Identity

The Narcissism of Romantic Obsession

In certain circles, Chris Kraus's autobiographical novel "I Love Dick" is adored for its unflinching examination of a woman's overwhelming romantic obsession. But it also anticipated the rise of narcissism as a feminist virtue.

by Lauren Oyler
Aug 19 2016, 5:40pm

Illustration by Alisha Sofia

"I could tell you in the vaguest of terms that I have an academic book project that I'm working on that was sparked by an offhand remark made on Twitter by a woman I nearly slept with on June 28, 2013, who then refused to ever speak with me again and I'll never know why."

"I became obsessed with this guy the second I saw him, which is something that hasn't happened to me in several years. It was extremely overwhelming. It was one of those things that defied logic or sense, especially because the more I spoke to him, the more I realized that he was deeply wrong for me in every imaginable way."

"You're aware there are things you once valued and were proud of in yourself, but they exist at a remove now, because they're overwhelmed by the question of whether they would be good and acceptable to him. Morality, ambition, desire, pleasure all take a backseat to, What would he think of this, and how shall I describe it to him? All you care about is maximizing his impression of you."

The line between infatuation and obsession is thin, but most people have crossed it. When I asked my friends for stories of unrequited romantic fixations, the response was resounding: Who hasn't known the endurance and euphoria of an inexplicable, unattainable, or otherwise bad-for-you person? Developing an intense, often instantaneous interest in an inappropriate target feels like a singular, earth-shattering experience, but it's a very common one.

Read more: Your Boyfriend's Ex-Girlfriend: The Worst Person Ever?

Few detail it better than Chris Kraus in her cult feminist novel I Love Dick. Published in 1997 to little attention—it was called "gossip" even as it was being celebrated as a "spectacularly exploitative project...rich in thought and style"—the book has since been passed around feminist circles, heralded as a genre-bending predecessor to writers like Sheila Heti and Ben Lerner and a "book about relationships everyone should read." This week, it may have finally arrived: The pilot of its potential television adaptation, produced by Jill Soloway, is premiering on Amazon. Though Kraus's work is not the predominant result when you search "I love dick" on Twitter, in certain circles, the book can be considered a classic.

I Love Dick largely takes the form of hyper-intellectual letters its protagonist, also named Chris Kraus, writes to a man, Dick, she becomes obsessed with after having dinner with him and her husband, the cultural critic Sylvère Lotringer, at a sushi restaurant. While most people who develop a romantic obsession elect to stalk their target on social media and send their friends hundreds of deranged texts about it, Kraus responds to her feelings by deconstructing them openly and pretty much completely, over pages and pages. At first, Sylvère is in on it, writing Dick letters as well; he's even the one to suggest she write to Dick in the first place. The two share their letters with each other, and briefly, the project brings them closer. But as time goes on, it spirals into something more; Sylvère is dumped, and Chris becomes even more obsessed.

At the time, this was totally radical, especially coming from a woman; one could argue it has paved the way not only for the autofiction of today but also for clickbait articles with titles like, "What It's Like to Be Obsessed with Someone Who Doesn't Give a Shit About You." In addition to being a damning feminist critique of women's paltry place in the arts, the book has served as a kind of guide for people going through similarly great/terrible one-sided relationships—both a therapy for those who are comforted by knowing they are not alone and a difficult reminder of the embarrassing things you've felt (and maybe did) while blinded by a love you can't have. When Andrea* realized her interest in a man she'd just met was consuming all of her thoughts and driving everyone around her crazy, her friend gave her a copy of I Love Dick. "It reminds me a lot of your situation," Andrea remembers her friend telling her, "where a woman who is smart and capable is acting like a total psychopath over someone who is probably a loser."

It reminds me a lot of your situation, where a woman who is smart and capable is acting like a total psychopath over someone who is probably a loser.

Others have found the book less helpful. Helen*, who recently told the man she is obsessed with that they had to stop speaking, says I Love Dick came up a lot during her fraught exchanges with him. "We spoke so much about that book," she tells me. "He liked it because he thought it was very emotionally chill and the stakes were low. I couldn't finish it because I found it so stressful to read."

The disconnect visible here is what makes the book—and the TV series pilot, though it is less successful—so rivetingly uncomfortable. Throughout the course of I Love Dick, Chris becomes simultaneously more unhinged and more lucid; she tells Dick she wants to "own everything that happens" to her now, and she does, but she's not necessarily on the same wavelength as anyone around her as a result. Like Andrea's relationship, Chris's infatuation with Dick doesn't make much sense: Dick tells Chris that her love for him is "groundless," and what we actually see or experience of him makes him (through Chris's descriptions and, finally, a letter of his own) seem like probably a loser. When the two speak on the phone for several hours, he makes sure it'll be "just talking, right?"; when Chris tells him that she's left Sylvère, Dick replies, like any plebe who's read a love story might, "Hmmm... I could've seen it coming." (He has, after all, received a stack of letters detailing Chris's love for him by this point.) When the pair finally meet again in person, alone, and discuss whether they should have sex, Dick is boringly coy, saying that he is a "gentleman" and doesn't want to be "inhospitable." He refuses to succumb to Chris's passion—though, obviously, he will still sleep with her.

As with so many obsessions, Dick's participation isn't really necessary—the text barrels forward, picking up speed. After Chris tells Dick she wants to go to bed with him—that that is why she has come to his house—and he asks why, Chris, reflecting later, writes that the first night they met, she'd had vivid dreams of them "having different types of sex," which do not resemble the sex they actually end up having. The passage serves as an example of how these types of relationships are often projections: Although romantic obsession seems at first to be an experience fundamentally about another person, it's actually usually about yourself, even as you insist that it isn't. As one of my friends told me about her obsession, "All you care about is maximizing his impression of you" (emphasis mine).

Despite Chris's professions of obsession throughout the novel, there are actually other things going on in I Love Dick. At the start of the novel, she finds out her film, Gravity & Grace, has just been pulled from festivals, and throughout she is disappointed by instances when she and her work are overlooked or dismissed in favor of her glamorous intellectual husband and his work. The obsession takes up so much of Chris's mental space that it serves as a distraction from—or maybe just a replacement for—her ailing career and marriage. "Loving you had made it possible to admit the failure of my film and marriage and ambitions," she writes.

I couldn't finish it because I found it so stressful to read.

This admission comes just after the encounter with Dick at his house. Chris's confidence wavers as she nervously babbles through her long-awaited meeting. "Did it cross my mind that torture was not a sexy topic of conversation for this, our first, our only date? No, never...I still hadn't gotten round to explaining what Guatemalan genocide had to do with the 180 pages of love letters that I'd written with my husband and then given you, like a timebomb or a cesspool or a manuscript. But I would, I would."

Kraus writes this with the self-deprecating comedy possible when talking about past embarrassment; she writes the letter long after the meeting takes place. It sounds totally absurd, and it was—humor is the only way to deal with having done and felt it anyway. Giggling, Andrea relayed the types of messages she would send her friends during the height of her obsession. "I wish I was dead," she had written. "I wish that X and I could be together in hell."

Looking back at these messages demonstrates a disconnect not only between the beloved and the obsessed lover, but between the obsessed lover and her sane self. As Helen's love interest noticed, sort of, the emotions in I Love Dick are high, but the stakes rarely feel that way. "What hooks me on our story is our different readings of it," Kraus writes to Dick. "You think it's personal and private; my neurosis... I think our story is performative philosophy."

Early on in the book, Kraus also describes her feelings as a return to "psychosis of adolescence"; these types of relationships harken back to writing notes in 6th period and fantasizing about receiving elaborate prom invitations. As a result, the emotions they produce are in some ways less real, even as we maintain they are, they really are. (Chris complains, at one point, that no matter what she does, Dick thinks her feelings are "a game," even though at times, she admits as much.) "I definitely felt like I was in high school," a woman named Quynh* told me about her months-long obsession with a man she had previously dated. "And I was older." At one point in I Love Dick, Chris is suddenly transported back to being in her 20s when she first developed a life philosophy she calls "Lonely Girl Phenomenology."

"I feel way better about myself now," Andrea tells me of her own obsession, which has weakened significantly. "At least this isn't me anymore."

For More Stories Like This, Sign Up for Our Newsletter

While some critics were surprised that such an idiosyncratic, academic, and formally strange book that mostly takes place in one woman's head was being adapted for television, it doesn't seem that out of place today. In 2016, narcissism—and particularly narcissism as a feminist virtue—is a hot topic: Studies about narcissism as it relates to the rise of social media get shared over and over; the essayist Kristin Dombek recently published an entire book dedicated to examining the question of whether the prevalence of accusations of narcissism in fact proves that we are all narcissists; late last year, the writer Rachel Syme published a 14,000-word treatise arguing that taking flattering pictures of your face and posting them online had "radical potential." Combine this with the fact that the dominant form of feminist discourse today consists of picking up books from 20 years ago, Instagramming them, and communicating their easier ideas in a watered-down way, and putting I Love Dick on the small screen starts to make more sense. The phrase "Bad Feminist" appears on page 87, and "Lonely Girl Phenomenology" sounds like the name of someone's Tumblr (though today it would probably be written in lowercase letters).

Most writing on I Love Dick produced in the last couple of years has mainly dealt with the fact that it has been overlooked for years and has, like the work of so many forgotten women artists and the female experience in general, finally gotten attention. The specifics of why it's a good book are kind of secondary to the fact that it's a good book. But I'd also argue that perhaps what has drawn so many of today's young feminist readers to Kraus's work is that romantic obsession is an easy disguise for the narcissistic impulse that we are so desperate to prove we don't have. Writing about Dombek's essay collection for the New Yorker this week, Jia Tolentino says she herself is "terribly afraid of narcissism—not the narcissism of others, but my own." What's relieving about I Love Dick is that, while it's all about Chris Kraus and Chris Kraus's thoughts, it's framed as being about someone else.

However, over the course of I Love Dick, Chris's narcissism turns into something else; as the description of the book on its publisher's website states, Kraus "burn[s] through" it. This results in the second half of the book, which is perhaps best characterized as a set of digressive, expansive essays interspersed with the resolution of the Dick narrative. (Spoiler alert: not a happy ending.) These essays cover a variety of subjects that are not Chris Kraus: a 1995 retrospective of the artist RB Kitaj at the Met; schizophrenia (sort of); history's habit of ignoring women, with specific examples.

One example that stands out is the artist Hannah Wilke, who "started to insert her own image into her art" and started telling people to "become your own myth" after Claes Oldenburg, her great male artist "companion," literally wrote her out of his story. Kraus writes that art critics always saw Wilke's work "as an act of 'narcissism'"; even photos depicting her naked body as she was dying of cancer were described, according to Kraus, as "'a deeply thrilling venture into narcissism.' As if the only possible reason for a woman to publicly reveal herself could be self-therapeutic."

When a woman's work is celebrated, the specifics of that work are often secondary to the fact that a woman's work is being celebrated.

Another story Kraus tells is that of Jennifer Harbury, a leftist lawyer who fought to have the fate of her Guatemalan husband revealed after he was "disappeared" by the government. This essay is interspersed with her retelling of her sexual encounter with Dick; Kraus writes that "my only motivation to write about her story was to take the heat off [Dick]." In turn, writing about Dick, someone who is never going to hold her accountable for her raging feelings, is a way to take the heat off herself.

Whether I Love Dick ends up being at least partially therapeutic for Kraus doesn't really matter, ultimately; the result is much more than vanity or navel–gazing, and proof that the narcissistic impulse need not be scary, as long as you put it to good use. But where Kraus's use of narcissism looked outward, much of the resulting ideology does not—today, a fear of narcissism is probably a byproduct of the fact that so many people publicly claim the quality as a virtue and then fail to prove it is virtuous. When Kraus wrote, "Dear Dick... what happens between women now is the most interesting thing in the world because it's least described," she was making an argument about a group of women artists that included herself. But in the process she seems to have opened the door for an intellectual laziness that she herself never (ever) exhibited. People are still using that argument to justify talking about themselves—and only themselves—online, despite the fact that what happens between women—especially for those of us who are white, live in New York, and like to talk about Marxism—is now described everywhere. Often, it feels as if women who complain about their work not getting attention today do not stop to consider the fact that their work might not be very good. On the flip side, when a woman's work is paid attention to, the specifics of that work are often secondary to the fact that a woman's work is being paid attention to.

Read more: The Sex We're Having Versus the Sex We Think We Should Be Having

If women's work still isn't getting rigorous intellectual attention for its own sake, it doesn't sound like progress. But it seems as if this particular obstacle is one of our own making. Watching the I Love Dick pilot, which has gotten a decent amount of attention despite not being very good, I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing. A melodramatic voiceover and bright red screens emblazoned with text convey the letter-writing aspect of the story; to demonstrate the desire Kraus explains beautifully in her novel, actress Kathryn Hahn basically sits slack-jawed in a restaurant in awe of Kevin Bacon, who plays Dick. She might as well have licked her lips. The subtle failure of Chris's movie in the novel—which occasions the entire writing project—is turned into a rage onscreen. It's uncomfortable, but not in the good way the novel is. It seems to focus not on how the character interacts with the world and vice versa, but just on the character.

In an interview about the upcoming series, Soloway told New York magazine, "I don't know how to write about anything other than myself. I can't write about dragons, I don't care about crime, I don't want to write a hospital show. I only want to write about somewhat unlikable Jewish women having really inappropriate ideas about life and sex." This is the kind of thing that elicits cheers from the feminist corners of the internet, but to me, it doesn't sound radical. It sounds like Girls.


*Names have been changed.