About one million years ago, early humans discovered fire. No one knows how this came about, so I will take a little artistic license. I believe that lightning struck a tree, setting it ablaze. A small tribe of humans ventured from their crude cave homes to watch the flames lick the sky in a show of fiery splendor. One of the onlookers began to dance, lifting his club in the air and stamping his feet. The whole group, dressed like the cast of The Flintstones, joined the dancing. A small boy began beating a drum, which, indubitably, had not been invented at that time. The discovery of fire enabled humans to harness its power, therefore changing the trajectory of our history, but, more importantly, this was the world’s first bonfire, bringing a community together in the celebration of life and energy.
I believe most people are pyromaniacs. I have yet to meet a child who did not wish to stick his finger into the flame of a candle on a dinner table. Grown men fiddle with lighters, years after they quit smoking. Entire action movies consist solely of expensive sets exploding into flame. Our instincts tell us to light things on fire. Perhaps it is the dual qualities of flames that attract us. Fire is raw energy, capable of great destruction.
Thankfully, most humans are able to repress their urge to ignite, in order to maintain a peaceful society. However, every once in a while, a bonfire presents humans with the option of gathering to get in touch with their inner pyro-caveman. When I say “bonfire,” please do not assume that I am referring to a beach party scene from Laguna Beach. A group of high school kids reclining in plastic chairs and drinking Keystone Light lack the primal energy required to host a bonfire. They use fire merely as a light source for their gossip and lazy debauchery. The cavemen would have been appalled.
Having attended at least eight bonfires in my life, I consider myself familiar with the experience. The best bonfires are held as an anticipatory or celebratory event. A burning pyre invokes a renewal of primal energies, of our most barbaric, simple emotions. Participants scream and chant, trading civilized reality for a spark-induced dream world. The burning of witches—which seems positively absurd when you read about it in history books—makes some sort of sense in the heat of the moment (pun intended). Nothing unites a community like a common enemy.
On November 17, on Cannon Green, hundreds united just after dark to celebrate the demise of our foes Harvard and Yale. The bonfire had all the components to stir up passion in the crowd: burning effigies, incoherent speeches, and an array of drunken individuals. However, the spectators lacked a certain level of engagement.
Blame the camera phone. Students held their sacred cell phones in the air, changing the ritual. Instead of gazing into the smoky sky, or cheering with friends, or simply staring in awe at the majesty of destruction, most students pulled out their camera phones, and watched the flames through their handheld device. The picture and video takers preferred their own personal view of the spectacle, taking care to preserve the moment in electronic eternity. But at what cost? Most of these photographers were not interested in the actual event, but put priority on proving to themselves and to others that they had attended the burning.
The digital age threatens communal spirit. The crowd gathered together, but most participants were in their own virtual world. They could not allow themselves to look directly in to the fire and become lost in the emotions of the crowd. The fire sparked and coughed up columns of smoke, but it was almost as if the masses didn’t notice. Each head was craned over a glowing screen, their thumbs twitching across the glass. All those lolling heads created the illusion of an undead crowd, a sort of zombie army.
And what is our generation but a zombie army? We stare at luminescent screens, emerging with dark circles under our eyes. We develop a Quasimodo posture from hours of stumbling upon pictures of squirrels and reading every one of Ann Coulter’s tweets. We grow pale, spending our vacations looking at Tumblr pages of beaches, rather than venturing out of our dark dens. Bonfires celebrate life and togetherness, and so, naturally, we, the lonely, undead youth were unable to engage.