The narrator of Work Suspended, a 1941 novella by Evelyn Waugh, tells us that his obsession with a certain young woman makes him feel like one of those men compelled "to touch every third lamp-post on their walks." If they somehow miss one they fret until they go back and put the matter right.
Samuel Johnson, the 18th century's most famous obsessive, was one of the people Waugh referred to. He found it necessary to touch every light post he passed - and if he missed one he had to go back and pat it. In the 19th century, another literary eminence, Émile Zola, had to stroke the same pieces of furniture a certain number of times before going to sleep. He also had to count everything he saw - gas jets on the street, taxis, objects on his bureau, etc.
The fixations of Johnson and Zola are discussed in Lennard J. Davis's Obsession: A History (University of Chicago Press). Davis is a University of Illinois English professor who also teaches in the medical school, specializing in disability studies - and turns out to be something of an obsessive himself. He insists we see his subject in historical perspective even if patients, doctors and drug manufacturers remain determined to concentrate exclusively on the concerns of the moment. Davis wants us to bear in mind that categories such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) often prove ephemeral - even if (like OCD) they cause pain and distress to those who suffer from them. Making his case, he proves he's an imaginative researcher and a coherent writer.
It's the habit of emotional disorders to seem overwhelmingly important for years and then mysteriously disappear, like female hysteria in Freud's time. In the 1960s, Davis points out, "the big thing was anxiety. Everybody was anxious and everyone was taking Valium and Miltown." Depression was relatively little discussed, but has since claimed a vast share of the public's attention. One generation never hears the word anorexia, the next generation hears little else. In two decades, homosexuality goes from an officially designated disease to a lifestyle.
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) suddenly appears over the horizon and afflicts half the boys in any class you hear about. Nymphomania was treated as a grave problem in the 1920s, was rarely discussed in the 1960s and by 2000 had disappeared from the face of the Earth. Its last notable appearance was in the reviews of a superb Brian Moore novel, An Answer from Limbo (1962). Jane, the hero's neglected wife, dreams of "dark-haired ravishers." For this fantasy she was labelled a nymphomaniac by male reviewers. But Moore noticed that no female critic used that term. As a pathology, nymphomania was obsolescent.
Obsession's status is especially unstable. Until the end of the 17th century, a fixation like Johnson's looked like demonic possession, but in the more tolerant 18th century Johnson's peers thought him no more than eccentric. In the middle of the 19th century, however, we find Thomas Babington Macaulay, in his Life of Samuel Johnson, bundling Johnson's obsessions together with his melancholia and hypochondria in order to argue that the poor man was mad. Today, Davis notes, many doctors, hearing about the business with the street lights, would talk about Tourette's Syndrome.
Zola, living from 1840 to 1902, experienced the full weight of scientific curiosity about nervous diseases. He was the first and possibly the last hugely famous author who for science's sake submitted himself to intimate scrutiny, mental and physical, by a platoon of doctors and other scholars, 15 in all. They of course talked and wrote about his obsessions, but found his work even more interesting, mainly because there was so much of it -- 37 novels, 10 critical works and a mountain of pamphlets and journalism. This productivity, they reasoned, went so far beyond normal that it amounted to a sickness, "graphomania," defined by one of the project's doctors as the affliction of "semi-insane persons who feel a strong impulse to write." The amount of work he did would not astonish anyone who studies the career of, say, John Updike. For that matter, Zola was following Balzac. They were two among a few dozen writers who pursued, as Davis says, a project without precedent, "the continuous, cumulative production of words." Davis seems to think that's pathological; many of us envy it.
Davis became an expert in disabilities partly because he was the son of two deaf parents, an experience he described nine years ago in My Sense of Silence. He grew up in a family where obsessions were routine. Every night his father checked and rechecked the locks on the doors, the faucets and the gas jets. Davis's father and brother were both compulsive hand-washers; his brother was so compulsive that he developed a skin rash. Davis himself began having thoughts of death at age seven. To banish them he would count every single light in a window of the big apartment building across the street. When he finished he would doubt the accuracy of his total and start again. But perhaps someone in the meantime turned a light on or off? That necessitated a new count. He would count for hours, until he was exhausted. He also had a passion for symmetry. If he scuffed one shoe on the way to school he would find a way to scuff the other.
Aside from using himself to illustrate his thesis, he's turned his childhood OCD symptoms into useful habits. He's always on top of his email, for instance. "Most importantly, I am a workaholic and a prolific writer." He's living proof of the argument that the line between pathology and culturally accepted behaviour is porous.
Davis leaves me convinced it's crucial to be born at a time when your obsession is acceptable. It could even make you famous. If you are so crazy about swimming that you spend five hours a day in the pool, you might end up an Olympic champion. Many an obsession makes it possible to earn a living. As a self-diagnosed obsessive reader, hopelessly addicted to print, I find my inner compulsion fits neatly into my work. But at another time in history, say in a culture entirely dependent on agriculture, my print-obsession would brand me as a lazy lout, always reading when I should be bringing in the hay.