The meaning of a word is the sum of its history — the intricate course it has passed moving from tongue to tongue, text to text, dialect to dialect. A word’s history is no less real for sometimes being mysterious or invisible, just as the workings of the universe are no less potent for our incomprehension. Language is an organism whose existence transcends the ephemeral lives of its speakers, and it remembers things its users have forgotten or never known. The history of a word reflects the cumulative stress of human events — wars, migrations, economic upheaval, religious awakenings, revolutions, and every sort of social change.
Our English word passion came from the Old French passiun or passion that was brought over in the Norman invasion. Its first recorded use in 1175 reflects the violent birth of Old English from the conquered native Anglo-Saxon. But the root of passion in both English and French goes back to the Late Latin passio, which means “suffering.” In Latin passio was used chiefly in a Christian context to describe the sufferings of Jesus on the Cross. Even today that sense of the word survives in liturgy and music. In Passion Week Catholic priests still recite the “Passions of Our Lord” drawn from the four Gospels while in formal services the choir will sing one of the innumerable settings of the Passio. But the Latin word goes back further still both to the earlier Latin verb pati, “to suffer,” and to the Greek pathos, which denotes suffering and deep emotion. Pathos was the word Aristotle found indispensable in describing the pity and terror associated with tragedy. Romance may be the subject of comedy, but tragedy requires passion.
The word passion always contains the notion of suffering and endurance. An infatuation is joyful and light-hearted. A romance is deeper emotionally, but it may remain happy and reassuring. Passion, however, always involves pain and forbearance. Passion implies submission, not necessarily to its object; but it inevitably requires the person’s willing or forced surrender to the passion itself. Reasonable or insane, passion overcomes its possessor. Therefore, passion can never remain a single emotion. It may begin as a focused desire, but, as it grows and deepens, as it resists all sensible urges to control or extinguish it, passion eventually becomes all of the emotions it engenders — as well as the original motive it embodied. That is why passionate love can turn to hate, why enduring desire can ultimately become aversion, why obsessive lust can trigger monastic continence. An infatuation may end in friendship, but passion demands all or nothing.
The etymological cluster that gave English passion also endowed us with the word patience, and the two words illuminate one another. Both terms suggest something psychologically involuntary. We do not choose our passions; they possess us. But while patience bears suffering calmly without complaint, passion refuses to be passive. It bears what it must but revels in its dark energy and painful knowledge. Desire is a kind of power — dangerous perhaps and often unpredictable but always transforming. If passion doesn’t always include the willingness to pay the price for the heightened awareness and transcendent energy of desire, it nonetheless assumes the capacity to bear the burden. “Eternal Passion! / Eternal Pain!” wrote Matthew Arnold.
Passion is emotion that endures. It must survive all obstacles, not the least of which is the burden of its own intensity. In love, passion can not only survive the loss of the beloved; that loss can free the passion to an independent life of its own. The passion itself becomes the beloved, as in Tennyson’s lines from that most passionate of English poems, In Memoriam:
O Sorrow, wilt thou live with me
No casual mistress but a wife,
My bosom-friend and half of life;
As I confess it needs must be?
O Sorrow, wilt thou rule my blood,
Be sometimes lovely like a bride,
And put thy harsher moods aside,
If thou wilt have me wise and good?
This is the sense in which all artists understand passion. It is not an emotion attached to a single goal but a pervasive, permanent desire independent of any person, thing, or place. Passion is the overpowering, inescapable fate of all artists, who must learn at great costs and pain not to control it — for control is impossible — but to ride it so that it will not destroy them. This mysterious, dangerous struggle is at the center of all art that hopes to penetrate the surface of its medium, and it was this process that Henry James, the sanest of writers, described with ardent candor in The Middle Years:
We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.
There is usually something at least slightly shameful about our passions. Respectable people control their desires. But passion is an appetite that exceeds the accepted bounds of good taste, common sense, social code, financial prudence, and moral convention. It is a desire that should be curbed or repressed but has proven so powerful and permanent that it survives our resistance. Passion is, as James understood so well, an involuntary form of self-knowledge, a painful sense of how one differs not only from others but often from one’s own self-image. Passion is the unconscious articulating its desires.
Passion, therefore, is essential to the artist. Most people don’t understand that real artists never choose their vocation. Their art chooses them — just as love selects the lover as its vessel. We do not calmly walk into love. As the metaphor tells us, we fall into it — helpless, dizzy, disoriented. There is no sure resistance to the gravity of desire, nor any guarantee of a safe landing. We can either spend all our energy fighting it or surrender and make it energy our own. Weak artists emulate the fashionable passions of their age; strong artists have the shameless conviction of their own tastes. Sometimes refusing to be revolutionary is the most radical form or rebellion.
The passions of the rich and beautiful are the stuff of melodrama; the less histrionic passions of the private and reflective now seem more naturally suited for art. The vivid articulation of the ordinary is in itself an exceptional act. To catch the unexpressed passions that brood under quotidian life is the most necessary of artistic accomplishments. In the age of experimentation, cosmopolitanism, and abstraction, Philip Larkin, a gawky, near-sighted, shy, provincial librarian, wrote the sort of poetry he himself desired — local, realistic, narrative, and formal. Consequently, every poem drew energy from a whole life, and even the simplest utterance bore the pressure of that particular life’s dark and quiet passion:
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
they are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
James said with characteristic flair, “Art derives a considerable part of its beneficial exercise from flying in the face of presumptions.” Larkin’s determination to turn the facts of his diurnal routine into lyric epiphanies recalls the famous visionary moment from E.M. Forster’s Howards End:
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest.
Connecting “the prose and the passion” is always the artist’s task — redeeming everyday life with all its imperfections, annoyances, and epiphanies for the imagination. It requires a special sort of passion merely to perform this never-ending job. The vocation itself must be an abiding, unreasonable obsession, or the artist will come to very little. “The life so short, the craft so long to learn” wrote Chaucer referring to both art and love. The craft not only lasts a life; it becomes the life. “Il faut toujours travailler!” Rodin instructed the young Rilke — “You must always work!” The labor grows out of desire. The work continues despite all obstacles. The person becomes the passion. And the rest is the madness of art.
First published in The Dark Horse (No. 1/1995)