‘The “ever after” of passion tastes like a stubbed out cigarette.’
In Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s ‘Letter to Hermengardo’, the writer, Idalina, advises her reader about desire, the tendency to seek after pleasures, and the pain this brings.
The letter reveals the lifelong influence of 17th century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza on Lispector’s thinking. In Spinoza’s view – which has parallels with Buddhism’s non-dualism and the Stoic sense of being part of an infinite, eternal structure – everything in the universe is one substance, which can be regarded as God or Nature.
On the BBC podcast In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss how, according to Spinoza, nothing in nature can be called contingent. Spinoza’s outlook is deterministic. We do not have free will, choice is an illusion, and we can only go one way. Yet in spite of this view, he does not believe we are puppets. There is a way to find freedom – through reason, and escaping the enslavement of emotions, or passions, as he calls them. Susan James, on Philosophy Bites, defines passions as ‘incomplete and distorted, not true knowledge of what things are like. Reason allows us to stand back from passions and see their causes.’
In Lispector’s story, Idalina writes:
… the soul was made to be guided by reason and no one can be happy when at the mercy of instincts.
On Philosophy: The Classics, Nigel Warburton explains that for Spinoza all actions and events are determined by prior causes, decisions or events. Human bondage is the condition of being ignorant to the causes of our actions, moved only by external causes. So if we can understand these causes, we can in a sense change them, by internalising them. This involves a kind of psychotherapy, using reason to uncover what determines our behavior and emotions. When we understand the true causes behind things, they change from being external, to internal. Causes are thus transformed by being understood.
On In Our Time, Jonathan Rée talks of the sense of inadequacy and restlessness that is built into our experience of being human. To be human, he says, is to want to have something or be somewhere else. Spinoza talks about conatus, a natural striving in us to make ourselves more powerful, a dissatisfaction and desire to make things better. As we persevere, struggling to exist and avoid annihilation, there is a drive in all of us to escape this restless sense of inadequacy and reach the state that Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius describes:
In the thought that I am part of the whole, I will be content with all that comes to pass.
This is the ultimate goal, to achieve peace of mind and unity with God/Nature.
In her book Radical Acceptance, psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach talks about how when we feel apart from the source of our being or, as Aurelius puts it, don’t understand that we are part of the whole, we identify ourselves with our wants and with the ways in which we try to satisfy them.
Spinoza suggests trying to see the bigger picture. If we knew all the connections, we would know there was no possibility other than the one that must happen. This is perfect understanding. Railing against fate or resisting only causes suffering. Suffering comes from fear of losing what we have – ultimately life – but this is impossible if we are Life/Nature/God. Therefore we cannot possess any thing or emotion.
We are uncomfortable because everything in our life keeps changing – our inner moods, our bodies, our work, the people we love, the world we live in. We can’t hold on to anything – a beautiful sunset, a sweet taste – because all things come and go.
I’ve experienced this often, at times when I’ve been engaged in some pleasant activity. I find my happiness is tinged with a feeling of regret that the moment will soon pass, and nostalgia for similar experiences that have already come and gone. I can’t hold on to the current experience, and am already looking to the next. As Brach says, ‘we perpetually lean into the next moment, hoping it will offer the satisfaction that the present moment does not.’
Spinoza felt we could never be entirely free from the passions. He does not talk about eliminating desire or over-riding passions, but rather advocates understanding them and coping with them.
Tara Brach illustrates this acceptance of our passions with a story about a Zen monk who had been supported by an old woman for twenty years, living in a hut on her land. One day the old woman, thinking the monk must have attained some degree of enlightenment by this time, decides to test him and sends a beautiful woman to deliver his meal to his hut and embrace him. Afterwards, she asks the monk what it felt like to be embraced after so long, and he answers, ‘Like a withering tree on a rock in winter, utterly without warmth.’ The old woman is furious and throws him out, burning down his hut and calling him a fraud. His response is not enlightened, to her mind. The point of spiritual practice is not to pull desire out by its roots. Rather than shutting down he should be able to appreciate her beauty, noticing the arising of natural desire and its passing away without taking action. As Brach suggests:
If we push away desire, we disconnect from our tenderness and harden against life. We become like a ‘rock in winter’. When we reject desire, we reject the very source our love and aliveness.
Masaji Yoshida, Silence no. 74, woodblock print (1954)
In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit echoes the idea of embracing rather than rejecting the sensation of wanting with this beautiful description:
We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.
As these examples suggest, the answer is not to get rid of our human desires and emotions, but to be aware of them, empathetic, even appreciative, but not ruled by them.
In ‘Letters to Hermengardo’, Lispector offers this advice, using as an example the experience of listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony:
Close your eyes and ears. I shall say nothing for five minutes so you can think about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. See, and this will be more perfect still, if you can manage not to think in words, but rather create a state of feeling. See if you can halt the whole whirlwind and clear a space for the Fifth Symphony. It is so beautiful. … Only thus will you have it, through silence. Understand! If I perform it for you, it will fade away, note by note. As soon as the first one is sounded, it will no longer exist. … Whereas there is a way to keep it paused and eternal, each note like a statue inside you. … Do not listen to it and you shall possess it. Do not love and you shall have love inside you. … Do not listen to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and it will never end for you.
Erect within yourself the monument to Unsatisfied Desire. And that way things will never die, before you yourself die.