Obsession: A History
by Lennard J. Davis
University of Chicago Press, 2008
Paper: 978-0-226-13784-1 | eISBN: 978-0-226-13779-7 | Cloth: 978-0-226-13782-7
Library of Congress Classification RC533.D38 2008
Dewey Decimal Classification 616.85227009
Reference metadata exposed for Zotero via unAPI.
We live in an age of obsession. Not only are we hopelessly devoted to our work, strangely addicted to our favorite television shows, and desperately impassioned about our cars, we admire obsession in others: we demand that lovers be infatuated with one another in films, we respond to the passion of single-minded musicians, we cheer on driven athletes. To be obsessive is to be American; to be obsessive is to be modern.
But obsession is not only a phenomenon of modern existence: it is a medical category—both a pathology and a goal. Behind this paradox lies a fascinating history, which Lennard J. Davis tells in Obsession. Beginning with the roots of the disease in demonic possession and its secular successors, Davis traces the evolution of obsessive behavior from a social and religious fact of life into a medical and psychiatric problem. From obsessive aspects of professional specialization to obsessive compulsive disorder and nymphomania, no variety of obsession eludes Davis’s graceful analysis.
“Davis’s larger argument, massively documented, is that disease is not merely a physical condition, but something that emerges in the course of a history. Treating obsession apart from that history is an obstacle to our understanding it. Understanding must begin, he argues, with the assumption ‘that obsession is a wide-ranging, social, cultural, historical, and, yes, medical phenomenon.’ This is a wise and learned book, although the learning is lightly worn and the wisdom mildly (if emphatically) dispensed in a style that captivates even as it instructs.”
“In his beautifully wrought interdisciplinary history of obsession, Lennard Davis delves into the deepest mysteries of human consciousness and the myriad ways that culture has tried to solve the mind's riddles. Through his astute and learned analysis of mental states ranging from demonic possession to single-minded genius to disturbing pathology, Davis paints a fascinating picture of human complexity. In his pages, we learn of the glories and the tragedies of passionate fixation—of profound achievements in art, athletics, and love; of lives and families broken beyond repair. Meditating on the great paradox of obsession—it generates brilliance and causes dysfunction—Davis does more than provide a fascinating cultural history of an elemental human condition. He tells the story, moving and memorable, of one of the life's most enduring curses and gifts.”
“Lennard Davis’s new book offers a probing analysis of the history of obsession in modern culture. The book brilliantly ranges across disciplines to discern just how we became so obsessed with being obsessed. In so doing, it offers a path breaking model of how to link the humanities and medicine for the benefit of patients and their care-givers. His perspective is both sympathetic and humane.”
“Original and thought-provoking. Davis’s elegant analysis of the interplay between culture and psyche is an invaluable contribution to the literature on obsession.”
“Davis’s astute, engaging history shows just how vexed and fluctuating is the line between clinical obsession and all that passes in our culture as habit and ritual. His thought-provoking book greatly extends arguments about American psychiatry and should be welcomed for doing so.”
"Modern society both needs and fears obsessiveness. Olympian athletes, concert soloists, and novelists have to be obsessed, yet the admired qualities that undergird their excellence also cause suffering and can lead to psychiatric diagnosis. Davis begins with a gripping story of his own boyhood compulsions. Taking examples from literature, history, art, and medicine, he shows how society both aggravates and aggrandizes obsessiveness, notably in sex education, science, and psychoanalysis. Francis Galton, Charles Dickens, Sigmund Freud, Marie Stopes, and others populate a "biocultural narrative" that Davis introduces to penetrate walls of isolation between historical context and the latest fads and between categorical disease and the experience of illness. Profound, brilliant, and engaging, the book deplores the separation of medicine and psychology from their historical and social contexts. Demonstrating a narrative approach, Davis breaks the quarantine that isolates the obsessive person from obsessive society and rightly recommends a good dose of interdisciplinary medical history."
"This is an engaging book which I read with considerable - dare I say, obsessive? - enjoyment. Lennard Davis has compiled a thorough history of 'obsession' throughout the ages and across disciplines. He is particularly interested in how our society distinguishes hobbies, artistic pursuits and other excessive behaviours from obsessions, and why the medical profession pathologises behaviour that appears, at worst, benign and is, at best, responsible for some of humanity's greatest achievements. The book is laced with rich examples exemplifying obsessional people and their work."