Why do human beings love fire? Why do we find it hard to look away from even the smallest candleflame? Many anthropologists put it down to simple inheritance: the hominids who became our ancestors were those most susceptible to fire’s charms, for all its peril. Fire gave us cooking and tool-making; it freed us from the tyranny of the sun, allowing people to gather and work after dark; the ability to control it conferred status and thus, a foundation for more elaborate social structures. It was both an everyday tool and a terrible supernatural force to worship and wield against enemies. Small wonder that, thousands of years later, we seek its likeness in artworks of all kinds, from the hellish radiance of Francisco Goya’s El Incendio to the smouldering poltergeists of The Sims.
Artworks like these may explore and even celebrate fire, but they also illuminate our distance from it. As Professor Daniel Fessler of the University of California argues, fascination with flame today isn’t a universal human hallmark, but specific to post-industrial, “developed” regions where actual, open fire is seldom encountered. Fessler notes that children in areas where fire is an ordinary sight are drawn to it at first, but lose interest around the age of seven. Those of us who grow up in more “civilised” places never learn to live with flame, and are thus never able to overcome this infant fixation. For us, fire remains exotic, alien, a thing we fantasise about even as we are encouraged to think of it as a viral invader.
The anthropologist Stephen Pyne links this removal of open flame from daily life to the debasing of fire as a cosmic concept, with severe consequences for our understanding of the role combustion plays in shaping our world. Once upon a time, he writes, European philosophers and natural scientists considered fire a primeval substance, like water and earth – “fundamental to the world and essential to any process of change.” This is the notion of fire advanced in the Promethean universe of From Software’s Dark Souls, where the discovery of flame inaugurates a golden hierarchy of gods and monsters. But in life as in the cindered geography of the Souls games, fire has lost its spark. Put under the microscope, it has undergone a “devolution from a universal cause to a chemical consequence, the mere motion of molecules, the quantum bonding of oxygen”. Open flame, similarly, has been reduced from a source of community to a corrosive nuisance – at best, “a ceremonial relic or badge of primitivism, still bound by the chains of superstition and habit”, at worst “a destroyer of cities, a savager of soil, a befowler of air”.