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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Love and death and Passion (again)

"To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness. I hope you're getting this down.” (Love and Death, by Woody Allen)


Loving you is why I do

The things I do

Loving you is not in my control.

But loving you, I have a goal

For what's left of my life...

I would live,

And I would die for you.


Die for me? What kind of love is that?


The truest love. Would Clara give her life for you?

Would she? I would. Happily. In time you will come

to see what is beautiful about me. 

“There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

Always lurking in the shadows of passion and dancing through the rhetoric of love is death. It couldn’t be more clear in the Sondheim show. Fosca is sickly, from the outset we know that she has a mortal, albeit undiagnosable, malady. Giorgio is a soldier, a man whose business, one might say, is death, and the final duel that is forced upon him by his
Elvira Madigan (spoiler alert)
superior officer, Fosca’s cousin, is ultimately the proof of his passion for her, whose health he will not risk by informing her of this looming combat.

In the recurring literary and artistic theme commonly called “black passion,” the “mortal danger” of eros is played out to its bitter consequences. (Well, we called it “black passion” when I was in college, but maybe that was because I was in seminary and they wanted us to be afraid of it. When you try to look up “black passion” on the internet, all you see are porn sites for black men.) Romeo and Juliet, choosing their love against all counsel and caution, both die. There is the legend of Tristan and Isolde, all the way up through modern works like Josephine Hart’s Damage. As observers, the passion that we witness may be the innocent passion of young lovers or tsunami of emotion that overwhelms the most jaded skeptic, what matters is the tragedy that the inwardly-focused relationship engenders. The obvious analog is the brightly burning star that runs out of fuel and collapses upon itself, becoming a black hole from which nothing, not even light, can escape. 

For me, the story par excellence of “black passion” or whatever the real world calls it, is the largely true story told by the Swedish film of 1967 called Elvira Madigan. It tells the story of a young Danish trapeze artist who meets a married lieutenant while on tour with the circus. They fall in love that is so completely focused upon each other that the rest of the world begins to disappear. The officer is married, and has two children. They run off together for a few weeks; and their money runs out. In the unforgettable final scene, she makes a final picnic of strawberries and cream which they take into the country and sensually feed to each other. The camera loves their faces and their skin and the insanely symbolic colors of the cream and berries. When they have finished, her soldier shoots her, and after the screen goes black, there is another shot. In the words of Linus in Peanuts, “thus endeth the croquet game.” All of that gorgeous passion has transformed the Mozart Piano Concerto #21 into the “Theme from Elvira Madigan.” Such is the power of love. Or at least, of passion.

For the Christian, the word “passion” carries with it the connotations of the death of Jesus, and for some theologians, there is also a connection between his “passion” in the sense of his suffering and his passion in the sense of what made him want to live, what gave him the strength to endure his suffering. In a way, we all talk about the things we’re “passionate” about, what we love so much that it hurts (when we’re not just being hyperbolic, anyway.) But it might just be in this place that we gain some insight into the power of the overwhelming mystery of love and passion. Through love and passion, we believe that we tap into, or are tapped into, the very mystery of God. We begin to share in divine life, and let’s face it, this is a current where we have little ability to navigate. When we attempt to hoard it, or it becomes too focused on one other person, it is dangerous and explosive. It is only somehow in letting that power flow out of us into others as a life-giving force given with generosity and even abandon that it doesn’t start to destroy us or emerge as something unhealthy, as some physical, emotional, financial, political, or spiritual problem.

“Die for me? What kind of love is that?” the incredulous Giorgio asks Fosca at the moment of one of her self-revelatory confessions. And honestly, I wondered that myself. It didn’t seem like a particularly generous act from someone who didn’t seem that attached to life anyway. But it might have been all she had at the moment. I was forced to remember the commandment to “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” and to love oneself is to want to live, to preserve one’s life at every reasonable (at least) cost. To offer that kind of love to another, to put the life of another before your own, is the right thing to do, even if the motivation is off the mark or made askew by mental debilitation or physical disease. No love is perfect, we never go into any of this completely selflessly, fully conscious of all the repercussions of our actions. The expression of this kind of love is necessary for the lover but it still takes us aback when we treasure our own life above everything else, including that of the one who speaks it to us. But love almost always eventually leads to some mention of death. Or to some rejection of death, as in “my love for you is undying.” Well, good luck with that one. It makes me think of words I recently read that were recorded by theologian and story-teller John Shea, who remembered a grieving young widow telling him, as I recall it, “No one told me that every marriage ends in divorce or death.” 

Of course, there are those archaic words from the wedding vows, “’til death do us part,” which have been bawdlerized into “as long as I live” or “all the days of my life.” I can’t even tell you how many brides reject this reading or that song because of words like those of Ruth’s song, “wherever you die, I shall die,” because “they’re too depressing,” or “what does that have to do with love?” Well,  I guess I might have been there at one time or another, but I think I’ve always been too morose to imagine myself as being made immortal by love. By baptism, by God’s love, yes, I can assent to that through faith. But not by my own passion.

Well, that’s enough of all that. Now I want to go rent Elvira Madigan again - I don’t think I’ve seen it in 20 years. And I don’t want, in the least, ever to rent The Passion of the Christ, because appears to be a big self-indulgent sadistic libertarian lie. To each his own, I guess. I prefer a Christ who wanted to live, who had a passion for people, for the empire of God, and who only chose to die when living itself would become a betrayal of his passion for Life. Or, put another way, when it became clear that not even death could stand in the way of God’s passion for him. All that life and passion was meant for all of us, and it’s not enlightened by the language of gore and pain. That’s all I have to say about that, because I’m not going to watch the movie just so I can review it fairly. I have my standards, low as they may be.

And to bring this strange patchwork of love and death, passion and murder to a close, one more (closing) speech from Woody Allen’s almost insanely funny Love and Death (and there’s more here):

The question is have I learned anything about life. Only that human being are divided into mind and body. The mind embraces all the nobler aspirations, like poetry and philosophy, but the body has all the fun. The important thing, I think, is not to be bitter... if it turns out that there IS a God, I don't think that He's evil. I think that the worst you can say about Him is that basically He's an underachiever. After all, there are worse things in life than death. If you've ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman, you know what I'm talking about. The key is, to not think of death as an end, but as more of a very effective way to cut down on your expenses. Regarding love, heh, what can you say? It's not the quantity of your sexual relations that counts. It's the quality. On the other hand if the quantity drops below once every eight months, I would definitely look into. Well, that's about it for me folks. Goodbye.