Les veus de l'obsessió

Dr. Luis Rojas Marcos, psychiatrist

Doctor Luis Rojas Marcos, who was born in Seville, is an eminent psychiatrist, researcher and disseminator. Resident in New York for several decades, he has been the head of the city’s Mental Health Services and the chairman of the Public Hospital System which provided vital assistance to those directly and indirectly affected by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001.

We have invited Doctor Rojas Marcos to be one of the voices who will help us to dissect the notion of obsession from a clinical point of view and ultimately to apply it to the world of art.

What is obsessive about creation?
It depends how we define the concept of “obsession”. A creative mind unquestionably needs this force, the force of obsession. An artist's starting point is always in the mind: inspiration. To convert an idea into a tangible work of art requires intensity and energy. This is what gives rise to obsessive thought. This energy or passion drives a creative person to use their intensity and creativity. We mustn't forget that artists tend to be perfectionists (“I just need one more note”, “I can't find the right word”, and so on). This passionate force is something constructive. In the world of psychiatry we used the word “obsession” to describe thoughts that are merely repetitive and lack this constructive dimension.

How do artists succeed in creating an idiom of their own? Does it arise from this obsession?
In a way it's like the way people speak. Between the moment you have an idea and the moment you express it, you transform it, it passes through the way you are, your personality. Character helps you to refine the idea and make it part of your tangible output. Your state of mind and personality will be reflected in the ultimate result. What's more, the passion that arises in an artist is often kindled by a particular event: falling in love, some tragic situation or loss or trauma, some circumstance which sparks off a passionate thought.

Do works of fiction and operas give an accurate description of the characters' obsessions?
I live largely in a world of non-fiction, because of my profession, but there's no doubt I've been strongly influenced, for instance, by reading Herman Melville's Moby Dick. How wonderfully well he conveys obsession through the character of Ahab, the captain of the whaler Pequod! There are films too which define obsessive ideas very well. In the development of certain characters in Titanic, for example, directed by James Cameron, or Joker by Todd Phillips. Undoubtedly the impact of movies, plays and operas is so strong that it can transform my state of mind.

How can music and art be of therapeutic help?
Obsessive-compulsive neurosis is just one more form of pathology. Any obsessive person, by definition, is suffering from neurosis: they don't want to think what they're thinking, they've lost control and their repetitive actions eventually interfere with their everyday lives and their ability to form relationships. I remember the case of a man of about sixty who couldn't stop himself from writing down the registration numbers of the cars going past every time he left home, or another executive who needed to check a hundred times that his suitcase was locked before setting out on a trip. If they failed to perform these acts, they had an attack of anxiety. When a subject realizes they want to stop doing these things, it proves they're aware of their illness, and we have to find another activity to replace the original one. In cases like these I recommend preventive measures such as listening to music for ten minutes, or reading the same poem several times, or praying to God. These actions counteract compulsion. In a way they act as lifebelts because people need them to get rid of the obsessions that interfere with their happiness.

How do people react to trauma? Do they channel their reaction through art? Does art assist recovery?
I experienced the devastating consequences of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers at very close quarters. It was tremendously impressive, an overall trauma that could only be imagined in some horrible nightmare.On the morning it happened, there where not just the people who lost loved ones, there was the symbolic and visual part too. The disappearance of those emblematic buildings left everyone feeling vulnerable. The minds of thousands of people were gripped by uncertainty. I remember there were people at the time who needed to express themselves through art. Children of eight or nine who, instead of reproducing what they had seen live or on television, drew the opposite: the peaceful river bank, people strolling calmly about, a woman embracing a child, volunteers lining up in a hospital… They were trying to offset their anxiety by creating images that showed the contrary. It was a way of protecting themselves by temporarily neutralizing the tragic pictures of the burning towers and the people leaping into the void and blotting them out of their minds.

I remember someone else too who wrote poems about the value of solidarity. Art unquestionably helps us at difficult times. It's a way of relieving the stress, the sadness and the uncertainty of the things we remember. When we see someone we love die, a creative attitude can help. Art helps to reduce distress and allay anxiety.