Narrating the Passions

New Perspectives from Modern and Contemporary Literature

by Simona Corso (Volume editor) Beth Guilding (Volume editor)
VIII, 200 Pages


Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Dedication
  • Introduction (Simona Corso)
  • 1. Parental Passions (Gillian Beer)
  • 2. Ophelia’s Passions in Performance (Laura Caretti)
  • 3. Romantic Love (Janet Todd)
  • 4. Lovers’ Discourses: Marcel Proust’s Swann in Love and E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View (Sophie Corser)
  • 5. The Objects of Passion: The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk (Simona Micali)
  • 6. Passion for the Other – Passion for the Self? Voyeurism and Subjectivity in Heimito von Doderer’s Die erleuchteten Fenster (1950) and Siri Hustvedt’s The Enchantment of Lily Dahl (1996) (Gianna Zocco)
  • 7. Seduction as Passion: Myth, Novel and the Movies (Massimo Fusillo)
  • 8. Walter Scott, the Birth of the Historical Novel and the Romantic Legacy: Locality, Emotions and Knowledge (Enrica Villari)
  • 9. An Ambiguous Passion: Gambling in the Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Matilde Serao (Igor Tchehoff)
  • 10. Childhood Passion in Sergio Corazzini’s Poetry: Rereading the Figure of the Little Boy Who Cries within his Cultural Context (Danila Cannamela)
  • 11. Like a Gift from the Sky: Passions of the Residual Child (Beth Guilding)
  • 12. Being Alone with Dr Winnicott (Amelia Worsley)
  • 13. Poetics of Dispassion: Herta Müller and Agota Kristof (Annalisa Lombardi)
  • 14. Indignation: Philip Roth and Beyond (Simona Corso)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Series index

← viii | ix →


The essays in this book were inspired by the twelfth annual edition of Synapsis: European School for Comparative Studies, which took place in Pontignano, near Siena, in September 2012 and which engaged with the theme of passions in literature. We want to thank all students and scholars who gathered on this memorable occasion and especially the contributors to this volume, who accepted our invitation with enthusiasm. Our warmest thanks go to Laura Caretti and Roberto Bigazzi, co-founders of Synapsis and generous hosts in the beautiful Certosa in Pontignano, and to the other members of the 2012 executive committee: Ferdinando Abbri, Dame Gillian Beer, Helena Buescu, Maria DiBattista, José Gonzalez Garcia, Orsetta Innocenti, Patrizia Lombardo, Barry McCrea, Simona Micali and Florian Mussgnug.

For their generous financial support, we would like to thank Goldsmiths, University of London, and the Department of Modern Languages, Literature and Culture at the University of Rome, Roma Tre. We are grateful to Lucia Boldrini for her encouragement and guidance.

Many thanks to Hannah Godfrey, our editor at Peter Lang, and to Ben Goodwin and Jasmin Allousch for seeing this manuscript successfully through production into print.

Our special thanks go to Paolo Morello for his permission to use the splendid photograph that has become the cover image of this volume.

We are grateful to Florian Mussgnug, our series editor, who helped us give shape to a vast topic. Finally, we are very grateful to Matthew Reza, whose great generosity and precision were invaluable during the final stages of preparation for this volume.

Simona Corso and Beth Guilding ← ix | x →

← x | xi →


The sad news of Remo Ceserani’s death reached us as this book was about to go to press. Co-founder of “Synapsis: European School for Comparative Studies” and Italy’s leading voice in the field of Comparative Literature, Ceserani was an exceptional mentor and dear friend to generations of scholars. His energy, intellectual clarity and enthusiasm will continue to inspire us, and this book is dedicated to his memory, with gratitude.

Florian Mussgnug ← xi | xii →

← xii | 1 →



In the third book of The Republic Plato proposes that all great poets should be banned from the ideal city and that only poets of lesser talent, who can be easily manipulated by the rulers, should be allowed. Their poetry, under the government’s strict control, will praise civic and personal virtues that can be upheld as a model for all citizens. Plato, in other words, envisages a ‘state poetry’ devoted to the common good, which will not provide aesthetic pleasure but political support. ‘We ourselves’, Plato writes, ‘would use a more austere and less pleasing poet and teller of tales for the sake of benefit, one who would imitate the style of the decent man and would say what he says in those models that we set down as laws at the beginning, when we undertook to educate the soldiers.’1 These pages, which are often quoted to illustrate the philosopher’s alleged disregard for poetry, contain in fact an exuberant praise of poetry or, to choose a more contemporary term, of literature (and therefore quite appropriate for a philosopher like Plato, who was also a man of letters). Plato wants to banish the poets because he believes that they are capable, more than anybody else, of making ordinary people aware of the true force of passions – including those not strictly compatible with the needs of an orderly community: violent fury; inconsolable grief; unbridled erotic desire; utter mirth. The third book of The Republic opens with a series of quotations from The Iliad and The Odyssey, in which Homer, according to Plato, captures the overwhelming power of passions: the fury of Achilles, who feels unjustly treated by his king and therefore willingly risks the future of an entire nation; the excruciating ← 1 | 2 → pain of Priam, ‘rolling around in dung’ (III, 388b, 65) after his son’s death; the erotic passion of Zeus, who as soon as he sees Hera forgets everything else – his goals, his rank, his obligations – and ‘wants to have intercourse right there on the ground’ (III, 390c, 68); the mortal fear of the soldier, who comes eye to eye with the enemy; the sadness of the dead, who would rather live as slaves than be kings of the underworld; the goliardic pleasures that distract the gods from their duties; their laughter, which rocks the skies. In Homer’s poems Achilles, Priam, Zeus, the soldier and the mirthful gods become models for ordinary people: they teach them what passions are, their mechanisms and phenomenology. It is perhaps thanks to great poets like Homer that ordinary people can give a name to emotions that they would otherwise fail to recognize or comprehend. And if a poet is capable of such deeds, if he can expose the depths of human experience even against the government’s interest, this makes him, for Plato, a sacred being, and therefore potentially dangerous. ‘If a man’, concludes the philosopher, ‘who is able by wisdom to become every sort of thing and to imitate all things should come to our city […] we would fall on our knees before him as a man sacred, wonderful, and pleasing; but we would say that there is no such man among us in the city, nor is it lawful for such a man to be born there. We would send him to another city, with myrrh poured over his head and crowned with wool […]’ (III, 398a, 76).

Plato’s idea of literature as a privileged site for the study of human passions recurs in many ancient cultures. In his study Emotions: A Brief History Keith Oatley examines the Indian aesthetic theory of the rasas, which is traditionally believed to have originated from the works of the playwright and musicologist Bharata Muni (who is said to have lived between 400 and 100 BCE). According to this theory, theatre allows the spectator to experience the passions performed on stage: empathy triggers emotions – rasas in Sanskrit – that resemble those represented by the actors, but are not identical. Indeed, while everyday feelings are often opaque and difficult to comprehend, the rasas are limpid emotions, which the spectator can savour and learn to master, thanks to aesthetic distance. Each major emotion corresponds to a particular genre: the amorous explores delight; the comic prompts laughter; the pitiable or tragic evokes sorrow, and so ← 2 | 3 → on.2 Aristotle, who holds a very similar view, famously writes in his Poetics (49b 24–28) that the purpose of tragedy is catharsis, which the spectator experiences through the emotions of pity and fear.

Yet the relation between literature and passion transcends the experience of intentional or unintentional emotional catharsis. ‘In literature’, writes Philip Fisher, ‘the passions are not present merely as incidents; that is, as certain kinds of moments alongside other important moments like choosing, perceiving, remembering, talking, or acting.’3 The passions – or, as we tend to call them today, emotional life – are the foundation of human experience. And literature, which is primarily concerned with human life, thus narrates the passions, since ‘the nature of having an experience, per se, has close ties to what we mean by a passion, as the Greek word páthe shows in meaning both passion and experience’.4 It should therefore not surprise us that philosophers who write about the passions, from Aristotle and Plato to the present, often draw their examples from literature, focusing on particular scenes in canonical texts (Homer, the Greek tragedies, but also, subsequently, Shakespeare and the modern novel) or on entire literary genres and on their privileged relation with specific human passions. Comedy, according to this tradition, is the genre devoted to amorous passion; elegy relates to mourning; the epic focuses on courage, wrath, fear and so on.

Having reviewed several contemporary theories of emotion in psychology and neurobiology, psychologist Jenefer Robinson stresses the importance of this tradition:

But if we really want to understand emotions in all their uniqueness and individuality, if we want to follow the progress of an emotion process as it unfolds, if we want to understand how the different elements of the process feed into one another and interact, and how the stream of emotional life blend and flow into one another, ← 3 | 4 → then we would do better to stay away from the generalizations of philosophers and psychologists, and turn instead to the detailed studies of emotion that we find in great literature.5

Keith Oatley similarly observes that the ambiguous nature of emotions places them at the heart of narratives from every part of the world.6 Literature, or rather art in general, is thus more equipped than theoretical inquiry to explore the emotions: half impulses and half value judgments; embodied but also spiritual; transhistorical but nevertheless culturally determined.

The terminology that defines the emotions has developed and multiplied over the course of millennia, and has increased this ambiguity. In classical Greek thought, pathos refers to an emotion but also to ‘any experience that occurs to us’. The root path- does not suggest suffering or pain but rather the idea of experience, the vicissitudes of a human life.7 Stoic and Epicurean philosophers embraced this tradition and by creating a new vocabulary passed it on to modern thinkers, through a single line of influence that links Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes and Kant, and that reaches into our cultural present. For Medieval Christian thinkers, ‘Passion’ acquired a new meaning: it indicated the suffering of Christ on the cross, or rather the tribulations inflicted on Christ from the Last Supper to Crucifixion.8 Modern philosophers, by contrast, often use the term in a different, almost opposite sense. According to the OED, ‘passion’ suggests ‘an eager outreaching of the mind towards something; an overmastering zeal or enthusiasm for a special object; a vehement predilection’.9 ‘Passion’ has thus undergone a profound change of meaning, as du Bois explains, ← 4 | 5 → ‘from passive experience – suffering in the sense of enduring, or being the object of action – to physical suffering and, finally, to the contrary of pathos or passivity, that is, to active desire’.10

In the eighteenth century, a new term, ‘emotion’, emerges in the context of British philosophy and slowly comes to occupy the discursive space of ‘passion’. During the final decades of the nineteenth century, two works, in particular, come to define the modern meaning of this term, as it features, for instance, in behavioural psychology: Charles Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) and William James’ What is an Emotion? (1884). ‘Passion’, however, does not become obsolete: it is sometimes used as a synonym of ‘emotion’, but it can also mark an important difference: while ‘emotion’ generally refers to an outburst of temperament, ‘passion’ more frequently describes a permanent predisposition, a character trait. Moral philosophers of all ages have distinguished between these two phenomena: the eruptive ‘experience of a moment of passion’ (I hear about the inheritance left by a deceased relative, and I suddenly experience a strong sense of greed) and ‘the calm passions’ (greediness), as defined by Hume; or, in Kant’s famous terms, the difference between Affekte (anger) and Leidenschaften (hatred).11 The same distinction also features in literature, where we often find a penchant for sudden explosions of passion, which are perhaps easier to narrate in a work of fiction than character traits or predispositions.

In contemporary psychology and philosophy, ‘emotion’ is the more common term. Oatley, for instance, entitles his study Emotions: A Brief History, and Robinson’s volume explores the role of emotions – in literature, music and the visual arts – over nearly 500 pages, without ever using the term ‘passion’. A quick glance at the secondary literature cited in these two books further confirms this impression: ‘passion’ is an outmoded term perhaps because of its archaic sound or because of its association with Christian theology. Or maybe the term is unpopular, as Fisher suggests, because it evokes a world of violent and overwhelming feelings, in stark contrast with the contemporary mood of ironic distance and emotional ← 5 | 6 → self-restraint.12 And yet, ‘passion’ remains a favourite word among writers and literary scholars, as the title of Fisher’s own The Vehement Passions suggests: a wide-ranging inquiry into the moral and epistemological value of human passion, from Homer to game theory. This is also confirmed by the title chosen by Richard Meyer for his edited volume Representing the Passions: Histories, Bodies, Visions, which contains essays by artists, writers and art critics, on a range of topics, from Descartes to Bill Viola. The present collection of essays, in the intention of its editors, marks a further contribution to this tradition, and consequently foregrounds the term ‘passion’.

In response to the problems of terminology that afflict our field, the contributors to this volume have chosen a strategy that is not uncommon in literary studies: rather than focusing on abstract definitions, they engage with the truth contained in the stories themselves. ‘What remained unchanged’, observes Fisher, ‘when the passions came to be called emotions, were the words for the specific passions or emotions.’13 The essays in this collection engage with the same passions that fascinated Homer more than two thousand years ago: amorous passion; seduction; the contradictory feelings of parents towards their children; the child’s wonder at the world; the gambler’s passion; outrage; despair which comes to resemble folly; apathy.

In the opening essay of the collection, Dame Gillian Beer explores the conflicting passions of parents when it comes to their sons and daughters, using a range of literary examples that include Rousseau’s Confessions, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Berthold Brecht’s Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, Daniel Defoe’s Roxane and J. M. Coetzee’s Foe. Beer does not foreground the most obvious feeling of fathers and mothers – love – but focuses instead on passions that are harder to declare, and, for the writer, more difficult to narrate: protective instincts which suddenly lapse into their opposite; rivalry; intolerance; rejection. ‘Most of the literary examples I have been discussing’, writes Beer, ‘show parenting in crisis, or figured at particular symbolic moments. It is hard for any art work to enter and communicate the day by day intensities of parenting’ (p. 24). ← 6 | 7 → Literature, Beer suggests, tends to approach human passion through points of crisis – outbursts of feeling that make for good stories – and only then proceeds to investigate what David Hume called the ‘calm passions’: the hidden world of protracted subterranean passions that shape our everyday lives.

In her chapter on the performance history of Hamlet Laura Caretti raises some crucial questions about the artistic representation of passions. Caretti begins her inquiry with a controversy between Gordon Craig and Konstantin Stanislavski, on the occasion of the staging of Hamlet at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1912. She then examines how the representation of Ophelia, and of her inner world, has changed over time. Ophelia is just as enigmatic as Hamlet, but for centuries theatre directors have censured her, similarly to how she is censored by Polonius in Shakespeare’s play. Craig wants to disentangle her character from a misleading narrative of pure love and childhood innocence. He fails, but his ideas are taken up by subsequent directors and actresses like Glenda Jackson, who turns her into an ‘angry young woman’ in a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1965, or Pernilla Östergren, who plays her at the Dramaten Theatre in Stockholm in 1986, in a production directed by Ingmar Bergmann, and who makes her unsettling, ambivalent and inscrutable.

Caretti’s chapter introduces us to one of the most powerful passions in Western literature; perhaps the one that lies at the heart of every story: love.14 In the four chapters that follow, this exemplary and essential passion is explored through works written in different times and places. Janet Todd provides an enlightening interpretation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a novel that arguably marks the birth of the modern idea of romantic love. In Todd’s chapter, Austen’s novel is explored in relation to its eighteenth-century precursors: Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, as well as the more or less contemporaneous tradition of the Gothic novel. For Todd, the story of Elizabeth and Darcy acts as a powerful cultural template, which popular literature still reproduces two centuries later: the wealthy, aristocratic, charming but brutal man is drawn to the intelligent ← 7 | 8 → woman of humbler origin, who in turn cannot resist his appeal. What has fascinated readers of all ages, Todd claims, is not simply the triumph over class barriers, but rather the suggestion that such a marriage should be the fruit of real amorous passion, not social opportunism. ‘[B]ut why is virtue always to be rewarded with a coach and six?’ famously complained feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft. ‘[N]either Austen nor Wollstonecraft’, observes Todd, ‘could have foreseen that two subsequent waves of feminism […] would make no dent in the mass phenomenon of the modern cultural idea of romantic “true love”’ (p. 62). The final part of the chapter, then, explores modern and contemporary rewritings of Pride and Prejudice, which are shaped by a fantasy that Todd describes in the following words: ‘an enjoyable masochistic dread of the overbearing male and a utopian exultation at the feminine erotic power that can bring the monster to heel with minimal effort’ (p. 62).


VIII, 200
Publication date
2017 (March)

Biographical notes

Simona Corso (Volume editor) Beth Guilding (Volume editor)


Title: Narrating the Passions
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266 pages