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The fire as a source of life

The Fire and the Tale
Georgio Agamben brings the reader on track to the essential questions of the transforming power of literature – the relation to the mystery of life itself. 


Agamben's latest book consists of a series of essays that revolve around the relationship between art and life. What is at stake in the literature? Is there a fire that our narratives have lost but that the writer is trying to rediscover? What is this philosopher's stone that the author, with the passion of an alchemist, tries to evoke in the furnace of words? The Fire and the Tale deals with literature, the mystery of language, the creative act (poetic act), the difficulty of reading, from the book to the screen, and the relationship between writing and life. The book brings the reader on track to the essential issues of literature as the transforming power – the relationship to the mystery of life itself.

The loss of the fire. We are surrounded by literature and fiction from all sides. Never have so many books been published, but literature itself is just one form of communication among many. Literature as a life-forming utopia, on the other hand, as an experiential force, has lost its significance. As mankind, according to Agamben, step by step, moves ever further away from the sources of the mystery of life, it is because we gradually lose the memory of what the tradition of literature has taught us about the fire – the source of life. Apuleius' (b. 125 AD) The Golden Donkey (The Metamorphoses), whose protagonist turns into a donkey, eventually finds healing in the transformative initiation of literature. The encounter with the source of fire of life is, in the imagery of literature, a meeting with the enigmatic beauty and cruelty that is our life. Based on a Jewish legend from Hasidism, we learn that we cannot get the fire, but we can tell the story, and this should suffice. Mystery always hides its fire, but we get to know it through our stories. So there is something outside the language that the narrative tries to convey – yet we only have access to this through the language. This is where the difficulties begin for modern man's dealings with literature: it reveals either too much or nothing. Either literature is reduced to the good story or to effective communication af emotions and life. But the belief in the forming utopia of literature is the belief in the loss of fire. In Agamben's words: "Literature is the place where we see the dark light coming from the mystery." Fire is the mark of the mystery of life applied to the language. "The literary genres – the tragedy, the elegy, the anthem and the comedy, are nothing but different ways in which the language portrays its loss of this fire." But the author no longer seems to notice these wounds, says Agamben: “They move blind and deaf across the abyss of language and do not hear the grievance of the abyss; they simply believe that they use language as a neutral instrument and do not experience the bitter talk of templates, calculation and revenge. Writing means thinking (contemplating) the language. And those who do not see and love their language, those who are unable to clarify its fine elegant threads or sense the hymnal suss, are not writers. ”

The mystery of life and language. By Walter Benjamin, Agamben learned that studying life is the same as studying language. Philology – the study of the language and literature of a culture – is the king's path to the mystery of life. But if exploring the story is the same as telling a story, the author is faced with the paradox that he can only trust in literature – in particular, the loss of fire. The good literature has a style where the trembling of the absent fire can be heard in the language. Creating a character and showcasing the thrill of defeat and success, curse and happiness is more than a social plot; it seals the individual in a destiny that constitutes life as a mystery. The linguistic image makes the lost mystery accessible. Then it disappears. Only in a flash do we find the enchantment in our lives. We are fine with our disappointment. What has lost its mystery remains inaccessible.

Agamben claims that the computer and the screen have changed our ability to write and think. While the book is defined as a relationship between the paper page and the writing, the screen is a material "block" that remains invisible in what we see before us. We never see the screen as such in its materiality, because as soon as we turn it on, it is full of characters, symbols and images. If the page becomes blank or black it is because it does not work. The screen becomes a ghost that has lost its body. But what distinguishes the work and potential of thought is precisely the materiality of the blank page: "To think is to recall the blank page as we write and read."

The resistance of the action. The creative or creative act no longer makes a difference – it has in a sense lost its very potential for resistance to human life and society. But this is, according to Agamben, because we consider man as an infinite potential to be realized through constant production and realization. We must rethink what he calls "the poetic act" instead of the creative act. For Agamben, it is about understanding potential as something we see from the possibilities of our own wonder, and not from the place of realization. In that case, we never see it there not was realized. We do not see the negativity that opportunities have to be opportunities to be different from necessities: that the possibility of something must also be the possibility of everything that does not exist but which could be found, and which could have been, what we could have imagined os. We lose the sense of opportunity as opportunity, and thus half the story: the history of all the unrealized possibilities. Therefore, creative resistance should not be thought of as an opposition to outside forces, but what happens from within in the creative (poetic) process', where one expose oneself to forces that are at once formative and degrading. Agamben sees the poetic act as the ability to take care of it in the materiality of life and work that cannot be associated with a goal, but a wonder, a wait, a hesitation, boredom, patience. Poetic action as resistance gives way to darkness, the secret, the useless, the loss. All the unproductive activities of life that have sprung into the poetic mystery of creative action. For Agamben, the political resistance of literature is not revolutionary (societal overthrow) but a formation utopia that moves values ​​and boundaries from within. The power of negativity, like the display of the wound, holds a critical force, but is not primarily political.

The creative act no longer makes a difference – it has lost its potential for resistance to human life and society.

They appear stone. What is the relationship between life and work? Agamben asks the question of whether the work of the author is fundamentally about life itself, about the transformation of the self. And if so, what kind of material is paving the way for a possible transformation? The case of Rimbaud, who stopped writing at a young age to disappear in Africa as a gunsmith and striker, raises the paradox of a literary work that affirms a non-literary experience that, through this transformation, just becomes capable of writing. Are you only a poet through his work, or through a way of being and living? Agamben sees a straight line from Rimbaud over symbolist René Daumal (Mount Analog) and back to the alchemists. What interests him here is not the often banal insights of the esoteric genre, but the method: that the transformation of metal happens side by side with the transformation of the subject. The initiation reads, "Transform yourself from the dead stones to the living appearing stones." The practice of writing is a descent, in the resistance of the life-substance. The secret of stone is the secret of man: that it comes from us, that we are its raw material. In the old alchemists described as a "demon", a voice or spark in an inanimate substance. At the Greek alchemists, one encounters at an early stage the notion of the stone containing a spirit. The new journey, the adventure of the spirit, is often referred to as a descent. Study things and turn them into living philosophical stones. Agamben ends with Foucault's considerations of creative activity as a practice or self-care. If scripture gives access to some form of absolution, it is because a living life can never be exhaustively defined through its work, but only through its thinking life practices – ultimately the anonymous life of thought.

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Alexander Carnera
Carnera is a freelance writer living in Copenhagen.

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