Thursday, November 15, 2007

OBSESSION, BRIGHT AND DARK

The past week I have been reading Julia Child's My Life in France. (Julia wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking and many other books; she had her own show on television for years, and effected a major change in how Americans cook.The single down side of the book was reading it in bed: it invigorated rather than lulled me, and I lost sleep while lost in post-war Paris and the(possibly over-rated)Cordon Bleu.

Interested in others' evaluation of this charming autobiography, I browsed reviews at amazon.com. One reader, quite fond of the book, offered the opinion that Julia was probably "something of an obsessive-compulsive personality." Ye gods! The truth is out: the French Chef had OCD!

Well, no she didn't, of course. And aren't we all fortunate no one ever hung that label on her while she was alive, or suggested a regular dose of Zoloft? (I've wondered before about the results, had a kindly Amherst doc put Emily Dickinson on tranquilizers.)

Without underestimating the pain and distress it causes, I find actual compulsion of great interest. I wonder, for one thing, if compulsion and genius are perhaps on the same continuum. Studies tell us that heightened focus and perseverance characterize productive genius. Sounds a lot like obsession as well, doesn't it? But there are differences.

Two traits stand out for me when I look at people who achieve a certain level of genius in their lives--like Julia. (Or Edison or Alexander Bell or the people I
keep reading about in obits, who die at 103 while working at the button factory, or at 93 while riding the range.) First, they continue to get a big bang for their buck.
The more Julia studied French cooking, the more she loved it. The longer she fussed and pondered over the right mixture of herbs for the pot-au-feu, the more delighted she was and the tastier the results.

By contrast, those who suffer true obsession seem to get no bang at all, finally. The hoarders worry and agonize over the boxes, barrels, stacks, and shelves of stuff, but take no pleasure in them, only anxiety should they be removed. Those driven to count every lamp-post don't find delight in the numbers, only stress if they miss a beat.

The second big difference between the super-focused genius and the true compulsive is the issue of progress. Whereas compulsion makes a person loop around and around, repeating identical behaviors again and again, the purposeful genius who might seem to be looping is actually spiraling upward, learning a little more this time than last. Yes, he may experiment 1,000 times doing what seems to be the same thing over and over to no end, but on #1001, voila--the successful light bulb that changes the world. Yes, Julia made beurre blanc five times that day before serving it at a dinner party --but no one ever forgot that dinner.

Last week on TV, one of Oklahoma U's astounding women basketball stars said, "No one sees the two thousand baskets I shoot in practice before I make that one 'easy' three-pointer in the game."

Footnote: Two absorbing books about OCD are Passing For Normal by Amy Wilensky and I Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life, by Allen Shawn.

1 comment:

M.A. said...

A lesser known (but related) disorder that I think often well fits the perfectionist grad students, obsessive artists, maniacal scientists, and their ilk is obsessive compulsive personality disorder. Rather than being pinned under a monolith of old egg cartons, or having to stop to tie and untie ones shoes forty seven times per day, the un/lucky gal/feller with OCPD is driven to perfection in what s/he does and is. To do everything so well and with such attention that some degree of anguish to self and others occurs. In short, I would not want OCD, but I'm glad I have just a tetch of the OCPD.