Fire and The Fire Bringer (Continued)

Chicago Fire, Randolf Street by Currier & Ives

4. Consequences

Icarus plunges to his death because he flies too close to the flames of the sun. Even Phaethon, the son of Helios (Apollo) is not immune from the curse of fire; when he tries to drive his father’s chariot, he burns both the heavens and the earth until Zeus strikes him dead with a thunderbolt (his mother and sisters are so distraught they are turned into poplar trees). In Christianity, the highest of the high and the lowest of the low are associated with fire — both the Holy Spirit and Hell are depicted as flames.

What is it that makes fire so distinct from the other elements? Water is formless and fluid, air is invisible, earth is both solid and malleable. But while the other elements are bound in the three states of matter — solid, liquid, and gas — fire is different. The ancients saw it as mercurial and capricious for its dynamic and ever-changing nature; in modern physics we understand it as plasma — the fourth state of matter, which is an interstitial state, like energy bound in a semi physical form. Fire is all about transformation, and the mystery of how it consumes and purifies lends it a continuing and divine fascination to humans. (Kurt Vonnegut Jr., with his remarkably mundane wit, has one of his characters ruminate on the fact that the role of the fireman is to keep things from combining with oxygen. How logical, and yet how mysterious!)

In the same way that fire is a transitional thing, it keeps humans in that constant and dangerous state of fluctuation between their animal and divine natures. The Hindus called the spiritual force of Kundalini by the name of "serpent fire" as it rose from the base of the spine into the crown of the head, connecting one to the divine. But they understood that if the fire did not rise properly through the chakras, the result could be great suffering or the creation of a monster.

Fire also seems to have a symbolic sense of humor about it. The story of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is that the O’Learys’ cow started it when it kicked over a lantern. But according to Richard F. Bales, who researched historical documents and police depositions, the real culprit was probably a man by the name of Daniel Sullivan, whose nickname was "Peg Leg" because he had a wooden leg. It takes us back to the primal understanding that fire comes from wood. "Peg Leg" Sullivan walked on his own fennel stalk, accidentally invoking the fire of the gods.

"Food for Thought" by Mark Wagner ©1992

Fire is always double-edged. One of the great historical ironies is that the Great Fire of London in 1666 not only destroyed a major part of the city, it also brought an end to the Plague. When Emperor Nero "fiddled" while Rome burned in 64 A.D., destroying two thirds of the city over the course of nine days, he wasn’t just a madman oblivious to the problem. It was an opportunity for urban reconstruction. While many Christians saw the fire as the Apocalypse ushering in the return of Christ, they did not realize Nero would use them as a convenient scapegoat. The Hindu practice of sutee, or "widow burning" is simultaneously a display of spousal devotion — women who must be restrained from leaping into their husband’s funeral pyre — and a convenient way of eliminating widows who prevent the transfer of property to men.

As I was finishing this essay, I called my mother and asked her why she had not punished me for that time when I had ignited the entire box of matches. She recalled the incident, but then she reminded me that it was unnecessary to punish me — we had left one of our previous houses because it had burned to the ground. All they had been able to take with them were my diapers. "You remembered when you were little," she said. "How could you forget now? You’re a professor!"

I had no quick reply. But later, I realized that I had actually been recalling other images, namely those tragic ones that remain indelible, even when they do not come from personal experience. The image of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, sitting with such apparent calm as he burned himself to death in June of 1963. The self-immolation of Korean student protesters, appearing in the news again and again in the late ’90s. The image of the people leaping from the two Towers that morning on September 11th. Fire has a visceral way of humbling us.

Exactly how important is the idea of fire in the western mind? That the control of fire is what distinguishes humans from animals? It may seem an academic point to us these days, but in the 19th Century, when the British began to colonize Tasmania, this distinction was what provided the rationale for genocide. According to the settlers, the Tasmanian Aborigines were so incredibly primitive and backward that they had forgotten how to make fire. The Tasmanians were so primitive that they did not wear clothes even during the frigid winters, and yet they wore decorative fur capes and stoles around their necks. Other Aboriginal tribes also went mostly naked, but the Tasmanians had become no better than animals to the white settlers because, to compound their irrational nakedness, they had also apparently lost the ability to make fire. They had regressed so far down the evolutionary scale that they had to keep watch over burning sticks that were initially lit from natural fires. They could hardly be called human, and so they were displaced from their tribal lands and hunted for sport until they were, for all practical purposes, exterminated.

Irony of ironies. The Tasmanians knew how to make fire all along (recent examination of 18th-century exploration journals document that they used fire drills), but it was their religious practice to stay as close to nature as possible; it was in obedience of their most sacred Dreamtime Law that the Tasmanian Aborigines willfully did not make fire. They had, in a sense, given back the gift of Prometheus so as not to pay its heavy price. I think they knew, in practice, that the use of fire was convenient for culture, but that in the end it only contributed to Entropy, what they used to call "The Heat Death of the Universe."