Widgets Magazine


To burn and to love

This past July in Los Angeles, the sky was all fire. Enveloped in bright orange smoke, illuminated and vibrant, it turned everything apocalyptic — the palm trees pointed toward a large nucleus of smoke like a fist from the mountains of the Santa Clarita Valley, where over 40,000 acres burned. Ash drifted through the air like snow, caking my car’s windshield with a kind of singed collage. It clung to the edges of my windows and the inside of my door handles, and for weeks my car held these little fiery fixtures like a coin collection or a coat.

I remember driving home one evening, staring at the clouded orange skyscape and making a right turn to face away from those ravaged mountains, and being shocked by the deep blue of the sky, the vivid greens of the palm trees. It was as if there had never been a fire at all, for everything abruptly turned from a tragedy to a dreamscape — all a matter of direction. And I was struck by how beautiful it all was — not just the crispness of the unburned air but its contrast with the destruction of the fiery mountains, the way both could coexist within the same sky. In the frightening devastation of the fire, there was beauty in both this juxtaposition and the burning itself, the heat.

Last quarter, in preparation for the SLE final exam, we were given an essay prompt on the role of burning in literature, particularly in Sappho’s fragments and Euripides’s “Medea.” Although we ultimately weren’t able to write about it on the exam, I’ve been thinking about the Santa Clarita fire and the role of beauty in pain ever since. The wonder that perpetual, incendiary sunset evoked within me, I realized, matches the widespread narrative image of love as burning, as something so beautiful as to necessitate destruction.

As ancient as this notion is, its intemporal universality fascinates me nonetheless. “You came, and I was crazy for you / And you cooled my mind that burned with longing,” Sappho composes, testifying a burning, sweetbitter love. Rumi and Shakespeare and Auden and countless others wrote poetry about a love that wounds, that destroys, that is invigorating and gorgeous because of its pain. In Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, Toru and Midori share their first kiss watching a neighborhood fire. I both feared and loved the burning mountains in the summer; I found them beautiful even though I knew the traumatic truth of their cataclysm.

Although I indulge myself in these kinds of pleasures, I worry about their dangers, how the flaws of these views of suffering as necessary to love and beauty, as inherent to destruction line up with how truthful they actually are. I think the timelessness of this language relating love and passion with burning and pain, while now considered cliché, is a testament to its real-life existence. We watch films about forbidden love and read poems about kindled passion (“You left me boundaries of pain / Capacious as the sea,” wrote Emily Dickinson) because we have either felt the exhilarating pleasure of that burning ourselves or imagine that we one day will. We cry with characters and feel a certain satisfaction in art that expresses suffering; we find the iterations and representations of painful emotions beautiful. I don’t want to deny the existence of these multiplicities, but still I am conflicted.

While there is truth to the notion that these intense emotions are not exclusively pleasurable, that sometimes it hurts to love, the romanticization of pain almost always runs parallel to and is built upon the foundation of this hurt. Take the pervasiveness of sad girl narratives, for example, of the beautiful women made even more beautiful by their suffering. Beatrice, a woman Dante idolized and canonized in his works after only meeting her twice, appeared to him in a dream trapped inside the arms of a monster, forced to eat his heart. British magazine editor Isabella Blow, often depicted as glamorous and iconic, killed herself by drinking weedkiller after telling her friends she was going shopping. When Lana Del Rey sings of glorified sadness and the incompleteness of unrequited desire, we are aware of the dangers of a one-dimensionalized female sexuality yet find ourselves allured by the honey-sweet delirium of her voice nonetheless.

While narratives  like these may originate from honest experience, the glorification of this experience encourages the proliferation of an externally beautiful suffering for the sake of poetic fulfillment. They romanticize the very anatomy of what it means to hurt, thus morphing it into something else entirely — a warped iteration of this fiery pleasure-pain dichotomy that only imitates a pain that can be truly terrible. When I consider tropes like these, I wonder if it should truly hurt to love at all. I don’t think I can say it doesn’t. I don’t think I can deny the instinctive admiration I felt in watching those brush fires, and I don’t think Shakespeare and Sappho and Dickinson wrote untruths.

If, at times, to love is to burn, how can we stop that burning from becoming too beautiful? Maybe the best we can do is acknowledge the possibility of distortion, the danger of staring at the fire without recognizing the ruined homes beneath it. We can identify the complexities of intense feelings when they overtake us rather than try to invoke a romanticized version of them on our own. Maybe the best course of action is recognition without desire, a respect for the legitimacy of impassioned experience without attempting to imitate it. No matter how sweetbitter those July days seemed, I wouldn’t wish another fire upon my city. There’s something strangely beautiful about a pain as capacious as the sea, but I don’t know if I’ll ever want it.


Contact Maddie Kim at mkim16 ‘at’ stanford.edu.