Be still when you’ve got nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot. D. H. Lawrence
He only employs his passion who can make no use of his reason. Cicero
Why is the word “passion” so difficult for us? For as the two quotes above suggest, the intellectual jury appears to have hung itself on the question of whether or not passion is a good or bad, productive or destructive, rational or lunatic state of mind.
Could it be because the word down to its roots denotes suffering? Passio, from patior, “to suffer.” Many kinds of passion can wrack one’s being — anger is a passion, love (requited or unrequited), hatred, and so on. And many of these passions do cause suffering, both in the impassioned parties and in unfortunate souls standing near them when they spontaneously combust. This is the general understanding about passion: As an emotional state, it is both tormenting and incendiary.
The Oxford English Dictionary notes three chief categories of passion. The first includes most kinds of high suffering, ranging from the sublime agony of Christ on the cross to martyrdom in general to painful physical disorders. The second category of passion expands to include meanings for the general, insentient condition of being subject to external force or of having properties or attributes that lend themselves to being affected by “external agency.” The OED provides two fascinating examples of this usage. First, from Billingsley: “In this Theoreme are demonstrated three passions or properties of parallelograms.” Then there’s this from a fellow named W. Maurice: “Frigidity is the proper passion of water, which is sometimes accidentally hot.”
This second categorical passion — a state or attribute of passivity or of being susceptible to outside influence — glides smoothly into a third category relevant to those of us who are not parallelograms: Passion is “an affection of the mind.” The OED states that this sort of passion is “any kind of feeling by which the mind is powerfully affected or moved; a vehement, commanding, or overpowering emotion…” The suggested relationship between the second and third categories strikes me: Like parallelograms and water, the mind appears susceptible to exertions by an external agency; it “is moved.”
And that leads me to the second reason why passion makes people nervous. The thought that my mind moves pleases me; the idea that I might not be the one moving it gives me pause. Such a prospect calls up that golden era of irrationality when gods, drunken on the ambrosia of capriciousness, moved upon men, rearranging mortal affairs to their likings and according to their Parthenon of political and marital tensions. The myths show how sometimes divine manipulations transformed men and women even on the molecular level. People not only lost their minds but also their physical forms and thus all shreds of humanity. Daphne became a laurel tree; Narcissus, a flower. Others became animals, geological features, etc. We understand that the recipients of this sort of divine attention are not to be envied.
That external agents appear able to beget upon our minds hatred, envy, greed, lust, compassion, or any of the other passions, even against our better judgement, indeed suggests passion’s profound danger, not only to our souls but to the artifices of civilization. But, hm. Does this idea that passion — the “fires of the blood” — and reason — that flower of the intellect and human agency — are incompatible remind you of anything? It does me — that old yet unrepentant belief in the discordance between poetry and reason.
I’ve said before how I believe that good reasoning makes good poetry (or any other kind of storytelling) and poor reasoning makes poor poetry. I believe the same thing to be true of passion. Creative, powerful, replenish-the-Earth passion is full-bodied feeling that moves fiercely and gracefully upon its rational and well-articulated bones. Such passion as impoverished reasoning gives rise to suffers from fits of impotence. Like a two-year-old swept up in a tantrum, the heat of its desires and indignity outstrips its ability to alter its circumstances. Lacking the skills to change either its behavior or situation, it collapses in upon itself in violent displays of kicking and screaming, perhaps injuring bystanders in the process. Passion arising from immaturity of thought is the enfant terrible of human emotion. During convulsions of bad temper it has been known to tumble down the stairs into pathologies or possibly evil.
Obviously, I don’t believe true passion to be an affection of the mind whereby some external and perhaps untrustworthy agent begets upon the intellect, as the myth says Zeus did upon Leda, involuntary, unavoidable, and tragic issue. (As W. B. Yeats puts it, “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower/ And Agamemenon dead.”) Real passion, like real poetry, is well equipped and well trained for its own exertions. Its rationality is seamless. The athlete of the emotions, passion moves itself forward with startling intensity to meet some important stimulus or address some condition that has come to its attention. It does so instantly and without reflection because it has already been through fires of refinement and become better than it was. Furthermore, the intensity of a truly passionate person does not spring up at sudden moments, like the clown puppet in a Jack-in-the-Box. A passionate person is an engaged person. He or she is thoroughly alive with feeling. A passionate man’s or passionate woman’s usual condition is that of caring deeply for his or her fellow creatures and of wanting to get out there and be among them, to have adventures and make discoveries with them — to live with them, and live full and fine. What to others may seem frightening intensity and perhaps excess of emotion is to the passionate soul necessity of being.
Well, why am I writing about passion like this? Because I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts, essays, stories, and poems lately, many of them written by Mormons. I would characterize what I’ve read as sincerely striving and highly self-reflective. As a quality, sincerity is all right. In fact, sincerity is an important component of passion, but it is not passion. Along with other things we have gotten part of, we ought not mistake the piece for the whole.
Self-reflection is another matter. I wish Mormon arts would hurry up and outgrow its adolescence and stop spending so much time at the mirror. It seems prolonged to me (although it may not be). What would it be like if we Mormons could get on with being something and not just reflecting upon what we might be? And could we put some passion into it? If we could take responsibility to think and to feel one with another, rather than just self-reflect! Soren Kierkegaard said, “What our age lacks is not reflection, but passion.” Applying this to the condition of Mormon arts and letters generally, I say, “Amen.” Maybe the Mormon eternal perspective vortex generated by two mirrors placed across from each other has become too staid a symbol. Reflection has its place, but at some point the mirror ought to transmogrify into a window, and when it does we should open it and get out a little and live a lot.
Maybe Mormon writers and artists are overly concerned about what the world needs. Author, theologian, and civil rights leader Harold Thurman said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Coming alive is not something you have to do all at once, although that’s how it happens for some — they experience not so much the slow gestation of renaissance but the sudden awakening of resurrection, an abrupt and precipitous response to being called forth. Renaissance work is more gradual work, the sampling of life’s wares and delicacies in manageable increments, building toward something’s being reborn. Well, there’s nothing wrong with staying within your range of acceptable risk.
However it happens, those of us who write or produce art ought to get liveliness into our writing so that readers can do something with it, not just agree or approve. The most highly refined writing — indeed, all art — provides the creative audience its raw materials for experience, which its members can do with what they will. As I said, self-reflection has its purposes, but writing that is all or mostly self-reflection becomes a carnival amusement, a hall of mirrors, which most people forget soon after leaving, and that many, I’m sorry to say, have little or no use for at all.
Have a passionate New Year.