The Passion by Jeanette Winterson – Review

Last night I watched an episode of Homicide: Life on the Streets where Bayliss and Pemberton are investigating a death related to erotic asphyxiation, Lewis and Crosetti have a case revolving around a man who shot another man over a pen at the library and where Munch is troubled by Bolander’s happiness while dating a woman half his age. In its own way, it is very similar to Winterson’s The Passion.

With The Passion we are given two lead characters around whom many other characters orbit, Henri and  Villanelle. Henri  is a young Frenchman who joins Napoleon’s army and becomes the personal server of Napoleon’s meals, always chicken. His friends are Domino and Patrick; Domino who believes only in the moment, the future and past holding no power or meaning. Patrick is a former priest with one normal eye and one eye that has the ability to see perfectly for miles. His other encounter of note is with the Cook who is a drunk and is essentially removed from the Grand Armee for not doing his job, something he holds a life long grudge against Henri for.

Villanelle is a boatman’s daughter, a definition that, despite her father being deceased and her mother re-married to a baker, has a continuing significance throughout the story. Her orbit includes a woman with whom she has an affair with and who steals Villanelle’s heart  as well as a husband who sells her to one of Napoleon’s generals and a man who wagers his life against a stranger’s and is sentenced to death by dismemberment, beginning with his hands which are delivered to the bar some time later, displayed in a box, and holding a roulette ball in severed hand and a domino in another.

Throughout the novel we are given different versions of differing passions that drive th existences of the varying characters. Napoleon seems to have this passion for indulgence. Beyond his attempting to take over the world and throwing his soldiers into meat grinders to win whatever battle he was facing he would also eat chickens whole and would attempt to re-shape whatever places he conquered to fit some image of his own design. It is what could be described as a very stereotypical male passion for dominance and control, a passion that ends in failure as Napoleon is ultimately defeated.

in a similar vein, though on a smaller scale, is the cook who we come to find has a similar passion for possession and control. And whoever challenges this passion finds themselves, as Henri does, to be on his eternal bad side. Though, like Napoleon, the cook ultimately meets with failure, also.

Henri’s friends, Domino and Patrick have very different, personal and less infringing passions. Domino’s is to simply live in the moment, regardless of what or where it is. His life motto can be summed up with a simple “Live for Now.” Patrick, meanwhile, seems to just want a drink, some eye candy and someone to tell his stories to. The lack of power or “fire” in either man makes it hard to label either as having passions, and it’s likely notable that both die in the novel before either of the central characters. But their lack of passion along with their relatively quick demises and, comparatively, painless lives could eventually be seen as a positive in relation to the pain of the passion misdirected of Henri.

Henri loves Napoleon the way a little boy loves an older brother or uncle who always seems to do the Big Amazingly Cool Thing That You Yourself Couldn’t Imagine Doing. Then he falls in love with Villanelle, a love that’s not returned in the same manner and which ultimately destroys Henri.

The only character who makes it through the novel relatively whole is Villanelle. She loses her heart for a moment, but she lives and gets it back. She ends the novel raising her child. It becomes clear that Winterson is saying something about the healthy and unhealthy embraces of passion in life, and it also appears to be saying something very anti-masculine. Napoleon’s passion brings him to ruin. The cook’s passion eventually kills him. the lack of passion in Henri’s friends lead to meaningless, un-connected lives. The man in the casino loses his hands (and, we assume, his life) because of a misdirected passion for a thrilling bet. And Henri finds himself committed and slipping into derangement because of a passion that isn’t reciprocated but which he can not let go of, despite repeated opportunities to do so.

Villanelle, meanwhile, lives a good life. Even in misery, she seems capable of finding a certain contentment and while she guards her passions, she also embraces them and allows them into her life. Her “healthiest” love affair happens to be with another woman who is left alone for long periods of time by her husband who is constantly searching for rare maps, books and whatever else and, last we are informed, has disappeared in search of The Holy Grail – what could be interpreted as a fool’s quest and destined to never be seen again or to also end in failure.  Villanelle’s mother is also a relatively happy, stable woman. She has a husband she loves, she has her passions yet she also displays the ability to work through life in a practical manner.

The only man in the entire novel who seems to be happy is Villanelle’s step father who is a baker. The man being a baker does not seem like a coincidence. While the term “chef” does carry certain connotations of a big fat guy in white slaving away at food over a hot stove (or fire, another masculine image having to do with power), a baker is different. It seems more feminine, having to do with sweet goods and breads and cakes and cookies. When someone mentions a bakery, you think of some women working in a shop churning out wedding cakes. And when a man is doing this job, you often hear him referred to as a pastry chef, not a baker. This connection to what could be considered a feminine profession, or at least field, almost has to have a connection with the stepfather’s happiness.

All of which brings me back to this episode of Homicide. The asphyxiation case is a passion uncontrolled. Someone is introduced to a situation that they are not accustomed to and, which we discover, can not handle. A woman dies. In a library, a mentally disturbed man wants a pen that another man doesn’t want to give him, so the mentally disturbed man shoots the guy and leaves but without the pen, because stealing the pen would be wrong. It’s a uncontrolled passion for pens similar to the passion Napoleon had for controlling the world, domination, feeding and fulfilling the passion at any cost. Then there is Bolander just looking for love and finding a woman who reciprocates and who, literally on a violin and a cello, make music together.  A passion that is both reciprocated and healthy. Like Villanelle. Like The stepfather and her mother.

Which makes me wonder if this idea that women are in some way more innately able to incorporate a healthy dose of passion into their lives than men is a greater concept of western culture. Has the symbol of a woman as “mother” or as “nurturer” become something we easily associate with passion. With love. While men are ugly and violent and need help in this area. It is something we see in the common refrain of “if only a woman was president” when someone is lamenting the state of society, usually in relation to some ongoing military conflict, as if the passion of power overwhelms a man and that a woman would be more able to direct this passion in a positive direction.

As a final note, thinking about the television series Homicide, they often dealt with passion misdirected or misapplied. A child is murdered, it was usually by someone having a sexual lust for the child, a perverted passion.  A gang member is killed, drugs are involved, it’s another passion misdirected towards an addiction or towards power or towards money, which is really the same thing as power. This is something I’m not sure any other cop show has truly looked at on television. Most are procedurals that supply a base motive and focus more on detectives moving from Point A to Point B where we cheer for the good guys and against the bad guys. The “bad guys” are almost universally depicted as clearly bad, there is no moral ambiguity, there is a clear lack of humanity while “the good guys” stand as the guardians of humanity, sorting out the impurities as they crop up. Homicide was more daring than that. Like Winterson’s The Passion, it looked at the world through a wider lens. While either may be just as biased in their questions, they are more complicated in their answers.

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: