Octopuses, not Obsession

I’m a real easy guy to buy gifts for. If you see a toy octopus or something with an octopus on it, look no further. I love octopuses. I have a modest tattoo of an octopus on my left arm (I got it in 1992, arguably minutes before tattoos became de rigueur). I wear a silver necklace with an octopus charm on it. My bookshelves are populated with small and medium-sized octopuses made of plastic, rubber, cloth, silver, iron, glass. Pictures of octopuses decorate my walls, including a beautiful Japanese fish rubbing that some dear friends gave me for my fortieth birthday (it was made by applying the paint directly to an octopus’s body and pressing it against paper). I have an octopus tote bag, an octopus key ring, an octopus T-shirt, a ritzy octopus throw pillow, an amazing octopus bowl by the potter Neal Read, an octopus drink coaster, an octopus tentacle finger-puppet. When I lived in Virginia, my license plate said “2 Octopi” (the singular was already taken, I wish I knew by whom). My husband says I definitely don’t need any more octopuses, and I agree. But then sometimes he breaks down and buys me a new one anyway.

I love octopuses because they’re amazing animals. They have one of the keenest eyes of any sea creature, with an oblong slit for a pupil and no blind spot. They have three hearts, and their suction cups are covered with chemoreceptors, which means they can taste in eight directions. They swim by jet propulsion, squirt ink, and communicate by changing their skin into patterns of shimmering color. Yeah, a lot of squids and cuttlefish can do that, too, but octopuses are wilier than their cephalopod cousins, and their bodies are far more versatile. Even a giant pacific octopus can squeeze its body through the tiniest of openings, just as long as its beak can fit through, too. In labs, scientists build Plexiglas mazes of tunnels and tubes to see just what an octopus can do with its body. The test subjects always reach their fishy reward at the end of the maze, but they usually also memorize the maze on their very first try, which means that the scientists have to keep building new mazes every time.

You see, octopuses are extremely intelligent. They’re the only invertebrates known to use tools, and they have exceptional short- and long-term memories. In the waters off Indonesia, the mimic octopus protects itself by imitating the shapes and colors of other sea creatures like the venomous sole and the lion fish. Sometimes octopuses can be trained, but they don’t always like it. One lab had to stop their behavioral experiments when one of their octopuses kept squirting water at them every time they approached the tank. And don’t forget Paul the psychic octopus, unquestionably the biggest international celebrity of 2010.

Octopuses are badasses. They’re the only cephalopod known to crawl out of the water to hunt. Fishermen have caught them crawling into boats to steal their catch; and once, some biologists filmed their octopus sneaking across the laboratory floor to steal a crab from a neighboring tank and carry it home for dinner. If you’re walking on the rocks near Australia or New Zealand, watch out you don’t step on a tiny blue-ringed octopus: its venomous bite can kill you.

Blue-Ringed Octopus

Octopuses are loners, too—perfectly at peace with themselves and totally uninterested in other octopuses until it’s time to mate. And don’t even get me started about how they do that.

By now you’re probably trying to deduce my whole personality by what I love about octopuses. Good luck, because I think what I love about octopuses is, well, what I love about octopuses. I love them precisely because they are what they are and they do what they do. I don’t anthropomorphize them, at least not much. To me, what makes them so cool in the first place is how they’re not human. I don’t sentimentalize them, either. In answer to your question, yes, I have no trouble eating octopus, but I prefer squid for my calamari and tuna for my sushi.

Maybe you’ll say I’m obsessed about octopuses. But that’s the wrong word for it. People say all the time that they’re obsessed about one thing or another, but they don’t really mean it. I heard a teenage girl tell her friend the other day, “I’m just obsessed with Jessie J. I mean, I love her music, and I love her. I’m obsessed with her.” Unless she’s going to start stalking Jessie J, I doubt she’s clinically obsessed.

People who are really, psychologically obsessed have an irrational fixation on a person, thing, or idea. They can’t always help themselves, even when they know better, and they experience a great deal of mental and emotional stress as a result. In the everyday world, I blame the advertising and perfume industries for making us so obsessed with obsession.

Obsession’s a perfect word for the culture of late capitalism because it means not having full control over your desire for something—that you are consumed by your wish to consume. Late capitalism causes lots of mental and emotional stress, too. On second thought, that teenage girl probably is obsessed with Jessie J, poor thing. But that’s not how I feel about octopuses.

The word “obsession” does not give us a way to describe our passion for a thing as it exists in the world. Obsession fails to describe our sheer enthusiasm for the thing, our intellectual curiosity about it, our profound aesthetic or emotional appreciation for it. In the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway tried to import the word “afición,” the sober zeal possessed by aficionados. But it didn’t stick. The English language happily accommodates aficionados and connoisseurs, but it won’t let us name the kind of attachment that these people feel for whatever it is they love, their personal investment in it. (Plus, saying I’m an aficionado or a connoisseur of octopuses just sounds weird.)

In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, people used to say, “I’m really into this,” or, “Man, I really dig that.” “Into,” “dig”: these are also inadequate words, but at least they emphasize our conscious, volitional interest in something, not just our overwhelming passivity to its effect on us. I’m into octopuses because I find them curious and interesting, because I think they’re strange and beautiful, because they do surprising things that make me realize how little I or anyone actually knows about them.

I don’t need to make a career out of this. I don’t want to become a marine biologist. I just dig octopuses. What are you into?


Michael Bibler: Lefty loosey, righty tighty.