“We didn’t start the fire,” the song goes. Lyrics constantly updated on YouTube with new particulars. This is deceptive. These flames older than time, older than the amoeba, older than the very idea of life. We didn’t discover fire. Fire discovered us.
Every night, our reverent observance to the powers of the day is stolen from us. We plunge into the vast unknown beyond the luster of light. As twilight fades, we look into the shadows and intimations of loss. Silhouettes of great trees, the thin torch of horizon that is the point of departure, the attempts even to see our hands before our widening eyes, all these beg for a renewal of brilliance. The light that even a fingernail moon reflects, the allegory of even tiny stars posing as simply distant suns, are driven by fancy into new points of worship.
They are pale and cast shadows of uneasy questions much larger than the wan light into our minds. Questions and shadows never unaccompanied by the umbra of fear. Will the next day dawn with me still upon the earth and in the light?
Much has been written about the particularity of night terrors, pediatric to geriatric, but attempts to resolve this universal experience too often looks through the wrong end of the telescope. This is not a quirk of individual neurosis. This is cosmic and existential. We don’t control when we will next see the light or what light we shall see, or what new and changed world will be revealed upon a simple half turn of the Earth. It has been said that those that do not fear, lack fear only because they also lack imagination.
With all this longing invested into the routine vanishment of the sun, no wonder that the light of the stars and even the moon are challenged by fire. The relative proximity first takes the eyes from the abstract of immeasurably distant light. Next the flickering abducts us from the vertical plane into the horizontal hypnogogic state no drug can match in immanence. Both the flicker and the proximity grow, just as night grows against our will, and we now have a new source to fascinate our fears.
The other senses are seduced next. There is the acrid mixed pleasure of smoke that teases the nose but already, even in small measure, sears the lungs. There is the crackle and crash of dry vegetative fuels that burn like kindling. Then even distant rocks turn red with heat.
Our nerves send ignored warnings. That which is too much to bear approaching closer and closer. We feel ourselves drying and shriveling even as we remain in fascination of the heat that seems both life-giving and life-taking.
As fire discovers us, in open vale, or sheltered hearth, we are reeled into its thrall with what seems to us to be a voluntary pleasure. This is the meaning of desire. We go to watch house fires not only to keep these fears under control and at a distance fears, but also because the magnetic force of transformation is as strong, if not stronger, than the force of gravity itself.
Fire consumes and changes us, and oh how we long to be changed into something that has the power to generate more heat and light! Every comic book movie bases its budget on this, tapping our deepest, most chthonic and irresistible appetites for light; for the fulfillment that the gossamer wings of butterflies know within the transient joys of flight.
What is it that fire wants from us? Does it seek gods like Prometheus and Vulcan because it, too, is lonely for company? Does it seek to both be renegade and also bridled, like a wild mustang that somehow knows an aspect of existence is missing it is reckless abandonment of all other creation?
We do not know fire, any more than we know the existential sources of fission and fusion. These things are because they are. Overwhelmed by the futility of any of our origin stories, we then struggle not to understand them, but simply to replicate them. Once again, this seizing of the mirror gives us the illusion of control.
Have we tamed fire, or is fire taming us? Will the specter of brilliant momentary flashes of nuclear suns upon the surface of this very earth, be strong enough steerage of bridle upon us for us to admit that fire will take us — or instead, transform us in irrevocable ways that will leave no trace behind? No witness to lend signature to the outcome. Only rising and receding tides of unknown and unwitnessed fire will remain, ever searching for fresh fuel to transform.