How’s that fugue state coming along? *

Last week Swells mentioned a tune she’s currently digging so much that she claimed, “I might need to ease up on the rotation soon so I don’t forget all the other songs I know.” That got me thinking a lot about repetition, particularly as it concerns art and our experience of it. How and why can certain gorgeous bits of culture float by us, meriting momentary appreciation and even awe, while others—and we can never really predict which ones—grab hold of our imaginations to an almost obsessive degree? If you’ve ever listened to a song twenty times in a row, started rereading a novel the moment you finish it, gotten lost in a painting, or watched a movie so many times you know it by heart, you know the thrill and comfort of repetition. How randomly art wields this power over us; how willingly—helplessly—we hand it over.

An example:


A lot of you got fired up about Boratto’s tune “Beautiful Life” a few years ago, and while I definitely enjoyed listening (it’s arguably even the better song), it never commanded my attention like this does. (Seriously, over the weekend I was painting the bedroom and made an iPod mix to stave off the boredom. Nothing sounded quite right until I just gave up and put “Galuchat” on an endless loop.) To one person it’s just another slab of plinky-plonk electronica—to me it’s positively epic. It’s organic, oceanic, airborne. It breathes. It’s blood pumping and daybreak and the tightly coiled petals of a dahlia before it bursts into flower. It makes me swoon. I can’t tell you why.

When you tumble into an infatuation with a work of art, you fall in love a little bit. You invest improbable amounts of emotional energy. The connection feels weirdly personal, like a relationship. The term we borrow from Greek to describe this inanimate transference is cathexis. (Freud’s term was Libidobesetzung, which is almost mortifying enough for me to abandon writing this post altogether.)

Another example:

(Vittorio Corcos, “Sogni” (Dreams) [1896], National Gallery of Modern Art, Rome)

I know it’s not empirically the best painting, just the one I love most. If you added up all the time I’ve spent just looking at it, what would it be? Days? Weeks? How much time just contemplating those shades of yellow, that tiny flash of blue?

In my line of work, cathexis is something of an occupational hazard. It takes absurd amounts of energetic focus to complete a Ph.D. in literature, and all that energy has to come from somewhere. If you get a little crushed out on Elizabeth Bennett or Portia or Brett Ashley, so be it. The queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was fond of saying, “Obsession is the most durable form of intellectual capital,” a quote I had pinned above my writing desk for years. It seemed to legitimate the strange, almost involuntary way I backed into my profession—for while I probably attribute way too much importance to the formative impact of being queer, in this case it’s actually true.

With so little representation of my reality in mainstream culture, while still a kid I became extremely good at parsing out those little bits of TV, books, and music that didn’t make me feel, like, completely insane. A glance, a timbre of voice, a throwaway line, a slightly-dissonant key change—I close-read the hell out of those ephemera, built a whole world out of them, like a bird making a nest out of carefully-chosen grass, twigs, and trash. It happened most often in books, which usually rewarded obsessive analysis, but books could also allow me to climb inside them and just live there for a while if I wanted to. Half the time I didn’t even know why something could move me so much, but as my studies continued through college and grad school, trying to get to the bottom of such questions proved to be incredibly generative and intellectually (though never solely intellectually) sustaining. Even now, the power of repetition comes in handy when I find myself analyzing for a living, teaching Twelfth Night for the dozenth time. Now I know how the whole process works, but it’s no less mysterious for that.

(Cathexis, first grade version. Actually, this one isn’t all that mysterious.)

Technology has changed (maybe revolutionized) the way one can understand and experience cathexis. While it was once a mostly solitary, cerebral process—which for me began, after all, because I was a strange lonely queer child who lived a few frames out of phase with reality—today’s kids hang out their mental laundry on the internet for everyone to see. Say that during an hour-long TV show there’s a subtexty three-second segment that speaks to your imagination. Now you can build a .gif of it to play on a literal endless loop, upload it to Tumblr, and watch it get reposted by a hundred other strange (but marginally less lonely) people with the same fixation. Forget the bird’s nest—these kids are building great big noisy castles out of their obsessions. It makes me wonder what kind of scholars and observers they will grow into as they hone and channel the power of their Libidobesetzung via social media.

It may come as no surprise that I’m currently in the throes of another artistic obsession. It’s so all-consuming and sincere that I’m actually embarrassed to talk about it. Does this ever happen to you? Apparently it’s not the kind of thing you grow out of. Just be grateful when it comes along.

* btw, this is one of my favorite-ever lines from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (talk about cathectic adoration, oh my GOD).

5 responses to “How’s that fugue state coming along? *”

  1. FPS says:

    It’s a sad time in between cathexes for me, especially musical ones. I don’t have an album right now that’s telling me how to live my life. Four years ago it was Regina Spektor’s Fidelity and two years ago The Old 97s’ Too Far to Care. I went on a few dates with Andrew Bird’s Armchair Apocrypha recently but it didn’t lead to a relationship. I want the next big affair! It is in fact something like dating because you can look around diligently and once in a while you’ll find something that’s right, but stumbling upon true passion ends up having a lot to do with luck.

    (And the sadness when passion fades! I put on Fidelity the other day on the subway and thought, “well, what nice music. She’s awfully talented.” Sometimes the lust comes back in the right weather or the right degree of tiredness.)

  2. swells says:

    God Rachel, so many gorgeous sentences here. This might be the nexus of my next cathexis. Thanks for this articulation–you say it in so many ways I relate to but wouldn’t be able to put into words myself.

  3. LP says:

    I don’t often become obsessive about visual art, or movies or television. I’m generally not tempted to watch a movie twice, let alone multiple times. But yeah, I definitely get on a kick with certain music where I’ll listen to an album repeatedly, for months even. Or sometimes years. Then it burns itself out and I can’t listen to it for a long while.

    Your observation about how kids relate to art and culture is spot on – It’s so fascinating that anyone can sample, cut, splice, paste or otherwise digitally alter things at will. It feels overwhelming to me in the same way writing fiction does – when you can go absolutely anywhere with something, how do you choose where to go?

    Also: dying to know what your latest artistic obsession is. No need to feel embarrassed! This is where we come to let our freak flags fly! (As opposed to phreak phlags, which have something to do with landline telephones.)

  4. farrell fawcett says:

    Rachel, I see exactly why this song does it for you. Cause it’s awesome! As a fellow-obsessive-lover of plinky-plonk electronica I love where this song goes. Thanks a lot. I hadn’t heard it till today and have played it an embarrassing amount already. And that painting is also stunning. What an enviable thing to have a crush like that hidden away in a museum in Rome that you can return to in person every great once in a while. And I love how the photo you picked of Wonder Woman has a similar knee-buckling gaze and hyper confident posture to it. There’s a cool rhythm between those two images. Very nice. And yeah, what’s your new obsession you freak-a-deak?

  5. josh k-sky says:

    I’ve been getting great runs of screenwriting done with Gui Boratto in the headphones. Not cathectic, but somehow expansive. Thank you.

    Also I’ve been working at a standing desk, which may now more accurately be called a “doing-the-Running-Man desk.”