Thursday, March 24, 2011

Self-Immolation and the Heart of Revolution - Awakening Out of the Dream



By David Metcalfe
“The heart of revolutionary faith, like any faith, is fire: ordinary material transformed into extraordinary form, quantities of warmth suddenly changing the quality of substance. If we do not know what fire is, we know what it does. It burns. It destroys life; but it also supports it as a sort of heat, light and – above all- fascination.”

- James Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men, Origins of the Revolutionary Faith


In November, 1990 a man set himself on fire in front of the U.S. capitol, the news reports from the time say that the reasons for the man’s act were unknown, no riots were forthcoming. Last year the cultural shifts in Egypt, Yemen and Algeria proved a different outcome in light of similar self-immolation. As individuals express their anger, alienation and rejection in self willed conflagration it is igniting their communities into violent uprisings shaking the foundations of global culture.

Our media reports the bare essentials of the acts: lost job, police harassment, oppressive officials; editorials pontificate on the meaning, craft clumsy hagiographies of the individuals involved. The past month there have been reports of self immolation attempts stretching across North Africa, through the Middle East, Central Asia and into China; riots and revolutions erupting in the wake of these incendiary public sacrifices. More than the descriptions, the very flesh on fire is enough to break open the tension flowing through the lives of the worlds hopeful and disaffected.

“It is necessary to seize the suitable moment…with the smallest spark a great fire can be ignited…”

- Sylvain Marechal, Voyages of Pythagoras (1799)


As I’m writing this a young man sits in protest in a Palestinian Mosque, part of the March 15 Youth Coalition who set up tents in the Bethlehem municipality to demand a new Palestinian national council and a unified Palestine. He is threatening to set himself on fire if the Coalition’s demands are not taken seriously. Unlike the young gunmen we have seen emerge in the United States, whose outward acts of inflamed anxiety cause communities to hold vigils and encourage greater controls, these self sacrificial immolations “change the quality of the substance,” of the estrangement, isolation and abuse, to open up the opportunity for cultural change.

Fire is a fluid element, summoned with self sacrifice it rushes through communal streams of thought, transforming dormant discontent and revolutionary potential into active heat. Death comes on as a cold reminder, when someone opens fire in a crowded room the sacrifice opens the void of our own mortality. Invoking fire, invoking change in such an act of stunning self willed abrogation, calls to the very essence of action, of life, inseminating the communal psyche with a heaving need to move and react.

“It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

- Peter Benenson, founder of Amnesty International, at a Human Rights Day ceremony on 10th December 1961

Two years after Beneson spoke Thích Quảng Đức was guided by two Buddhist monks into the street in front of the Cambodian embassy in South Vietnam. As he stood patiently, one of the monks placed a cushion the ground, Duc sat down, drawing himself into the traditional lotus position he offered a prayer to Amitabha Buddha as the other attendant monk poured gasoline over him, and then he lit himself on fire. His austere immovability as the flames erupted around him proved his protest against the Diệm regime’s treatment of Buddhists in South Vietnam.

During a vigil candles are held to remember the dead, when human beings themselves become candles we are called to remember the living and rethink the ineffable community that binds us together. In 2006 a member of the Chicago jazz and improvisational scene, Malachai Richter, set himself on fire in protest of U.S. military actions in the Middle East. In an explanatory note he posted online he says “Maybe some will be scared enough to wake from their walking dream state - am I therefore a martyr or terrorist? I would prefer to be thought of as a 'spiritual warrior'.

For all intents he was an ordinary man, who he describes in his self written obituary as:

“A lover of literature, even more than music, he had always dreamed of being a writer. The handwritten manuscript of his 'fictional autobiography', titled "Farewell Tour", was under consideration by publishers. It had a general theme of shared universal aloneness, and was controversial for seeming to endorse suicide after the age of fifty. His favorite classic authors were Proust and Shakespeare. The metaphor for his life was winning the lottery, but losing the ticket. In the end, the loneliness was overwhelming. He was deeply appreciative for everything that had been given to him, but acutely aware that the greater the present, the higher the price. He was a member of Mensa, and Alcoholics Anonymous since 1990. For him, sobriety was virtually getting a second chance at life. He practiced a personal and private spirituality, seeking to connect across the illusion that separates us from each other. Reportedly, his last words were "rosebud... oops"…and the epitaph that he chose is “I dreamt that I was dreaming.”

In the fire all of that changed, from a guy you might run into at a jazz set, into a signpost for society and a condemnation of our inability to embrace each other. He left a simple note near where he lit himself on fire, a reminder for when the flames died down. It was a brief commandment for the governing powers of the world in hopes that life would prevail through the pain: “Thou shalt not kill.

***

David Metcalfe is an independent researcher and artist focusing on the interstices of art, culture, and consciousness. He is author of “Of Dice and Divinity – Some Thoughts on Gambling and the Western Tradition,” forthcoming in The Immanence of Myth.

Writing and scrawling regularly for The Eyeless Owl, his illustrations were brought to life in the animated collaborative grotesquery A Serious Enquiry Into the Vulgar Notion of Nature featured at select venues in downtown Chicago during the Spring and Fall of 2010. He also co-hosts The Art of Transformations study group with support from the International Alchemy Guild.


Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011.

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