Psychoanalysis of Fire, The

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The Psychoanalysis of Fire was published by Gaston Bachelard in 1938, before Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter (1940), Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement (1942), and Earth and Reveries of Will (1945). This essay was part of an effort that reconnected research on pre-Socratic philosophy with the question of the fundamental constituents of the world, the "elements."

Bachelard was both a theoretician of modern science (The New Scientific Spirit, [1934]; Le Rationalisme appliquée, [1949]) and a philosopher of poetics, in the sense that while demonstrating the need for systematization associated with all rational thought, he insisted on the collapse of any system in the face of the infinite richness of experience. He also attempted to circumscribe existence with a profound imagination imbued with poetic experience that transcends the individual imagination of the subject.

For Bachelard the phenomenon of fire is situated at this crossroads of science and poetry. In his preface, he writes, "I am going to examine a problem in which objectivity has never held sway, where the initial seduction is so compelling that it deforms the most rational minds and leads them to the cradle of poetry, where daydreams replace thought, where poems hide theorems. This is the psychological problem presented by our convictions about fire. The problem is so directly psychological that I have no hesitation in speaking of a 'psychoanalysis of fire."'

The work is broken down into seven chapters: 1. Fire and Respect: The Prometheus Complex; 2. Fire and Reverie: The Empedocles Complex; 3. Psychoanalysis and Prehistory: The Novalis Complex; 4. Sexualized Fire; 5. The Chemistry of Fire: History of a False Problem; 6. Alcohol and Water that Flames. Punch: The Hoffmann Complex. Spontaneous Combustions; 7. Idealized Fire: Fire and Purity. The two chapters that most directly concern psychoanalysis are obviously chapters three and four.

It is interesting that Bachelard, who here attempts an anthropological study of the birth of fire in human history and an approach to the libidinal components represented by fire, quotes Carl Jung on several occasions but never Sigmund Freud. He also quotes James George Frazer's Myths on the Origin of Fire, even though Freud himself referred to Frazer's work (in 1911 Freud read The Golden Bough ), which was partly responsible for his interest in prehistory.

We also know that in 1930, in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a [1929]), Freud discussed his famous hypothesis on the origins of the mastery of fire associated with a rejection of the impulse to urinate on the flame to extinguish it: "It is as though primal man had the habit, when he came in contact with fire, of satisfying an infantile desire connected with it, by putting it out with a stream of his urine. . . . The first person to renounce this desire and spare the fire was able to carry it off with him and subdue it to his own use" He also wrote an entire article on this, "The Acquisition and Control of Fire" (1932a [1931]), in which he provides a brilliant analysis of the myth of Prometheus.

Therefore, the lack of any reference to Freud in Bachelard's text is surprising, for the direction of their thought converges at many points even though it arises from different epistemological viewpoints. As far as we know Freud never met Bachelard, an existential nonevent that may characterize, in its ownway, Freud's profound ambivalence toward philosophy, even when it was highly compatible or consistent with metapsychology.

Bernard Golse

See also: Applied psychoanalysis and the interactions of psychoanalysis; Bachelard, Gaston.

Source Citation

Bachelard, Gaston. (1938). The psychoanalysis of fire. (Alan C. M. Ross, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press [1964].


Freud, Sigmund. (1930a [1929]). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.

(1932a [1931]). The acquisition and control of fire. SE, 22: 183-193.