Obsession, Collection, and Connection: On Pixar’s ‘Soul’ and Jazmina Barrera’s On Lighthouses


A chunk of bagel. The crust of a slice of pizza, pale as a sliver of fingernail. A spool of blue thread. A yellow subway card with cobalt lettering. A red lollipop, unwrapped and glistening as though still wet. And, finally: a single helicopter seed from a molting maple, veined and translucent, like an earlobe in sunlight.

These are just a few of the endearingly New York mementos accumulated by the protagonists of Disney Pixar’s latest animated feature, Soul. On the evening I watched Soul, the concept of collection was on my mind: I had just finished Jazmina Barrera’s haunting hybrid On Lighthouses, translated by Christina MacSweeney last year for Two Lines Press. Throughout the petite sky-blue book, Barrera pursues her obsession with lighthouses through time and space and the annals of literature until her fixation begins to accumulate matter and heft, a kind of reverse entropy, becoming a collection of objects and experiences—and, finally, six experimental essays. In fact, Barrera wonders if obsession couldn’t be considered “a form of mental collecting,” a “fervent yet controlled passion.”

Soul also concerns itself with the consequences of passion and obsession: the movie follows a middle-aged jazz musician named Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), who has to make his way back to his body to live out his dream of performing in a successful gig after a near-death experience sends his soul into a metaphysical realm called “The Great Beyond.” There, Gardner becomes convinced that without finding success in music his life will have amounted to nothing. Essentially a fugitive from death, he teams up with an incorrigible soul known only by their number, 22 (Tina Fey), who hopes to avoid life on earth altogether. But after a mishap lands the pair in Manhattan, 22 begins to gather a collection of artifacts—the bagel, the pizza crust, the subway card—that challenges both characters’ presuppositions about what makes life worthwhile.

The writing I love to read often attempts to illustrate or explain an obsession of the writer: Maggie Nelson’s affair with blue, Leslie Jamison’s preoccupation with empathy, Nabokov’s passion for lepidopterology, Tommy Pico’s collection of junk. Writing that takes a pin and drives it through obsession’s abdomen, splaying it open like one of Nabokov’s butterfly specimens. Perhaps, as a result, I often worry that in my own writing I don’t care enough about one thing. A brief list of contenders might include: dark chocolate, vintage outerwear, cats, my mother, my mother’s mother, coffee, flirting, ketchup, romantic relationships between former So You Think You Can Dance contestants, stained glass windows, and the city of St. Louis. Oh—and ginkgo leaves, like the ones that blanketed the street outside my apartment, released from the tree in a single cold snap, as heavy and sudden as stage curtains.

I would hesitate if you asked me whether my life would be worth living without books, but I can’t say I’ve ever experienced—or pursued—a devotion as potent as Barrera’s lighthouses or Gardner’s jazz.

To Barrera, the obsessive practice of collecting is capacious and contradictory: it’s love and escapism both; it’s a ritual act, a devotion, but it’s also a constant exercise in failure, a bid for possession and conservation that will always reduce rather than encapsulate. As with the practice of collection, the lighthouse itself is a contradiction: an isolated object (and an object that isolates, as the lone keeper inside is forbidden from leaving, in case the signal is obstructed or extinguished in his absence), yet one whose purpose is to guide others and keep them safe. The edifice both contains and projects; it stands on tiptoe on the precipice between land and sea, simultaneously alive and dead, static and roving, light and dark. The lighthouse, like the surrender to obsession itself, occasions both inspiration and madness.

According to Soul, when people lose themselves too deeply in this somnambulistic, spellbound state, they become Lost Souls, monstrous figures who wander the shadowy metaphysical plains choked in a tower of fine black sand. Barrera, for one, lives alone inside the tower of her obsession (and the physical tower of her apartment building, whose windows face a brick wall). She describes her longing to merge with the lighthouse; she craves the cold solidity of stone, the peace that comes with numbness. And yet—she can’t extinguish her own light, her drive to connect. She admits that she finds lighthouses so attractive because “they combine that disdain, that misanthropy, with the task of guiding, helping, rescuing others.”

As the tension in Soul builds, Gardner experiences a similar internal tug-of-war. He declares that his “spark,” the unique source of inspiration that offers each young soul their ticket to earthly life, is and has always been playing music himself; however, after he impresses at the show he calls his “big break,” he’s left feeling just as unfulfilled.

Gardner assumes that a soul’s spark must represent one’s “purpose.” The lesson as Gardner interprets it is this: in order to have a fulfilling and productive life, you have to find your calling. It isn’t until after the show, when he rediscovers 22’s collection of keepsakes in his suit pocket, that he begins to reassess. The collection is an exercise in synecdoche: the half-eaten bagel represents 22’s first connection with music, when they earnestly tear off a chunk of bread to tip a busker in the subway; the lollipop is a stand-in for a gregarious barber, who shows 22 that it’s possible to find joy in listening to other people’s stories; the spool of thread is an extension of Gardner’s mother, who uses it to tailor his late father’s suit in a display of unconditional love. The only artifact culled from a moment of solitude is the single helicopter seed that flaps, lepidopterous and alive, into 22’s open palm.

It’s a breath of beauty, of rapture—coins of afternoon light stippling the stone, autumn leaves blushing the sidewalk like rose petals—and of serendipity. The moment’s privacy, brevity, and rarity—snatched in the midst of a frenetic quest through a swarming city—punctuates the film like the delicate peal of an orchestral triangle. Plucked from its context, we might give an involuntary awestruck sigh at the somersaulting seed, as I did, but it’s the noise and congestion surrounding it that makes this moment chime.

Every so often, I receive contextless snapshots of fallen ginkgo leaves from friends and acquaintances and even friends of acquaintances. I’ve never been lucky enough to witness what poet Howard Nemerov termed “the consent”—the moment in which a “signal from the stars” compels a stand of ginkgo trees “to strike their leaves, to down their leaves” in a synchronous, celestial surrender—but these missives feel fortuitous in their own way, little gifts helicoptering from the heavens into my hands.

I save every single photo. My obsession becomes collection that becomes conversation, and it makes me glow to think that, because of me, someone stopped and looked. Is this vanity, or simply a communal joy?

Why do we enjoy reading about the obsessions of others? I’ve come to believe it’s at least partly because we want evidence that we have more care left to give. Not only that we can love more, farther, wider, but also drill deeper, dig a well, and fill it all the way up. (Barrera describes her attraction to the idea of the lighthouse as a well turned inside-out, each other’s inverse: a pit of dark, a tower of light.)

22’s collection, by contrast, is far from singular—it’s a hodgepodge of flotsam and jetsam that encapsulates the thrill of human connection and the beauty, the rapture, the meaningfulness that hides in the mundane. And yet Barrera’s collection, too, reminds us that obsession can only fulfill us so long as it exists in conversation with the outside world. On Lighthouses ends not because Barrera’s obsession abates, but because she chooses to allow the collection to remain incomplete. She realizes that she must return her gaze from the sea to the land, or else risk becoming a lost soul herself: “Falling in love with a beauty that at moments seems too much like death.” While she’s reluctant to relinquish her hold on nothingness for “the bustle, irreverence, and noise of dry land”—just as 22 initially hopes to “skip life” and all its attending disappointments—Barrera concedes that while oblivion will always be there, waiting, “The other is ephemeral. It must be appreciated while it lasts.”

I read a review of Soul for Roger Ebert in which the critic jabs, “The film’s message could be summed up as, ‘Don’t get so hung up on ambition that you forget to stop and smell the flowers.’ A birthday card could’ve told you that.” Though the movie is certainly flawed, I disagree with this particular take: a card from CVS could tell you that and many other platitudes, but good art proves them. What Soul and On Lighthouses both prove to us is that a personal obsession, even a passion or a calling, can’t necessarily supplant the fulfillment we derive from sharing knowledge, stories, and discovery with other people. And even when it does, perhaps it shouldn’t. As the writer Kyoko Mori observed in a recent essay for Conjunctions, “Solitude only makes sense when we’re connected to the world around us: we can’t be apart unless we can be a part of.”

As a nonfiction writer, it’s tempting to collect thoughts, images, quotes, scents, contradictions, conversations, and questions not for the joy of the collecting, but in the hopes that the whole will someday amount to more than the sum of its parts. It can begin to seem as though nothing about living is distinct from writing. But while Pixar’s Lost Souls become trapped in their obsessions through their consummation, I’ve always felt far more adrift when I can’t bring myself to write. I misplace my faith in the particular; I stop noticing things. I retreat from my family and community. Writer’s “block” doesn’t just obstruct my creativity; when I succumb, it barricades me from the rest of my life.

Both Soul and On Lighthouses articulate the desire to be swept away on a current of inspiration, but they also warn us against losing ourselves inside our passions when we find them. In the end, each represents the act of collecting as a reminder of what makes life worth living: not the flood of feeling that gives rise to obsession, or the solitary thrill of possessing its object, but the messiness and spontaneity of being a part of.

Maybe it’s alright for my collection to look less like Barrera’s and a little more like 22’s: a square of my mother’s favorite chocolate, studded with rubies of freeze-dried raspberry; a coffee bean from the café down the street from my St. Louis apartment, where the bathroom walls were plastered in old board games; a yellow ginkgo leaf, dried and pasted to the front of a birthday card by a boy I loved. Our collections remain incomplete by necessity, not in the sense of ‘deficient’ but that of ‘ongoing.’ We continue gathering moments of beauty, awe, communion. We amass a whole grotto of tiny wonders; together, we help each other see them.

Image credit: Unsplash/Joanna Kosinska.