Topic: April 2005
Jeanette Winterson has been plagued by critics with judgments about her sexual orientation and its impact on her narratives.
I did not know this going into the first, nor the second, reading of THE PASSION. And funny, my first response to critics' obsessions with her lesbian background and sexual frankness in the novel was, What's the big deal, people?
Of course, the sexuality in her books is an important, riveting element. In the case of THE PASSION, Henri's late-to-come "bland" or "lukewarm" sexuality, and Villanelle's unrequited longings for a married woman with whom she shared nine consecutive nights in passionate interlude, define a big part of these characters' worldviews.
But it's not the sexuality that defines this novel. At least not to me. It's the zealotry.
As readers, we may linger within the throes of romantic, sensual passion in the narrative, but we are also equally immersed in the inhuman aspects of war, as well as engaged in the nature of egomaniacal behavior (speaking of Napoleon, of course, but also of the various riffraff Villanelle encounters at the casino in Venice).
Because the backbone beneath all of this is Winterson's consistent and emotionally moving (but not self-righteous) commentary on God and church and religion and beliefs and morals, I found the measure of sexuality in THE PASSION appropriate and necessary to the theme of zealotry in the story line. This novel simply would not have worked without these two contrary characters in this reinvention of time and place.
In fact, to spend any time criticizing the moral implications of a novel such as THE PASSION misses the point entirely. This book is not about homosexuality or promiscuity, or even about sexual passion. Nor is Jeanette Winterson trying to make arguments for gay culture in an unforgiving world, because this novel isn't about homosexuality either.
THE PASSION is simply about the purposeful misuse of power, and the way God can be exploited by megalomaniacs like Bonaparte to motivate, galvanize and inspire followers on an emotional level. Zealots. People who, had they been left to the devices of mere logic, would have probably chosen a different course. This is a story of that space between God and the Devil, and what we make of it.
Not surprisingly, this is also the space where magical realism breeds. Not in the world of reason, nor in a world where the fantastical is, well, fantastical. It exists in the world of In Between.
* * *
Winterson has this to say about the purposes of her own writing life in an interview for Vintage Living Texts in 2002:
"I think I started writing before I could read because I wanted to write sermons, because I was driven by a need to preach to people and convert them which possibly I still am, except that now I do it for art's sake, and then I did it for God's sake. Being brought up by Pentecostal Evangelists meant that there was tremendous drive to go out there and make a difference, and think that literature does make a difference. I think that that's its purposeto open up spaces in a closed world, and for me, it's a natural progression which seems bizarre perhapsfrom those days of preaching the Word to these days of trying to make people see things imaginatively, transformatively."
These goals underline the purpose of magical realist authors (whether they consider themselves magical realist or not): to open up that mysterious space within the universe, which we all inhabit, and allow the truth to reveal itself.
It's not far-fetched to think that Winterson might also be trying to pose the notion that homosexuals are just as caught up in the same uneven struggles for love as straight folks. Loving the wrong person is a failed gambit, no matter who you are. It's universal. Doesn't matter if it's Europe in the 19th century or today. Doesn't matter if it's between the God fearing or the irreverent. An unreciprocated gift of love can sustain us for a while, even for years, but eventually it will become our death if we fail to recognize its illusion.
* * *
For Henri, his first love is a pure, patriotic devotion to Napoleon. Such blind obedience could be described as nearly pornographic, in the sense that he violates the sanctity of the presence of any true God by allowing a small man of lethal ways, who conspicuously seeks to appear larger than life, to usurp that title.
Henri knows logically that the consequences of his actions as a soldier in direct service to the Emperor are immoral, but his zeal is so intricately woven within the idea of being closer to God that he equates the two, even as he acknowledges there is a difference.
Thus Henri falls, in the land of In Between.
So does Villanelle, but in a more sensual way. She is born, in fact, with fringe charms: the child of a fisherman and born on the cusp of an eclipse, she's cursed with webbed feet.
She's also part of the living and breathing organism which is the city of Venice, a character all its own with arterials that may as well be filled with blood. She's also struck with an affinity for masculinity, which she, in good humor, entertains by cross-dressing as a boy while working as a card dealer at the casino.
It is there that she falls in love with a woman whose iconic card is not the Queen of Hearts, but the Queen of Spades. (Think about the meaning of that for a minute.) Villanelle cannot find this intriguing woman after their brief but significant encounter. Time passes. Providence smiles upon Villanelle and her love interest reappears. A tryst ensues; Villanelle admits she is not a boy; her lover admits she's married. They abandon their secrets for a nine-day affair, after which we learn later Villanelle is left without her heart.
(Henri literally breaks into the woman's ostentatious residence years later to find it beating in a box in the closet.)
Poor Henri! He has since fallen in love with Villanelle, having deserted the ecstasy of Napoleon after their march into Russia, itself an act of treason: the czar and the emperor had previously allied themselves.
But Villanelle is not cruel. She cares for Henri, in a loving way, but as a brother, not as the lover she aches for, the lover he aches to be. She is too much a part of the invisible streets of Venice, too woven into the character of that place, webbed feet and all, to imagine a life of passion where Henri longs to be: lying face up in the fields of France encircled by a simple adoration of dandelions.
(Which pleads an argument for the purity of Henri's love, no doubt. He truly did love his country, regardless Napoleon's hold over it.)
Which is to say that love crosses the wrong paths sometimes, and in doing so, has the ability to slay. Who can say that love is purely the domain of the here and now, the Real World? There is something divine in love, that requires entry into that space In Between. Anyone who's ever been in love will tell you so.
We all know of stories of people who are built and broken by their own shared passion. Are they not extraordinary to begin with, these people? I'm talking about the Romeos and Juliets of our times. People whose spaces collided when they probably shouldn't have.
* * *
Isn't the act of animating one's passion, whether it be for love or war or God, an extraordinary thing anyway? I cannot imagine any expression of passion being wholly ordinary. It has to take place In Between, or else it's not Passion.
"Somewhere in between fear and sex"? I'm not as convinced by this description as I am by Winterson's depiction of Venice:
"In this enchanted city all things seem possible. Time stops. Hearts beat. The laws of the real world are suspended."
And I prefer her other map, the one that points to "Somewhere between God and the Devil."