Let’s make this summer an elemental one — an ode to earth, air, water, fire. Outdoor concerts, swims in the lake, bonfires, fireflies... A time to consciously enjoy all the sensations of the season — the elements of the natural world that now, more than any other time of year, interact in dynamic relation with each other, radiating life and giving rise to something singular and inexhaustible. Summer is the time to feel a part of that continuous process of birth and destruction from which no thing, as Heraclitus once noted, can escape. A return to our origins. A summer like this can give us the means to grasp and ground of ourselves, to detach our focus from the routines of the rest of the year, to triumph over our egos. It can also offer us an escape — but one that doesn’t require self-desertion or deception.
In his four books on the imaginative elements — earth, air, water, fire — the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) explored questions of primitive, archetypal, and elemental existence. It was through this work that he committed himself to a poetic mind, free from the constraints of the rational, “in order to study the determinism of the imagination.” According to Bachelard, the imaginative elements “have idealistic laws as certain as experimental laws.” He speaks of “hormones of imagination” that “execute the great syntheses which give a little regularity to the imaginative.” “In particular,” he writes, “imaginative air is the hormone which makes us grow psychically.” Bachelard suggests that what is at stake is a transposition into the outer life of one’s own erotic experience. In Psychoanalysis of Fire (1938), he speculates that archetypal images of fire trace back to the primordial eroticism that gave rise to the discovery and subsequent mastery of fire: humans realized that friction between two bodies generates heat, and thus it was neither leisure nor chance that likely led to the discovery of rubbing flints together to create a spark. Images of fire bring us closer to this ancient eroticism, through which we first discovered fire. But Bachelard’s poetic representations are individual sublimations of collective archetypes, and they depend on the subjectivity of the dreamer: “I dream the world, therefore the world exists as I dream it,” he writes. This, then, explains why, in psychoanalysis, a symbol cannot be ascribed just one meaning. When Jean Cocteau was asked what he would take if his house caught fire and he could only grab one thing, his reply was swift: “The fire, of course!”
We are made up of molecules of air, water and earth. Japanese Canadian ecologist David Suzuki (Vancouver, 87 years old) emphasizes this in his book The Sacred Balance (1997): “We are the air, we are the water, we are the earth, we are the Sun,” he writes. “There is no environment ‘out there’ that is separate from us.” This simple truth powerfully conveys our relationship with the Earth. Suzuki stresses that, in an interconnected world, every action has consequences, and being an integral part of this whole, we have a responsibility to act with restraint to maintain the health and stability of the planet.
It is only because of Western concepts of mind that many of us have become convinced that we live in an interior bounded by our own skin, with everyone and everything else existing on the outside. The place where we spend most of our lives tends to shape what our priorities are, and how we perceive our surroundings: a human-engineered habitat of concrete and glass reinforces the belief that we are outside and above nature. From an eco-psychological perspective, Anita Barrows (Brooklyn, 76 years old) argues that “the place where transitional phenomena occur [...] might be understood, in this new paradigm of the self, to be the permeable membrane that suggests or delineates but does not divide us from the medium in which we exist.” And from this point of departure, she develops the concept of the “ecological self.”
So what, then, are we to do in the face of a reality like climate change? We might try to focus on the positive side of our experience of being alive, and remember that many of our elemental interactions do not prompt disasters. This exercise might serve to heighten our awareness that it is possible to have an enriching and rewarding life without undermining the elements that support and sustain us. We are deeply rooted in, and dependent on, the natural world. The Indigenous philosopher Ailton Krenak (Itabirinha de Mantena, Brazil, 69 years old) drives this point home in his book, Ideas to Postpone the End of the World (2019), when he argues that there is no environment, no surrounding life, only a continuous flow of which we are a product. We live the same existence as all the elements that surround us, and that same life is what animates the planet — we are terrestrial subjects, attempting to live under a different logic than all of our previous ancestral manifestations. But what better time than now — this summer — to acclimate ourselves to our true “ecological self”?
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