Passion is an immortal siren of potent allure. At five past six post meridiem, she springs from the first chords of Sonata, Opus 27, No. 2, illuminating the depository of memories that is our living room. Even in my dilettante hands, this piece still retains the emotive force that is forever bound to its creator’s infamous temperament. Ludwig Van Beethoven dedicated this quasi-fantasy to Countess Giulietto Guicciardi. Yet in secret, it was Mistress Passion for whom he wrote the moonlight.
I remember the scent of passion all too well. It was halfway past my schooling in design and I was afflicted by a sense of dissatisfaction from my studies. Unable to trace the source of my malady, I sought passion for a cure. With a youthful conviction, I resolved to put every fibre of my being into my art to arrive at my full potential. But the heights I had set my gaze on were as yet too high for me to reach. Thus my journey, which should have widened with curiosity, became tapered by desire. Deepening my discontent, this tenacious desire eventually gave rise to something unsettling.
Ever since we realized the power of our will, passion has been in active pursuit. Today, she is worshiped as the goddess of fortune, prosperity and success. When we think of passion, thoughts of happiness may follow. But it was not happiness that gave birth to our subject at hand. The word “passion” is derived from the Latin word “pati,” which translates as “suffer.” The Latin form was later modified by Old French to become “passion,” in the Passion of Christ, the Suffering of Christ. Over time, the definition of the word extended to the suffering of martyrs, and from there, to an uncontrollable desire and sexual lust, until at last to the zeal that sends us off to the stars.
Virginia Woolf, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Steve Jobs – they are just a few of the many who had submitted their life to passion at some cost to their own sanity. Undoubtedly, the world has gained much from their submission. But there are also geniuses who have managed to escape her vices. Chemist Dorothy Hogkin and physicist Richard Feynman are two such survivors. While it’s true that artists are particularly vulnerable, art and science are not diametrically opposed as some believe. As the perspicacious Alan Watts once pointed out, longitude and latitude help us make sense of the world, but these lines are in actual fact imaginary. Where the two pursuers of passion differ is their orientation on the same line: one ventures into the treacherous inner world, while the other endeavours to measure the outer world.
Perhaps following passion is like walking on tightrope. An alertness and balance of mind are necessary in order to make it to the other side. Focus too much on the destination, and you will lose your bearing. These days, we heedlessly urge our children to walk the rope without warning them of the dangers that they will stumble upon. “Follow your passion with vigilance,” we should be telling them, “otherwise you will fall into a pit.” And there is one other thing – happiness may not be on the other side, so if that is what you seek, then you are walking this rope for the wrong reasons.
Fatigued by passion’s weighty notes, I set her aside for the first prelude of The Well-Tempered Clavier. The melody is so simple and the notes so light – how utterly refreshing it is. Quenching the fires of passion, I surrender to a transcendent and precise equilibrium of melody and harmony. Here, the intention is not to satisfy the ego, but to give myself up wholeheartedly to the world. After a taxing journey through the highs and lows of the heart, how can I not relish a return to this child-like purity?
Featured Image: The Temptation of Saint Hilarion (1857) by Octave Tassaert