--Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Love,” Essays: First Series (1841)
In St. Petersburg, Russia, 117 years ago today, an audience heard for the first time Piotr Tchaikovsky’s moving Symphony No. 6 in B minor, also known as the Symphonie Pathétique. The Russian title for the symphony, Патетическая (Patetičeskaja), suggests the English word “pathetic,” or "arousing pity”--an interesting interpretation, given the story below-- but in fact what Tchaikovsky intended was the sense of "passionate" or "emotional.” Thus, our associated virtue for this stopover is the all-to-human quality of Passion.
Passion makes an interesting subject for a virtue. At face value, interpreted as an emanation of Love, in turn a face of the root virtue Humanity, its virtuousness seems straightforward.
But Love has obvious powerful and beneficial aspects, making it in many people’s eyes the ultimate human virtue. (You’ll recall TTV has instead set Self-Knowledge and Self-Possession as the twin heroes for that role. Still, I’d like to think Love might be their magical Fairy Godmother, hovering nearby, fussing over their outfits and smoothing down their cowlicks.)
Passion, unlike Love, tilts more to the powerful side and less wholly to the beneficial. After all, we call some unfortunate acts “crimes of Passion,” never “crimes of Love.” Anyone who has felt the tides of romantic infatuation know all too well how crazy-making Passion can be. In fact, in Buddhist traditions Passion appears not as a virtue but as a klesha, a pitfall on the path of spiritual development. The sutras claim “Three Poisons” interfere with moral attainment: avijjā (ignorance), ūpādānā (attachment), and taṇhā, which is often translated as craving, desire... or passion.
In the Feri tradition, Passion appears as one of the principles on the Iron Pentacle, a constellation of qualities acknowledged as potentially threatening. (Love appears separately, on the Pearl Pentacle.) Feri respects the Dark aspects of the Iron qualities, yet insists that progression along the spiritual path requires encountering “society’s Shadows.” (The rough time many students have with the Iron Pentacle curriculum testifies to its Power. The class has a high drop out rate. Few can stare into the face of the Shadow without blinking.)
So, we find another juicy paradox: one person’s virtue makes another’s vice. For myself, in thinking about Passion, I can see it like the wind. A breeze can cool us on a hot day or delight us by lifting our kite; a stronger one, on the other hand, can blow our house down. (I’m obviously being affected by living on the north side of the Coachella Valley, where the westerlies snake through the San Gorgonio pass and howl all night long.)
Tchaikovsky, whose spirit soared on heights of rapturous music, but also crashed tragically to earth, makes an apt exemplar of Passion. Only recently have Russian scholars acknowledged that Piotr Tchaikovsky was gay, suffering a typically closeted, self-tortured existence in a country where homosexuality was neither legal nor respectable. Tchaikovsky struggled with his “disposition,” as he called it, and even married for a brief (and disastrous) time.
Some might argue that by sublimating his feelings of Love, they transformed into an intense Passion that fueled Tchaikovsky’s music, whose expressiveness is praised to this day. According to historian Rictor Norton, gays fans especially hear in it the “longing and despair of homosexual angst in a homophobic world.” In particular, the Symphonie Pathétique, performed in public just days before Tchaikovsky’s mysterious death, evokes this sense of powerful hidden emotions:
There is a similar argument about the truth behind Tchaikovsky’s sixth and last symphony, the Pathétique, which some find profoundly enigmatic and some find profoundly self-revealing: a longing to reveal something, a sense of tragic destiny, a struggle for happiness defeated by implacable ‘fate’, i.e. oppression, a union of defiance and despair with which many gay men have identified at least until the 1970s.
And so we arrive at Passion’s Shadow. In his fascinating essay, Norton explains that Tchaikovsky’s rapid decline and death nine days after the performance of Symphony No. 6 was blamed on cholera, supposedly contracted during a very public and deliberate drinking of a glass of unboiled water. (Medically, I find this fishy: The known incubation period for cholera is longer than the time between the drinking and the death.) Scholars now believe Tchaikovsky drank a fatal dose of arsenic in an honor suicide, pressed upon him by colleagues upset at Tchaikovsky’s indiscretions with an aristocrat’s nephew. Keeping his Love partly in the Shadows, the crucible transformed the Love into Passion, fueling triumphant music, a tortured life, a tragic death. (See our vistation to the Jewish virtue of Aymah for further explorations on this theme.)
But to dwell on these Dark aspects of Tchaikovsky’s life and music would be wrong, for he left us a legacy of sumptuous, transcendent music that, if not immortal, will surely let his brilliance shine for centuries to come. And that, my friends, is the Light of Passion. So, when you have a few minutes, think on his story, listen to his Passion, sit with him for a moment in it, and move forward from the light of Passion, to the light of Compassion..
May we see the gates of Passion, and perhaps make a home there.