Man is a Creation of Desire

Here is the passage on desire and fire from Gaston Bachelard that inspired the quotation ever present on the masthead of this portion of the Christian Integration world. Next week, I'll post a passage from Josef Pieper's Happiness and Contemplation which ties the world of Poet and Sailor together, and grounds the following passage.

"The fire confined to the fireplace was no doubt for man the first object of reverie, the symbol of repose, the invitation to repose. One can hardly conceive of a philosophy of repose that would not include a reverie before a flaming log fire. Thus, in our opinion, to be deprived of a reverie before a burning fire is to lose the first use and the truly human use of fire. To be sure, a fire warms us and gives us comfort. But one only becomes fully aware of this comforting sensation after quite a long period of contemplation of the flames; one only receives comfort from the fire when one leans his elbows on his knees and holds his head in his hands. This attitude comes from the distant past. The child by the fire assumes it naturally. Not for nothing is it the attitude of the Thinker. It leads to a very special kind of attention which has nothing in common with the attention involved in watching or observing. Very rarely is it utilized for any other kind of contemplation. When near the fire, one must be seated; one must rest without sleeping; one must engage in reverie on a specific object . . .

Of course the supporters of the theory of the utilitarian formation of the mind will not accept a theory so facile in its idealism, and they will point out to us the multiple uses of fire in order to ascertain the exact interest that we have in it: not only does fire give heat, but it also cooks meats. As if the complex hearth, the peasant’s hearth, precluded reverie! . . .

From the notched teeth of the chimney hook there hung the black cauldron. The three-legged cooking pot projected over the hot embers. Puffing up her cheeks to blow into the steel tube, my grandmother would rekindle the sleeping flames. Everything would be cooking at the same time: the potatoes for the pigs, the choice potatoes for the family. For me there would be a fresh egg cooking under the ashes . . . and on days when I was on my good behavior, they would bring out the waffle iron. Rectangular in form, it would crush down the fire of thorns burning red as the spikes of sword lilies. And soon the gaufre or waffle would be pressed against my pinafore, warmer to the fingers than to the lips. Yes, then indeed I was eating fire, eating its gold, its odor and even its crackling while the burning gaufre was crunching under my teeth . . .

And it is always like that, through a kind of extra pleasure—like dessert—that fire shows itself a friend of man. It does not confine itself to cooking; it makes things crisp and crunchy. It puts the golden crust on the griddle cake; it gives a material form to man’s festivities. As far back in time as we can go, the gastronomic value has always been more highly prized than the nutritive value, and it is in joy and not in sorrow that man discovered his intellect. The conquest of the superfluous gives us a greater spiritual excitement than the conquest of the necessary. Man is a creation of desire, not a creation of need.

But the reverie by the fireside has axes that are more philosophical. Fire is for the man who is contemplating it an example of a sudden change or development and an example of circumstantial development. Less monotonous and less abstract than flowing water, even more quick to grow and to change than the young bird we watch every day in its nest in the bushes, fire suggests the desire to change, to speed up the passage of time, to bring all of life to its conclusion, to its hereafter. In these circumstances the reverie becomes truly fascinating and dramatic; it magnifies human destiny; it links the small to the great, the hearth to the volcano, the life of a log to the life of a world. The fascinated human individual hears the call of the funeral pyre. For him destruction is more than a change, it is a renewal. . . .

Love, death, and fire are united in the same moment. Through its sacrifice in the heart of the flames, the mayfly gives us a lesson in eternity. This total death which leaves no trace is the guarantee that our whole person has departed for the beyond. To lose everything in order to gain everything. The lesson taught by the fire is clear: ‘After having gained all through skill, through love or through violence you must give up all, you must annihilate yourself.’”
—Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 14-16.

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