____ comes in to tell me he heard on the radio that the mayor of Corfu said the majority of the fires on the island have been suspected as deliberately set. There are problems everywhere, not just the US. He says this because we have been considering moving there for a short period due to his work. I say we but in fact I am dragging my feet; I left in 1999 and have never wanted to return, with a vitriolic hatred which deep down does not surprise me. It has smouldered but never quite burnt out, and so I must admit to myself that I must have intentionally kept it alive all this time. I am aware the entire world is on fire in some form or another—we set fires then walk away. It used to be we did this because we were ritualising something with honour, like death. Fire as tribute, renewal as opposed to mere destruction, when we saw it as divine and terrible instead of terrible with a jaded air that comes with existing with something for any long period of time.
In Fragments of an Infinite Memory, Maël Renouard writes ‘images have a destiny: to be projected beyond their creator’s inner self onto a material medium, and then to be re-interiorized by the spectator. The more an image is reproduced, manipulated, unmoored, the more it enters the inner mind’. But then he goes on to say that due to the sheer number that exist due to the internet, they paradoxically ‘vanish’. Because of this vanishing, ‘we are seized by the desire to give them material form again’. This is just our old desire for the ritual of rebirth through fire reasserting itself in the digital age. Hardly Vedic, but it suggests a strange melancholy and an uncertainly in choosing progression or regression, or desiring both, the worst choice of all. Maybe we do want Agni, the god of fire: we flirt with wanting change, death, destruction and rebirth. But at the same time we are unable to wholly step into the flames, wanting the weight of destiny’s responsibility to be removed.
Now we set fires because there is no walking away. The earth sets fires in a desperate attempt at purifying itself of us. Both have the same hatred. This fire is reproduced over and over, like a child discovering with wonder that touching a flame to a freshly extinguished match or candle re-ignites the one which had appeared dead. The fires we set deliberately, while no less destructive, have an element of impotence. The motions of an act without its specific force. Bachelard says in The Psychoanalysis of Fire that ‘we must grasp the point (or exact degree) of fire which leaves a mark on a substance as we do the instant of love which leaves a mark on an existence’. It seems almost ridiculous to think there should be a poetics of fire, but on being told of Corfu, I thought, there is no point, no instant. It is only an attempt at mimesis which does not understand what it tries to replicate. If we were serious about total immolation—I mean in a direct way, not the half-denial we burn ourselves in now—it would require discipline. Humans only have that discipline if they see destruction as part of control or a duty of narrative. Mishima comes to mind.
I was trying to recall if I’d ever worn a perfume with feu (fire) in the name but all I could think of was fou (crazy), as in L’artisan Fou d’Absinthe, which is meant to be a representation of a pine fire. Somehow these words still seem connected, not in etymology, but spirit. I did briefly wear Le Labo’s room spray Cedre 11 as a personal scent, mostly as a fuck-you to people at the time. It smelled like a just-extinguished bonfire, all black charred wood and smoke. I must have been looking to make it very clear how angry I was at the world then. It wasn’t terribly subtle; at least Mishima wore Guerlain’s Mitsouko. In Insomniac Dreams, it is related that Nabokov wrote down a dream on an index card in 1964 where he recounts a ‘black larch paradoxically posing as a Christmas tree completely stripped’ and notes that in that week, he was ‘strenuously checking … Coindreau’s French translation of Pale Fire’ (Feu pâle). As an aside, there are actually quite a few Lolita perfumes, which are as you’d expect: fruity, sweet, juvenile concoctions. Not exactly incendiary.
What do you do with ashes other than throw them away? I suppose the responsible answer is to throw them over garden soil to nourish it—there’s a mineral that’s meant to be good for certain vegetables or flowers. I think about a photograph by Luigi Ghirri a lot: Modena (1978, from the Still-Life series), which is just a picture of an incredibly ugly laminate wood or wood-patterned plastic ashtray with a pile of various stubbed-out cigarettes and burnt matches amidst ash. I look at it less for what it is and more for what it suggests, the psychological states of the smoker or smokers. Some of the cigarettes are smoked down to the extreme, stubbed out violently, while another is snapped and yet another is discarded gently mid-length (it is the only one to rest against the tray). Is each the death of an idea, a half-formed thought, or instead a relinquishing, a seeing-off? Thinking of it like that makes me wish I’d kept the ashes of all the cigarettes I’ve ever smoked—to examine them with all the ceremony of a divination, the desire to control one’s destiny. But it also reminds me of cremation ashes: there must be vessels, containers of the beloved. Somewhere I have two with the remains of adored cats. Never able to bring myself to return them back to the earth, and so I, too, prove to be unable to step fully into the fire.
Fragments of An Infinite Memory by Maël Renouard, tr. Peter Behrman de Sinéty
The Psychoanalysis of Fire by Gaston Bachelard, tr. Alan C. M. Ross
The Complete Essays 1973-1991 by Luigi Ghirri, tr. Ben Bazalgette and Marguerite Shore
Image: Tomoé Hill. Painting of the Piazza San Marco on fire by Anselm Kiefer (at the Doge's Palace, Venice)