Professor Wu's Rulebook

The genius of obsessiveness

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Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images.

“True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care – with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world,” so wrote author and essayist David Foster Wallace. Such is the essence of the trial involved in creating groundbreaking work.

This is true not only of creative pursuits, but also a general truism. In science, Marie Curie spent hours toiling in her laboratory. Astronomer Maria Mitchell made herself “ill with fatigue” as she peered into the cosmos with her two-inch telescope well into the night, night after night. Thomas Edison tried material after material while looking for a stable filament for the first incandescent bulb, proclaiming: “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.”

Yet for artists, writers, musicians and creatives of all ilks, perhaps the singular turmoil of creative geniuses is the compulsion to try, again and again, to craft the perfect sentence; draw the perfect outline; write the perfect musical rhythm. This can lead to days spent working and reworking on projects that take years to bear fruit. This may give the illusion of madness to the outside world – the well-worn adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results comes to mind here – but nonetheless, this relentless obsessiveness in the pursuit of creative perfection remains a central driving force in the interior life of creative genius.

This relationship between genius and madness is what theoretical cosmologist and astrophysicist Janna Levin examines in a portion of her (somewhat unusual) book, ‘How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space’.

Levin, who characterises her fascination with the madness of mathematicians as “morbid but harmless” and wonders whether “brushes with insanity are occupational hazards,” writes:

“Insanity, madness, obsession, math, objectivity, truth, science and art. These friends always impress me. They’re sculptors and tailors, not scientists or spies. I’ve chosen them with the peculiar attentiveness of a shell collector stupidly combining the overwhelming multitude of broken detritus to hold up one shell so beautiful that it finds its way into my pocket, lining my clothes with sand. And then another. Not too many, so that the sheer number could never diminish the value of one.”

Reflecting on the similarities she sees across geniuses, Levin posits that a compulsion towards obsessiveness is a unifying characteristic, and that from this iterative obsessiveness, which at times verges on insanity, spring the advancements we experience as groundbreaking — repetition becomes the wellspring of revelation. Somehow, though they may appear blinded by their compulsions, minds of genius see more clearly into the nature of things, into some microscopic or monumental aspect of the world that evades the rest of us.

This same obsessiveness is highlighted by another great thinker of the 20th century, French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette:

“To write, to be able to write, what does it mean? It means spending long hours dreaming before a white page, scribbling unconsciously, letting your pen play around a blot of ink and nibble at a half-formed word, scratching it, making it bristle with darts, and adorning it with antennae and paws until it loses all resemblance to a legible word and turns into a fantastic insect or a fluttering creature half butterfly, half fairy.

To write is to sit and stare, hypnotised, at the reflection of the window in the silver inkstand, to feel the divine fever mounting to one’s cheeks and forehead while the hand that writes grows blissfully numb upon the paper. It also means idle hours curled up in the hollow of the divan, and then the orgy of inspiration from which one emerges stupefied and aching all over, but already recompensed and laden with treasures that one unloads slowly on to the virgin page in the little round pool of light under the lamp.

To write is to pour one’s innermost self passionately upon the tempting paper, at such frantic speed that sometimes one’s hand struggles and rebels, overdriven by the impatient god who guides it — and to find, next day, in place of the golden bough that boomed miraculously in that dazzling hour, a withered bramble and a stunted flower.”

Colette remained animated by this same creative restlessness, the same uncontainable compulsion to write, to continue to do the same thing over and over, that filled her youth. Shortly before her death – at the age of eighty-one – she writes:

“My goal has not been reached; but I am practicing. I don’t yet know when I shall succeed in learning not to write; the obsession, the obligation are half a century old. My right little finger is slightly bent; that is because the weight of my hand always rested on it as I wrote, like a kangaroo leaning back on its tail. There is a tired spirit deep inside of me that still continues its gourmet’s quest for a better word, and then for a better one still.”

For creatives who find themselves fighting their inner compulsions in order to cope with the rigours of the modern, neoliberal capitalist world, the takeaway here seems clear: do not ignore your obsession, your feeling of obligation to your work or ideas. Simply: give in.

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