A need-fire is a ritually produced fire that reverses illness, blight and malady afflicting a village.
An interesting precondition to an efficacious need-fire is that all other fires in the region must be extinguished. Only in a state of darkness can a need-fire be struck.
We must begin in darkness, writer. If we lack darkness we must create it. Only then can your words have the power of a need-fire for yourself and others.
If you want to strike your own need-fire this is the historical process as described by the well-read J G Frazer in The Golden Bough.
Two poles were driven into the ground about a foot and a half from each other. Each pole had in the side facing the other a socket into which a smooth cross-piece or roller was fitted. The sockets were stuffed with linen, and two ends of the roller were rammed tightly into the sockets. To make it more flammable the roller was often coated with tar. The rope was then wound round the roller, and the free ends at both sides were gripped by two or more persons, who by pulling the rope to and fro caused the roller to revolve rapidly, till through the friction the linen in the sockets took fire. The sparks were immediately caught in tow or oakum and waved about in a circle until they burst into a bright glow, when straw was applied to it, and the blazing straw used to kindle the fuel that had been stacked to make the bonfire.
(Drive your cattle or horses through the smoke of a properly lit need-fire, or, walk yourself through the smoke and put a little ash on your face to cleanse and protect from whatever misfortune is afoot.)
Is there a deep deep down, writer? Is that where we are driving with our words and sounds and paper and scratching?
Thinking on the process of thought, John Robert, the philosopher in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Philosopher’s Pupil says he, “descended into primeval chaos and rose grasping some encrusted treasure which instantly crumbled. He pursued quarries into thickets, into corners, into nets, and at the end found nothing there. … If only he could get down deep enough, grasp the difficulties deep deep down and learn to think in an entirely new way.” (Emphasis in original.)
Is it a folly, or mere romance, to contemplate thinking in an entirely new way? Not thinking ‘about’ but thinking ‘how’. How does the wind think? How does a galah think? How does thinking think?
Are you afflicted with weakness of will, writer?
Do you sometimes suffer the malady of acedia?
What can remedy the bind of listlessness when there is only the want of energy?
Baudelaire suffered acedia. In his journal he wrote,
“In putting off what one has to do, one runs the risk of never being able to do it. In refusing instant conversion one risks damnation.
To heal all things, wretchedness, disease or melancholy, absolutely nothing is required but an inclination for work.”
Can you muster an inclination, writer?
Trust me; it will be enough.
For Volume IV of his Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire wrote an entry for ‘End of the World’.
The greater part of the Greek philosophers held the universe to be eternal both with respect to commencement and duration. But as to this petty portion of the world or universe, this globe of stone and earth and water, of minerals and vapors, which we inhabit, it was somewhat difficult to form an opinion; it was, however, deemed very destructible. It was even said that it had been destroyed more than once, and would be destroyed again.
Let this set you free, writer. The end of the world will come again, and then again. Let it come. Hasten it with your words if you dare.
Writers need tactics. Tactics is the only known surviving work of philosopher Asclepiodiotus (c. 1 BCE – unknown). The text focuses on the titles and formation needed in the phalanx, including the use of chariots and elephants. Chapter V details the character and appropriate size of arms including the use of bronze shields and spears of varying lengths.
“And the Macedonians, men say, with this line of spears do not merely terrify the enemy by their appearance, but also embolden every file-leader, protected as he is by the strength of five…”
καὶ Μακεδόνες μὲν οὕτω τῷ στοίχῳ, φασί, τῶν δοράτων οὐ μόνον τῇ ὄψει τοὺς πολεμίους ἐκπλήττουσιν, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῶν λοχαγῶν ἕκαστον παραθαρσύνουσι πέντε δυνάμεσι πεφρουρημένον
The things you fear in your writing, the things you are afraid to write are also the things that give you courage. Your greatest enemy, writer, may be you. Embolden yourself.
Have you ever been betrayed by your words? In the comedic ‘war between the sexes’ text, Gospels of the Distaff (Les Evangiles des Quenouilles c.1475), a sewing circle of women, led by six elderly doctresses, decide to gather and share their collective feminist knowledge in the form of a book. Their knowledge is both profound and trivial.
On Garters in the Street
Nowe ye for as true as the gospell that yf the hose of a woman or of a mayden unbyndeth in the strete & that she lese it, it is sygne & fayleth neuer that her husbande or her loue gothe elles where.
(from Watson’s 1510 translation)
As none of the spinners and needleworkers can write, they ask a humble cleric to transcribe their teachings. He wields a pen, they wield the distaff. He transcribes their words not in the frame of an intimate knowledge but unfortunately, for himself and the women, ironically, as an immense joke.
You, writer, are in possession of both your knowledge and the means to write it. What are you waiting for?
The grace of writing is an allowance for change.
You, writer, are not stuck.
You are not trapped.
Take, for example, Dionysius the Deserter, sometimes also called Dionysius the Renegade (330-250BCE). He was a Stoic philosopher, poet and author of multiple books on apathy, training exercises (askesis), pleasure (hedone), freedom from the passions (apatheia), how to live, prosperity, kings, praise and barbaric culture.
Confronted with the pain of severe eye inflammation, Dionysius renounced stoicism. According to the biographical entry in Diogenes’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Dionysius “suffered so severely, he could not pronounce pain a thing indifferent.”
Instead, Dionysius concluded that pleasure is the chief good of life. He indulged his remaining years, as a Cyrenaic, in all manner of bodily luxuries and sensual pleasures.
And he wrote.
In Book II of Lives of Eminent Philosophers Diogenes recounts a story about Anaxagoras (500 – 428BCE), a Pre-Socratic philosopher who adopted Athens as his home in his twenties.
“When someone inquired of Anaxagoras, “Have you no concern in your native land?”
Gently, he replied, “I am greatly concerned with my fatherland,” and pointed to the sky.
Anaxagoras was tried for impiety and Medism in 450BCE. The accusations were based on his claims that the sun was a red, hot stone and that the moon was made of earth. Following the trial, ostracised from Athens, he returned to Iona and settled at Lampsakos where the anniversary of his death was marked as a holiday from school for all children of the region.
What claims do you own in your writing?
What statements do you utter that could befall trouble?
What lands do you call father?
What do you stand for, with your words, so that a public holiday may be named in your honour?
As a writer it is your privilege to privately write whatsoever you wish about whomsoever you choose. You can write bad things happening to bad people. And in doing so, know you are in fine company.
Lucian of Samosata wrote satire, his work often targeting public figures. In the quote below, taken from The Passing of Peregrinus, Lucian recounts his version of the life and death of the cynic Peregrinus Proteus (100-165CE). Lucian witnessed the suicide of Peregrinus when he set fire to himself at the 165CE Olympics.
Thereafter he went away a third time, to Egypt, to visit Agathobulus, where he took that wonderful course of training in asceticism, shaving one half of his head, daubing his face with mud, and demonstrating what they call ‘indifference’ by erecting his yard amid a thronging mob of bystanders, besides giving and, taking blows on the back-sides with a stalk of fennel, and playing the mountebank even more audaciously in many other ways.
If you feel blocked in your writing take these words as permission to privately write all the things you think you ought not.
Write your foe into the town-square with a shaved head and dirty face. Write them ‘erecting their yard’ in public. Write them taking blows from vegetables. Expose them as the fraud you know them to be.
Rebel. Be bold. Write what hurts so that you may write free.
There is an appeal against the worth of words, placed in the mouth of Ajax by Antisthenes (c. 445-365 BC, founder of the Cynic school of thought).
In an instructional speech delivered against Odysseus, the mythical character Ajax says,
Do not look at words when judging heroic virtue but, rather, at deeds. For war is decided not by word but by deed: we cannot compete in debate with our enemies, but must either conquer them by fighting or be slaves in silence (53.7)
What, then, can words do? What can we judge from words? When might a word have worth? Are not actions, after all, nothing more than the meaning of a word?
My name, for example, is a word, not a deed. It has worth, to me. My name will tell you things about me and only the one who knows it can call me home on the wild nights.
One of our tasks, as good writers, is to choose words more sturdy than the deed.
Prove Ajax wrong.