I often find myself thinking about how I am going to fill up the time I have left in my life, not in any melancholy way, but rather in a practical one. This generally happens when I’m sitting at a stoplight or on a lazy Sunday afternoon where I’m flat broke and afraid to leave the house for fear I’ll spend money I don’t have. What am I going to do for the rest of my life? Not just in the grand scheme of things, but also in the small, everyday things. One thing I know I’ll always do is read and it was in reading Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion that I realized a simple truth. It doesn’t answer all my questions about the time ahead but it does provide a sort of key. In this book, there are many different manifestations of passion: monomaniacal, self-sacrificing, and hedonistic are some examples, but what each of these has in common is that they lend a sort of impetus to the character’s lives. Their individual actions are often trivial, sometimes unalterably life-changing, but always fueled by passion.
The story is told directly from two different perspectives, that of Henri, and that of Villanelle, and yet there is another character whose passion brings these two together: that of Napoleon Bonaparte himself. We never see the story from his perspective and yet it is all the more poignant seeing him through Henri’s eyes. Henri is Napoleon’s personal chef of sorts when he is with the army, serving him roast chicken (apparently Napoleon’s favorite dish) at all hours of the day and night. In Napoleon’s case, his passion for chicken emulates his passion for the world. Imagine him looking at a globe instead of a covered dish of roast chicken as “he [would] lift the lid and pick it up and push it into his mouth. He wishes his whole face were mouth to cram a whole bird” (4). His appetite for chicken is his appetite for conquering the world, just as unquenchable, just as unreachable. He is the Ahab of world leaders. His great white whale is Europe, and in just the same way, his monomania consumes him until there is nothing left but a good story.
The passion of Villanelle is similar to that of Napoleon in its veracity, but whereas Napoleon sought to conquer whole civilizations to slake his passion, Villanelle’s desires are more earthly and attainable, and yet more transient. Hers are the passions of experience, of carnality, of youth. She seeks to enjoy everything, and she finds both her imprisonment and her freedom in this. Her passion has her teetering wildly on life’s knife-like edge, “somewhere between fear and sex” (55) at all times. Unlike Napoleon however, whose passion is like a wildfire that burns fierce and bright until it suddenly finds itself unable to sustain its ferocity and dies, Villanelle’s passion is tapered to a point, like a blowtorch, driven to unbearable heat because it is focused on one area at a time. Her description of kisses demonstrates this:
I like such kisses. They fill the mouth and leave the body free. To kiss well one must kiss solely. No groping hands or stammering hearts. The lips and the lips alone are the pleasure. Passion is sweeter split strand by strand. Divided and re-divided like mercury then gathered up only at the last moment (59).
I like that idea of Passion split strand by strand. It’s the idea of indulgence, but controlled enough to prolong the consummation of whatever pleasure is the end goal, like a tasting menu that builds up to some magnificent pièce de résistance. This is the secret to Villanelle’s flame: that she is able to protract the completion of her passion to such a degree that she never runs out of fuel or burns herself up.
Henri’s passion is of an entirely different breed than that of the latter two. His is passion tempered with rationality and self-sacrifice, which is ironic considering of the three Henri is the only one to end up in a madhouse, though happily, it would seem. Henri is the martyr. He gives all of himself to the people he loves, first to Napoleon and then to Villanelle, who loves him back in her own way but cannot reciprocate in the manner Henri needs. He is carried along on the fast-moving Lethe-like rivers of other people’s passions until he almost loses himself. There is a moment when he gets a taste of the more destructive and violent strain of passion when he kills Villanelle’s creepy, abusive husband. He describes it as follows:
Travellers at least have a choice. Those who set sail know that things will not be the same as at home. Explorers are prepared. But for us, who travel along the blood vessels, who come to the cities of the interior by chance, there is no preparation. We who were fluent find life is a foreign language. Somewhere between the swamp and the mountains. Somewhere between fear and sex. Somewhere between God and the Devil passion is and the way there is sudden and the way back is worse (68).
Unlike Villanelle, whose being has been virtually fireproofed in order to sustain the strength of her passion, part of Henri is burnt up in this act. It is after this that he relinquishes any hold on Villanelle. He very calmly takes responsibility for the murder and is sent to prison, and then to a madhouse. This madhouse becomes his haven, the four walls of his cell confine his existence in a way that comforts him. And it is within these walls, where Henri sometimes looks out his window to see Villanelle rowing her boat by his window, his small passion all but smothered while hers still burns with white-hot intensity, that the story ends.
In my story, I am sitting at my desk at a job that I am explicitly not passionate about. I am currently looking for the means to change this. Obviously, I do not want a passion that consumes me completely, like Napoleon’s, nor do I want one that is inextricably linked with the passions of others, carrying me with them, bumping and scraping along. I hope to find a passion more like Villanelle’s. Hers is one of freedom, of wild joy and insuperable curiosity. At the same time, I can see the selfishness of this, as one can never pursue only enjoyment and adventure if other people are in the picture. True freedom is total independence and true freedom is lonely. Maybe some day I will find a happy medium that will, like I mentioned initially, give a sort of impetus to the everyday. I need to find a passion that will become a catalyst for a meaningful life.
Next: A chicken dinner Napoleon would have left off savaging Europe for.