Placing Obsession

“We don’t need someone crazy, but one step short of crazy”—National Treasure

Camera Illustration
Breslin A. Sibley

If she was a small idea in April, by November, Lucy had become a person—strained, muscled, and as flimsy as guilt. I knew the stiff yellow restaurant she worked at and that Chinese song about the moon she sang to mock her twinkie best friend. I knew that “The Outsiders” was the only book she’d ever really read. I knew she’d kept the same middle school copy in her pocket until the cover ripped straight off the block like an old scar. She was a virgin. She loved driving fast and killing the headlights. She was as suburban as I was. So Lucy was there, birthed from infatuation. She was my muse; she was someone I never wanted to be and someone I’d always wanted to be. Lucy was to me what Sherane was to Kendrick Lamar, what Beatrice was to Dante, what Yunior was to Junot Diaz. She was born from dust, and I loved her.

You don’t have to write to know obsession like I know obsession. You don’t have to create to know what little reward feelings provide, how your personal tragedies sound out loud, how little is left after a relationship’s dissolved like sugar in some wet and blistering heat. You don’t need a broken heart to know that there is nothing as undefined as dissatisfaction. The things that drive you to do what you do are right on the underside of your gut.

I am curious about obsession because it is so powerful yet so unquantifiable. Though it is as musical and romantic as a countermelody or midnight, in some ways, it defines existence. “Lighthead” by Terrance Hayes was the first book of poetry I’d ever bought, and in the pages, the longing was inescapable and inextricable from the intellect, because like him and all the people he writes about in his poems, like Harriet Tubman, like Tupac Shakur, like his wife, like everyone in and out of city subways—I wanted to be “oblong with longing” or “light longing for lightness” or “the devil of longing” or mixed with “solace, survival, multiple genres of longing.” Married happily and so utterly adorably, he seemed to be the expert of longing, the connoisseur of obsession. He seemed to tell me what I’d already known, that life was little more than obsessing over the past and longing for more.

But why did Terrance Hayes’s obsession win him the National Book Award, while others left people drooling at shirtless pictures of singing boys? Why do some have it so easy, to be obsessed with something that the world finds irreplaceably important? And what drives someone to examine obscurity? Why are there article with titles like “Interactions of Hydrophobia Layer Silicates with Alcohol-Benzene Mixtures I. Adsorption Isotherms,” and how is Humbert Humbert not written off as a creation of some demented, insignificant mind? I am obsessed with obsession because it is unbelievably productive. I am obsessed with obsession because it is so utterly extreme, so daringly polar, so anything other than chill, so strangely hardcore. It is hard to imagine a world that is not essentially driven by a manic longing, whether it be for organization or freedom, happiness or pleasure. I cannot believe in a world changed by apathy; I can only picture the world shattered by it.

The difference between constructive obsession and lazy longing resides in how willing you are to describe it. If I have learned anything from growing up, it is that there are major differences between how the world works and how, through analyzing articles or watching news videos, one could believe it works. Obsession lies in the space between the two because obsession never fits in with theory. The theory rushes out, and to catch up almost always fails. What you are obsessed with tells something vital about how you view the world—about where the world fails to describe you accurately, where society has not moved over enough to share space with you. There is one way to respond to such exclusion productively, especially when the matter at hand is your existence—to demand space, to describe the world yourself; to tell a story where you are the good guy; to make your obsession not only logical but a beautiful product of human experience.


I don’t believe it is necessary to describe the macrocosmic trends of cynicism or professionalism, because I am positive everyone has felt it one way or another. While some feel a consistent pressure to be cool and apathetic, others believe their interests are illegitimate. While some force themselves to obsess over practical fields, others find absolute joy in work. The trends affect everyone differently. It is more important to internalize a simple, uncritical message: be unapologetically passionate. Be constructively passionate. View your obsessions as vitally and as seriously as you view yourself, because somehow, your interests inevitably fit into the wide mosaic of global knowledge. More simply, if you are serious, you are important.

I thought of Lucy incessantly. In some ways, there is nothing sillier than intentionally believing in an imaginary girl, than getting to know someone who does not exist. But I had never been more serious about anything else. Whatever I learned from her, I knew she was going to help me write stories. And what is more political, more interesting, or more basic than a story?

Christina Qiu ’19, lives in Matthews Hall. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.