April 14, 2023
I love my birthday but hate my astrological sign. I am grateful to have entered this world on March 31, in spring, just past the equinoctial victory of light over darkness, in the season of new hope that always springs eternal. But most of my life I hated having Aries as my sun sign, because every description of Aries that I have ever read describes the kind of arrogant, obnoxious male that I would give anything not to be. The adjectives are remarkably consistent: self-confident, selfish, domineering, a “natural leader” in the way that corporate capitalism thinks of natural leaders: as head-butting rams who shove all obstacles out of their way. Aries and asshole are close together, and not just in the dictionary. Surely this cannot be who I really am. Surely my moon sign or my ascendent or some planet in some house can rescue me from having to acknowledge any resemblance to this zodiacal toxicity.
But, alas, I am too much a Jungian not to understand that when something rubs you this much the wrong way, you are almost certainly rubbing up against some form of your shadow. Aries is a fire sign, whereas my impulse is to identify with water and its feminine associations—after all, I just got done writing a newsletter about it. But, even more alas, I am an ex-Catholic (if a Catholic can ever be ex), and I was drilled, early on, in examination of conscience until it has become a reflex. I think of my irritability and impatience, my enormous stubbornness, my Roman-candle teaching style, and the other personality that emerges when I am in the classroom or otherwise in performance mode, the wisecracking cocksure quick-thinking improvisational Trickster with the loud voice and even louder laugh, who is not an act but in some ways more me than I am myself. I think of his rather dangerous proclivity for firewater. So, Aries it is after all. It does not preclude my water side, and I sometimes think of myself as a Pisces born a little too late. But we are not just one person, any of us. It is always best to get acquainted with one’s other selves.
I do not “believe in” astrology. But any symbolic system as old and enormously influential as astrology has its roots deep in the unconscious, and is therefore worth taking seriously, which is not the same as taking it literally. The stars do not control human life: they model it, and meditating on their patterns may—or may not—tell us something about what lies in our blind spot. In this way, they are no different than other forms of modeling that are more fashionable at the moment. Depth psychology itself began with two competing models of the psyche, one based on water and one on fire. In the “hydraulic” model, the psyche seeks equilibrium, floating or sinking. The libido model, in contrast, is more dynamic, based on greater or lesser charges of energy. Asking which is “true” is not terribly useful: they are patterns to think with. Each captures a different aspect of the unconscious.
The same can be said of the symbolism of the four elements that astrology has been integrated with. From the pre-Socratics to T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets the four elements have been part of the structure not of objective nature but of the imagination. Once again, that is not to say they are mere fictions or conventions. We did not “make them up.” It would be truer to say that they are aspects of something that makes us up. They are ways of experiencing and understanding the world, ourselves, and God. Using Kantian language, Jung called his archetypes a priori forms of the imagination. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard said that science did not develop out of observation and experiment. Those came later. Science developed out of that form of imaginative meditation that he calls “reverie.” In a remarkable book called The Psychoanalysis of Fire, whose English translation has a Preface by Northrop Frye, Bachelard says, “One can study only what one has first dreamed about. Science is formed rather on a reverie than on an experiment, and it takes a good many experiments to dispel the mists of the dream” (22). In other words, scientific method may be viewed as a method of gaining knowledge by detaching from the imagination, not to repudiate it (though some naïve people, including some naïve scientists, more or less think so) but to gain an understanding of the ways in which it shapes and influences our experience. There is real chemistry, but there is also—or should be—what he calls a “chemistry of reverie” (90). Bachelard’s contribution to such a discipline is a series of books on the elements, including Air and Dreams, Water and Dreams, Earth and Reveries of Will, and Earth and Reveries of Repose.
One of the axioms of a chemistry of reverie would be that poetic temperaments can be classified according to what Bachelard calls “the tetravalence of reverie” (90). Some poets are fire poets: fire is part of their poetic DNA. However, different fire poets may be fascinated by different aspects of fire, so that Bachelard speaks of the “Novalis complex,” the “Hoffmann complex,” and so on. He is himself more a Romantic essayist than a conventional philosopher, akin to creative nonfiction writers like Borges and Loren Eiseley, and his style is less methodical than associative. Frye’s Preface sketches the larger mythological structure within which Bachelard’s leisurely ruminations meander. My own version of this Big Picture, as follows, may eventually, I hope, bestow some insight into my own fire complex, while at the same time providing help to readers wrestling with their own elemental complexes.
Any archetypal image may, if made a focus, become the center of the imaginative universe, so that an anatomy of fire imagery yields a cosmos in which everything is on fire. That is more or less the perspective of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, who said that fire was the basic substance out of which all else was made, although less a substance than a kind of Life Force. Gerard Manley Hopkins, in a poem called "That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire, and of the Comfort of the Resurrection,” says, “Million-fuelèd, nature’s bonfire burns on.” The Resurrection is a comfort because the “world’s wildfire” leaves “but ash.” Aries, the fire sign, was the sign under which the world was first created, and the modern Creation story, the Big Bang, is a fire myth, tamed into science by observation and mathematics. Galaxies upon galaxies exploded in all directions, and the lights went on in the universe. The universe of astronomy is largely a universe of fire: planets are an afterthought, fire recollected in tranquility.
We think of explosions as destructive and chaotic, yet both myth and science tell us that it was not so in the beginning. With the Big Bang, the universe exploded into order, an order so intricate and beautiful that Einstein felt there was something quasi-sacred about it. Most scientists see the heavens in mechanistic and materialistic terms, extending the natural order to the farthest reaches of the cosmos. But the word “cosmos” in fact means, or once meant, a beautiful order, likened to a jewelry ornament, a truth which is beauty, in Keats’s famous phrase. In pre-scientific mythology. This is the world as God first created it and saw that it was good. In pre-scientific mythology, that world survives beyond the orbit of the moon: only this “sublunary” world is fallen into physical nature. And it is a world of fire—spiritual fire, however. C.S. Lewis has some fun, in Out of the Silent Planet, the first volume of his science fiction trilogy, imagining--in 1938, when it was still possible--the surprise of the first space travelers when they realize that the Middle Ages were right after all.
Fire has two emanations, light and heat, and both of these are spiritualized in the unfallen world above this middle earth. The greatest treatment of this in literature is Dante’s Paradiso, which I always advertise to students as the greatest light show in literary history. For 33 cantos, everything is light. In the final cantos, Dante looks into the light of the Empyrean, the ultimate form of the cosmos, and at first is merely blinded. But as his eyes adjust he is able to take in more and more of the light which is spirit itself and consequently a form of God. The more light he takes in, the more his being is dilated into a “transhuman” state. In this ecstatic condition, he is able to know how, in the opening words of the Paradiso, “The glory of the One Who moves all things / penetrates all the universe, reflecting / in one part more and in another less” (Mark Musa translation). The Productions of Time observed how the imagination, at its highest or anagogic level, reveals a vision of order and a vision of love, two forms of the same vision. The vocabulary of the vision of order tends to be that of light: the intellect seeks visual metaphors of reflection, illumination, enlightenment, and so on. The vision of love seeks metaphors of heat and warmth, of life’s vital fire that on the human level becomes desire, making us all heat-seeking missiles in search of an object.
The bodies of heavenly beings may be on fire, though with a spiritual fire that does not consume, as with Moses’ burning bush. The two highest orders of angels, the cherubim and seraphim, are angels of contemplation and love, colored blue and red respectively in traditional iconography. It was one of the seraphim who touched a burning coal to Isaiah’s lips, enabling him to prophesy. In “The Burning Babe,” by the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell, the Christ child appears blazing at Christmas, his own Nativity star. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends as tongues of flame, enabling the disciples to speak and understand all languages. The pun on “tongues of flame” is not accidental. In canto 26 of the Inferno, Ulysses is imprisoned within a gigantic flame for his deceitful speech. In order to speak, he has to make the forked tip of the flame move, speaking with forked tongue. This is said to be a reference to a passage in the Epistle of James (3:6) speaking of the evil tongue as a devouring flame.
Even the mortal body may at times be “charged with the grandeur of God,” to quote another Hopkins poem. The haloes of saints and the crowns of kings signify bodies lit from within, like incandescent bulbs, with the fiery energy sometimes called charisma or mana. It is a mark of holiness to be unharmed by fire, the one element in which humanity normally cannot live. Holy men walk on burning coals. In the third chapter of the Book of Daniel, three men are thrown by the Babylonian king into a furnace, yet the king says, “Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt: and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God” (3:25). “The Song of the Three Holy Children” in the Apocrypha is a tremendous hymn sung by the three men in the midst of the fire, calling upon all of Creation to praise the God who has preserved them. Divine fire may descend, while human fire seeks to ascend in response. The flame of a candle seems to yearn upward, longing to leap off its wick into the transcendent. This is the imagery of both sacrifice and cremation. As the physical residue is consumed, a vital essence is liberated and rises towards the celestial fire that is its origin. Hercules, suffering intolerable burning pain from the poison of the Hydra’s venom, immolates himself on his own funeral pyre, and achieves a unique double fate. His mortal shade is in the underworld, but his immortal part dwells forever with the gods. One of my favorite Sylvia Plath poems is a lighthearted—and lightheaded—version of an upward apotheosis through fire. In “Fever 103,” she tells a lover,
I am too pure for you or anyone. Your body Hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern—
At the end, she says, “I think I am going up, / I think I may rise—” Where? “To Paradise.” The Victorian age was briefly fascinated by the popular legend of “spontaneous combustion,” which some authorities tried to swear had a scientific basis. When Dickens used it in Bleak House to get a villainous character (named Krook!) off the stage, he cited the supposed scientific basis—but also made an allusion to the Last Judgment, appropriate to a novel about the law.
Traditionally, the four elements lined up along the vertical axis mundi that has appeared so often in this newsletter, because it is, so to speak, the backbone of mythology. Humanity lives on the earth and in the air. Below us is water, the “deep” out of which God caused the land to arise. Above us is the realm of spiritual fire that physical fire always seems to be seeking to return to. In the seventeenth century, John Donne lamented, however, that “The new philosophy calls all in doubt; / The element of fire is quite put out.” It was not actually put out, but was desacralized, the fires now being hydrogen furnaces hotter than any king’s. Myths are never really put out. Instead, they may be recreated into a more modern form. Samuel R. Delany’s science fiction novel Nova is a quest to descend into the heart of a star going nova in order to collect a certain trans-uranium element capable of providing infinite energy to a galactic empire. Delany uses the space-opera plot, however, as the vehicle for an intellectually dense inquiry into the quest for transcendence, densely layered with literary and mythological allusions, including the quest for the Grail. It is one of the great literary science fiction novels, and is influenced by another, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, in which a low-life character named Gully Foyle is accidentally exposed to another fictitious element, called PyrE, and transcends time and space, appearing, like a parody of the Transfiguration, at various places and times as a burning man with a tiger tattoo over his face, a reference to Blake’s poem “The Tyger,” in which the tiger is “burning bright / In the forests of the night” because it has been shaped in another furnace, that of some unknown Creator figure.
Fire is not just transcendent, however. The natural world, our middle earth, is a world of cyclical time, and may be imagined in terms of the solar cycle of the year. Here we have returned to astrology, because the sun moves through the twelve houses of the zodiac in the course of the year. This is in fact a solar death-and-rebirth myth. The sun is born at dawn in the East, rises to the zenith at mid-day, sets in the West—and disappears. The next morning it is back in the East again. One explanation was that it traveled underground through a series of caves. There was a curious craze for solar mythology in the early twentieth century, perhaps as something of an alternative to the dying-god figures studied by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough. Those figures were vegetation deities, and thus embodiments of the cycle of fertility that endlessly renews the natural world but does not escape it. The solar myth seems ambiguous. On the one hand, it too marks the cycle of fallen time—after all, it is the way by which we determine the year. Yet it is sky imagery and not earth imagery, and seems to hint at the possibility of something more than mere repetition. At some point, the myth of Hercules’ twelve labors acquired solar associations. Heracles descended to the underworld and returned; he also stole the golden apples of the Hesperides, which in an undisplaced version of the myth would be the fruit of immortality. Another fire myth that is cyclical and yet seems to hint at more than mere repetition is that of the phoenix that, like Hercules, is self-immolating but is born again out of its own ashes. In Shakespeare’s strange and wonderful lyric poem “The Phoenix and Turtle,” a phoenix and turtledove, symbolically red and white, have consummated their love in a fiery blaze that is at once death and transcendence.
The dying-god vegetation deities were associated with a goddess figure, often with lunar associations. Solar mythology, in contrast, is co-opted to become the imagery of human power, especially male power. Kings have been sun kings long before Louis XIV. This is the area of the kind of solar male toxicity that informs so many descriptions of the Aries personality. In some patriarchal Creation myths, the creator defeats a female monster identified with the primeval waters of chaos and makes the world out of her body, as Babylonian Marduk did with the female dragon-figure Tiamat. This has been psychologized in some versions of depth psychology: the heroic solar ego has to rebel against and defeat the regressive feminine unconscious in order to achieve mature independence. Unfortunately, such an allegorizing risks lending credence to the notion that male dominance and patriarchy are inevitable, that men’s autonomy can only be achieved by female subordination. That is an ideological perversion of the myth—a justification by weak and insecure males. A truly strong male does not feel threatened by women’s emotional influence on him. In fact, exactly the opposite is true. Precisely because he is strong and confident, a true man risks equality, even vulnerability with the feminine in all its forms, opens himself to interaction with, even union with the feminine. This is as true in the heterosexual man’s relationship with real women, whom he is not afraid of and does not turn into “the Other,” as it is in his relationship with his own unconscious, where his own feminine side is located.
Weak men make war, however, fighting other men to prove themselves, and fire is pressed into service of the human aggressive drive. In the Bronze Age, fire was used in the smelting of metals in order to make weapons and armor for warriors.
The god Hephaestus was a smith: it is he who crafts the armor and wondrous shield of Achilles in the Iliad. With. gunpowder, fire became an actual weapon of war: in Paradise Lost, Milton appropriately assigns its invention to Satan himself in the war of the rebel angels against God. During World War II, the bombing of London inspired at least two great poets. When the imagination is at white heat, images fuse with their opposites, so that destructive fire unites with the spiritual fire that redeems it. They are the same fire as seen by the natural and spiritual selves respectively. “Little Gidding,” the last of Eliot’s Four Quartets is written, as it were, in the tonality of fire. Part IV opens, “The dove descending breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror,” which unites a Nazi bomber with the descending fire of the Holy Spirit. The rest of the stanza spells out the significance:
The only hope, or else despair Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre— To be redeemed from fire by fire.
In the following stanza, destructive fire is linked to Hercules’ “intolerable shirt of flame.” Fire falls from the heavens, and the response is fire leaping upward.
Dylan Thomas has not one but two poems about the death of a child in the bombing raids, “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” and “Ceremony after a Fire Raid.” The latter’s final section is recessional music after a funeral service, again an upward movement in response to the fall of the bombs. But here, what erupts skyward is water, the sea of Creation let loose, so that
The masses of the infant-bearing sea Erupt, fountain, and enter to utter forever Glory glory glory The sundering ultimate kingdom of genesis’ thunder.
Nonetheless, it is tempting to see this eruption as a rising counterpart to the fire that fell in the raids, and thus as an example of what Shelley in Epipsychidion called the burning fountain, source of all things. Thomas lived long enough into the age of Hiroshima to write a few poems mindful of a new fire, brighter than a thousand suns, waiting to fall from above. He planned a sequence in which humanity has actually destroyed itself and is being remembered by a surviving pastoral world. It was appropriately left unfinished.
According to Freud, the twin drives of the natural self are aggression and sexuality. Section III of Eliot’s The Waste Land is titled “The Fire Sermon,” a reference to the Buddha’s famous sermon in which the entire world is seen on fire with unsatisfied and unsatisfiable desire. The section is filled with references to crude and sordid couplings, from the rape of Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphoses to a woman who says, “I raised my knees / Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe.” The section ends, “To Carthage then I came // Burning burning burning burning,” out of a famous passage from the Confessions of sex-tormented St. Augustine, who as a young man came to Carthage, “a cauldron of unholy loves,” being a cauldron of unholy loves himself. Libido as sexual energy is a psychoanalytic term, but that is just technical terminology for a popular metaphor, from Jim Morrison singing “Light My Fire” to the title of the film Body Heat.
But as there is a fire above, so there is a fire below, and it is here that I feel able at least to come to terms with my identification as Aries. Popular Christianity reduces the fires below to the demonic, the fires of hell. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, the concept of “the sublime” circled around the intuition of a source of unknown and awe-inspiring power lying beneath the ordinary limits of natural life. As Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” suggests, the sublime, like plumbing, comes in hot and cold varieties. The damned in the deepest levels of Dante’s hell are increasingly encased in ice. The setting for many Romantic epiphanies of the sublime is the frozen Alps, as in Shelley’s “Mt. Blanc.” But sublime fire, reached through a descent quest, is perhaps most often represented by volcanoes. I teach an essay called “Inside the Volcano,” by Donovan Webster, that describes a climb downward into a live volcano, suspended hundreds of feet above lava that reaches 2200 degrees Fahrenheit, with acid rain so strong it melts the metal frames of Webster’s glasses. A member of the descent team, Carsten Peter, has been driven to descend repeatedly into volcanoes all around the world. Webster describes how “lava moves, burbles, and flies through the air with the consistency of syrup….It’s mesmerizing: lava sloshing back and forth, bubbles emerging and popping like a thick stew. As we survey Marum’s lip and crater, I can’t take my eyes off the lava. Suddenly I understand Peter’s obsession” (52-53).
I can understand it too. The ego is tempted into becoming possessed by the numinous power of any archetype, and the volcano is no exception. History provides an example of volcanic inflation, as Jung called it, in the figure of Empedocles, who threw himself into Mt. Etna ranting that he was a god, subject of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Empedocles on Etna.” In Tolkien, the rings of power were forged in fire, and Frodo has to cast his ring into the fires of Mt. Doom while resisting the lure of such inflation. Pyromaniacs are exhilarated by and identify with the awesome, destructive power of fire that seemingly cannot be tamed. However, there is a price to pay for “playing with fire.” One night, when I was in high school, our whole house was shaken as if by an earthquake. I went outside, and saw a huge light a block away, down on the main street. I ran down to find that it was a car wash that, as we later learned, had been blown up by arsonists for the sake of insurance money. I arrived on the scene just in time to see gigantic steel I-beams melt like pretzels, turned into exactly the kind of lava that Donovan Webster saw in his volcano. But the dupes hired to do the job were inept, and were literally hoist with their own petard. One of them, turned into a burning man in a quite different sense from the spiritual figures spoken of above, died on the lawn of someone I went to high school with.
It may even have been that same summer that I worked manual labor at Republic Steel. There, I watched overhead crane operators lower and retrieve gigantic steel ingots into huge gas furnaces. My job was to operate archaic machinery, made in the 1930’s, that slid open horizontal ten-ton doors covering the furnaces, which were pits in the ground, then close them again when the crane operator was finished. No one was allowed to work more than a half hour at a time at that job because of the intense heat. But it was worth it for the few seconds’ view into that furnace, in which a dozen ingots glowed orange-white in air that was a haze of heat.
I was only 18 when I worked that job. There is something suggestive about the title of Norman Maclean’s award-winning book Young Men and Fire (1992), whose subject is the Mann Gulch fire of 1949 in which 13 men died but one saved himself by burning an area with a counter-fire that the main fire jumped over. James Keelaghan's powerful folk song “Cold Missouri Waters” is sung from the point of view of the man who lived, but wracked by survivor’s guilt because he could not convince the other men to follow his example.
I am a bit startled to realize how many fires have burned around the edges of my life. Years later, my mother’s house was totaled by fire, thankfully when she was not in it. A malfunctioning power line sent 12,000 volts directly into the power box in her basement. Later, my father, brother, and I scavenged the charcoal-blackened ruins for what we could save. The electrical blast had blown a hole in the living room floor that looked as if an ICBM had been launched right through it out of the basement. As my mother was in full-blown paranoid schizophrenia at that time, the fire seemed an objective correlative to what had happened to her psyche.
The power represented by such fires is inhuman. And yet, fire can be tamed, almost as an animal is tamed, and put to human uses. This is one of the great themes of myth and literature, associated with the name of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. He did more than that: as he explains himself in a speech in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, he showed the human race that fire is the source of all the arts of civilization. Prometheus, although himself a Titan and not human, represents a human creative power capable of forging in the smithy of its soul, to borrow a famous phrase from Joyce’s artist figure Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “the uncreated conscience of the race.” It is the imagination seen as a power that can remake the world, but which does so by first remaking human beings themselves in a process that can be called purgatorial. In addition to the punitive fires of hell, Catholicism believes in the refining fires of Purgatory. I Corinthians 3:13-15, said to be the Biblical basis for Purgatory, asserts that every person’s soul shall be tried by fire. In the traditional view, God is in charge of this process and not humanity itself, which is why Dante makes Purgatory a mountain ascending towards the “stars,” the last word in each of the three canticles of the Divine Comedy. But beginning with the Romantics, the purgatorial process is increasingly seen as the instrument of a human creative power. The Christian position is that humanity cannot save itself, but is dependent on a higher power that may or may not choose, for reasons of its own, to redeem it. Bootstrapping is impossible. But a certain post-Romantic revolutionary view is that, as Blake puts it, “God only acts, and is, in existing beings and men.” We have been given the gift of imaginative fire, and we shall be blamed if we hide it under a bushel. Blake’s mythical figure of the imagination is Los, a smith who dwells in the “dens of Urthona” at the nadir of the world.
This does not mean beginning to think that we are as gods. After all, the problem with the gods is that they think they are as gods. But it does mean to accept adult responsibility for the state of our own lives and for the world. The fires of technology do not have to be used for war or capitalist domination, but can and have been used in the interests of a better human life. Politically, in the United States, we set off fireworks on the Fourth of July to celebrate liberty. Rather surprisingly, it is George Bernard Shaw who, in a series of plays including The Devil’s Disciple, Major Barbara, and Heartbreak House, uses the imagery of fire and explosives in the cause of true liberty rather than authoritarianism. In this he was in the path of Blake, whose mythical figure of political, sexual, and artistic liberationism has hair of fire, and who rises up against the cold, white-haired reactionary Urizen.
But Blake is utterly clear that all would-be utopian efforts will become corrupted by the will to power unless the imagination first begins by healing its own blindness. We said that the spiritual fire at the top of the axis mundi has twin emanations, light and heat, intellect and love. So does the fire at the bottom of the axis. The light generated by the downward and inward fire is a form of gnosis, as we see in Gnosticism itself, in the Inner Light movement of left-wing Protestantism, including Milton; in alchemy, whose sealed vessel was a purgatorial furnace of mental transformation; in the Romantic theory of the creative imagination. Such a gnosis may occur as a mystical or visionary epiphany, but it may also occur through the discipline of the arts. Blake spoke of “Poetry, Painting, & Music, the three powers in Man of conversing with paradise, which the flood did not sweep away.” There is an angel with a flaming sword keeping us out of paradise. Sometimes it may be necessary to fight fire with fire, to save oneself and others by lighting a counter-fire. If that is the point of being an Aries, I am content.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Psychoanalysis of Fire. Translated by Alan C. M. Ross. Preface by Northrop Frye. Beacon, 1964.
Webster, Donovan. “Inside the Volcano.” In Dreams and Inward Journeys: A Rhetoric and Reader for Writers, 8th edition. Edited by Marjorie Ford and Jon Ford. Pearson, 2012. 47-53.