There is nothing positive about the dictionary definition of “obsession” – it haunts, is abnormal and persistent, like a bad rash. Tossing the word into a conversation typically indicates some form of criticism about a person and that person’s particular pursuit. Obsessions can lead to stalkers, delusion and great creations (the last two are not mutually exclusive); they can limit and restrict you to minutia or endow a unique vision that changes how you and others view the world at large. People indulge obsession in different ways – live it like a lifestyle or stir it into a creation like a minor but crucial recipe ingredient where it doesn’t overpower anything and complements everything.
Ideas of obsession had been needling me after reading James Hamilton-Paterson’s Seven Tenths and Peter Handke’s Slow Homecoming. Both books obsess over their loosely shared theme – the natural world’s mystifying grandeur – and after reading them back-to-back it was impossible not to link them. While thinking about these two titles I was lucky enough to attend a screening of Exit Through the Gift Shop, a feature-length film directed by stencil-art maverick Banksy. The film’s real lynchpin is Thierry Guetta a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash, the ultimate knock-off artist. But before he became an overnight art world sensation his obsession was filming everything he did. The cousin of French street artist Space Invader, during a vacation to France Guetta got his first exhilarating taste for joining, and filming, street artists on their illicit missions. Over time, Guetta infiltrated the graffiti and street art scene in Los Angeles, befriending Shepard Fairey and other prominent figures. He and his camera became fixtures and his desire to document the scene, in his own words, became more of an obsession than just filming the boring details of everyday life. He met everyone and went everywhere, but like Captain Ahab chasing his White Whale, Guetta would not be satisfied until he achieved his ultimate goal: filming the notoriously anonymous Banksy.
Of course, no greater tale of obsession exists in American letters than Captain Ahab’s in Moby-Dick. Ahab’s epic ego-driven quest to recover the impossible has inspired and influenced countless artists who tap into as many ideas as the ones explored in the novel: myth, America, commerce, astronomy, conquest, sexuality. As part of a series of multimedia responses to American novels, the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco assembled “Moby-Dick,” a show and accompanying catalogue. Designed as homage to the vaunted 1930 Rockwell Kent illustrated Lakeside Press three-volume deluxe edition (later released as a Modern Library edition), this lovely book glosses Melville’s novel and features the thirty-two artists whose works was on view from September 22, 2009, until last December.
Interestingly, it was Kent’s black ink illustrations, reproduced here in a dark, brooding sea-blue, that helped resurrect the novel from obscurity (the edition did not even include Melville’s name on the cover). In this catalogue, pieces like Richard Serra’s lithograph study for his sculpture “Call Me Ishmael” or Brian Jungen’s iPod scrimshaw, connect directly to the narrative; the inclusion of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s large-scale ocean view photographic prints, which a book of this size cannot do justice, is fitting since they express boundless uncertainty. But many of the pieces strike more abstract poses, like Angela Bulloch’s algorithm-simulated celestial views that use “technology to expand our perception of space and the possibilities of perception.”
At first blush, connecting contemporary art to the heyday of seafaring might seem incongruous, but sailors were the eyes of the world for landlubbers, returning home with tales of what mystical, depraved and wondrous sites and cultures existed just beyond the horizon. Of course, for all of the spoils these men brought back with them, their stories were filled by imagination and hearsay, changing like the seas. “Melville’s book,” writes the catalogue’s editor Jens Hoffman, “is like the living ocean: vast, potent, and hugely indifferent to human troubles and ambitions.”
James Hamilton-Paterson has a very similar view about the ocean, and with good reason. He has lived on desolate islands in the Philippines; accompanied deep-sea salvage missions, scientific expeditions, commercial fishers and sea scavenging locals; encountered murderous pirates; gone for many a solitary midnight swims; and read countless historic oceanic travelogues and scientific treatises. When it comes down to channeling philosophy, economics, politics, history, ecology and art through salt water, Hamilton-Paterson gives Melville a run for his money.
The updated Europa Editions release of Seven Tenths, a collection of Hamilton-Paterson’s writings about the sea, is the passionate result of a poet’s eye making sense of rigorous research and humanity’s impossibility. Running through the essays divided into thematic chapters is the tale of a free diver who has lost his boat, the cord he had tied around his ankle loosed from the tiny vessel’s prow. Resurfacing, the boat is nowhere to be found, and the swimmer considers being stranded in a “conspiracy of waves.” The umbilical connection between salt water and our lives is literal and figurative. But when the ocean claims a ship or a person or even disproves earlier scientific findings it does so by shutting off that object from what Paterson-Hamilton calls the “continuity of vision.” For him this is a sublime quality.
The author’s obsessing over oceans and seas is fueled by the fact that we know so little about them, especially beneath the surface. Of course, throughout time the curious have ventured. Alexander the Great had a special glass cage made so he could be lowered into the Mediterranean; salvage missions attempted to resurrect sunken valuables; and Scandinavians tried to correlate fish supplies with tidal currents. But, according to Hamilton-Paterson, “until the late eighteenth century the average European’s mental image of the sea was literally superficial, of a navigable surface above an abyss.”
Today we have a sense of the depth but very little experience of it. Seven Tenths is not so concerned with reasons and answers, but a greater more profound unity that resides in the unknown depths, and not even sonar, electrically belching through cold, lightless water, can give us a real sense of what is down there, and this has been realized for time immemorial: “The Greeks’ idealisation of a static universe full of fixed entities, faithfully reflected in their mathematics, underpinned all that could be thought. The sea was a positive insult to this metaphysics, a naked opposition to it… How did one represent an absence of topography?”
One solution was to name these places with colonial and imperial pageantry, and familiar names like Mount Mozart and Beethoven Ridge in the Musicians Seamounts north of Hawaii. They exist on a map, and in theories of science, surveyed down to the centimeter. What we know is something we have hardly explored, hardly experienced. This wanting for the impossible is why it compels obsession, at least as Hamilton-Paterson sees it: “[B]ut the seething waters of the middle distance have something wordless and unpitying to say to the dullest minds. It is as if the ocean, in certain lights and weathers, were the lair not of monsters or malevolent downward-dragging spirits, but of the fat blank which squats beneath all happiness, flicking out its tongue.”
Nature’s taunting evasiveness is the conundrum at the heart of Peter Handke’s Slow Homecoming. The novel consists of three parts, a middle section in which Handke interjects a first-person rhapsody about his process bookended by third-person narratives of wandering and wondering. All three parts obsess over what I think of as the intimate pattern, the visual echoes that reverberate and ping between our whorling fingerprints, the way light playfully daubs a riparian setting and the brittle and broken elements of decay.
Here again, the natural world prompts all of the questions and holds all of the answers but reveals nothing, which propels the obsession. Hamilton-Paterson offers a primer for how to look at the ocean, how to appreciate and cherish it for how it resolutely resists humanity. But Handke’s characters are like a collective Captain Ahab afloat in the world, searching. Their focus is singular, all others – wives, lovers, children – seem to exist only by virtue of these men determining how these others exist in proximity to them.
Benjamin Kunkel, in his introduction to Slow Homecoming, informs us that in German the surname of the first part’s subject, Sorger, means “one who takes care or has cares.” In an Alaskan-like wilderness, Sorger, a foreigner and outsider, studies the landscape and its inhabitants at such detail that everything becomes a likeness of his creation. There is not much naming, but that’s because Sorger’s dedication, certainly the book’s dedication, is to the propensity for naming because all such names are a function of these intimate patterns: “They were unmistakable signs implicit in nature itself . . . and had the power, regardless of who the observer might be, to convert themselves into great and diversified happenings in space – delusions only at first glance, then welcome as metamorphoses in the deeper area of vision.”
The novel’s final section reunites an unnamed father with his young daughter, raising her for periods of time in different countries, separated from her at times when the daughter stays with her mother. He sees her as a component, a piece of the puzzle that when completed will symbolize truth, something he chases: “Still the wayfarer makes his way across the high plateau toward the blue-veiled mountain chain, still busy with the thought that can never be carried to a conclusion: I am working on the secret of the world.”
All of these obsession-driven projects blur fiction and nonfiction. Melville’s pedantic descriptions of whaling can remove readers from the plot, making the novel feel like a manual. Hamilton-Paterson concedes that certain of his details might only be true to him and Handke’s narrative conceit intentionally calls into question where to draw the line between fiction and nonfiction. In a statement, Banksy declared that everything in Exit Through the Gift Shop is true, except that parts that aren’t.
Like Ahab, Thierry Guetta indeed found his White Whale, and while not fatal it was significant. Guetta and Banksy became friends. But the obsessive filming, it turns out, was not part of any great vision. Banksy ends up making the movie everyone had assumed Guetta was working on; Guetta begins to focus on art, churning out painfully derivative work, its boring qualities enhanced by his delusional ego and the fact that he sold a million dollars worth in a few days. In this transition, Guetta’s obsession comes into question – he simply does what people expect him to do, as if by rote. The actual extent of his obsessions is what makes for a biting portrait of the consumer environment that turns Guetta into a hot-shot artist, as opposed to a documentary about street artists and their critical and commercial success. It’s this sly self-awareness – Banksy, Shepard Fairey, et al are in on the joke – that makes Exit Through the Gift Shop brilliant, calling into question what validates certain obsessions. Whether a forever linking double helix of associations and patterns, a tidal ebb and flow or the marketplace, obsessive activities strive to unlock an answer or bring closure to the issue that has caused the obsession, or in the case of Guetta provide an illusion that the activity serves a purpose. This might be the greatest message of them all: obsessions are illusions.
Hamilton-Paterson appreciates the ocean’s indifference as its greatest virtue, the reality check that human ego needs and should pay heed. Handke’s characters want to find a place within the indifference, but only because they think it their duty to do so. The daughter in Slow Homecoming, simply by being in the right place at the right time, at last drives home to her father that the ultimate secret is perhaps one kept forever, that these obsessions make us human and we should be happy to leave it at that. Or as Ishmael says: “It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”