. The worlds oldest stories – written and oral, contain references to misbehaving children (of all ages). All those dire warnings not withstanding – they tend to grow up and beget their own rebellious children. I never suggested the rebellious were dying – they were killing off the tigers! I never put a percentage as to how many were disobedient (I don’t know) or to what degree (varies), just that it appears to have been going on a long time – old as humans, I would guess – perhaps what drove us to separate from the other apes. It appears to be a viable competitive strategy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s