Passion vs. Obsession
I have a love/hate relationship with Jane Hamilton's book The Short History of a Prince. There are some passages that resonated with me and I wanted to savor them, and yet, as I read, I found myself distracted, looking ahead, wondering when I would be finished.
The story is compelling enough. A gay English teacher at mid-life reflects on his senior year of high school when he's challenged by the illness and death of his brother, his love yet lack of talent for dance, his attraction for the same sex, and his confusing relationships with family and friends. The book travels between two time periods, 1972-73 when Walter, the main character and his friends are in high school, and 1996 when he looks back over his life.
As I struggled with this book and with my own work, I realized it was a matter of passion versus obsession. When I'm passionate about something or when I read passionate writing, it motivates me to read more and write more. When something I read or write feels obsessive, I get frustrated and want to stop reading and give up writing.
In the dictionary the word passion (as related to this paper) is described as an intense or overpowering emotion such as love, joy, hatred or anger; a keen interest in a particular subject or activity; the object of somebody's intense interest or enthusiasm.
Obsession on the other hand is defined as an idea or feeling that completely occupies the mind; the state of being obsessed by somebody or something; the uncontrollable persistence of an idea or emotion in the mind, sometimes associated with psychiatric disorder mania, fascination, fixation, desire, fetish, craze, fad.
In looking at these definitions there can be places where these two terms seem to overlap. Passion is a drive that's healthy and gives you energy. Obsession is also a drive that can turn into a sickness and sap your strength. Passion is lasting while obsession is temporary. It's the bewildering difference between a crush and a true love relationship; the fine line between a wine connoisseur and an alcoholic.
Jane Hamilton, in an interview about Prince was asked about her Walter character. She stated: "I wanted to write about someone who had a passion to dance but had no talent, like myself." (Hamilton interview)
Hamilton's passion for dance is clearly revealed in a passage she writes from Walter's point of view where he shares his feelings about dance with his aunt. He's involved in a Nutcracker production that he knows is second-rate and wonders why he's enjoying it so much.
"Why do you dance, Walter? Why do you take lessons?"
He was panting from the strain of the conversation. She was asking all the difficult questions. "I know I'm not any good," he whispered...
"So why do you keep on," she persisted, "if you think you're not any good?"
"Because," he choked, "I feel it."
"Yes, that's it."
"I feel the ideas and the patterns and the abstraction of the beauty, and—"
"Yes, you do. And you feel the meaning strongly enough you'll no doubt convey something of it. I don't think you can help it. I'd wager that you enjoy the rehearsals of this so-called tawdry production because you're communicating. In other words, you're succeeding." (Hamilton, p. 133)
Hamilton's quote evokes passion because it touches on a universal theme, something that people can relate to and apply in their lives. It wouldn't have to be about dance. It could be about anything - singing, playing an instrument, running, baseball, or painting.
Hamilton's passage also works well because she writes passionately about someone's passion. According to her example passion means feeling strongly about something and conveying that feeling to someone else.
Where Hamilton becomes obsessive in her work is in the non-linear structure of the story. Since she works with two different timelines there's a tendency toward repetition and backtracking. The timelines are clearly marked, but they weren't distinctive. In the later timeline the author kept flashing back to fill in details and then in the high school years, she sometimes flashed forward to the future. Several times I had to keep checking to see which timeframe I was in. The parts of the story were well written, and I can't point to specific passages, but overall there was a lot of repetition and rehashed issues about how Walter dealt with his brother's death, how he felt about his lack of talent, and the love triangle between Walter and his friends, Susan and Mitch.
One place where obsession worked for Hamilton was where she described Walter's crush on Mitch with what I will call a passionate obsession. Hamilton intersperses descriptions about Walter's feelings throughout the chapter and other parts of the book.
"His was a pure love in the beginning, a love without the paraphernalia of hope and expectation. He might just as well have said Mitch to mean the word love... He whispered 'Mitch' into his pillow; he opened his closet and said it louder; he sang it softly in the shower; he filled a few notebook pages with it in different script." (p. 122)
"He no longer knew to eat or sleep or brush his teeth. He had lost any instinct that might guide him. He would have skipped off a cliff if his beloved had beckoned him across the abyss." (same)
The first quote leans toward passion, but the repetition of he + verb structures hints at obsession. In the second quote the obsession is obvious but the universal feelings, and vivid pictures and descriptions provide passionate undertones.
Thematic symbols in a story can either infuse passion into a work or, if over-used, can drag it down.
In Hamilton's book she use the prince theme effectively. It shows up in the middle of the book and it's only in one chapter, but it flavors the rest of the story and points back to the title. Starting on page 128 Walter auditions for the Rockford Ballet. Walter is described through the eyes of Miss Amy, the director, as having "this raw kind of possibility." She ends up choosing him for the prince role because "what counted in the end, she said, was that Walter had moved his arms and legs as if he believed he was a prince." (p. 129)
Later Walter describes his passion for the role as he dresses in his princely costume:
"In the course of the rehearsals, he felt that he shouldn't be enjoying something that was so far from being even second-rate. And yet when he forgot to worry about the production as a work of art he threw himself into it wholeheartedly. He loved his blue velvet tunic that came midthigh, the matching blue blouse with cream-colored satin cuffs and a silver sequined V at the neck and his tights that had sequins sewn in clusters all the way to the ankle." (p. 130)
I think that the writing life like anything else is about passion and obsession. My passion for writing will drive me to write without rewards, do research for hours on end, and read many books. But there was one summer when I wrote so much that I developed stomach aches. (Most likely from the things I ate and drank and the lack of exercise.) Often I can get stuck in research. I get on the Internet and it sucks me in. I think that it'll just take me a few minutes to find something, but it takes hours. I run into dead ends, spin my wheels and become overwhelmed. I can see how the intensity could drive some people to drink, use drugs, overeat, chain smoke or gamble.
My life as a writer needs to be like the fine-tuned body of a dancer to maintain balance. It's a constant education and renewing of the mind in how to keep energy and freshness alive. Prayer has been helpful as well as eating healthy, getting rest, and exercising to maintain courage, stamina, and perseverance.
"Write with your eyes like painters, with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers. You are the truth-sayers with quill and torch. Write with your tongue on fire. Don't let the pen banish you from yourself." Gloria Anzaldua
Encarta World English Dictionary. Microsoft Corporation. Bloomsbury Publishing: 1999.
Hamilton, Jane. Interview at Barnes & Noble. April 8, 1998.
Hamilton, Jane. The Short History of a Prince. New York: Doubleday. 1998.