The day my therapy went up in smoke.

I was not there when my therapy went up in smoke. Like most transformations, although it appeared as a moment, it was the manifestation of a much longer process. And whilst I did not witness first hand the incendiary moment, my therapist was able to tell me about it.

I cannot remember what we were talking about when he told me how he had taken all his clinical notes into the garden and set fire to them. Initially lost for words, I imagined a long terraced garden with a pile of journals sitting in a fire-pit or some sort of drum, my therapist’s outreached hand lighting a fire as flames enveloped his carefully hand written notes. In my mind he stood in silence as he watched them burn. I asked him what it was like. He said it was a relief, but what most struck him was the intense heat.

The question “Why?” did of course pop into my head, after all it is a reasonable question, besides it is the mind’s knee-jerk response. I let it slip away; asking why would have taken me away from the affect his act was having on me. The affect on both of us is more important than his motivations.

It occurred to me that I would have regularly appeared in at least the top half of his notes. I imagined a stick of Brighton Rock; my name first appearing half way up and then repeatedly all the way to the top. I could see each page peeling off, disintegrating into smoke and ashes, so many precious secrets and shared intimacies carried away on the wind.  

‘I’ll will never ask to see my notes,’ spoke a quiet voice in my head. This seemed funny as I recalled years earlier wondering about this. ‘What did he really think of me?’ And ‘How does he see our work?’ Despite the urgency of these questions, I had never asked to read them. Now I never would. I offered a warm internal smile to the confused and vulnerable young man who had once wrestled with the many insecurities behind these questions.

‘Say more,’ I urged my therapist. 

‘Well, there were over forty years of notes, it was about four feet tall. I had always thought that perhaps I’d write a book with them, and then one day it was clear, I saw them and decided to burn them,’ he replied.

‘Wow, I’d love to have read that book, but then I don’t suppose the world really needs another book about therapy,’ we both laugh.

‘So the fire put an end to the book?’ I enquire.

‘Or it makes it possible,’ he counters.

‘Ah, yes of course.’

‘You realise my therapy has gone up in smoke?’

‘Yes,’ he replies. We then both sit together in silence enjoying the thought.

I noticed my thoughts drift away from the notes and toward the fire as I heard them conclude, ‘The fire puts them in context.’

***

I then remembered a school chemistry lesson when I was eleven or twelve. It was a hot summer day, even with the windows open the room was airless. I sat perched on a tall wooden stool, lost in thought, only to be summoned back into the room as I heard my name being called out. ‘So which is it Glenn: does it get bigger or smaller?’

Of course I had no idea what he was talking about and he knew it. I knew he knew it, and he knew I knew he knew it. The look of relish and expectancy on Mr Hamilton’s face was reflected in the bated breath of my “classmates”.

I daren’t say, ‘I don’t know’, he wanted an answer, besides I had a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right. Without knowing why, I said, ‘Bigger.’

Stifled laughter rippled around the room, ‘“Bigger”, you say; are you sure?’

I sensed the hungry eyes of the room on me, eager to see my inevitable shaming.

I couldn’t change my answer now, ‘Yes, bigger sir.’

The whole class erupted in laughter. ‘Quiet,’ Mr Hamilton interjected. ‘Who agrees?’ No hands went up. I felt my stomach immediately drop. ‘Who thinks it gets smaller?’ A forest of hands shot in the air.

‘You’re all wrong; it gets bigger,’ I noted he didn’t credit me for my correct answer – I didn’t care – I was just relieved to have escaped the shaming.

On the whole school provided me with a rich experiential education in shame and humiliation. Though never officially on the curriculum, shame was considered an effective and legitimate teaching method. In this sense school did indeed prepare me well for my as yet unknown life as a psychotherapist.

On this particular day chemistry taught me something I have never forgot. I learnt that when something becomes smoke and ashes it always gets bigger, never smaller. At the time I could not have imagined how this piece of knowledge would ever be of any use, but then I knew nothing of psychotherapy and its magical use of random thoughts, images and ideas.

***

As I shared this memory with my therapist we agreed that any book he might have written would never be as big or as significant as the fire in his garden. The fire had taken him, me and our work somewhere else entirely. I wondered what the fire was to him. 

I noted that I had not asked my therapist for an explanation, justification and certainly not an apology, and nor did he offer any. I wondered could these be some of what went up in flames? If becoming smoke and ashes always makes bigger, it would make sense that there is no longer any place for question, justification, explanation or apology. These things would have made the fire personal, however him sharing this with me felt both intimate and impersonal. The fire was an outer manifestation of the personal having become ashes; and yet it dissolved the distance between us. It struck me that without the personal, the values of justification, explanation and apology go up in smoke. 

All this might be so if the fire burnt up old values, but this is not so. I will come back to this later.

***

The heat of the fire seemed to have made the biggest impression on my therapist. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus saw fire as the key element. He said that everything is in constant flux, and fire is literally and metaphorically the element of transformation. Nietzsche took this, seeing everything as in a constant state of becoming: there is no being. 

The notes had not merely changed they had transformed. My therapist’s plan to write a book had transformed into a four foot stack of clutter. And like everything else it too was in a continual process of becoming. So, besides smoke and ashes what were the notes now? They remain part of the work, and so I wondered how they were now contributing to it. My therapist was not only clearing a space in his office; this was an intervention, and so what was the therapeutic value of setting fire to the notes?

Before getting to that question its useful to consider who the notes belonged to. On the one hand ownership of clinical notes is clear. Prior to incineration they belonged to my therapist, although it is perhaps more accurate to say he was their custodian or curator, as in a certain sense the notes belonged to the work. It is significant that court judges can sequester clinical notes, and I as his client had the right to see them. As custodian he was tasked with taking care of them. Setting fire to them was, at least in part, an intervention, and so in the truest sense he took great care of them. Nonetheless he did not have to tell me about the fire: telling me was a different intervention altogether.

I could of course see it as him trying to provoke something in me, though I do not think so. Part of what told me this is the little emotionality I had in response to it. I knew that if this had happened a few years ago my response would have been very different. Now I heard no voice saying, ‘What about me?’ It seemed the importance of ‘me’ and my stories had gone; this was also consistent with one of the themes in our work. Despite never being able to see the twenty-something years of notes describing various versions of myself from the perspectives of perhaps the only person to have ever really seen me, I felt no loss. The calmness with which my therapist set about, and talked about the fire was mirrored in my affective response. It was as though I had just heard about the cremation of a distant relative. 

It seemed therapy could not change the me contained in the notes, but it did make me ashes.

***

Nietzsche’s titular protagonist from Thus Spake Zarathustra describes something like a baptism by fire:

You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame; how could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?

– Nietzsche

This is an allusion to John the Baptist from the Gospel of Matthew, ‘I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.’ This differs from Nietzsche in so many ways, not least that Nietzsche is not describing or advocating any form of sacrament. He is not describing a ritual or symbolic act, nor is it a type of purification. Purification according to somebody else’s values is a form of slavery. ‘To burn yourself in your own flame’ is a fire from within, not from without.

My therapist’s fire was no ritual symbolic enactment. The fire was an outer manifestation of something internal to him. It was both literal and figurative. Since I am obviously not describing self-immolation or spontaneous human combustion, what does it mean to ‘burn yourself in your own fire’?

In The Gay Science Nietzsche says,

A philosopher [here I include psychotherapist] who has traversed many kinds of health, and keeps traversing them, has passed through an equal number of philosophies; he simply cannot keep from transposing his states every time into the most spiritual form and distance: this art of transfiguration is philosophy. We philosophers are not free to seperate soul from body as the common people do… (we) have to give birth to our thoughts out of our pain and, like mothers, endow them with all we have of blood, heart, fire, pleasure, passion, agony, conscience, fate, and catastrophe.

– Nietzsche

It is worth noting a couple of things about this quote, firstly, Nietzsche is not referring to martyrdom. Baptism by fire is not the self sacrifice of dying for a principle or fighting a cause. It is perhaps the difference between Joan of Arc being burned for her beliefs, and it happening because it was an unfolding of her becoming. The two might appear to converge, particularly if her sense of self were largely drawn from her cause. However, for Nietzsche convictions are not the same as burning in your own flame.

Secondly, Nietzsche distinguishes between ‘fire’ and ‘passion’; they are not the same thing and should not be confused with one another.

Nietzsche is clear that the ‘art of transfiguration is philosophy’. Since he anticipated a time when there would be “philosophical doctors”, I take Nietzschean Psychotherapy to be the ‘art of transfiguration’.

Burning the notes was a birthing for my therapist and for our work. Nietzsche describes the ‘art of transfiguration’ as being characterised by non-separation, which, for the psychotherapist means no separation of oneself from the work, and beyond a certain point there is no separation between therapist and client. The fire consumes all: all go up together and nothing escapes. If baptism by fire is a sort of transfiguration, then what is consumed by the fire? 

To be clear, the fire does not consume the old (inherited, assumed, introjected) values; they have already gone. They make way for the creation of new values. The fire is the creator as their new values play out upon their life. 

None of us escapes the fire. We are all either consumed in our own created values, in which case we are life, or we live by the values of other people, in which case we spend much of our lives wondering about the value of it.

Nietzsche says, ‘All higher values devalue themselves’, this says nothing against them; it commends them. They devalue themselves since, according to Nietzsche, we live in a time of nihilism and decadence. While some values are better than others, he gives no definitive list: we must create our own. The best values are always your own created values because undergoing this process is to challenge and possibly overcome the gravity of nihilism around you and within yourself. All values worth having are hard won.

Nietzsche was an elitist, although he spoke to everyone (or everyone and no one as he once put it) Nonetheless he thought few of us capable of creating our own values. Baptism by fire does not appeal to everyone. It is likely that anybody undergoing such a process may only get part of the way. Since Nietzschean Psychotherapy is no light under-taking, might it not be better aiming for ease, contentment and the comfort of living out received values? Nietzsche says this is what we have become: the ‘Last Man’.

I tell you: one must have chaos in oneself, to give birth to a dancing star. I tell you: you still have chaos in you.

Alas! The time is coming when man will give birth to no more stars.

Behold! I shall show you the Last Man.

‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’ – so asks the Last Man, and blinks.

The earth has become small, and upon it hops the Last Man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea; the Last Man lives longer.

– Nietzsche

***

Consider the sun. 

It constantly burns itself up at unfathomable temperatures. It quite literally consumes itself in its own heat. 

Its slow destruction is our creation and evolution.

The sun is indifferent to time. Time is a human invention, an imaginary dimension. Our human, all too human preoccupation with it, is as a crude yardstick for measuring value.

Without it we all instantly perish, we depend on it, and without it no life would ever have existed. 

It is the centre of the universe; everything revolves around it and yet it is perfectly indifferent to its own brilliance.

Eventually it will burn itself out, by its own energy, on its own terms. Everything will slip out of existence in light of its becoming. 

It is so bright the human eye can barely look at it. It is in perpetual transfiguration.

The sun claims no ownership; no he and I, or you and me. The personal melts away in the furnace of the sun, lighting the way to redefining love and re-evaluating indifference.

It does not hold back, it asks nothing, demands nothing, and gives and takes everything.

It needs nothing: it has no need of need. 

The sun does not discriminate between life and death.

To most nihilists the sun is a giant fireball in the sky, spewing out energy as it incidentally sustains the universe. To the Nietzschean it is also the supreme archetype of affirmation, a sacred yes-saying to life.

I must descend into the depths: as you do at evening, when you go behind the sea and bring light to the underworld too, superabundant star!

Like you I must go down…

– Nietzsche

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

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