“To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” (Walter Pater)
Walter Pater’s quote asserts that actualizing and experiencing our spirit and passions is perhaps one of the finest possibilities in and of human life. What is there that is most memorable and meaningful in a person’s life? Often it is that which engages and fully subsumes our consciousness, attention, and energies. It may be a pet project that we feel is unique and potentially interesting and valuable to others. It may be a simple open-hearted enthusiasm for beauty in nature. Or it may be a person with whom we feel some deep attraction and desire for.
There are always people, things, and experiences we gravitate towards, which move us and deeply interest or intrigue us. Natural curiosity can play a key role in this process, although if we have some idea who we are and what we really like, then the ruling passions tend to ‘play themselves out’ or naturally assert or unfold themselves in the course of daily living or over periods of time.
Passions also appear as driving forces when one is, as mythologist Joseph Campbell said, ‘following one’s bliss’. These passions might range from hobbies such as playing a musical instrument, to leisure activities such as supporting a local sports team, to life-long commitments such as extended charity work. Passions usually are very engaging, sometimes to the point of total distraction. But they embody meanings and purpose that are frequently best-known, understood, and appreciated by the people who espouse and live out and for those passions per se.
Who can define spirit or what ‘a spirit’ is? And yet, we know when that something vital and significant life force declines or goes missing as in the case of depression or serious illness. So, motivation for passion assumes a will and capacity to be directed by spirit to whatever pleasurable, engaging, or meaningful activities and ends. We are, each of us, defined by our passions, our spirits, and our various enthusiasms expressed in life. It is fair to say that our various ‘burnings’ and ‘ecstasies’ are keys to understanding our identities and who we really, individually, are. As famous French diarist Anais Nin put it, “The fiery moments of passionate experience are the moments of wholeness and totality of the personality.”
In a much larger sense, though too, Pater’s quote illuminates not just our own lives and those of who we have known and are familiar with. In Honore de Balzac’s words, “Passion is universal humanity. Without it religion, history, romance and art would be useless.” The actions and deep beliefs of multitudes, entire peoples, and countries have long depended on the energies and enthusiasms of the many living and dying on the basis of the driving spirit and passions. And so it is that what Pater speaks of is what has motivated not just individuals, but is reflected in the longer course of civilization and much of what is valuable about the life experience itself.
theme-meditation #15: Looking back at a previous theme of context-process-choice, I would say that passions often drive our choices; they are things, people, states, or conditions we desire, which ultimately motivate us. And you can pretty much look at any process and see various passions, interests and what Joseph Campbell called “blisses” at work. Often, in the long haul, these emerge in our work, hobbies, interests, and relationships.
I have obviously assumed, in the above selection, that spirit drives our passions and I would venture to conclude that where one finds our passions, one will also find our spirits and the people and characters we essentially are. So, in that sense, our passions are very much us.
specific examples/illustrations: In the poems and prose that follow, a variety of passions are explored and expressed. In the first selection, “Afternoon nap”, the dreams and passions of an imaginative four-year-old boy are examined. That is followed by a short speculative piece on Alex Colville’s famous painting “Horse and Train”. Next is a short prose entry once submitted by my father for a Hemingway imitational writing contest. (Hemingway, himself passionate about many traditional interests such as drinking, womanizing, bullfighting, fishing, and big-game hunting, inspired the passions of generations of male readers, which included my Dad.)
The entry is followed by a poem about my father based on a photograph of him emerging from the sea. The focus then changes to the passions of John (Joseph) Merrick, a.k.a. The Elephant Man. Next, I include a personal perspective about driivng a car while listening to classical music on a “good day”. The poem “Allusive love” won 1st place for Humour in a contest and is a satire on physical passion and literary love. “Speaking of Chagall” is another complementary comic piece about “Birthday” (1915), one of the artist’s most famous representations of romantic love.
The last sub-section begins with a lighter view of homosexual love and an ironic position relative to it.The rather strange, to say the least, prose fantasy, “Sissinghurst Memory” touches on a long-time interest in the life and works of Virginia Woolf, which must needs touch upon her relationship with Vita Sackville West, her husband Harold Nicholson, and the latter two’s labor-of-love home Sissinghurst. The last poem is an elegy for Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence, written the same day she died, while I was presenting at a CCTE conference back in 1987.