Friday, December 14, 2012

Feel It!: More Thoughts on Passion and "The Deep Blue Sea"

Those fine folks at Merriam-Webster must have been consulting with Mother Collyer from The Deep Blue Sea. Their online dictionary seems to have a similarly tainted view of passion.

Its first definition:
a : the sufferings of Christ between the night of the Last Supper and his death
b : an oratorio based on a gospel narrative of the Passion
Its fourth: 
a (1) : EMOTION this ruling passion is greed; (2) plural : the emotions as distinguished from reason 
b : intense, driving, or overmastering feeling or conviction  
c : an outbreak of anger 
It's not until the fifth definition that we finally get a positive spin: 
a : ardent affection : LOVE
b : a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept
c : sexual desire
d : an object of desire or deep interest 
The Collins English Dictionary offers a more balanced point of view from the start:

1. ardent love or affection
2. intense sexual love
3. a strong affection or enthusiasm for an object, concept, etc: a passion for poetry
4. any strongly felt emotion, such as love, hate, envy, etc
5. a state or outburst of extreme anger: he flew into a passion
6. the object of an intense desire, ardent affection, or enthusiasm
7. an outburst expressing intense emotion: he burst into a passion of sobs
8. philosophy
a. any state of the mind in which it is affected by something external, such as perception, desire, etc, as contrasted with action
b. feelings, desires or emotions, as contrasted with reason

It's not until the ninth definition that Collins gets around to where Merriam-Webster begins:  "9. the sufferings and death of a Christian martyr." 

I'm particularly intrigued by Collins' definition 8a, which separates the feeling of passion from how one acts on it. Nevertheless, passion is as much the reaction to the intense feeling as it is the intense feeling itself. When someone responds to something emotionally, emphatically, it's passion that makes him or her do it, but the response itself is equally passion. "What passion!" one might say while observing a wailing bereft mother. The question then, is this: How much control, if any, should we exert over either manifestation of passion?

I, for one, have always been particularly prone to the stirrings of passion. But there's a reason why I've survived to such a ripe old age, mental and physical faculties mostly intact. Although I don't try to stifle the feeling itself, and I raise my voice more often than I should, I generally don't allow myself to respond to passion in unhealthy ways. My self-preservation instincts and my sense of restraint and decorum prevent me from going as far as Hester did, popping 12 pills because I can't choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. As Hester's wise landlady tells her later on, no man is worth it.

As much as I embrace passion, I wouldn't want to live or love in a hyper-emotional world where everyone is running around bubbling over like Mount Vesuvius about to erupt. I had enough of that during the four and a half years I lived in Buenos Aires, where people spend too much of their daily lives acting like they're auditioning for a telenovela. Feel it, but for God's sake, don't completely lose it. 

Despite her early suicide attempt and periodic emotional outbursts over the course of the film, I like to think that Hester will be alright. My favorite scene in the movie comes near the end. Hester has lost everything, and she begins to sob uncontrollably. After several minutes of release, she picks herself up, dusts off, and lets the sunshine in -- literally. When she opens the curtain, and she's starts to smile, there's the unmistakable hint of optimism on her face. Maybe she's just looking forward to popping 12 more pills, but I like to think that she realizes that passion doesn't have to be break you down completely. 

It's a beautiful ending to a beautiful film. I wrote yesterday's post just before I read the Golden Globe nominations, and I was thrilled that Rachel Weisz received one for her nicely nuanced performance as Hester Collyer. Were she Michelle Williams, who collects Oscar buzz just for showing up at work, an Academy Award nomination would be a foregone conclusion. As it is, Weisz probably will have to battle Hitchcock's Helen Mirren and Rust and Bone's Marion Cottilard for her spot in the Best Actress line-up.

But getting back to Hester, the movie ends on a note I'd like to interpret as being hopeful. I can't imagine that she'll compromise her passion offscreen and start living in fear, embracing her soon-to-be ex-mother-in-law's philosophy because it's too dangerous not to. Indeed, "guarded enthusiasm" sounds so stiff and uncomfortable, especially when Mother Collyer says it. If you cut off access to your emotions, that most basic of instincts, you might avoid the pitfalls of some dark impulses and save up a lot of tears, but what about the unbridled joy you'd miss out on? 

Imagine a world without passion. Classical music, particularly the works of Bach, wouldn't be the same. Neither would soap opera history, without the campy Passions. There'd be no The Passion of Christ. Maybe Maggie Smith would have starred in The Lonely Unguarded Enthusiasm of Judith Hearne instead of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne in 1987. Perhaps Helen Mirren would have won her 1999 Emmy Award for The Unguarded Optimism of Ayn Rand, not The Passion of Ayn Rand, which has a much nicer ring. Passion, the upcoming thriller starring Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace and directed by Brian De Palma, would need a new title. And what would we call passionfruit? 

Occasionally, I feel a twinge of jealousy when faced with guarded enthusiasts and masters of insensitivity. Passion can be so exhausting. But I'd rather live with an out of control raging fire burning on the inside than spend my time gardening because, as Mother Collyer tells Hester, gardens are so much safer than people. Why not just go ahead and start digging your own grave then? You might as well be pushing up daisies instead of planting them because you're already pretty much half-way to dead. 

4 Songs About Passion

"Passion" Rod Stewart

"P.A.S.S.I.O.N." Rhythm Syndicate

"Talk About The Passion" R.E.M."

"Pashernate Love" Morrissey

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