Obsessed? You say I'm obsessed? With what, obsessed? Oh, you mean these Studebakers. Well, in fact, they happen to be the largest collection of Studebakers in North America, if you don't count Phillips in Bismarck, N.D., with his to-say-the-least questionable "rebuilt" engines. I don't think so. How do you like these Zippo lighters--1,110, if you're counting. I certainly am. What about my Marilyn Monroe movie furniture, my Trekkie memorabilia, my Daisy Buchanan, my Holy Grail, my double helix? Call me obsessed? What do you think of this church ceiling? Took me 10 years hanging in air to get the God's-hand-to-Adam right. Do you think I did get it right? Should I start over?
But please don't characterize any of these activities as obsessions. The word has that connotation, you know: zealous, pathological--dare I say it?--nuts. This, undoubtedly, is why Robert A. Caro abjures it; says, instead, that he has spent the past 27 years writing his monumental 1,000-plus-page volumes on the life of Lyndon Johnson, with many more years in both his life and Johnson's to go, because he is "interested in how power works." Interested, indeed. Captain Ahab was "interested" in Moby Dick. "Between love and madness lies" Calvin Klein's "Interest."
I am not obsessed with Caro, but I am interested in him; that is, in how obsession works, because the emotion (is it an emotion?), the passion (must it always involve passion?), the mental devotion (that'll do for the moment) produces a multiplicity of applications. John W. Hinckley Jr. was obsessed with Jodie Foster; Hitler with Jews; Osama bin Laden with us.
Caro's obsession, on the other and safer hand, has produced three classic works about power, four if you're counting his book on Robert Moses. I certainly am. We are not talking about an obsessive-compulsive disorder--some helpless yearning that erupts in incessant hand washing, the counting of numbers, words repeated over and over. All words and no play makes Jack a murderous boy. We are not talking about polar bears either. Young Tolstoy's brother told him to stand in the corner until he stopped thinking about the white bear. But Tolstoy was entrapped by fear of the unwanted thought, and so he thought of nothing else but white bears.
Psychologists like Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget (who were more than interested in how the child develops) concluded that obsession is a normal part of growing up. First, obsessed with dolls and baseball stats. Later, obsessed with political systems, religions, ideologies. In the 1970s little Stevie Jobs and Billy Gates were taken with computers. Why? Because these microcosms of interest gave them worlds they could inhabit and control? Maybe.
In The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean comes up with a more creative, a lovelier idea. Of her eccentric Laroche, who lurched from an obsession with turtles to one with Ice Age fossils, then resilvering old mirrors, then orchids, Orlean writes: "I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty, but full of possibility." In other words, the exclusionary element of an obsession also implies what the obsession includes. In other words, tunnel vision takes in the tunnel.