Growing up watching animated Disney movies, I always groaned when the songs began. Needless breaks in the action. Too sentimental. But music—to invoke Oscar Wilde—is the art most nigh to tears and memory. So nowadays the only thing I remember from Aladdin is “A Whole New World.” And in an emergency I could probably produce a goodly portion of The Lion King‘s “Circle of Life.”
Turns out too that the songs weren’t a total loss. Take “Part of Your World,” the cri de coeur of a teenage mermaid who, discontent with her existence in the depths of the sea, nurtures a fascination with the wonders of life on land. Surveying her vast collection of flotsam and jetsam, she sings of her longing to experience human civilization from within and not merely as fragmented artifacts in an underwater museum. Among all her gadgets and thingamabobs, she comes up with this gem:
What’s a fire? And why does it—What’s the word?—burn?
That’s a fine piece of poetry, I think. The alliterative repetition conveys the urgency of Ariel’s questioning. And the interjection adds to the sense of tumult. It also delays the completion of the second question, keeping the audience in suspense and allowing the last word to fall with greater force: burn. The word is sustained and the voice swells, urging the audience to grasp the full import of the completed thought. There’s even a kind of word-painting, as the ascending, brightening voice begins to resemble a growing flame.
And the question is profound: what is fire, and why does it burn? It’s like something that a foreigner might ask unawares, or better yet, a child. For the only way to understand fire is to see it—to experience it at work—and to see it at work is to understand pretty much all that most people know about it. As for the relation between fire and burning, they’re so close as to be almost identical. Certainly burning isn’t something that fire can do without. It’s not even something that can be easily distinguished: can a flame be divided into the part that is fire and the part that is burning? Even when things burn that aren’t fire—Rome, pale skin, T-bones forgotten in the freezer—it seems only by some association with fire that they are said to do so.
One could try to answer the question by referring to fire’s chemistry—something about oxidizers and a chain reaction. But I doubt that this is really what Ariel is asking about. Anyway, one could ask the same thing about fire’s constituent elements: What is an oxidizer, and why does it oxidize? Or, what’s a quark, and why does it—what’s the word?—quark?
And a chemical explanation doesn’t really do justice to the strangeness of the question. What Ariel doesn’t seem to realize is that on land—in that world where fire exists—people do not customarily ask such questions. It’s too basic. She might as well have asked why water is wet or why people should laugh when something is funny. In fact, to ask why fire burns is tantamount to asking why fire exists. And yet for all its strangeness, the question is not nonsensical. By asking it, Ariel unwittingly awakens us to the questionability not only of fire but of a whole host of fundamental features of our world. Outsiders are good at this: They help us to see the non-necessity of things, that things as they stand now could have been different.
Chesterton clung to this insight in the face of the deterministic attitude of his time. For him, the contingency of ordinary phenomena gave the world a personal touch:
I found the whole modern world talking scientific fatalism . . . . The leaf on the tree is green because it could never have been anything else. Now, [I am] glad that the leaf is green precisely because it might have been scarlet. . . . [I am] pleased that snow is white on the strictly reasonable ground that it might have been black. Every colour has in it a bold quality as of choice . . . . [I feel] that something has been DONE.
For Chesterton, the greenness of leaves wasn’t just a brute fact; it was a calling card. The redness of roses and the whiteness of snow betray the not-so-secret presence of a great freedom.
If asking why fire burns is tantamount to asking why fire exists, the little mermaid’s question takes us up to the mind of God. The answer is wisdom and love and freedom. Fire exists because God made a decision to let finitude and contingency participate in the existence of his necessary infinity. Fire is just one of a million monuments to the divine spontaneity’s strange sortie into the realm of nonbeing. In the end, only God knows what fire is, and why it burns.