Burning from the Inside


It is funny to think that we are all burning from the inside. Is this where the idea of spontaneous combustion came from? The fact that all these desires, ideas, life, love, fear—all of this—is burning inside of us. And sometimes, sometimes, it burns too bright, too hot, too desperately until we are consumed in flame; until we combust and ignite outside of ourselves and into the world. And funny how this skin contains us; but what is containment to fire? It burns the structure, the very foundation, the walls—fire does not discriminate; it consumes.

One of my favorite stories is Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”.  Throughout the story Bartleby seems a character void of a fire burning inside of him. He is pallid, bereft, he would “prefer not to”. It is only after Bartleby’s death that his boss discovers who this man was:

“The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

  Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”

I feel that we are all on errands of life, speeding toward death. And if we are not consumed in life, we surely will be consumed in the end (if not by flame, then by earthen arms calling us to rest). As much as it breaks my heart, I think that Bartleby burnt pieces of himself with those letters until he was a husk, an empty shell, with nothing burning inside of him. It seems a cruel fate, but one I think is not uncommon in this world.

But! There is this idea of a phoenix, this idea of burning and rebirth from the ashes that permeates a common culture with its fiery wings. I suppose it is nice to know I am not alone in this consumption; that there is a chance I could burn out, as poor dear Bartleby, but I could also combust, ignite, and turn into something else entirely. It is the knowing that there is a commonality, a connection, an outlet—that I am not alone—and that is what keeps me burning. As for a fate such as Bartleby’s: I would prefer not to.


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