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On Passion

EGrumer's picture

An Introduction to Feeling

I am a Scorpio. Generally, my zodiac sign is entirely irrelevant to an academic paper, but in this case it has some bearing. As a child, I was deeply uncomfortable with being a Scorpio, due to what I read was the inherent nature of Scorpios: passionate. I felt squeamish of the term, which to me had very sexual connotations. As such, I resented being told that I must be a “passionate” person. I was not passionate, my childhood self would have told you adamantly. In fact, I might have said so passionately.

Several weeks ago, when our class began reading The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean, the subject of passion came to the forefront of our group conversation. I found myself thinking again of my childhood zodiac qualms as we debated the nature of passion. This time, it was not the sexuality of passion that was being questioned, but its ability to last. Is passion, by definition, a passing feeling, or is passion something that can endure? Additionally, we wondered if passion is something that only some people have, or if it is more universal than that.

As I thought about these questions, it occurred to me that passion, a major theme of The Orchid Thief, is also present in the other words we have studied, this semester, disparate though they were in both content and form. Focusing on a key three of our eclectic reading choices – the aforementioned nonfictional The Orchid Thief, the graphic novel A Game of You by Neil Gaiman, and the prose novel Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – I hope to explore this thread of “passion” that has run through all of our material and, in doing so, to better understand both what passion is and how it relates to me.


Love Like a Car-Bomb

John Laroche is a passionate man. In the first chapter of The Orchid Thief, Orlean says that

Laroche's passions arrived unannounced and ended explosively, like car-bombs. When I first met him he lusted only for orchids, especially the wild orchids growing in Florida's Fakahatchee Strand. I spent most of the next two years hanging around with him, and at the end of those two years he had gotten rid of every single orchid he owned and swore that he would never own another orchid for as long as he lived. He is usually true to his word. Years ago, between his Ice Age fossils and his old mirrors, he went through a tropical-fish phase. At its peak, he had more than sixty fish tanks in his house and went skin-diving regularly to collect fish. Then the end came. He didn't gradually loose interest: he renounced fish and vowed he would never again collect them and, for that matter, he would never set foot in the ocean again. That was seventeen years ago. He has lived his whole life only a couple of feet west of the Atlantic, but he has not dipped a toe in it since then. (Orlean 4)

From the very beginning, we are aware of his mercurial nature. He is passionate, yes, but also changeable. When Laroche loves something, he truly loves it, his passion completely dyeing his life in a bright new color. Then, all at once, his passion is over. To be honest, I have trouble understanding this part of Laroche, as does Susan Orlean, even by the end of The Orchid Thief. She wonders, as I do “how someone could end such intense desire without leaving a trace. If you really loved something, wouldn’t a little bit of it always linger?...But evidently Laroche's finishes were downright and absolute, and what's more, he also shut off any chance of amends” (Orlean 245).


The Origins of Passion

But let me now take a step back. What is passion? Do I know exactly what I mean, when I use the word? Certainly, as a child, I felt that “passion” was almost always used to describe sexual feelings, and this is not the case.

In class, this question of definition also arose, on a different theme. One student insisted that passion is by definition fleeting. Another was sure that this is not true. Two online dictionaries, checked in class, yield two different answers. It is to a third, more definitive dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, that I turn now. The OED gives three main listings for the noun passion, with each listing having multiple branches.

I Senses relating to physical suffering and pain.

This definition encompasses the Christian idea of Christ's passion, the martyrdom of saints, and in more extended use the suffering of regular people, including fits and seizures, as well. However, this is not the meaning of passion that Orlean used, or that we talked about, in class. We spoke not of pain or Christianity, but of strong feelings.

II Senses relating to emotional or mental states.

This is the passion that we referred to, and that is the major focus of this paper. It is “strong or overpowering feeling or emotion” and “an aim or object pursued with zeal; a thing arousing intense enthusiasm.” However, it is also “a fit, outburst, or state marked by or of strong excitement, agitation, or other intense emotion.” An outburst ends – a sudden flare of noise that must inevitably lead to silence. This is, I think, where the idea of the temporality of passion originates. How could something so intense, so strongly felt, possibly last? Laroche's passions, after all, follow that pattern. They always end.

Additionally, the OED also listed a third meaning for passion, one of which I was not aware, which actually rather surprised me.

III Senses relating to passivity.

More specifically, this definition means “a way in which a thing is or may be affected by external agency; an innate quality, property, or attribute of a thing.” Again, this is not the passion that we talked about. In fact, passivity seems to be the very opposite of passion, to me. Passion is strong emotion, while passivity is not feeling anything strongly – or, if things are felt, ignoring this feeling in order to go with the flow. The passion I always thought of, the second listing, is a passion of acting. This listing is a passion of being acted upon.


A Recognition of Vacillation

In one of my earlier postings for this class, I mentioned that I love romance novels. Not all romance novels, of course. I also say that I love books, and that does not mean that I love all books. There are, in any genre, good writers and bad ones. However, on the whole, romance is a genre that I enjoy a great deal. The confines of the genre are both form (prose novel) and content (the plot involves two people who fall in love and work out a relationship, and it ends happily). I love reading about relationships – the emotional, intellectual, and psychological journeys of falling in love and making a relationship work.

I am also a cynic.

I believe in true love to a certain extent. It exists, I assume, because there are a few examples of people with such lasting, loving relationships. Most people, however, don't seem to find it. Most people settle, or find a less passionate love than the sort in books or plays or movies. (She said, with the blithe ignorance of a college student barely in her twenties.)

And yet, I read romances. I love them. They make me happy. If the author is good, I am convinced that these fictional characters have, indeed, found love, and that it won't end with a bang (like one of Laroche's passions) or a whimper (as most of the relationships that I've seen in real life do).

What I mostly don’t believe in, with the majority of relationships, is not the initial passion, but the staying-power of this emotion. This is the root of my cynicism on the subject, and of my fear. Certainly, the popularity of divorce would indicate that people are eager to marry, sure that their love is permanent... and then it's not. It ends, like an all-consuming but passing fancy for tropical-fish or refinishing old mirrors.

Now, I could write pages on the misconception and stigmas surrounding the reading or romance novels. It is topic that I touched upon, in my earlier blog post, though I feel that diving into this subject again here would be a bit too tangential, even for this paper. However, one large misunderstand about romance novels does seem pertinent to this discussion: a confusion about passion.

As a child, I though that passion was a sexual thing – not strong emotion, but libido. This same confusion seems to surround romances. People think that they are about sex, not love. That they are read for titillation. Romance novels (except, perhaps, for some not-so-well-written ones that fail to convince the reader intellectually) are about love, not lust. Passion as emotion, not sexual passion. It's the same misconception I had about passion, when I was younger.

"The Sandalwood Princess"

(Image 1: An example of a mainstream romance novel with no sex, only passion: The Sandalwood Princess by Loretta Chase.  I thought that this web-event needed some color, and its digital nature allows images so well.)


The Fate of the Passionate

Wanda dies. She is the only primary character who does, in Neil Gaiman's A Game of You. Laroche lives, though he is arrested for poaching. The stakes of The Orchid Thief, a true story about horticulture rather than a fictional one about dreams, are a bit lower. This, it would seem, is the fate of the passionate. They suffer, in one way or another. Even Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse-Five, usually passionless, suffers a reversal of fortune, in the face of passion. After floating through life, from the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II to marriage to a nearly-fatal plane crash to alien abduction, Billy finally finds something that, frankly, he is almost passionate about. It is while speaking of this passion – a passion for passivity to live and death – that Billy is murdered. In this sense, it is when he at last finds passion that Billy is killed. Truly, the main passion for the majority of Billy's life is the third, rare flavor of passion. He is, until the end of his life, acted upon by outward forces. He is sent to war, married off, abducted from his home planet and put in a zoo with a mate, fatally shot. Billy never fights back. He never seems to feel strongly about anything that happens to him. Certainly, he does not believe that he has any control over his life; in Billy's mind, “among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future” (Vonnegut 60).

Wanda is able to change her life. She leave her family and moves to New York City, where she can live as a woman. In death, her family reclaims her body, and it is here that the contrast between their lack of passion and her passionate nature is shown. Her very physical appearance is altered: she is buried as Alvin Mann, a man in a dark suit, surrounded by disapproving family (Gaiman, Chapter Six).


The Fate of the Passionless

Passionate people, it seems, endure sorrow and hardship. And yet, the passionless are not happy, either. Indeed, their lives are in many ways worse: unalleviated dullness, woefully colorless without passion.

In A Game of You, Barbie's biggest fear is that she “is secretly a really boring person” (Gaiman, Chapter Two). Someone passionless who hangs around with people more passionate – though much of society consideres these people to be “degenerate weirdos” (Gaiman, Chapter Two). Billy Pilgrim, even more clearly than Barbie, is not an interesting man. Apathy is the antithesis of passion. Billy Pilgrim, even at his most passionate, is apathetic and unhappy. Those who are without passion are seemingly no better off than those who have it.

Susan Orlean spends most of The Orchid Thief holding herself removed from the ranks of the passionate. She doesn't even collect anything (Orlean 279). She is a foil to John Laroche, and yet she comes to discover that she is not as passionless as she thought she was. In an interview at the end of my edition, she says that she is “fascinated by [passion], partly because I have never had that kind of devotion to a single interest. Obviously at the end of the book, I realize I do have a single-minded passion. It is the passion to be a writer and a reporter” (Orlean 288). Orlean has a passion, though not one as violent as those of Laroche. Perhaps everyone has a passion of some sort, although most people do not have them with Laroche's intensity.

Interestingly, while I fear for the endurance of passions like those of Laroche, I'm not worried about Orlean. I cannot image her quieter, but still strong, passion fading. It is not just that she is a successful and published writer and reporter. Laroche, too, has careers in those things he feels passionate about. Rather, I think, the steadiness of Orlean's character and relationship to her passion reassures me. I'm not scared that she will wake up one morning, swear off writing forever, and burn all her books.


Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known

I am still a Scorpio. I was when I began this essay, and (lacking, as I do, a time-machine that could cause Back to the Future style shenanigans and screw up my birth) I am one now that I finish it, too. But am I, as Scorpios are meant to be, passionate? Though I have done my best both to better understand what passion is and to look at passion across this semester's literary board, I am still undecided about myself.

I find that I feel intellectually dishonest, in claiming to be a passionate person. I am to reserved, too boring. I don't deserve to call myself passionate, to claim the glamor of intense emotion. Like Barbie, I fear that I am boring.

At the same time, I cannot say that I am not passionate.

Let's take another look at the OED. It's my favorite dictionary. I have a favorite dictionary. A decided favorite. Surely a passionate person would have no interest in such mundane matters, would be far too busy following his or her passion to dwell on the relative merits of one dictionary or another. And yet, as I said, the OED is my decided favorite of all the dictionaries I have yet found. I am (dare I say it) rather passionate on the subject. At the drop of a hat, I could tell you all the things I love about it, the awe I feel towards its many references and quotations across the lifespan or each word. For that matter, I can become rather inflamed over the exorbitant price that OED charges for non-academic access to their precious online resource.

It's not just dictionaries that I can chatter on about. There are many things I love or feel strongly about (romance novels, as I mentioned earlier, for example, and the defense of romance novels). I don't think that I love anything the way that Laroche loves his objects of obsession. I feel strongly, but not with that firework intensity – bright and all-encompassing and then suddenly gone. Rather, I have milder, more enduring passions for many different things. I am not like John Laroche, but neither am I like Billy Pilgrim.

I must admit, I am afraid. I fear the obsessive, alien nature of incredibly strong passions – Laroche describes his as like “heroin addiction” (Orlean 279). At the same time, I also fear the lack of passion – of being dull, and relationships where the passion dies. Maybe I am a mess of contractions – cynic and romantic, passionate and passionless.

Or, perhaps, I am normal.

Orlean glorifies Laroche, and to a lesser extent the orchid enthusiasts of her book, as being nearly as exotic as the flowers they love. Most people do not have such passions. Likewise, the mendacity and basic behavior of ghosting through life exhibited by Billy Pilgrim are not normal, either.  Perhaps, as Barbie says to Wanda's grave at the end of A Game of You, "everybody has a secret world inside of them....All of the people in the whole world -- no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside....Inside them they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing, worlds" (Gaiman, Chapter Six).  These worlds are passions.

Passion is ubiquitous, present in every piece we read, watched, or listened to for this class, and shown particularly well in The Orchid Thief, A Game of You, and Slaughterhouse-Five. These works, however, show a spectrum of passion. On one end is John Laroche, wildly passionate, deeply committed to a certain thing... until the day he simply isn't, and swears that thing off forever. On the other end is Billy Pilgrim, a numb man who lacks anything even vaguely resembling passion for most of his life. In the middle are a ranging cast: Wanda, the vibrantly passionate woman whose family do their best to squish her down; Susan Orlean, the writer who studies passion from afar before concluding that, in her modest way, she has passion, too; and Barbie, the young woman afraid that she is uninteresting. Most of us, I think, are something in the middle of this motley crew of the fictional, the nonfictional, and the fictionalized nonfictional. I'm somewhere in there, still trying to figure myself out.



Works Cited

Gaiman, Neil. A Game of You. New York: DC Comics, 2011. Print.

Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession. New York: Ballantine Books, 2008. Print.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell Publishing, 1991. Print.