Often, when reading a book or hearing a song, a phrase will grab a hold of me and become repeated in my head until I find the right way to release it. I came across the striking phrase “sacred fire” in the pages of The Red and the Black by Stendhal. The phrase refers to Julien, the novel’s protagonist, and his early dreams and ambitions of becoming as powerful a figure as his idol Napoleon. While contemplating a convenient and comfortable job offered by a friend of his, Julien grows afraid that the ensuing security will extinguish his sacred fire, his burning desire to live a life greater than ordinary.
Sacred fire denotes something even more profound than ordinary ambition; the flame living within us when born but extinguished, gradually and sometimes completely, by the demands and limitations of our circumstances. Our dreams are often greater than our results. Yet, the protection of this flame is internal as much as external. We must guard this fire against our own weakness, our own laziness which often cunningly disguises itself as lack of opportunity, a “smarter” and more convenient submission to fate.
The guarding of this flame is beautifully visualized and represented in Andrey Tarkovsky’ s film Nostalghia, one of the last scenes of which depicts the protagonist’s – a poet – excruciating walk with a burning candle through a large pool of water. All his efforts are concentrated on shielding the unprotected fire, the weak and inconstant flame, here symbolizing the frailty of human life, from being extinguished. Yet, it does, and the man must relight it and begin again. The focus of the man on this protective act is exhausting to watch but the scene makes it clear that the delicate flame is all that we have, to protect.
Daily, we relinquish parts of ourselves to different places and people; often, to activities and experiences that do not deserve all our effort. We surrender our flame willingly, I believe, uncertain of what to do with it; in jobs which we, sometimes, can barely stand, in people, of whom we are uncertain understand us, in superficial and formal activities in which our entire being should – and sometimes does –revolt against us for inflicting this injustice upon it. To survive, without great scars, we crush this internal revolt and continue going through our motions only half-awake.
Often, in the past and especially in the U.S, people, lightly using a word like passion, have asked me what mine was. Since I felt ambivalent about most things – I could have done them or not – I used to feel ashamed about my own lack of answer. I was certain that they knew theirs and envied this clarity. I used to stammer and invent, either looking for an answer or a way around an answer, my specialty. I knew I liked reading, cinema and really, everything related to the arts but I was just a passive observer…until very recently.
My desire to write came in the form of a gnawing annoyance with myself, a feeling that I should try to concretize all those layers and layers of information I had so aimlessly but hungrily absorbed in the past. This dissatisfaction has always found ways of emerging in various forms in my relationships with others and the external world but never in the one that required disciplined work and focus on myself. Yet, relationships, jobs, an active social life did not suffice; as soon as I felt satisfied by something, I would soon grow hungry again for an emotion, for a release.
The days during which I wrote my first few essays were not necessarily the happiest bu some of the most satisfying of my life. Although I’m not sure what will happen in the future or whether they will be read and understood by others, I finally found a way to put all my aimless curiosity and experience –literary, artistic, real – into a concrete form. Most importantly, writing has provided me with a motivation for carefully observing myself and others, feeling, thinking – ultimately, living – a motivation which has always existed in one form or another but never wholly belonging to me alone.
I hope I won’t grow tired, like Julien, and let others and, most importantly, myself, extinguish my sacred flame. Often, we doubt ourselves but as writing is a process with no clear demarcated end – one can always improve, explore, experiment with new forms – I hope that I will continue to simply do it, not push it aside conveniently for less important but more seemingly urgent demands. And, fearing my own weakness and understanding Julien’s surrender a little too well, I hope that a powerful refrain like Dylan Thomas’ words “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light” will help me in moments when it will seem easier to surrender, as the power and beauty of words always has.by Kleitia Vaso