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Dr. Mardy's Quotes of the Week
October 1-7, 2023 | THIS WEEK'S THEME: “Passion”
Opening Line of the Week
The opening words come from the novel’s narrator, a man known only as Henri, and a French foot-soldier in the personal service of Napoleon. At five-feet-two, his short stature has played a major role in his advancement, as no one above that height has ever been selected to wait on the diminutive Emperor (approximately five-feet-six inches tall, according to historical records).
After beginning in the lowly position of chicken neck wringer in the Royal kitchen, Henri steadily moved up the ranks, and was recently put in charge of the Emperor’s personal larder as the French army prepared for its fateful March toward Russia. In the novel’s opening paragraph, he continued:
“What a kitchen that was, with birds in every state of undress; some still cold and slung over hooks, some turning slowly on the spit, but most in wasted piles because the Emperor was busy. Odd to be so governed by an appetite.”
This Week’s Puzzler
On October 5, 1713, this man was born in a small village in northeastern France. The son of a respected cutlery maker, he originally prepared for a career as a Jesuit monk, even getting to that stage of the process where he was formally tonsured (which meant his head was shaved in the clerical fashion of the day). Ultimately, though, he decided to pursue a secular career, first as a lawyer, and then as a writer and student of language, literature, mathematics, and philosophy.
After a relatively undistinguished early career, he burst on the intellectual scene in 1746, when he came out with the first edition of Pensées philosophiques [in English, Philosophical Thoughts). Originally published anonymously, the book was so controversial that it was banned throughout the kingdom and copies were burned in public (which, of course, only enhanced the book’s popularity). Authorities went to great—but unsuccessful—lengths to learn the identity of the author, and it was generally assumed that the book had been written by Voltaire, or someone writing in his style. In the work, the author questioned two of the most popular beliefs of the era, the legitimacy of the clergy and the divine right of kings—and he did it in a fresh and daring way:
“Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
A leading figure of that period of human history known as the Enlightenment or The Age of Reason, he perfectly fit the description of someone who would later be referred to as “A Renaissance Man.” From 1745 to 1772, he served as editor of the Encyclopedie, the most comprehensive compendium of knowledge up to that point in history. The Encyclopedie was not some dry and tedious reference work, though, but a Reason-promoting and superstition-attacking tome that was filled with numerous satiric barbs. My personal favorite was the work’s famous estimate of how many man-hours it took for Noah and his sons to shovel manure off the ark.
An enormously influential figure in intellectual history, this week’s Mystery Man made significant contributions as a novelist, playwright, satirist, and critic. He wrote with power and precision, and many of his best observations captured deep human truths—as in this classic observation on this week’s theme:
Who is this person? (Answer below)
Have You Found a Passion in Life?
When most people see the word passion, what usually springs to mind are the intense feelings of erotic desire exhibited by people in love or in lust. Passion has several other meanings as well, though, including an exceptionally strong—and often even intense—interest in a subject, pursuit, or calling (the Cambridge Dictionary even went a little further, defining it as “an extreme interest in or wish for doing something”).
An intense interest is clearly the sense of the quotation in this week’s Puzzler, as well as in the three observations above. All of them also advance an idea that has taken deep hold in the world’s consciousness—that passion can propel people to great heights, and often to greatness itself.
When people develop a passion for something—as I have with quotations—they are extremely fortunate. In many ways, it’s like finding a perfectly compatible companion that you want to have with you for the rest of your life. To sense the truth of that assertion, just think for a moment about Thomas Edison’s passion for invention, Amelia Earhart’s for flight, Pablo Picasso’s for painting and sculpture, Mother Teresa’s for helping the poor and the ill, Maya Angelou’s for poetry, and Steven Spielberg’s for filmmaking.
The same may be said for Susan B. Anthony, Marie Curie, Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi, Jane Goodall, Steve Jobs, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless others like them. Each and every one of these individuals not only pursued a personal interest with great passion, but their respective journeys have benefited us all. Gail Sheehy might have had people like this in the back of her mind when she wrote in New Passages (1995):
“The secret in the search for meaning is to find your passion and pursue it.”
In his 1976 book Positive Addiction, William Glasser never once mentioned the word passion, but it’s clear from his writing that it would fit nicely under the rubric:
While a passion for something can be a good and wonderful thing, it can suffer a fate that often occurs with good things—it can be taken too far. And when that occurs, passion can become more obsessional than passionate, more like a negative addiction than a positive one, and as dangerous as it is productive (more on this in a moment). For this reason, people with a passion need to make sure they are in control of their passion, rather than allowing their passion to control them. In a 1774 issue of Poor Richard’s Almanack, Benjamin Franklin offered advice on how they might do exactly that:
“If passion drives, let reason hold the reins.”
When George Eliot was twenty-one, she joined the large chorus of people who’ve praised passion to the heavens, writing in an 1831 letter: “We must have a passion in life.” Three years later, though, it appears that her thinking about the subject had evolved. In an 1834 journal entry, she offered this more complex assessment:
“The capacity for passion is both cruel and divine.”
What happened in those intervening years that changed her thinking? It’s hard to know for sure, but it’s likely that she witnessed something that has gotten a little less attention over the centuries: passion’s dark side.
If I were to hazard a guess, I think Eliot might have witnessed one or two of her writing colleagues becoming consumed by their own passions. An old English proverb holds that “Fire is a good servant, but a terrible master,” and something similar could be said about passion. When effectively managed, it serves people well. But when it becomes all-encompassing and the sole driving force in a person’s life, it can be like a wildfire spreading out of control or a speeding train in danger of going off the rails.
When we become consumed by our passions, we put everything we’ve worked for in jeopardy, including our careers, our reputations, and, most important, our closest and most intimate relationships. Ralph Waldo Emerson clearly suggested the presence of an overriding passion in his essay on “Wealth” in The Conduct of Life (1860), writing:
“Art is a jealous mistress. And, if a man have a genius for painting, poetry, music, architecture or philosophy, he makes a bad husband and an ill provider.”
George Bernard Shaw picked up on the theme in Man and Superman (1903), when he had the character Tanner say:
“The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art.”
And in perhaps the most famous words on the subject, William Faulkner didn’t explicitly mention an out-of-control passion, but it is embedded in everything he said:
Faulkner then famously added:
“The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”
Finding and pursuing a passion, it turns out, is one of life’s great themes—and, as you’ve seen here, a bit more complicated that it first seems. This week, take a few moments to reflect on the role that passion has played in your own life. As you do, let your thinking be stimulated by this week’s observations on the subject:
Without passion man is a mere latent force and possibility, like the flint which awaits the shock of the iron before it can give forth its spark. — Henri-Frédéric Amiel
I believe a burning purpose attracts others who are drawn along with it and help fulfill it. — Margaret Bourke-White
You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you. — Jeff Bezos
It’s a shame to be caught up in something that doesn’t absolutely make you tremble with joy. — Julia Child
It is obvious that we can no more explain a passion to a person who has never experienced it than we can explain light to the blind. — T. S. Eliot
Passion, though a bad regulator, is a powerful spring. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire. — Ferdinand Foch
Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. — James Joyce
More than any other beauty…passion seems to me to have the seeds of its own destruction in it. — May Sarton
They are the winds that fill the ship’s sails. Sometimes they submerge the ship, but without them the ship could not sail. — Voltaire, on passion
For source information on these quotations, and many other quotations on the topic of PASSION, go to Dr. Mardy's Dictionary of Metaphorical Quotations.
Cartoon of the Week
Answer to This Week’s Puzzler:
Denis Diderot (1713 – 84)
Even though Diderot was writing nearly three centuries ago, his observations on countless topics have a distinctly modern feel. Here are several that are as relevant today as when they were originally written:
Skepticism is the first step towards truth
From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step
Pithy sentences are like sharp nails which force truth upon our memory
We swallow with one gulp the lie that flatters us,and drink drop by drop the truth which is bitter to us.
Dr. Mardy’s Observation of the Week
There are millions of people around the world who have a passion for quotations, but ninety-nine percent of them are completely unaware of this weekly newsletter. If any of your friends or family members have such a passion, please consider forwarding this week’s issue to them. They’ll almost certainly appreciate your thinking of them—and I believe they would love to learn that a newsletter like this actually exists.
Thanks for joining me again this week. See you next Sunday morning, when the theme will be “Frenemies.”
Regarding My Lifelong Love of Quotations: A Personal Note
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