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).

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