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Excellence as obsession


An issue of Humanities (January/February, 2008), the magazine of the National Endowment of the Humanities, includes a story that seems curiously typical of really serious scholarly work.  Philip Lampi, the subject of a biographical appreciation (he works today with the American Antiquarian Society), has devoted his entire life to archiving and documenting election results from the early Republic, a project that is now an indispensable electronic database:  A New Nation Votes.

It turns out that Mr. Lampi, and I admit I admire him for this, is a bit of an obsessive:  “To hunt down this elusive data, Lampi made many sacrifices.  He lived in his car, on and off, from 1973 to 1988.  He recounts a time when he spent the night in the back parking lot of the Georgia Historical Society in order to hit the archives first thing in the morning.  He made an effort to stay at a motel every third or fourth night, ‘just to take a shower,’ and on Saturdays, when no libraries would be open the next day for research.  He ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly in those days…”  As Lampi put it:  “It has literally taken all of my life to do this one thing.”  The result is an astonishingly rich assemblage of early national, state and local election results, wholly unassembled prior to his labor of love and obsessive commitment.

The relationship between genius and outright craziness has long been the subject of speculation (Aristotle:  “no great genius has ever been without some divine madness”), but I’m more interested in the milder forms of obsession (what the French psychiatrist Esquirol titled monomania) that much more frequently define the great scholarship done by our colleagues who, seized with a passionate desire to learn something or solve a puzzle or write, cannot let it go.  These are the colleagues who may annoy us but are also the ones most likely to win the Pulitzer or the Nobel or those MacArthur genius prizes (tangent:  I think it remains the case that the youngest ever MacArthur genius recipient is a man who helped decipher the Mayan hieroglyphs, the subject of a new and totally interesting Nova documentary playing on PBS around the country).  Perhaps this is the moment to recall that the term obsession has its origins in Catholic theology, which distinguished at one point between possession, where one is taken over by Satan but doesn’t realize it, and obsession, where one is demon-possessed but knows.

Examples abound.  The CBS show 60 Minutes recently profiled Bill James, the obsessive baseball statistician who today advises the World Series winning Boston franchise.  After decades in the wilderness (several of which he passed working as a night guard at a pork-and-beans factory in Kansas), and then having accumulated something of a cult following for his mastery of baseball’s numbers, some in the league finally figured he might be able to help out.  Time magazine named him one of 2006’s one hundred most influential individuals.  Go figure, as they say.

Or consider Glenn Gould, pictured above, whose obsessional devotion to performance perfection led to famous fights in the classical music world.  Gould was set to perform Brahms’ D Minor Piano Concerto in April 1962 with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic.  They disagreed about the appropriate interpretive approach and apparently argued about it quite vehemently (Gould insisted on playing the first movement at half speed).  The outcome was a rather unprecedented speech, delivered from the conducting podium by Bernstein, distancing himself from the performance to come (here’s the actual speech as Lenny delivered it, embedded in this NPR report).  Listen and you’ll hear the enormously conflicted Bernstein struggling to come to terms with Gould’s demands.  On the one hand LB stresses repeatedly his fascination with the argument and his respect for Gould as an intellect, but clearly one wouldn’t feel compelled to make a disclaiming speech were one not finally wholly uneasy with the concession to potential craziness.

In an academic/humanistic climate still so strongly dominated by postmodernism, the old cliches about madness and genius have lost a considerable amount of force.  In part this is due to a more widespread contemporary skepticism of meta-narratives, which has resulted in a much reduced tendency to either idolize the celebrated lone genius or despise the isolated “crazy person.”  Or maybe the current tendencies to celebrate nonconformity, hybridity, and the possibilities that personal identity can be always already fictive have induced a wider cultural toleration for behavior that would have been formerly marked as eccentric.  One is as likely today to blame or credit the wider sociocultural production of madness than to lock up someone who seems a little compulsive when it comes to forever polishing their latest university press manuscript.

Are the commitment and discipline required to produce major works of lasting art or scholarship always inevitably reflective of a little madness?  Or is such a view simply the lingering afterlife of a troublesome anti-intellectualism?  Perhaps we are finally left only with Salvador Dali’s enigmatic and finally unhelpful observation:  “The only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad.”

SOURCES:  Katherine Mangu-Ward, “The Orphan Scholar,” Humanities, Jan/Feb 2008, pg. 36-37;  Caroline Koh, “Reviewing the Link Between Creativity and Madness:  A Postmodern Perspective,” Educational Research and Reviews 1.7 (October 2006), pgs. 213-221; Lennard Davis, “’Play It Again, Sam, and Again’:  Obsession and Art,” Journal of Visual Culture 5.2 (2006), pg.s 242-266.

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