Lesson 6  On the Experience of Passion



      The word ‘passion’ is exceptionally loaded emotionally.  It is the first word that springs to mind when we look for reasons to live: what we need is a passion for something that motivates us, carries us forward and incites us to action.  Without passion we would be bored.  One reason at least for passions to exist is to occupy us.  Hence we mix up “passion” with “distraction”: passion is going to the movies, dancing, it is also falling in love, wanting adventures and so on.


  Oddly, this is not what the word ‘passion’ indicates.  In passion there is passivity.  This would suggest that where there is action, there is also passion.  But passion for what?  Why see a passivity in passion when it is the opposite of how we think of it?  For us post-modern people, passion is action, it is life.  (See all the advertising!) The passive element has found no place in ordinary awareness.  We see in passion something that “incites one to act”, that “gives one reasons to act”.  It does not occur to us that passion is also something one has to undergo and to suffer.


  Would this mean that there are many kinds of passion?  Or would it be the case that we do not understand very well what passions represent?  Perhaps we do not want to see more that a limited aspect of the phenomenon of passion, the most attractive one: the exaltation of love, sport, etc…  Yet, putting aside all subterfuge, what exactly is the passionate state?


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A. Phenomenology of Passions


    Let us start with the intention characteristic of any passion. If all consciousness is consciousness-of-something, passion, as something intentional[1], must also be defined with respect to an object.  We admit this when we speak of the “passion for something”.  Passion is passion for this or that: video games, carnivorous plants, gardening, tennis and so on.  This means that our representation of passion is one which situates it within the subject/object duality and that we think of passion as being situated above all in the object. Passion’s thematic is the object that designates it: swimming, golf, chess, programming etc… This too is the representation of passion of he who looks upon it as a form of occupation or distraction.  Passion must have an object and it is this object.  But this object must above all be a desire.  I have a desire for gambling and it becomes a passion for gambling.  I have a desire for money and it becomes the miser’s passion for money, I desire this woman and she becomes amorous passion, I desire to take risks and this desire becomes the adventurer’s passion for risks, I desire power and this obsession becomes the politician’s passion for power. Hence it would seem that one can admit of as many passions as there are desires, since it is desire which gives passion its object as the goal it is pursuing.  One can effectively have desire without passion, but one could not have passion without desire, since a passion for something is precisely this languorous desire, long pursued and secretly sought for.  It is the extreme tension of desire, it is its exclusive character which makes it a passion. 


   Do take note: passion is a demand that refuses all compromise.  Such as we understand it within the framework of intentionality, this demand has its given form, its object usually limiting itself to the fulfilment of a desire.  Since desires are multiple we speak of “passions” in the plural.


   We can already draw one consequence: it is much reducing passion in the singular to interpret it as synonymous with “amorous passion”.  Our romantic sensitivity certainly agrees with it, but we must admit that there are other passions as strong, as bedazzling, as devastating as the passion of love.  Also, we must take care that the singular use of the word passion does not only mean this or that passion.  It is this experience of consciousness that we must take a closer look at.  What is actually happening during passion? I feel carried away in the direction of my dearest desire.


1) Let us take a look at gambling.  The pleasure of gambling is after all a seemingly natural inclination, a tendency that can remain as if outside me. Gambling is a relation we have to life which is spontaneous insofar as it is free.  Things are totally different when this pleasure becomes the centre of my life, when the desire for gambling is so violent that is annihilates all other inclinations.  There is this desire and it obsesses me, I think of it all the time and cannot wait for the moment of exaltation when I shall at last be back at the baccarat, the poker, the roulette.  The passion for has here its own thematic: gambling.  This desire possesses me, I live for nothing else, I dwell in the memory of my emotional experiences in the gambling room, I live for the time when at last I shall once more savour this extreme enjoyment which has become my absolute, my gambler’s divinity. It is not a pleasure; it is a kind of trance.  I am no longer any ordinary man who would enjoy the occasional game; I have become a passionate gambler.  I am in such a state that this desire subjects me to abstinence, I experience genuine addiction.  It is not for nothing that there are detoxifying cures for gamblers.  In passion I know what desire’s wanting represents.  What is worst is that, when I am in the throes of passion, I cannot fight it; it is myself, I have become this passion, it cannot be separated from me.  I identify with this passion.  What I suffer from in passion is myself, and nothing that would be “other”.  As Alain says, passion is me, and stronger than me.  Mostly passion follows its own course; it gives me its own direction, the fate of the gambler, the fate of a passionate man.  There is a sort of logic that carries away the passionate subject.  Hence, in passion, I tend to forget everything else.  My universe is gradually depleted of everything other than the object of my passion.  When a gambler, I spend the household money, reducing my children to misery and to daily humiliation; yet, I do not see this, I only see this ek-stasis of strong emotions I get from gambling.


  I cannot be lucid, I am blinded, fascinated, obsessed by the object of my passion, gambling.  It takes a situation in which an experience of real life hits me for me to awaken from this fascination. Only then do I become aware of all the time I have wasted, the life I have wasted, of this desert I have created around me, of the pettiness of my existence.  In passion I shut myself up in my little world, I lived in a denial of reality, I tried to isolate myself from the world for a solitary enjoyment in a rÊtreat of pleasure.  My passion was just a means of escaping reality by locking myself into a bubble of self-gratification.


2) Let us consider another example, passionate love.  The feeling of love is natural, it is a surge of the heart which is there or which isn’t, without this in any way being a problem.  Love’s inclination remains outside me.  But what happens in passion?  A face, the ensuing bedazzlement, the coup de foudre hitting me, then confusion and with it a haunting desire to have this woman all for myself, to possess her.  The thought of this object gets hold of me and I cannot chase it away.  I have “fallen” in love, it is not a delicate inclination of the heart, it is a passion.  A beautiful page taken from Rousseau’s Confessions gives a good description of the state of passionate love.


“And do not imagine here that my senses left my any peace, as when I was with Thérèse or maman.  I have said it before, this time it was love, and love with all is energy and all its fury.  I shall describe neither the agitations, nor the trembling, the palpitations or the movements of convulsion that I felt continuously.”


    Right from the beginning of the text, passion is presented in its proper thematic as passion-of, here love.  But it is not only love as a feeling, it is love with energy and fury. This means a certain force, but in a particular light, since there is ambivalence; to a positive aspect capable of creation, energy, corresponds a negative aspect capable of destruction, fury.  There is passion-of and not just feeling because this duality is there and one easily goes from one aspect to its opposite: love/hatred.  He or she one once loved passionately, one can hate him just as passionately.  Passion is then described as a sort of catalyst of emotions, in such a way that the passionate subject not only feels everything touching his passion in more intense a manner, but he instantly loses control of himself.  Passion burns us alive, it makes us emotional beyond measure.  It exacerbates our reactions.  This is all the stranger as the cause is not real, it is mostly a fantasy, it is imaged:


“one can judge of this by the sole effect that her sole picture had on me…While walking I dreamt of she whom I was to visit, of the tender welcome she would give me”.


   Passionate love feeds on images, it fantasizes on its object, with the result that it must often fight reality in order not to lose it.  Not only does it provoke vivid emotions that sometimes have it lose control, but it tends to make the emotional mirage last longer, give it duration.  In this respect, it is quite a way from emotion to passion.  An emotion passes, as Kant says, it is like water breaking a seawall.  One takes control soon after, when one “recovers one’s senses”.  But in passion things are different; passion is engraved in time, it has a project, which is the fulfilment of a desire and will only die with this desire. The passionate person may have moments of semi-lucidity, he can for a brief instant see in what state passion has thrown him, yet the force of his desire is so great in passion, that the mind need only follow the furrow it has drawn.


“Instructed of the danger, I tried upon leaving to distract myself and think of something else.  I had not walked twenty steps when the same memories and all the events that had followed, returned to assail me without my being able to free myself.”


   There is no point in adding up examples.  Passionate states have some common characteristics, even though the object varies.  However strange it may seem, the zeal of the fanatic, the flame of the adventurer, share some with the burning passion of the gambler, or with the fever of the passionate lover.  There a state of tension of the soul in desire, which is the mind’s total investment in the realisation of its desire. Some passions can barely conceal this tension beneath an appearance hiding their true feelings.  This is characteristic of revenge.  Hence some authors have wanted to distinguish between “cold” passions and “hot” passions.  But we see that this is not what is essential about passion.  What is essential in passion is that it imposes a suffering-of-the-self, a tension, a requirement of the soul and above all, that it implies the expenditure of an immense amount of energy. 


B. The Logic of Passion



   What place does passion leave to thinking?  Does thinking preserve some independence or is it totally carried away by passion?  Does it merely assist desire?  Can it be a guide to passion?



   On basis of ordinary behaviour, it is perfectly possible to distinguish on the one hand passionate behaviour and on the other hand rational behaviour.  When we are be it just a little rational in making our decisions, we weigh for and against, we deliberate and chose carefully, we consider the consequences of our acts.  Reasonable behaviour is behaviour nurtured by reason, a sensible and measured behaviour, and not one resulting from a blind impulse carried to extremes.  A free life is lead by correct thinking, by a man who remains the master of his thoughts. But what takes place in passion?  Can there be such control?  Is it not precisely this control which is swept away by the storm of passion?  Instead of allowing Thinking to guide him, the passionate man is in some way fascinated, manipulated by a single thought, at the expense of all others.  There is no passion-for-something without an obsession, without the repetition of a single theme.  Far from reasoning in any way, the passionate man confines himself to self-justification.  The argument from passion always conceals its true motivations.  Already we are rather irrational in our emotional reactions; yet in passion we take a step further in the direction of lunacy, by putting reason at the service of our fantasies. Effectively there is an element of deliberation in passion, not because reason presides but because an implacable logic is a work, the logic of passion.  To follow passion is to follow one’s destiny as the logic of passion prescribes it; it is obviously not to follow the logic of reason.  Hence there is the fate of the gambler, the fate of passionate love, the fate of the passion for power.  Passion seems to follow its course in an implacable way and carry us away in its flow.  We like to give ourselves to passion, to lose our head, even if it then requires a moment or two to come back to earth and once more face reality.  This can be summed up in a table:


Reasonable behaviour

Passionate behaviour

That is,  sensible

Mostly irrational

In which we weigh for and against

In which one seeks to justify oneself

Founded on thinking and deliberation

Founded on impulse, thoughtless

Measured conduct

Excessive behaviour,  exaggerated, inclined to extremes

In which we take the consequences of our actions into account

One in which we don’t really care about the consequences of our action

Conducted by reason

Inspired by an ever-growing influence of desires

The logic of reason

The logic of passion :

The order laid out by correct reasoning

The fate of the man in love, the gambler, ambition etc…

It is our own thought

One thought has us on a leash

Freedom of judgement is preserved

We lose our freedom to judge



Strangest of all, however many times we have been fooled by passions’ tricks, we continue to believe that we are rational in its grip, that it expresses our truest self and that it could never run out of hands!  In fact is the passionate man not always a believer?  Yet how could thinking not undergo the influence of passion?  Indeed it follows the course of passion.  Where then is this inner core that we fancy to be beyond the grasp of passion?  Could passion possibly grow without the aid of the mind and its representations?  No.  Passion is not void of thinking; in passion the mind is even unusually loquacious.  In passion we are ready to discourse, to endlessly argue in order to persuade ourselves and others as much as we deem necessary that our conduct is valid.  We need to convince ourselves that our decisions are rational, yet the case is decided in advance; all our thoughts stem from desire and work at its justification.   We do anything in our power to weave a pleasant illusion and remain in the exalted vision of passion.  The passionate man is very articulate, he appears to reason, yet in reality he does not reason, he does not examine anything, his verdict has been rendered in advance in favour of desire.   


   What can then be said about how the passionate man pictures the world?  The obvious result is that the world of passion is very narrow.  It is even confined to a single object, that of passion.  There is nothing other than gambling, love, only money matters, only the object, reality has been hidden from view.  What in fact does the gambler think that he does not dare to say? “What does the world and other people matter to me, as long as I find satisfaction in my passion?  Leave me alone! Rather sacrifice the whole world than be denied this gratification!”  What is then remarkable is passion’s tendency to alter values to the point of reversing them altogether.  The distinction between good and evil is normally derived from the dignity and preservation of the person.  Good supports life and proceeds in the direction of greater happiness, evil denies life and breed suffering.  But the passionate man interprets the duality of good and evil in a completely different manner.  For him “good” is what gives me pleasure, “evil” what displeases me, what comes between me and my desire.  Then a total reversal takes place.  In fanaticism for instance, what for a lucid mind would be looked upon as murder is looked upon in this hyped up representation of things as a sacrifice.  For the passionate gambler, what would normally be understood as indifference to others and withdrawal into oneself, is simply felt as a manner to rÊtreat from a noisy world in order to savour his passion.  What a lucid man would regard as cruel and insensitive behaviour, passion interprets as a just reaction etc… The passionate man lives in a world of his own, he does not dwell in the World; he does not see himself, he does not see his true motivations, he only sees his passion.  In passion’s logic there is an irrepressible tendency of the self to close on itself.  And the worse is that restricting one’s interest in life to focus on a single object is looked upon as an ever-renewed interest in life! The passionate man cannot see things as they are, he sees them as he would want them to be, as they are in his dreams.  He lives in his passionate world, the one of his passion and rarely encounters the World.  Or he encounters it in moments of semi-lucidity, in brief moments when life’s knocks hit him.  This semi-lucidity is for the man in love to realise that deep down it is not she he loves, but being in love.  The passionate man mostly perceives things and events in the light of his passion.  We say that the man in love lives in a rose garden.  Things, events, people have a greater or lesser importance according to whether they oppose or assist his desire. 


   This is illusion.  How does the mechanism of illusion emerge from the passion for something?  With Spinoza we have seen that desire can create the value of its object.  The mechanism with which passion intoxicates itself with the value of its object through producing it is called crystallisation. In On Love Stendhal uses the metaphor of a twig thrown in a salt mine in Salzburg.  Before, the twig was ordinary.  It was a mere branch.  Under the influence of crystallisation it gets covered with thousands of scintillating crystals.  Crystallisation implies that a value is projected, superimposed upon the object, which at first it did not have.  It is desire, inasmuch that is carries within itself the soul’s secret aspirations, which produces a myriad of frenzied expectations and which generates an ideal capable of fulfilling it.  Thus Descartes confides: “when I was a child, I was in love with a girl my age who squinted slightly; this way, the impression my eyes made upon the brain when I saw her erring eyes so connected with the one created therein to stir the movement of love’s passion, that for a long time afterwards, when seeing squinting people, I felt more inclined to love them than to love other people”…  Once upon a time there had been this endearment and thought produced desire; desire once there, a tendency to crystallise on a similar object the same expectations immediately followed.  It is as if the past was just waiting for an opportunity to once more project itself, seeking something like a clothes-peg on which to hang.  It requires all the enchantment of imagination for an object to be covered with perfections, when its true role is simply to support desire.  Passionate love is of this sort.  I begin to love young girls who squint because I seek to recover the love I once felt.  Passionate love, through seeking to repeat the past, is in fact loving itself, it expresses a need to take in the other in order to make it mine.  The ritual of flirtation is its means to weave an adoration through fantasising its object.  Hence, even if we are easily trapped by the desire to be passionately loved, “it is still the case that the person who is loved knows dimly that he is not the true object of the love he is given;  he guesses that he is only an opportunity for the lover to evoke some souvenir, and thus to love himself.” Hence no wonder passionate love is fragile.  It can always start its crystallising work all over again on another similar object (another clothes-peg).  It is therefore also that passionate love is so possessive and cruel, because it does not really give; it wants to take the other person’s affection because it implicitly demands of him to embody its idealized expectations.  Crystallisation breeds a mirage and the passionate man indulges in this mirage, in his own luxurious fantasies until the moment when he has to face up to reality; then disappointment comes and with it the passage from love to hatred. 


  This is the mechanism of the illusion of passion, one of the most powerful illusions that can seize hold of the human mind.  What the passionate man wants in the end is for the voluptuousness of his own passion to inebriate him, and he cannot get this intoxication unless he shuns reality.  Let’s be honest: it is impossible to disconnect the passion for something with the generation of illusions.  What is also clear is that passions feed the ego and flatter egocentricity.  Passions whirl around me.  They are by nature egocentric.  They are as many ways for the self to adore itself, to give itself gratification, as well as to assert itself to others, which is much the same thing.  Hence the pursuit of passions take place within the enclosure of the self’s mental realm.  It never really gets in touch with the World, other people or even Reality.  Passionate behaviour is blind because the passionate man is locked up within himself and does not know generosity.  He only knows how to take or consume; mostly he does not know how to give.


C. Passion at the heart of Life


  Must we remain within this opposition?  The duality we mentioned above, is it real?  Is it the case that a reasonable conduct, free of all illusions, must not be passionate in any way?  Is it necessary to be cold and intellectual in order to behave rationally?  Does not reason after all have its own pathos, albeit a more peaceful one, yet which still can be thought of as feeling?


  Simone Weil observes that all state of passion contains in itself an exceptional ascetic force.  The gambler can refrain from eating, deny his needs like a ascetic who, in the shade of his cave, would have made up his mind to bruise his own body in order to experience God. There is prodigy in passion.  In one case there is vice, in the other virtue, but however strange it may seem, the gambler and the saint are much alike, being both carried by the same underlying state of Passion.  Yet the rational man is often represented as free of all passion, as if one had agreed that the rule of the intellect in advance excludes all passion.  But is this really true?  Is it at all meaningful to say that intelligence is “passionless”?  Can one really consider passion as one of the mind’s secondary elements?  Could one not equally say that Passion is necessarily at the heart of consciousness, even in its most intimate Life?


  In passion, there is passivity; yet this does not necessarily mean immobility, nor insensitivity.  The passivity of passion is not that of “perception”.  There are several forms of receptivity, the one of perception and sensation on the one hand, and of feeling and sentiment on the other.  Fundamentally, in what way am I passive in passion?  I am passive because I am on my own at the heart of feeling.  It is in a way as if the self did not get out of itself, knocked itself against itself, the I-subject totally trapped in itself.  In reality, and contrarily to what common sense tells us, Passion is not fundamentally passion for a thing.  In Passion it is not with respect to an external object, an experience structured in the duality subject/object that I am passive; on the contrary Passion is the very state in which the subject is grappling with himself and both knows and experiences that  he cannot get away from himself.  Passion is experiencing oneself, the suffering of oneself which is inherent to life and which makes of Life a Self gathered in its indivisible unity.  This is the thesis of Michel Henry.[2]


  How come we place reason to one side and passion to the other?  Passion is not a thing which I may or may not possess, an object I could position outside myself.  Passion is not inside the object; it is the subject grappling with himself.  There could not be a subject who would be an “intellectual self” in conflict with another subject, the “passionate self”.  The subject is a subject only because it is the Self, because it experiences itself with passion.  The true distinction between reason (rational behaviour) and passion (emotional behaviour) is the one you find between a peaceful and serene  pathos , which is the manner of looking at things of the intelligence, and a more violent pathos, one allied with desire, that one sometimes would want to place outside oneself, among “passions in general”.  Passion grows in a radical inwardness which knows nothing of objects and nothing of any division between self and self.  It is not something caused externally by “the body” as if proceeding from it, nor is it caused by the object of desire.  Passion is a Passion of the soul and it contains a corporeal aspect. This sphere of radical immanence to which Passion takes us is what Michel Henry calls affectivity.  Affectivity does not just pertain to certain emotional states or “passions”.  Life does not cease for a single moment to be subject to affections and this precisely because it is Life.  Life is by essence affectivity.


   Hence representation itself, as vision (videre), is sustained by a self-affection in which it has the experience of what it is (videor).  This self-affection in which all passion takes place is the “original feeling, the feeling of feeling, the videor in which the videre experiences itself”.  Intellect’s vision is not only determined by its object, as intentionality teaches us and as we experience it in daily wakefulness, but seeing is also in its Foundation feeling oneself.


   But does not passion require something to bring it about?  Without an object, there would be no passion.  In addition, does it not happen that passion walks out on Life?  Is this not in fact very often the case in our dull and passionless lives?  How does it come that, if Life is by essence Passion, it can still be lived in boredom, repetition and mediocrity?  The answer Michel Henry gives is very important.  The Self cannot cease to be itself, and yet the ego may not coincide with itself.  Life cannot lose its essential nature, but it can be split to an extent such that it gets out of touch with what makes it Life.  It is when coinciding with itself that life is experienced for what it is: a secret passion, a pure Passion.  Yet the struggle to split up with itself introduces this flaw such that Life ceases to experience itself as it is.  For example, this could be to view myself with suspicion, the division of guilt into me-the-judge and me-the-defendant, the introverted attention of the man who feels under constant observation, one’s own condemning judgement; there are many ways in which consciousness can operate a scission within itself.  However, if being one with oneself gives Life its passionate strength, division yields the weakness which empties it of all passion.  This does not mean that the most intimate Self would have been altered.  What has changed is the relation to oneself, the contact with the Self, it is that the coincidence with Oneself has been disrupted.  Life remains what it is, a pure Passion which never ceases to give itself to itself and to reach itself; yet, when seeking to introduce a division the intellect has succeeded with one thing: to break this bond.  I begin to hate myself, I become divided against myself, and immediately I generate what is called weakness.  True Force always resides in the coincidence with oneself, in the original union with Oneself.  Even in weakness life is still passionate, but it is no longer anything more than the passion of its powerlessness; it is a life that has become ill from emptying itself of its own passion.  Hence life’s illness, in the words of Michel Henry, is expressed through in all the ways in which life attempts to escape from itself, to get dazed, to forget itself, in one word to deny itself within itself.  This state of uneasiness that we have all felt is it not deep down the feeling that there is no passion in us?


   We now better understand the reason behind Nietzsche’s criticism of asceticism.  If the ascetic morality of religion attacked passion, this is because it believed that wisdom knows no passion.  It viewed the wise man as a sort of übermensch of the intellect, austere, cold and rigorous.  It is true that passions are always narrow and umbilical in the beginning.  Passions need to expand and be sublimated.  Yet, to criticise passions because of their limited, fanatical and egocentric side, is this the same  as fighting Passion itself?  To deny Passion, Nietzsche explains, is this not attacking Life at its very core? To “eliminate will, remove all feelings without exception, were this possible: what next? Would this not amount to castrating the intellect?” And by the way, how would we understand that Christianity, although so severe in its condemnation of passions, could at the same time refer to the love of Christ by this very word, passion?


2) We must reconsider the problem of passion independently of all interprÉtation ruled by intentionality.  A fire hatches under the embers of intelligence.  Lucidity also includes Passion.  Would it not be possible for the fire of lucidity to burn in the midst of passion?  Let’s try this.  Let’s suppose that we stop judging ourselves and dividing, that we could then remain in the state of lived experience, without cleaving subject and object, at the heart of living alertness, what then would we find?  The fire of Passion.  Life affecting itself is there within us.  Lucidity is a flame of attention.  Exiting the intellect, we can follow the original flow of consciousness as it discovers itself as pure experience of itself. It is precisely this donation of self to self which is too the flame of lucidity.


   But what is Passion?  The experience of oneself, the experience taking place in Life’s innermost flow, in a region beyond duality, beyond concepts, an inner region where life gives itself to itself without intentionality ever taking place. What is given before all conscious duality is Presence, the presence in which the experience of living is immediate.  If I don’t introduce any division in the flow of living, there will neither be any distinction between me-the-judge and me-the-defendant; there will only be a sensitive blossoming of consciousness as it experiences the pathos of its own unfolding. This consciousness is vulnerable, it is a pure feeling of its own undivided self, it is a fire that nurtures no object.  The flame of attention burning here and now is the objectless passion, or the passion without a motive: it is this exactly which we ought to call Passion.


   Let’s suppose for instance that I am consumed with discontent.  I cannot help projecting this discontent on an object, on other people, on the state of the world.  I am dissatisfied and give others the blame.  In fact, I am similar to the man passionately in love who burn with the fire of passion by relating it to its object.  I fight other people, I accuse, I loathe, without being able to appease the fire that is burning me.  Discontent thus externalized makes me cynical, aggressive to others, negative and cruel to myself.  Could I only put an end to division, stop seeing in others, in some object or other (myself included) the cause of my discontent, what would happen then?  What would become of this fire of discontent, were I to stop discharging it on others?  When viewed in an in-depth vision, the fire of discontent becomes the fire of Passion.  This fire in which I consciously enter without reserve, without identification, can then sublimate, turn into an uncompromising insistence; it becomes the incandescent Flame of a desire for excellence that does not go outside itself.  What then happens at the heart of discontent is that:


“one has one passion, the passion for excellence.


I.  Would this imply that this passion has no object?


The result is a ‘burning passion’ – not a passion for something.”


   In any passion-for-something, there is Passion.  As long as passion is just passion-for, passion directed towards the object, then it remains restricted by desire and confined to the ego’s expectations.  It is a fire which gives itself an outlet, one of frightening violence and blindness.  When, in the course of its endless fights, through the effect of setbacks and disappointments, it gets out of breath, it does not for all that put out its fire.  This fire becomes the fire of discontent and of dissatisfaction, the fire of bitterness.  Passion that gives up on itself and turns against itself becomes self-loathing and mediocrity.  To clarify: what in fact is mediocrity?  Ah, strange!  Nothing other than the absence of passion.  Mediocrity is a life that passion has abandoned, a life that has abdicated and is content with vegÉtating: a life which is not truly lived.  Conversely, what happens with a Passion that asserts itself, grows, creates?  It becomes enthusiasm and excellence.  The struggle for excellence is the fire of burning Passion to which one gives no outlet.  But this passion burning with such intensity, is it not Life itself?  It is in this flame that Life is at once lived and uncompromisingly asserted.


   What shall we do with passion?  We cannot neither deny it, nor condemn it or judge it.  Therefore there is no use to demand of ourselves, as we sometimes hear people say, that we find “a passion in life”.  “Go off to the sports centre and find yourself a passion!”.  Are we in need of something that gives us meaning or a distraction to help make us feel alive?  This will not do.  Nor is there any point in moralising, asking people to turn life into a passion, something that would sound very artificial.  Would life by nature be so empty and dull that one would be forced to dope it with some passion or other?  What life demands is to be lived and the very intensity with which it is lived is Passion.  It is not a mystery; what becomes obvious here is that Life must be fully lived for what it is.  This is the point made by Michel Henry’s analysis: Life is suffering, Life is Passion, because it its essential nature is to affect itself, and hence it experiences itself passionately as Life.  This self-affection turns the world into its playground and a land to conquer.


   There is in all passion, because of the fire running across it, a degree of openness.  What the passion-for is lacking is not Life, but fullness of consciousness, clarity and generosity.  Passion carried to its utmost degree of intensity is light of the intelligence, receptive, it gives of itself.  Pure passion is not restricted to the limitations of a desire, these are the boundaries of the self.  We can no longer mix up Passion and passions.  The plural is egocentric.  As long as passion is my passion, it depends on the object, it only reinforces the ego and obfuscates my vision; it is fanatical.  Mostly it does not know how to give, it only takes.  The lucidity which burns at the heart of Passion does not suffer from these limitations, because it is not the work of desire.  Hence Passion can also be compassion.  Compassion signifies the passion which shares, the loving passion which embraces anything sensitive and vulnerable, the generosity of a heart which could not turn away from anything that suffers.   Thus one can explain that in so ascetic a religion as Christianity,  which condemns passion, at the same time vindicates Passion when speaking of the Passion of Christ.  The Passion of passions for the religious man is the love of God.



   This enables us to understand that the too human self of the passion-for can never feel compassion. It can at the very most measure its own pity, while still caring for its own desires, and draw condescending arguments from there for this “other” who suffers.  It does not know this undivided unity that Passion delivers, that a loving heart discovers when loving.  When we love truly we do not divide.  The heart that gives itself is an indivisible wave of feeling, a generosity that does not bill.  In fact, were we to grow a single passion it ought to be that one, because the passion of generosity is a self-expansion and does not lock itself into desire.


   Thus, there is necessarily Passion in compassion, in the same way that in lucidity dwells a fire that is passion, but it is the Passion without an object and not the passion for something.  Therefore we should not be astonished that the gambler and the saint sometimes behave in identical ways.  There can be as many passions as there are objects of passion, but there is only one passionate state which does not exhaust itself in intentionality.   Understanding Passion opens the gate to self-knowledge, but in a dimension other than the purely “psychological”, a metaphysical and phenomenological one.  Passion takes us back to the very Manifestation of Life.  This means that it is superficial to view passion from the point of view of some prior “cause” that would stir it.  It is possible to detect in the past a motive the repetition of which would generate passion.  But this explanation does not tell us what it is, it does not help us to understand the experience of passion, to understand this grappling with oneself that passion implies, the experiencing of oneself that actually constitutes passion in the consciousness which is having this experience.


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   Passion is not a mere psychological mode among others, a state one could do without, without for this reason altering life in any way.  When we say that a life without passion would not be worth living, we are speaking the truth.  Yet unfortunately this is just half the story.  We imagine that “passions” are necessary to give meaning and we fancy that a few small distractions will fill this void and make us feel we exist.  What we lack is Life itself because we only live it in a very superficial manner.  We have not encountered life’s inherent Passion, the Passion that constitutes it through and through.  Compared with motiveless Passion, all these tiny passions are just fleeting sparkles and not the great fire, the inner Fire of the soul that Passion is.


   Yet the inner Fire of the soul is also its brightness.  Intelligence’s seeing is itself passion.  Lucidity is itself Passion.  It is therefore pointless to want to oppose a passionate life to one that allegedly would be free from Passion.  It is just that there is a difference between desire’s fiery and furious pathos, and the more serene and collected pathos of lucidity.



  Home         © Philosophy and spirituality, 2003, Serge Carfantan. Translated by Catarina Lamm





[1] « Intentional » is used here in the meaning it has in the philosophy of Husserl, who writes that it is a fundamental and general characteristic of consciousness that it is always conscious of something.


[2] Michel Henry is a contemporary French philosopher of phenomenological inspiration.  As far as I know none of his work has been translated in to English (if you know of an English translation please let me know using the link above).  For those of you who read French I recommend La Barbarie and Généalogie de la Morale.  They are difficult texts, especially if you are not reading in your native language, but they are worth the effort.