The Passions of Parallelograms and Affections of the Mind

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. 

13 thoughts on “The Passions of Parallelograms and Affections of the Mind”

  1. Patricia,

    Amen, amen, and amen.

    Before I started into my MFA program I was a lot as you described. I had emotions and ideas that I wanted to make into stories or poems or essays or something, but I had no sense of narrative reasoning. So my stuff always fell on its face, despite all the turns of phrase that I thought were so great. Fortunately for me I decided to take my first class in dramatic writing taught by a filmmaker who understood the concept of structure very well, and could talk about it as a craft.

    Strangely, outside of his classes, I could not find anybody who could talk with me about structure as a craft. The talk was always etheral and even antagonistic to the idea of structure. I remember one student colleague looking at me in disbelief when I mentioned that I was studying story structure and saying, “Carter, structure is dead! Didn’t you know that?”

    It took years for me to finally understand story structure, but it has helped my writing immensely (now you can imagine how bad it was before). It used to be that I would sit in agony in front of my computer hoping that the more I sweated and headached the sooner the muse would come and clear up my problems. Now I can look at what I’ve written, understand the values and their interplays, and envision how to use them. Not that I still don’t have to make creative leaps, I just have much better legs now.

    People who have made the mistake of asking me for critiques of their writing have to undergo my obsessive scrutiny of their structure. I think I’ve come pretty close to losing friends over it. But man, like you say, when the reasoning is beautiful, so is the story.

    Now I have some things to ask you:

    1. What are these self-reflective-to-a-fault pieces you’ve been reading lately? You can tell me that privately if you want. But I have the feeling that if you’ve been reading anything I write, you’d put me in the self-reflective category (you’re welcome to answer that question publicly if you’d like, my vanity doesn’t care if my work is being criticized, only that it’s being talked about).

    The reason I’m self-reflective to a fault is because I realized a few years ago how willing I had been my whole life to let other people dictate what I thought and how I acted. And I was appalled at some of the things I had done during those times. It took a great deal of self-reflection to start pulling myself out of that rut.

    The thing that scares me the most about becoming really passionate (though I admit to passion when it comes to story structure) is that I will have regressed emotionally and spiritually back to where I was before I could start self scrutinizing.

    I’m starting to see my way to passion, but I have to be sure that the story I’ve created for myself is indeed my story, rather than a mere acquisition of someone else’s.

    But even if I do find my way there, I hope my passion will be permeable. I’ve met so many people who are sure they’re right and act with such forcefulness that they become destructive.

    So that leads me to my next question:

    2. Is there a difference between pre-self-reflection passion and post-self-reflection passion? I think there is, but I haven’t thought about it long enough to name the differences. Perhaps finding those differences would help me along to my own passion.

    3. Tell me about the work you’ve read that is lively and passionate. Who are these authors? I want to read them.

  2. Stephen,

    You said, “Before I started into my MFA program I was a lot as you described. I had emotions and ideas that I wanted to make into stories or poems or essays or something, but I had no sense of narrative reasoning. So my stuff always fell on its face, despite all the turns of phrase that I thought were so great. Fortunately for me I decided to take my first class in dramatic writing taught by a filmmaker who understood the concept of structure very well, and could talk about it as a craft.”

    This sounds very familiar. Thousands of years ago when I went through my undergraduate program at BYU, I wrote some pretty strange pieces, many of which I’d describe as intuitive but lacking the real backbone of what you call “narrative reasoning.” Graduate-level classes with Clinton Larson baptized me (and at times held me under) in form. Teaching the philosophy department’s writing class — equal parts informal logic and rhetoric — did for me what you say your dramatic writing class did for you: It taught me structure and, I’d add, how to take responsibility for my thinking.

    A third set of experiences taught me important lessons in “narrative reasoning” (LOVE that phrase! Is it yours?): I spent four summers at an isolated field camp in southern Utah on an BYU archaeological dig. I wasn’t an archaeologist but they were very tolerant of me and I became part of a core group that worked on that project. Our degree of isolation and the grueling nature of the work resulted in our learning to cope with each other, rely upon each other, and come up with ways to entertain each other. I learned a great deal about community living with this group. It shaped my desire to tell stories. Regarding questions and prospects of audience, my eyes began to open.

    You said: “But…when the reasoning is beautiful, so is the story.” Nicely said. I wonder if Mormons, many of whom are conflicted about rationality because of all the rhetoric about spirituality and reason being incompatible, can get this point on the broad cultural level. Hm, even if they can’t, I think that as a readership many will respond to attractive reasoning in good writing without knowing what it is they find so appealing.

    As for your questions:

    1) Yes.

    About this part: “The thing that scares me the most about becoming really passionate (though I admit to passion when it comes to story structure) is that I will have regressed emotionally and spiritually back to where I was before I could start self scrutinizing.”

    Sounds like you’re afraid of going mad! I didn’t mean to imply that self-reflecting ALWAYS retards passion, only that one ought not to get stuck in the mirror. Reasoning informs passion the way training informs an athlete. The athlete reaches points where she doesn’t have to think about what she is doing like she did when she was first learning the discipline; she just does it. But even the most experienced athlete has to analyze her game throughout from time to time.

    2) I’m not sure what you mean. Examples?

    3) Well, I’m not as well read as I used to be because my time to read isn’t what it used to be. Also, when I do read, I tend to go outside of Mormon lit because while it’s interesting as a study in nascent literature I admit to not finding MoLit as attractive as I find literature outside the Mormon culture. Mostly this is because I like to read literary nature and science writing, a field Mormon lit in general avoids crossing. Also, literary nature and science writing appears to bore most Mormon audience members.

    Outside of “the culture,” I enjoy Craig Childs’s writing. I remember when I read _The Secret Knowledge of Water_, I thought, “Now THIS is someone I can learn from!” I joined a writing workshop he taught and did, indeed, learn much. The thing about Craig is that he puts himself out there. Sometimes he’s extreme, but one can still learn from that even if one isn’t inclined to such extremities oneself. As a workshop teacher, he is similarly engaged and full of surprises. In his writing, you’ll find he’s self-reflective but not troublesome and it’s, hm, shall we say, age-appropriate?

    You might wish to try Scott Momaday’s _Man Made of Words_. Momaday merges language, spirituality, and landscape in ways that light up my mind. Even if you’re not into landscape as much as I am the spirit/language marriage he performs in his writing inspires with its possibilities. Momaday is an older man. Any self-reflection he engages in gives like a beaded curtain when you try to walk through it into the room beyond.

    THoughtful and fun comment, Stephen! Thanks for making it. BTW, did you get my e-mail?

  3. I had a funny experience with N. Scott. It was my first semester at UAF and he had come as a visiting writer. I attended his writing workshop each week as part of my course work.

    The first day was interesting because he talked about himself, and he’s an interesting guy. The next week was OK, but he kept talking about himself. The next week he talked about himself, and the next week he probably would have talked about himself, but he was gone.

    I tried like crazy to get the man to read my work. It was a writer’s workshop, right? But it wasn’t until the very end of the semester that his TA cleaned out his office and found one of my manuscripts. It had this written on it, “Keep working. I could really SEE what was happening.”

    That was it. An entire semester for nine words. I still laugh when I think about that semester.

  4. LOL, I took a class from him too but at the UofA — a folklore class. Actually, it was something of a trivia class, because he always read to the class from trivia books for the first half hour. Always a mystery, what was going on in that room. I resisted reading _Man Made of Words_ because of my classroom experience. How could it be different? But while the class was an inscrutable puzzle, the book turned out (for me) to be a breathtaking view. I got far more out of it than I did the class. That’s how it works with some people, I guess. Maybe this is a case of “Don’t see the movie — read the book, it’s better.”

    I did get a bit more out of him about a paper I wrote than you got on your piece. He wrote that my paper was “provocative … and creatively messy.” I had typed it on an old Royal typewriter with lot of quirks I’d bought at a yard sale there in Tucson, and I didn’t have correction fluid.

  5. BTW, if anyone can help me by recommending some “passionate” or “soulful” MoLit reads, I would appreciate the help finding something.

  6. Patricia:

    You article was intriguing to me and I am still “chewing” on it, as it were. I would like to make a brief comment, though:

    I, like you, have steered away from MoLit largely because it does, as you say, lack passion or “fire-in-the-belly”. Much of what I have read in the MoLit category has always bored me, was too simplistic in structure and conclusion, and just has not lit set my mind ablaze. I, too, am waiting for the day when Mormon Arts becomes about something much more than the mirror effect.

    One of the really problematic things with MoLit is its marketplace. The “successful” Mormon writers have “dumbed” literature down to appeal to a very sentimental side of the reader’s nature, without much appeal to the intellect.

    Sadly, sentiment is easy and it sells because it rarely challenges the reader with prose that requires thoughtful consideration. I am always looking for some challenging MoLit reads and have yet to find them.

    Again, good commentary. I appreciated your carefully constructed comments and ideas. Wish I hung out with other Mos who enjoyed complexity of ideas, sigh!

  7. B-radly,

    You said, “I, too, am waiting for the day when Mormon Arts becomes about something much more than the mirror effect.”

    I don’t know for certain, but I think a lot of Mormons are waiting for more, even if they aren’t fully conscious of their desires for it. At any rate, until I’m proven wrong I’ll give a substantial slice of the Mo-population credit for longing.

    “One of the really problematic things with MoLit is its marketplace. The ‘successful’ Mormon writers have ‘dumbed’ literature down to appeal to a very sentimental side of the reader’s nature, without much appeal to the intellect.”

    Gee, let’s hope all hope is not yet lost! Maybe you can write something meaty some day?

    As an aside, here’s my view of hell: The sentimentalists are assigned to the same tier as cynics, where each is forced to listen to the other’s riffs through all eternity. :)!

  8. I’d like to hear more about what you mean by structure, Patricia, especially as it applies to poetry. (I’m assuming you mean something other than formal stanza form, for example.)

  9. Oh drat, Darlene — you’re going to make me THINK!

    Hm. Well, for me “structure” includes stanza form, but how you structure a poem isn’t all there is to it. I guess that when I use the word “structure” I’m talking about everything from the culturally established logical flow of a sentence (syntax) to cultural conventions or frameworks that establish a story’s logical progression to how convincingly a metaphor forges the relationship between its tenor and vehicle (as identified by I. A. Richards). Structure may also include nuances and implications of meaning the story’s maker wasn’t aware of when he or she made the story.

  10. “Creative, powerful, replenish-the-Earth passion is full-bodied feeling that moves fiercely and gracefully upon its rational and well-articulated bones.”

    Yes.

    I like to think of structure as a unifying force. Sometimes an appropriate structure isn’t apparent from the outset. But as a piece begins to come alive with its own peculiar characteristics a form will begin to emerge which will have the effect of giving direction to further growth. It’s important that we “listen” to that direction even if it means that it calls us to go against a more conventional approach, or, on the other hand, into a more standardized approach.

    I think a lot of folks are afraid of structure–as if it might stifle their work. But, IMO, without some awareness of the intuitive–that which moves on the deepest level (the bones)–one’s work is likely to become unbridled thereby opening the door to disunity which may (not always) have the effect of rendering the work irrational.

    That said, I don’t think structure is always cut and dry. One may, for example, start out with a clear-cut three act form in mind and end up giving it intuitive tweeks without knowing all the reasons why–other than “it just feels right.” So, even though unity may be the result of good structure, we should never fool ourselves into believing that a good piece can be completely nuanced by it. At some point it must live beyond structure.

  11. “I like to think of structure as a unifying force. Sometimes an appropriate structure isn’t apparent from the outset. But as a piece begins to come alive with its own peculiar characteristics a form will begin to emerge which will have the effect of giving direction to further growth.”

    Agreed, when we’re talking about how a piece takes shape. Structure plays another unifying role with a work’s audience: It provides something of an established path for a reader/audience member to encounter the work. In the case of stories, given our cultural logic — the logic of the Western tradition — we expect stories to more or less follow a certain pattern, which is something like how stories break out in our lives. Generally, some action sparks in a conflict, which builds toward some resolution, good or bad. This is the overall pattern people use to narratize experience — it’s the common structure w/in our tradition. When someone tells a story, this common structure is where we gather to experience the tale.

  12. I think that’s a great point, Patricia. I would say, though, that both (speaking of the unifying roles) break down when the piece isn’t taking the “right” shape.

    Fun discussion.

  13. Yes indeed!

    Since I’m becoming more and more of an audience freak — that’s to say, more and more fascinated with audience creativity and what readers do with a work — I tend to come at structure from the question of what the audience needs in order to make something of a writer’s words. Not to downplay the writer’s creativity and the discipline that in the best work gives rise to the “right” shape. At this point in my thinking, I value language that works at several levels so that the majority of readers will be able to take something away to plug into their own narrative processes.

    When a writer fails to hang his/her vision upon some graceful structure, you’re right — the piece fails except, perhaps, as study in self-indulgence. IMO, in many ways, the structure of the best writing is deeply dependent on sound reasoning, even when the metaphors are a-flyin’ and the rhymes are a-rhymin’.

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