Behold the man. Flesh and blood. Broken. Passionate.
Baldung Grien, Schmerzensmann [Man of Sorrows], 1511
In one of the more curious English etymological journeys from Greek (pathos), ‘passion’ now stands for ardent enthusiasm or, worse, lust. But in its oldest and most enduring sense, passion refers to suffering. It is a corporeal ordeal bound in an emotional expression of anguish. It is pain, of the body, of the heart.
I’d have made a hopeless utilitarian. There are plenty of them still kicking about, but I pity their plight. ‘All pain is bad, umkay?’ The sentiment has a hollow, modern ring suggestive of double-entry bookkeeping and facts in boxes. It seems inescapable to me that the human has always been defined in some way through or against pain and suffering. From pain we derive meaning, sense of purpose, sense of gain and loss, sense of identity. The significance of flesh and blood – our substance – is its tenuousness. We are morbid creatures. We tear and bleed. Around us and in us ‘nature’ struggles. Out of Victorian conceit we’ve been wont to talk of the survival of the fittest, beating our chests as if the civilised world somehow had a monopoly over the category ‘fit’. The flipside of that expression is the suffering of the majority, the struggle, through pain, to death.
This is not meant to be bleak. Through struggle we strive, and in striving we become. Pain moves us, physically, affectively. It holds up to us our limits and dares us to transcend them. Through adversity comes clarity of purpose. The worse the ordeal we come through, the more resolute we are. Just as there is no courage without fear, there is no purpose without pain. Think of all the people who claim they will ‘re-evaluate’ their lives after painful experiences. There is truth in cliché.
Ecce Homo: Behold the man. Through passion – in pain – significant.