THE INVENTION OF FIRE

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 conclusions.

-Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire

In “Burning of three witches in Baden, Switzerland,” dated to 1585, three women lie on a large pyre watched by a circle of men. The smoke forms a silhouette of inquisitors with their hoods up, lurking at the periphery of the crowd. The flames are unexpectedly hard-edged and geometrical, each lick stabbing the next with its acute angles.

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You can find many images of what was done to witches in the scrapbook of the protestant minister John Jakob Wick. He called it his Wickiana and compiled news documents from 1505 – 1588, presumably as evidence of a coming apocalypse. Among depictions of grasshoppers, comets, and children attacked by pigs, were many images of the executions of witches. These in addition to the oil paintings in museums and miniatures lining the margins of illuminated manuscripts. Each one I see reminds me how deeply I agree with Susan Sontag’s objections to the propagation of images of war, outlined in Regarding the Pain of Others. Maybe the image’s effect will be to trigger apathetics’ empathy and stop the violence, but more likely they will galvanize the rage of the faithful and teach the ambitious of what a human being is capable.

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I am neither lying nor exaggerating – in “The torture used against witches” (1577) the cherubic boy- man with curly locks has a boner so big it almost interferes with his capacity to turn the wheel that pulls the woman’s arms unaccountably backwards, rendering the deep green of her dress very striking against the crimson of her apron. The parchment is centuries old and tattered, but the pigments have not lost a shade. Or maybe someone came back later to add this color so they could imagine the moment more vividly.

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It is harder than we think to imagine someone else’s pain. Elaine Scarry explains this in her treatise on suffering, The Body in Pain: Making and Unmaking the World. It is even a struggle to clearly remember our own agony after it is over, much less someone else’s. Psychologists theorize that those who torture suffer from an isolating sickness of not being able to derive a sense of others’ emotions from cues of facial expression, body language, and tone of voice. This is not to say their suffering is equivalent to that of those they tortured. Only to help us consider the extremes a person might go to for the relief of seeing some other person’s humanity. We suffer from each other and
we suffer without each other.

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In the British Library’s MS Royal 20 C VII, f. 4v there is pity in the woodcut eyes of the people watching; the bridled horses they sit astride have only the most merciless gaze. I am reminded of this tip for interpreting dreams: Every character is a different version of yourself.

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Turn the page if you can stand to look into the face of the man amidst those first tentative licks the
pitchfork peasant tends, you’ll see he is weeping, but softly, as any of us knows how to weep.

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Walpurga Hausmannin suffered one of the very worst executions I know of. For a long time I didn’t write it – my memory of the Museum of Torture is still fresh. I started on that tour as ironically as anyone backpacking her early 20s through Prague, but the instruments were as real as that stag party of drunk bachelors ahead of me laughing past scold’s bridles, lead shoes, collections of variously sized wheels. They hung on each other’s shoulders while singing a loud and slurring bar song about the maid who roasted six pears but only gave her betrothed two.

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This executioner in a Wickiana entry from 1587 is like a dancer with his massive thighs and slender knees, a delicate right foot en pointe as he reaches for a stick of wood with a flourish of the right arm. The waifs at the stake are wailing, but their faces are charcoal smudged so it is easier to keep looking.

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In the Spiezer Chronik (1485) Jan Hus sits with a flame of yellow hair inside a blossom of fire, smiling. He looks like the illustration in my daughter’s picture book of Thumbelina just born from a peony. The man poking him with a pitchfork wears the expression of dismay.

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Pain is private and there is no easy way to put it on display that does not have a titillating quality. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for recounting the truth of what was done and also for opening yourself up to the pain of knowing it. Though it is also the case that making someone look is sometimes used as a form of torture and is sometimes used in the making and training of torturers.

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Walpurga Hausmannin was stopped five times before she reached the town square. First they tore her left breast and right arm with irons. Then they tore her right breast. At the third stop they tore her left arm. At the fourth her left hand was cut off. They paused before the stake to cut off her right hand before lighting the fire.

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The medieval Europeans were such an allegorical people. Nothing meant what it was. Walpurga’s torture is unbearable in all of its meanings. The left hand was cut because “if mine eye offend me.” The right hand because it was the one she used to take her oath as a midwife. Her breasts and arms were torn because it was believed the devil took away almost all of a witch’s capacity to feel. And the fire because “none shall suffer a witch to live” and “their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire.” In general, the faces of the women in the flames will be unlikely in the allegorical extreme – peaceful or penitent or snarling as a demon would. Hans-Jurgen Gunther showed a red-winged dragon with sagging breasts and the face of a pig pulling something ephemeral (a soul? a demon? her raspy and cracking voice?) out of a woman burning alive with her hands tied behind her back. To convey her face of pain would be beside the point – an execution is not about the pain of the dying, it is about the symbols those who watch can’t help but interpret.

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If you must look, interpret instead the quizzical faces of those who are trying to figure out what this sign is telling them. Or how they wear the open-mouthed astonishment of someone who just figured out what it all means.

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Medieval art marches through the centuries on a trajectory from profoundly and awkwardly two- dimensional towards an ever-more realistic illusion of depth and perception that would be perfected in the Age of Enlightenment, when witch trials became an embarrassing old superstition while the torments of slavery emerged as the backbone of modern economies. But in some cases the depiction of flames skipped over all that slow evolution with a viewfinder straight into the minds of the post- war abstract expressionists melting the paint of their feelings like the center of an atom bomb.

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The abstraction of fire is a constant through the centuries, including JMW Turner, who painted sea battles and Parliament on fire because a burning sky is permission to brush on the chaos of what you see beyond seeing as your hand trembles its work beyond reason. Whistler was another of these apostles of flames, painting a series of nocturnes, in which the night is so many layers of abstracted shades of darkness and the fireworks fall in a formless but beautiful drizzle of gold leafing.

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On occasion one of these anonymous painters working on this or that chronicle in the solitude of the monastery looks away from the face they cannot show to the fire itself. If you set a person on fire, the horror of such abstractions show, eventually their face stops being a face and becomes part of the fire. In the movies they can only make this look campy and implausible. But on the canvas it is painful and teaches you how to feel. Hard to look and hard to look away, they are images that make you want to undo time. The power in such radical allegories is that they simplify what is and what it means to the same breath: Everyone is as fragile as you are.

Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of the essay collection Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past, which won the 20916Non/Fiction Prize from Ohio State University, as well as two poetry collections, Rag & Bone (Elixir,2011) and The End of Pink, which won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. A recipient of grants from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, and Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, I teach in the MFA program at University of Minnesota.

 

 

 

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