Passion is generally considered a good thing, obsession a bad one. But are they really two separate, diverse things or merely different degrees of the same phenomenon? In other words, when a worthy passion is overdone, does it degenerate into an obsession?
Yet consider the movie, based on a novel, “Magnificent Obsession,” in which a worthy subject ennobles an obsession. Still, obsessive behavior of any kind is generally reprehended: too much of a good thing may cease to be good.
And yet . . . It is obsession that made Columbus discover America; without him we would all be Indians if we existed at all. I forget which famous medical researcher (was it Paul De Kruif?) had to eat some human excrement to prove something about an illness and immunity from it. Speaking metaphorically, Galileo had to eat shit from the Church and curb his admirable obsession with the truth. But then, is an obsession with the truth really an obsession, or rather a matter of justified perseverance? Perseverance that amounts to passion.
Think of what the filmmaker Dreyer aptly entitled “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” Or of the passion portrayed in Bergman’s marvelous movie entitled, in Sweden, “A Passion,” though in America it foolishly became “The Passion of Anna,” presumably on the notion that “A Passion” would suggest Christ and thus keep away the irreligious.
Either passion or obsession sustained at length can become fanaticism. But there is no doubt that passion enjoys a mostly positive reputation, whereas obsession tends to be held in disrepute. After all, there is such a thing as a passionflower, whereas an obsession flower is unimaginable.
Still, “passion” may pop up where logic calls for “obsession.” Take, for example, Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “Passion,” which surely deals with obsession. To begin with, there was an autobiographical novel by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti called “Fosca,” after its heroine or anti-heroine. It is the tale of the unsightly and hysterical Fosca’s maniacal pursuit of the handsome officer Giorgio, leading to an unlikely, irrational Pyrrhic victory as it lures him away from his beautiful mistress.
When Ettore Scola made his movie from that novel, he did not call it “Fosca”—perhaps even to avoid confusion with “Tosca”—but more likely because the near-pleonastic “Passione d’amore” was much more resonant. For another thing, Visconti had already made his successful, unrelated “Ossessione.” Certainly “Ossessione d’amore” would have been clumsy and devoid of oomph. So too the Sondheim musical based on the movie became “Passion,” what with “Obsession” without a “magnificent” preceding it unlikely to suggest B.O. (box office); at the utmost body odor.
But consider how the very English language comes out on the side of passion. The word “passion” is in just about everybody’s vocabulary, “obsession” not nearly so much. Moreover “passion” has a rich and revered progeny—passionate, dispassionate, impassioned—whereas “obsession” has a comparatively obscure family. Certainly “obsessive” and “obsessional” are not parts of the run-of-the-mill, popular vocabulary. They do not come trippingly off the workaday tongue and are relegated to a more recherché idiom.
Indeed, the shorter word tends to sit much better with the vox populi than the longer one. So we get “conjugal” rather than “connubial,” “marriage” well ahead of “matrimony” and “passion” far more readily than “obsession.” Even two monosyllables are preferred to one polysyllable: what chance against “full moon” has “plenilune’?
I myself have had my innings with “obsessive.” My good wife, though by no means hostile to cleanliness, felt that I was washing my hands too often—a case, I think, of a mild predilection being misdiagnosed as an obsession. In due time I was directed to a specialist in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for assessment. I had two fairly expensive sessions with this fancy OCD shrink, during which I came perfectly clean with my fondness for washed hands, but was nevertheless found innocent of obsession of either the Lady Macbeth or the Pontius Pilate kind.
Passion does have a disadvantage, though: it evanesces; whereas obsession persists. Proust has declared hat physical passion is unsustainable beyond two years. And, truth to tell, I don’t think I have ever encountered a couple who, after a few years of marriage, displayed the aura of physical passion, although, I admit, absolute certainty would have required my hiding under their marital bed. I did, however, hear once and only once about a couple of high-school sweethearts who allegedly maintained a passionate relationship over many years of marriage. I say “passionate” as distinguished from “sexual,” which can be indulged well enough without much true passion. But hearing about that extraordinary couple is no guarantee of authenticity. There too hiding under their bed would have been required.
As some sort of admittedly subjective test, I turned to my “Bartlett’s” (granted not the latest edition, but I doubt if a few years made a significant difference) to do some research. How many quotations would there be for “passion” as opposed to those for “obsession.” Clearly the worthier, more fragile and elusive but finer condition would earn many more entries than the mundane, prosaic, widespread one. And there it was: 62 entries for “passion,” and only one for “obsession”; to my way of thinking proof of the superiority of the former.
And what was the solitary entry for obsession? It came from the prayer written in her Book of Devotion by Mary Stuart before her beheading. It runs (I excerpt): “O Lord my God, I have trusted in thee . . . In prison’s oppression, in sorrow’s obsession . . . etc.” It takes the impending shadow of the executioner to elicit one memorable recording of obsession.
Well, you say, isn’t that a rather circuitous way of arriving at the obvious conclusion, namely that passion is better than obsession? Not quite. By upholding the lasting supremacy of passion over obsession, we make out a stronger case for it, its fragility and its preciousness, its need of nurturing and the rewards thereof.
At the same time, this is a screed against most kinds of obsession, as being a parody or perversion of passion, even if the boundary between it and pure passion is regrettably porous. Yet it behooves me to confess to an obsession of my own, an obsession with symmetry over asymmetry, with aesthetics as a form of morality, and with tradition as so often preferable to mindless novelty.
If I believed in pronouncements on tombstones—if, opting for cremation, I would even have a headstone--this is what I would have it say: “He loved beauty above all things, and above all types of beauty that of the female face and form. If Heaven existed, this rather than asexual angels, is what it would abound in.”