Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Note on Passion and the Lack Thereof

Notre Dame de Paris, April, 2007
In a poem called The Second Coming our famous Nobel Laureate W.B. Yeats wrote of those left in the higher echelons of society in the wake of World War 1 that: "[t]he best lack all conviction, while the worst//Are full of passionate intensity."   In the interest of context I'll quote the whole first stanza here:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

It would seem that what W.B. Yeats was getting at in the two last lines above was that to his mind the best and the brightest among the higher echelons of modern society (we're talking about 1920 here) didn't exhibit any intense or driving determination to bring about change for the better in society - they merely wanted to let things drift, a sort of laissez-faire attitude if you will, even if they did see both sides of every issue.  On the other hand, Yeats maintained that the worst people, the meanest, most malign, cruel, corrupt and unenlightened people in these higher echelons of society were often passionately intense about their viewpoint, but considered it to be the only viable one.

However, recently I have been studying the philosopher Charles Taylor who has a lot to say about passion, but for him passionate intensity is bound up with action and with being an agent who can bring about change in society.  Among other things, Taylor maintains that:
  • To understand something you have to love it, because understanding is never a completely disengaged stance but springs from inspiration.
  • Reason is never disengaged but is always in relation to our embodied engagement with the world, because it's to do with our perceptions of the world.
  • Feelings aren't 'brute', as the Enlightenment conception of rationality teaches, but rather are our perceptions of the world.
  • Science has dropped its exploration of the teleological, the purposeful meaning of any endeavour that is central for Aristotle, though teleology is undoubtedly a feature of the world, not least in the human sciences.
  • Some paradigms never gain universal agreement, because what scientists commit to is linked to the values they hold.
  • We'll never achieve a total consensus on how to solve our problems, though there will be overlaps when people come to the same conclusions, if by different means.
It could be argued that John Henry Newman prefigured Taylor in much of the above as the former's epistemology is one that is very holistic indeed.  Newman had argued as early as The Oxford University Sermons (written and preached late 30s and early 40s of the nineteenth century) that reason is not solely a deduction from premises; that the "whole man moves", not merely his reason, when he makes any decision at all in his life.

Passion and "Midnight in Paris"

Simone de Beauvoir Bridge, Paris, April, 2007
It could surely be argued that Woody Allen's new film Midnight in Paris is about the search for passion in life. Gil (our hero film-script writer and would-be novelist, played by Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams), his partner, travel to Paris with her parents who are on a business trip. Gil is a successful Hollywood writer, but is struggling with his first novel. He falls in love with Paris and thinks they should move there after they get married, but Inez does not share his romantic notions of the city or the idea that the 1920s was the golden age. When Inez goes off dancing with her friends, Gil takes a walk at midnight and discovers what could be the ultimate source of inspiration for writing.  Precisely as a local Church bell chimes 12 midnight, along comes a vintage car from the nineteen twenties which whisks Gil off to meet, converse with and fall in love with great literary and artistic characters from that period in Paris.   He encounters Cole Porter (played wonderfully by Yves Heck), Josephine Baker (Sonia Rolland), and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (played respectively by Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston), who take him to meet Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). Hemingway agrees to show Gil's novel to Gertrude Stein ( played by the wonderful Kathy Bates).

He also meets over the next several midnights the painter Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) and Picasso's mistress Adriana (acted by Marion Cotillard), a strikingly beautiful student of couture to whom Gil is instantly attracted. Over the next few days, Gil spends each night in the past, telling Inez that he is wandering the streets getting inspiration for his novel. His late-night wanderings frustrate Inez, who cannot understand his interest in Paris or his desire to write a novel, and arouse the suspicion of her father, who hires a detective to follow Gil.

Gil also meets Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), Man Ray (Tom Cordier) and Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van), surrealists all.  At the Marché aux puces (flea market) on the outskirts of Paris, Gil meets Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux), an antiques dealer who shares his fondness for the twenties and the music of Cole Porter.   We immediately realise that he will obviously fall in love with this woman, given how much they have in common.

Candles, Saint Germain des Pres, April, 2007
Then in a scene, somewhat reminiscent of the film Inception with its dream within a dream, we then witness Gil and Adriana going back again in time (remember Gil has already gone back to the 1920s where he meets Adriana) to that period in French life called La Belle Époque. As they kiss on a deserted street, a horse and carriage appears. They are invited inside by a richly-dressed couple and are transported back to the Belle Époque, an era Adriana considers Paris's Golden Age. They are taken to the famous Maxim's de Paris restaurant, where they felicitously meet Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes), Paul Gauguin and Edgar Degas (François Rostain). When Gil asks these three artists what they thought the best era was, the three determine that the greatest era was the Renaissance. The enthralled Adriana is offered a job designing ballet costumes, and proposes to Gil that they stay, but Gil realizes that despite the allure of nostalgia, it is better to accept the present for what it is. Adriana elects to stay in the past, and they sadly part ways.  In other words our man Gil has learned a hard lesson, viz., that every generation of writers and artists considers a preceding generation of artists and writers to have been the best.  In other words, then, if there is no one greatest Golden Age, then it would be better to live in the present.  And this living in the present can only be done passionately by pursuing one's own love, one's essential passion or dream.  Gil has discovered his passion, his love for Paris, for writing, for being true to self, for being congruent as the psychotherapists put it.  He has learned to understand life by loving it and by intimately engaging with it.

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