2014-09-24

Passion

This is L'eterna Primavera by Auguste Rodin:
Courtesy Wikipedia.org
Today, Rodin is perhaps most famous for his The Thinker. Adults also know him for The Kiss. Both of these sculptures have essentially become part-and-parcel to modern, art-aware culture. They are the great works of a genius.

There are probably many reasons why The Thinker and The Kiss are more widely recognized and appreciated than L'eterna Primavera, but I would speculate that one of them is this: Most people have never experienced the kind of passion depicted in the latter sculpture before. Unfortunately, most people never will.

An Empty Vessel

I once met a woman who insisted on welcoming me into her home by hugging me. She made a great show of it. I knocked on the door, and when she answered, she threw it open and energetically greeted me. Her eyes went wide and she beamed from ear-to-ear. She threw open her arms and stepped toward me.

As she embraced me, her arms barely touched me. Her cheek came physically close to mine, but didn't touch. It was almost as though I wasn't even there. Except that I was there, and I was hugging her back. Based on the fanfare with which she had indicated that she wanted to give me a hug, I responded physically in kind. I gave her the kind of hug she appeared to want.

But when I felt the half-heartedness of the hug she actually gave me, I quickly dialed down my own intensity. She fluttered away to greet the other guests, and I stood there, confused. Why would someone make such a show for the sake of such a weak embrace?

The easy answer to the question is that she wasn't really as happy to see me as she made out to be, but I don't believe that. Everything else about her behavior was fully consistent with a person who was genuinely ecstatic to meet me. 

No, it wasn't that she didn't mean it, it was that she didn't understand it. This is likely the same kind of warm embrace she gives to everyone she is happy to see. Perhaps she has never had the experience of embracing a friend she might never have seen again.

Passion And Art

One of the reasons we all like art so much is because artists are uniquely suited to express our feelings better than we ourselves can. Art speaks to us not because it depicts things we have never known, but because it depicts things we have only known and never articulated, at least not in the same way the artist has. In short, art is a stylized representation of a human experience.

If one has never had the experience in question, then one can come to appreciate the artist's technique in depicting something. One can appreciate the painter's ability to make a scene look realistic, or a musician's ability to play or write difficult note-and-rhythm combinations. But if the audience has never gone through the experience described by the art, then the audience cannot ever hope to understand that artist's work.

Thus, many people might find L'eterna Primavera a visually appealing sculpture; but how many among them can say that they understand why Rodin created it in the first place?

If you lack that passion - if you've never lived that experience - then you'll be inclined to feel as though the sculpture is mildly pornographic. You'll see it as a sculpture of two attractive, nude lovers locked in an embrace. True, that is technically what the sculpture is, but what a sorry and dimwitted level of appreciation that is, compared to the experience that sculpture evokes in those who have lived it!

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I often tell a funny story about my high school cross-country team. Each year, we used to have a team t-shirt printed up. One year, my sister was kind enough to produce a sketch of Michelangelo's David, with a banner crossing in front of him (covering what more sensitive souls might not want to see); the banner said "Cross-Country" on it, and the statue held a pair of running shoes in one hand and a stopwatch in the other. It was great!

Of course we suspected that my (very conservative) teammates would object to a banner-less rendition of the David, hence the contentious part of the statute was covered up. We realized that they might not have enough maturity to handle "the full Monty." We never dreamed that they would lack so much maturity that even the covered statute created controversy.

Some of the team members objected to what they called "the naked guy." Despite the fact that the David is one of the most iconic sculptures in human history, they identified it as merely a figure of a nude man. They were scandalized, made uncomfortable by the fact that a drawing of a statue of a character from Holy Scripture who was famously depicted without clothing, sanitized by a drawing of a covering over his genitals nonetheless implied nudity. 

The maturity these kids lacked was the maturity of passion. Just as the woman who greeted me with the hug of an empty vessel, so these kids looked at art - and humor - with the wits of empty vessels. While most teenagers readily embrace the prospect of passion, even if they don't fully understand it, these poor souls did not even want to want to experience passion. They weren't even curious. They wanted it gone.

(If you're wondering how this story ends, my sister finally agreed to draw shorts on the statue, which still didn't satisfy the most vociferous objectors, but was enough to make the grade.)

How Empty Is Your Vessel?

When I meet people who squirm in their seats at the sight of the great works of art, such as the sexually charged sculptures of Auguste Rodin, I feel a great deal of pity for them, for obvious reasons. We only get one life, and these folks have lived theirs without ever experiencing the kind of love that Rodin wanted to remind us of. It's sad that they've missed out on such a beautiful part of the human experience. It's also sad that, when confronted with the life's work of one of history's greatest artists, all they see is a combination of technique and salaciousness, the intersection of talent and sin. 

One might say that if you've missed the point of Rodin's art, you've missed the point of life. It's not that passion ought to be pursued at the expense of all other aspects of the human condition, but simply that this kind of passion is one necessary component of a life properly lived. Just as a desert hermit denies himself the company of others is missing out on a sense of social belonging, so too those who lack passion are missing out on a layer of their own humanity. 

We don't very often experience that kind of passion all day long, but if you never experience it, neither during part of each day nor during part of any day at all, it's difficult to believe that your concept of love is as hollow as the hermit's conception of companionship.

No one will think you're a bad person if you never experience this kind of passion. Then again, no one will think much about you at all. Passion is how you leave your mark on a situation. Without it, you, too, are an empty vessel.

The Poetry Of Life

I'll say that again, because it bears repeating: Passion is how you leave your mark on a situation. That goes for any situation.

The passion with which you interact with the loves of your life will determine the mark you leave on those relationships. Perhaps that's just a fancy way of saying that you get out of any relationship exactly what you put into it. On the other hand, loving someone passionately results in more than just "getting something back from them," it also shapes your own perspective on that relationship. A passionate affair that ultimately fails is "stormy." One that endures is "timeless" and "triumphant." One that goes unrequited is "tragic."

The passion with which you tackle your work will determine what you make of yourself professionally. You can go through the motions, bring home a paycheck, and watch the years go by as others move in and out of your professional life, driven by their ambitions and the things they wish to achieve. Or, you can dive into the fray and live your work as though it's an experience worth having. It's a choice. A successful ambition will earn you an extension on your home, a beach vacation, a corner office, and an undeniable lift in your gait. A failed ambition will teach you life lessons that can only ever be learned the hard way, but people will respect you. When you work with passion, you'll be remembered; without it, you're just another face at the water cooler, wondering where to sign up for fantasy football.

In any case, it's your life. If you haven't immersed yourself in it, then you've lived on sidelines. If this were a fine art museum, you'd have spent your whole existence behind the velvet rope. Passion's purpose is to get you inside the frame. Without it, you'll still be able to hand out hugs and go to fancy art museums to see the great works of Rodin, and others. You just won't understand it.

The Life You Want To Lead

There are those who stand by, waiting for passion to happen to them. When it doesn't, they feel that they were either mislead by the passionate ones, or that they are somehow defective. They were supposed to be passionate about work, but they never found a job they could be passionate about. They were supposed to be passionate about their spouse, but when the fire failed to ignite like it does in the movies, they determined that life just isn't like the movies. They were supposed to be moved to write a novel, or travel the world, or achieve something remarkable, and when it didn't happen to them, they resigned themselves to the notion that true passion either doesn't exist, or they don't have the capacity for it.

These people will never understand Auguste Rodin.

At a certain point, a person has to be ready for these kinds of experiences. In order to throw caution to the wind with a lover, you must possess the courage and the willingness to throw caution to the wind. In order to throw yourself into your job, or your marriage, or your community art class, or whatever, you have to allow yourself to do so. You have to warm up to experiencing the poetry of life.

If you feel like hugging people, hug them. You won't experience a hearty embrace by going through the motions and stopping short. If you're in love with someone, then act on it. Don't hold hands and think pure thoughts, go to an art museum and find something that stirs you both. If you're bored at work, find something to care about.

Choose to be passionate, or live a life full of awkwardness and boredom. You get one life, how will you spend it?