“Nobody human can stand all that everlasting affection!”

“Nobody human can stand all that everlasting affection!” August 28, 2012

The quote is from Company, the subject is Passion, as the Sondheim Symposium goes on. This installment includes spoilers for 1984.

At the climax of 1984, Winston is broken by the tortures in room 101. The moment that anihilates him and represents victory for Big Brother is the moment where he cries out:

Do it to her! Do it to Julia! I don’t care what you do to her, but do it to her! Tear her face off! Do it to Julia, not to me! Do it to Julia! Not me!

If this is betrayal, we might assume that true love would be offering to be tortured in order to spare Julia her suffering.  And, that, presumably, would be a beautiful and triumphal moment.

But, in Passion, when Fosca says to Giorgio “Would Clara give her life for you? Would she? I would. Happily,” he recoils (as does the audience).  What we expect to hear as the fulfillment of long love and intimacy is offered to Giorgio as an unasked for and unwanted gift.  Who could have the temerity to die for you without your permission?

Look at the lyrics of Giorgio’s rebuke to Fosca and listen to “Is this what you call Love?” below.  (audio only, sadly)

After I saw Passion in college, I felt sick.  When we discussed our impressions of the show in my Sondheim seminar, my hand was first in the air and I blurted out, “This is the most effective Nietzschean propaganda about the horror of the weak subduing the strong by virtue of their weakness I could possibly imagine.”  What I didn’t say, thinking it was a little much for a seminar, was “This show is the clearest summary of what creeps me out about Christianity.”

Giorgio’s declaration that:

Love’s not a constant demand,
It’s a gift you bestow
Love isn’t sudden surrender
It’s tender and slow, it must grow.

could easily come out of the mouth of the Ghost in the “May I kill it?” scene in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.  But his lines are contradictory.  Love is a gift for Giorgio to bestow, confident it will be wanted and needed.  But he won’t allow other people to take on the role of gift-giver without his permission.  In fact, his assent is another gift for him give — allowing the other person to be generous to him.

What is subtext for Giorgio is often text for me.  I empathized most with the Ghost who doesn’t want to enter heaven unless he can be of use.  Giorgio and I are bad universalizers.  We’re all right with an asymmetry of service as long as we’re the ones sacrificing more.  So what can we do with the unfairness of grace?  For us, the tempting error isn’t Lucifer’s non serviam, it is (to jump musicals) Javert’s inability to accept mercy.



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  • I hope you forgive me for trying to parse some of these thoughts in a Mormon context! Given the different understanding of the origins and destinies of humanity, they can become really interesting…

    For example, in LDS thought all humans have existed in some essential form eternally, and we have had the chance to develop loving intimacy with each other and our Heavenly Father before we come to earth. In fact, this earthly experience is an intense method of re-developing that intimacy with our Father while we are outside of His presence, not least through sharing, with Him, the experience of embodiment. We also have to restore those bonds of love we had previously but have, of necessity, forgotten. All we go through is a way to learn what we learned already – just in a radically different context. Moreover, Mormon belief says that all humans chose to undergo this experience, fully knowing that only through acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice would atonement and salvation be possible. (Not to mention the fact that the Mormon afterlife is conceived as an eternity of service made possible through humbly accepting Christ’s service for us…)

    • leahlibresco

      I don’t mind at all! But now I get to ask follow-up questions. Is some perfection lacking in the original relationship between humans and the Heavenly Father that is added by coming to earth, struggling toward God, and being restored to Him? I’m confused about the why of the choice.

      • (I’m just going to state things, without a preface of “Mormons believe…” or “Mormonism teaches…” for brevity. 🙂 )

        Yes! Apparently there is something about having physical/temporal/mortal bodies, as we believe God has, that helps us grow in ways we could not without it.

        As to precisely what that way they help us *is*, there’s a little more debate. I tend to see being cut off from other beings in thought being the key part of it; we believe that spirit can communicate to spirit pretty accurately, but on earth we are constrained by imperfect forms of communication. We have to develop intimacy in a context where it is much more difficult.

        Other explanations offered might include learning about suffering (and thus developing compassion) and having the opportunity to procreate and form familial relationships, which will persist in the afterlife. The ideal highest heaven in Mormonism envisions the whole of the human family, all those who have accepted Christ and his covenants, “sealed” together in one large family. Not only that, but an important -if vague- aspect of Mormon soteriology is that those people who have formed families under the covenant of sealing (whether they begin this family while on earth, or in the period between their death and judgment) will have the chance to become parents to spirits in a lower stage of development, as our Father was to us; thus, earth life could be seen as practice for parental divinity.

      • In Catholic belief God has an end state in mind for humanity but He didn’t create us that way. Why? Mutatis mutandi I think this is the same question as you’re asking about the Mormon belief. The answers start to look very much like theodetical answers. In short, your question turns out to be an instance of the Problem of Evil.

        Conventional answers are that the relationship with God is more valuable or real or more loving if it is freely assented to, which requires a period of separation. Or that which is struggled for and fought for is more valuable than that which is not. In the terms of your post, you might say that the Mormon answer is that God condescends to put us in a situation where we *do* have something to offer him–our will, our love, our sacrifice and efforts to return to Him. Another possible answer that gets at the mystery of Christianity is that there is something profoundly at the root of Love in the experience of shared suffering, which is only possible in mortality.

    • Ted Seeber

      In more Mormon terms for the imagery in CS Lewis’s _The Great Divorce_, the bus trip is Spirit Prison, and the edge of Heaven is the Final Judgement. If you get back on the bus at the end of the day, and never return to the bus, the soul is cast into the Outer Darkness.

      In the passage Leah links to, a spirit in prison for the sin of lust, who can barely bring himself to get rid of his little red lizard of lust, is faced by an Angel who offers, in the spirit of Christ, to kill his Lust- and when he does so, the lizard is transformed into a great stallion who carries the spirit out of prison and into Heaven.

      Likewise, in the other passage Leah links to- the spirit is so tied to the idea of service that he’s stuck in spirit prison, because of what use can a mere spirit be to God who can do everything himself?

      Does that help a bit to understand what Leah is talking about here?

      • Oh sure! I’ve read the Great Divorce several times and love it. Kudos on knowing enough about Mormonism to accurately fit our vision of the afterlife into its framework! One distinction, though, is that the narrator of the story would have already died in a Mormon telling. 🙂

        I was just trying to think through ideas of the divinity of service/being served, as well as (un)chosen love/grace, in a Mormon cosmology.

      • Oh, one small clarification: because the Mormon afterlife isn’t dichotomous between Heaven and Hell, a few qualifications would have to be made. Were The Great Divorce written by a Mormon, you would have a distinction made between varieties of sinners: those who accept all of Christ’s sacrifice and commands (those who stay in the highest heaven, the Celestial Kingdom), those who only accept some (roughly equivalent, perhaps, to people who board the bus and don’t like it in Heaven or Hell; the Terrestrial Kingdom), and those who recognize Christ’s sacrifice but prefer to remain in their sins (the Telestial Kingdom). Only those that reject Christ altogether (which, Mormon teaching holds, will be an incredibly small number) will be cast out to Outer Darkness, with those spirits who did not decide to come to earth and thus remain in eternal, unembodied stagnation.

        • Ted Seeber

          Once again, this is also roughly analogous to the Catholic form, in which Purgatory is the *temporary* place souls go to to be purged of their sin.

          I had a good friend in high school who was a Mormon who went on a mission to a Catholic Country- he practiced on me before he left, and we identified the right terminology for him to use to explain Mormonism to a Catholic Audience.

      • I think–ahem–that this is the best Mormon take on the Great Divorce:


        The Great Divorce is just a marvelous book. That bit at the end with the chess players is eery and chilling.

        • Thanks! That was a great read. The second time I read through the Great Divorce, I developed an attachment to the idea that those who are righteous should not be unduly affected by pity (in fact, the description of Giorgio/Fosca brought back memories of that time), but it never really sat well with every part of my conscience. Thanks for deconstructing it. 🙂

    • I honestly don’t see that anything Libresco writes here needs ‘translation’ to fit into a Mormon context.

      • Oh, not translation, certainly, and especially when you limit it to our earthly life; in that case, there’s no adaptation needed. I was just trying to think through some of these thoughts in the context of LDS cosmology, especially pre- and post-mortal life.

  • deiseach

    I noticed one of your tags was The Hound of Heaven – and yes, this really did make me think of Francis Thompson’s poem:

    “Ah! is Thy love indeed
    A weed, albeit an amaranthine weed,
    Suffering no flowers except its own to mount?”

  • I don’t know the show so I might be embarassing myself here, but going by what you quote I think there is something legitimately creepy about Fosca’s love.
    Perhaps she would happily die for Giorgio but it looks like she wouldn’t be happy about having saved him so much as about being the person who would have saved him. Basically there is something narcissistic there and it shows in her not making the comparatively small sacrifice of not dissing the woman he loves. That wouldn’t be tragic and heroic, it actually would be valuing him over herself.

    • leahlibresco

      You have anticipated the next (and possibly final) post in this sequence)

    • Kristen inDallas

      Yes, well said. For me it’s not the offering of the “gift” that is in and of itself creepy. It’s offering that “gift” of herself while in the back of my mind (or gut or somewhere) just knowing that she doesn’t REALLY even love him (because if she did, she would value what makes him happy). So if it’s not love it’s probably not really a gift… it’s a trade. And then the question, a trade for WHAT exactly? Shivers down my spine. THAT’s the creepy part.

  • A Nietzsche For All Seasons

    “I blurted out…” That’s the spirit!

    She who fights with mediocrity should be careful, lest she thereby become mediocre herself.

  • Clarissa

    The example from 1984 is ironic, since both Big Brother and Winston Smith were atheists, as Winston specifically said.

    • Ted Seeber

      Not that ironic. 1984 was more about orthodoxy than it was about atheism or socialism.

      • Clarissa

        Sure, Ted, atheist orthodoxy.
        And don’t kid yourself, there is such a thing.

        • Ted Seeber

          That was more due to the author’s own atheism though, than to the more general point of orthodoxy. Catholicism for instance has it’s own version of NewSpeak that is drawn from a hodgepodge of Greek and Latin philosophical terms that do not translate well into English and *do*, when properly understood, constrain the topic and even the ability to think and express into orthodox limits. There’s a reason why our kids go to CCD and not Sunday School; why we put adult converts through RCIA for some subtle training in that language.

  • Mary

    First Things had a lovely article on what makes Katniss Everdeen such an interesting character throughout the Hunger Games is not her ability to love — she sacrafices herself for her sister right off the bat. She doesn’t really need to learn how to sacrafice, but ACCEPT the sacrafice of others as a gift for her, and not something that needs to be repaid, like grace. I thought it was a very compelling argument.

    • leahlibresco

      I really liked that article and blogged (twice) about how hard that lesson was for me to live up to.