The Water that Flames

August 24th, 2009

Three chapter heading illustrations from Gaston Bachelard‘s 1938 The Psychoanalysis of Fire (La Psychanalyse du Feu).

“Fire and heat provide modes of explanation in the most varied domains, because they have been for us the occasion for unforgettable memories, for simple and decisive personal experiences. Fire is thus a privileged phenomenon which can explain anything. If all that changes slowly may be explained by life, all that changes quickly is explained by fire. Fire is the ultra-living element. It is intimate and it is universal. It lives in our heart. It lives in the sky. It rises from the depths of the substance and offers itself with the warmth of love. Or it can go back down into the substance and hide there, latent and pent-up, like hate and vengeance. Among all phenomena, it is really the only one to which there can be so definitely attributed the opposing values of good and evil. It shines in Paradise. It burns in Hell. It is gentleness and torture. It is cookery and it is apocalypse… It is well-being and it is respect. It is a tutelary and terrible divinity, both good and bad. It can contradict itself; thus it is one of the principles of universal explanation” (p7).

“One of the most obvious phenomenological contradictions was brought about by the discovery of alcohol — a triumph of the thaumaturgical activity of human thought. Brandy, or eau-de-vie, is also eau de feu or fire-water. It is a water which burns the tongue and flames up at the slightest spark. It does not limit itself to dissolving and destroying as does aqua fortis. It disappears with what it burns. It is the communion of life and of fire. Alcohol is also an immediate food which quickly warms the cockles of the heart…

“Since brandy burns before our entranced eyes, since, from the pit of the stomach, it radiates heat to the whole person, it affords proof of the convergence of inner experience and objective experiment. This double phenomenology prepares complexes that a psychoanalysis of objective knowledge will be obliged to eliminate in order to rediscover a true freedom of experiment. Among these complexes there is one which is quite special and quite powerful; it is the one which, so to speak, closes the circle; when the flame has run across the alcohol, when the fire has left its mark and sign, when the primitive fire-water has become clearly enriched with shining, burning flames, then we drink it. Only brandy, of all the substances in the world, is so close to being of the same substance as fire.

“In my youth, at the time of the great winter festivals, they used to prepare a brûlot (brandy burnt with sugar). My father would pour into a wide dish some marc-brandy produced from our own vineyard. In the center he would place pieces of broken sugar, the biggest ones in the sugar bowl. As soon as the match touched the tip of the sugar, a blue flame would run down to the surface of the alcohol with a little hiss. My mother would extinguish the hanging lamp. It was the hour of mystery, a time when a note of seriousness was introduced into the festivity. Familiar faces, which suddenly seemed strange in their ghastly paleness, were grouped about the round table. From time to time the sugar would sputter before its pyramid collapsed; a few yellow fringes would sparkle at the edges of the long pale flames. If the flames wavered and flickered, father would stir at the brûlot with an iron spoon. The spoon would come out sheathed in fire like an instrument of the devil. Then we would ‘theorize’: to blow out the flames too late would mean concentrating less fire and consequently diminishing the beneficent action of the brûlot again influenza. One of the watchers would tell of a brûlot that burned down to the last drop… At all costs we were bent of finding an objective and a general meaning for the exceptional phenomenon . . . Finally the brûlot would be in my glass: hot and sticky, truly an essence… When, after the spectacle, we savored the delightful taste of the drink, we were left with unforgettable memories of the occasion. Between the entranced eye and the comfortably-glowing stomach was established a Baudelairien correspondence that was all the stronger since it was all the more materialized…

“If one has not had a personal experience of this hot sugared alcohol that has been born of flame at some joyful midnight festivity, one has little understanding of the romantic value of punch; one is deprived of a diagnostic method of studying certain phantasmagorical poems… The loves of Phosphorus and the Lily illustrate the poetry of fire (third evening):

‘…desire, which is developing a beneficent heat throughout your whole being, will soon plunge into your heart a thousand sharp darts; for . . . the supreme pleasure that is being kindled by this spark I am placing within you is the hopeless grief that will make you perish only to germinate again in a different form. This spark is thought!’ ‘Alas!’ sighed the flower in a plaintive tone, ‘Since such an ardor now enflames me, can I not be yours?’

“In the same story when the witchcraft, which was to have brought back the student Anselme to the poor Veronica, is completed, there is nothing left ‘but a light flame rising from the spirits of wine which burn in the bottom of the cauldron.’ Later in the story the salamander, Lindhorst, goes in and out of the bowl of punch; the flames in turn absorb him and reveal him. The battle between the witch and salamander is a battle of flames; the snakes come out of the tureen filled with punch. Madness and intoxication, reason and enjoyment are constantly presented in combination. From time to time there appears in the stories a worthy bourgeois who would like ‘understand’ and who says to the student:

‘How did this cursed punch manage to go to our heads and cause us to commit a thousand follies?’ These were the words of Professor Paulmann when on the following morning he entered the room that was still strewn with broken mugs, in the midst of which the unfortunate periwig, reduced to its primary elements, was floating about, dissolved in an ocean of punch.

“Thus the rationalized explanation, the bourgeois explanation, the explanation through a confession of drunkenness, is brought in to moderate the phantasmagorical visions, so that the tale appears as being half rational, half dream, as partly subjective experience and partly objective perception, at once plausible in its cause and unreal in its effect” (p83-86).

“As we have seen… inner fire is dialectical in all its properties… As soon as a sentiment rises to the tonality of fire, as soon as it becomes exposed in its violence to the metaphysics of fire, one can be sure that it will become charged with opposites. When this occurs, the person in love wishes to be pure and ardent, unique and universal, dramatic and faithful, instantaneous and permanent. Confronted with the dreadful temptation, the Pasiphaé of Vielé-Griffin murmurs: A hot breath inflames my cheeks, a glacial chill turns me to ice…” (p111-112).

Continuing the derivation of the previous post, three more figures from Benson’s The Inner Nature of Color, these illustrating the coloration of the four elements (or processes).

Black figure skyphos with gods, ca. 500 B.C.E (plate III). Click for larger version.

“Although the canonical four color grouping of black, white, red, and yellow is not documented in ancient literature before the first half of the fifth century, it can easily be noticed that these same four colors, separately, together, or in mixtures giving the so-called earth colors, predominate not merely in Greece but all through early cultures. The Greeks, specifically the Attic ceramic craftsmen, had a special relationship to this ‘canon’ in that they refined their color choice, presumably out of a passionate attachment to it, to a glossy black and orange-red as an aesthetic norm. Beings and objects in the pictorial freeze [e.g., above] are shown in black, suggesting the obvious conclusion that this color represents the corporeality, the density, of earth substance. And the frieze itself, be it noted, is reserved in the black density of the pot, also fire earth-substance.

“The orange frieze used in black figure work misses maximum contrast value with the black, so why was it chosen? Perhaps a kind of instinctive insight has always led people to refer to red, or reddish hues, as the color of life… In the circumstances we are considering… the reddish hue can really only represent air (atmosphere), in which all beings and things are bathed. For example if we consider animals or men, they unremittingly draw in life force for the blood through breathing air, whereupon the blood maintains both physical and emotional existence. Red, therefore, represents the air on the macrocosmic plane and in the extended microcosmic sense it represents soul life.

“We can now take stock. The two opposite fix-points, earth-air, provide a contrast that is more spatial than dynamic, for earth and air are fundamentally contiguous, and in an undisturbed state do not act on one another but simply preside over, as it were, the spheres of below and above, respectively. (Fire and water, on the other hand, are by nature hostile to one another, eliminate themselves when, forced together, they must attack each other.) Just as in the relationship of earth and air, the colors black and red have a complementary, not an adversarial, relationship, and it cannot be accidental that as prismatic colors of the Dark spectrum, black and red are precisely contiguous. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition is decisive: black is heavy, immobile, hence can function as support; red as a chromatic color has also a certain density but, as Goethe already noted, it is the least mobile color, so that without forcing a point we could say that it hovers over black. In this way once can feel why the Archaic painters remained so long satisfied with this combination: it gave superb expression to their passionate pursuit of physical reality in a way that no other color and background, e.g., white, could have.

“During the Archaic and Protoclassical periods the Ionian philosophers consistently pondered the nature of the elements on the basis of the polarity principle. Similarly, the colors black and white were seen as polar opposites, like cold and warm, but these colors could not be connected with the actual pair of polar opposites in the elements (fire and water) in view of the factors discussed above. Indeed, apart from black-earth, we shall find that a little leeway must be allowed in assigning color to elements (even red-air). In any case, at this point fire and water are open to appointment to white and yellow. According to the criterion of density already established [in the previous post], yellow, visually the stronger of the two colors, will go to water, the denser element, leaving white for fire (warmth) as the most rarefied substance of all (just as Empedokles took for granted).

“Yellow accordingly is the expression of the principle of fluidity, the functional principle (circulatory system) of the earth planet and all its creatures. Yellow therefore can be called the active color par excellence… White, on the other hand, characterizes the element which is the least physical — which in fact can almost not be conceived of except as an invisible connective (warmth) of the other elements. And indeed on the visual plane white is passive, lacking specific expressionality. It does not in any sense importune us but kindly provides without preconditions an empty space for inner freedom. This makes it highly suitable to represent, at the macrocosmic level, the sphere of pure thought, the goal of nous; the relative loftiness of this sphere may suggest, but does not compel, a connection to the Godhead. I say not compel because the Godhead is logically prior to and beyond all color. Moreover, white can be sullied by the admixture of impure elements, as can pure reason” (p31-33).

“Having established a structured visual paradigm for the relationship of the four elements among themselves [see previous post], we can now consider the associated colors when the paradigms are repeated to show the effects of the respective dominant process… [As] Empedokles himself envisioned: ‘Those elements and forces are to be understood as equally strong and coeval, yet each of them has a different function, each has its own characteristic and in the rounds of time they take their turn being dominant” (p46).

Macrocosmic progressions (p47). Click for larger version.

Fire is the creative principle in (B), (C), (D), hence white; it materializes only in (A), hence red (physical).

Air expands in (A), (B), hence yellow and increases its efforts to do so in (D) hence really a deeper yellow; it loses this quality by taking on weight in (C), hence red (immobility).

Water is the least stable in color. In (A) it is white (diminshingly physical). In (B) water signifies (retains) liquidity even in distillation (oxygen) hence red, yet it also becomes gaseous (hydrogen) thus tending toward yellow; in (C) it achieves maximum movement (yellow) and in (D) it tends toward immobility (red).

Earth is always stable to the extent that it remains the darker part in any condition. In principle, yellow is the color of dispersal, black of concentration, red of intensity or arrested movement and white of non-physicality or minimal physicality.

In all cases the colors share the tendency of the elements to mix themselves constantly and must therefore be taken as in constant gradation from one to the other.

“It must be emphasized that the progressions in [the figure above] relate to the macrocosmos, that is, more precisely, the universal, external and objective — as it were — basis of physical/physiological processes… [Whereas] the implications of elements and colors on the specific level of the human being, whose form and functions — physical, physiological, psychological and mental/moral — constantly interact with the macrocosmos. This is shown in [the figure below]” (p46-47).

Microcosmic progressions (p48). Click for larger version.

Earth is implcit in life processes at all stages providing physicality or its shadow, hence always black.

Water is more subject to movement in (F)-(G), hence yellow but more balanced and stable in (E) and (H), hence red.

Air is more subject to movement in (E) and (H), hence yellow but more stable and dense in (F) and (G), hence red.

Fire is the invisible presupposition of all processes, hence white throughout.

“In structuring the macrocosmic pictures, I employed… the hierarchical evolutionary principle of organization: fire, air, water and earth (as solid matter, the finished product of evolution). By contrast, since the psychological and mental/moral effects of interaction can be realized only by an individual consciousness, the microscopic series is therefore organized according to the biological principle. The order is exactly reversed since the human being begins with earth (physicality) at birth and rises in the end (ideally) to mental/moral ripeness” (p49).

Nine diagrams by J. L. Benson that derive a picture of the four elements theory, from his 2004 The Inner Nature of Color.

“For the purpose of this study, it is essential to invent a ‘picture’ that can also suggest in spatial terms the concept of the miscibility (krasis) of the [four] elements, since these were understood by the ancients to be processes whereby a constant metamorphosis of the visual configuration of the world at any moment is actually taking place. The descriptive determination of such momentary states lies with two pairs of opposing conditions: hot-cold and wet-dry. These qualities in effect give the parameters of two of the elements, fire and water, whereby it can concluded that fire and water have a particular axial quality, a central governing position in the total concept of four.

“The most obvious and striking aspect of this relationship is, as already suggested, the uncontested polarity of fire and water. The archenemy of fire is water; equally, fire opposes water but with much less immediate impact and finality. Fire is quenched by water; water is evaporated (goes into air) by fire. This stronger quality of water allows it to determine how to pictorialize the relationship. Since the inalienable tendency of water is to seek the horizontal, we may use a horizontal line, whereby the placement of fire and water to left or right is still to be discussed: liquefaction opposes combustion” (p36-7).

“With this given, a second less dramatic but equally inescapable polarity remains: earth and air. Their normal relationship is to be contiguous, with the earth below and the air above… This relationship is logically to be illustrated by a vertical line: condensation opposes rarefaction” (p37).

“Given the interaction of the four elements observable by the senses, we can now cross the two lines” (p38).

“Whereas the position of A and E is given by physical characteristics, the placement of fire and water involves the relationship of left and right. Therefore the science and the laws of picture-making, if there be such, must meet and interact. There is no left and right bias in fire and water as such, but there is a fundamental difference between left and right visually… It was the merit of Vassily Kandinsky, acting on a suggestion of Goethe, to have conceptualized the picture plane as an area — blank or not — that is alive with tensions of weight. Indeed, that plane is an excerpt of each observer’s bodily relationship to the horizontal-vertical conditions of earthly existence. Thus the horizontal and vertical represent, respectively, earth’s plan from L to R and space from up to down. This visual resistance experienced in a defined rectangular pictorial space is naturally strongest below and weakest above. The next strongest resistance (tension) is offered by the right side; this is reduced on the left side but not so much as up and down. Thus, there are four degrees of density (sc. visual density) as represented by the following scheme” (p38):

“The applicability of Kandinsky’s reasoning to the problem at hand, if any, must be axiomatic, as indeed all geometrical reasoning lies inextricably rooted in the human body/mind condition. We may therefore criticize the suggested scheme with fire and water inserted” (p39).

“No conflict exists in the vertical plan. The potential conflict is in the horizontal. Although W is correctly placed on the right in relation to A and E, fire cannot easily be related to density in the sense of the other three. That is because, in contrast to ancient (and some current esoteric) thought that warm is a (primeval) substance, present scientific thought sees fire (warmth) as a condition of other substances. In terms of our picture, a resolution of this dilemma may be sought in regarding the elements not as substances but as processes, where there can be no conflict. In this sense we then have the completed diagram as follows” (p39-40):

“Taking into account again Kandinsky’s criteria and visualizing the results of the four processes in terms of changes of density in weighable and measurable materials of earth existence, combustion is clearly in the right position. Combustion can lighten matter, leaving ashes which are lighter than water or earth but still ultimately heavier than air; and on the other hand it may intensify the process of rarefaction and thus contribute to lightness.

“The next problem is to show the opposing pairs of elements in descriptive sense-analytical terms of early thought. These are described by Empedokles as hot/cold and wet/dry. The existence of four quadrants allows us to arrange these terms in the sense of equally balancing contrasts” (p40):

“N.B. the data about the elements contained in [the above diagram] can also be rendered, and more conveniently, by attaching the information about hot/cold and wet/dry to the vectors, as in the diagram below” (p43), a unified picture of the four elements theory:

“The persistent implication in the method of constructing the picture of the Four Elements theory… namely, that this is an irreducible explanation of earthly realities valid for all of humanity, requires a further comment. The elements qua substance require to be thought of as occupying real space: they are in a sense the planet we live on, they are our own body/mind entity. As such they are Being. But they are also synonymous with processes, so that one could just as well speak of the four processes theory — and as such they belong to the realm of time: they are Becoming. There is evidence that the Greeks themselves conceived of this latter idea without, however, living so much in consciousness of the technical potentialities of the processes which dominate our minds, but rather in the blessedness of feeling the processes as earthly projections of realities inherent in higher worlds. Nowhere is this so explicitly put as in a dialogue of Plutarch (De Defectu Oraculorum, 10):

Others (other authors) say, there is a transmutation of bodies as well as of souls; and that, just as we see of the earth is engendered water, of the water air, and of the air fire, the nature of substance still ascending higher, so good spirits always change for the best, being transformed from men into heroes, and from heroes into Daemons; and from Daemons, by degrees and in a long space of time, a few souls being refined and purified come to partake of the nature of the Divinity.

“If we consider this passage in microscopic terms, the reference to men, whose highest earthly member is nous (fire) [see following post], translates into an overlapping of the circle of the four elements by a higher circle of which nous is the lowest member with three stages above it, each of a finer and more (spiritually) rarefied nature: heroes, Daemons, and the Divine itself. The result of this merger of Heaven as the fifth element and fourfold man is therefore a sevenfold picture in all” (p43-4).