Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Spark

I think that every volcanologist should have the word “Volcanologist” on his or her business card. Probably they do, but I’m not sure, for I can imagine that they might have, instead, “Geologist” or “Professor of Geology.” Were I a geologist who happened to specialize in the subfield of volcanic studies, I would certainly have this particular, if heady-sounding and thoroughly technical title, on my card.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about a volcano is not its etymology, which is interesting indeed, and gets more thought-provoking the deeper one pursues it, so much as what powers it. While it is not impossible that it is related to the Latin fulgur (“gleam”), it is more likely a word of Etruscan origin.

The Apollo of Veii, ca. 510–500 B.C.
Apollo of Veii, ca. 510–500 B.C.

There was a Vulca of Veii, a great artist who portrayed the god Apollo with a famous terracotta statue dating to about the end of the sixth century B.C. But, of course, Vulca’s name did not influence the name of the Roman god Vulcan; rather, they are likely both derived from the same Etruscan—or possibly even Minoan root—which, if that line of inquiry should be correct, was connected with a god called Velchanos, who in Etruscan would seem to have become Velchans.[1] But I speak about disputed topics.

Mr. SpockNot disputed is that Mr. Spock in the popular television series Star Trek finds his origins on Vulcan, a planet that has paradoxically suppressed its fire—maybe the way a volcano suppresses its fire for a period of time, controlling it as long as it can until it erupts? I don’t know if that corresponds to Mr. Spock’s planet of origin, but it does not seem to correspond to his fine, if firm, personality, for as played by the great Leonard Nimoy, he never seemed very close to eruption to me. Yet I wax science-fictional.

Also not disputed is the fact that the spark of any volcano comes from within. The fire comes from deep inside, and watching one erupt is a spectacular thing. The apparent fury, nature’s passion, and the magnificence of the fireworks, quite literally, is mind-boggling. I felt this way when I watched Mt. Etna erupt afresh a few years back. And I marveled at this gobbler of philosophers, this creator of fecundity by its ash, this fireball maker—as its likely etymology from the Greek word for “burn” suggests. Yet there is an obvious downside to such an internal spark, so far as I can tell: it can be rather unpredictable, and along with unpredictable, dangerous.

Mt. Etna, Sicily
Mt. Etna, Sicily

So it is with us humans. Nearly every person whom I’ve known and respected has had not simply an internal spark—though of course there is always something of that—but rather an external spark, as well. That external spark, in the folks I’ve thought of as particularly superb, would seem to come from somewhere up in the aether, rather than simply from their surroundings. Permit me to explain what I mean. I’ve generally respected my teachers, over the years, because they found their inspiration in an author, someone whose works have had a particular impact upon the way they think, or even, in some cases, live. Their spark was not simply their own view of the world, but their view of the world as shaped by a voice or voices from the past. And even if such a voice were not always coming to them from very high up in the aether, it seemed at least to have given a good many of those Ivy League dons a way to think other than simply with themselves at the center of all things.

The same can be said for my friends. I’ve noticed that, though I love them all, those who find their spark outside themselves seem quite different from those who are their own spark. The person who finds the source of motivation entirely from within is often rather attentive to him- or herself. He or she might spend a lot of time on himself or herself, making sure his personal needs are addressed, her pride is not hurt, his rights are upheld, her own desires are fulfilled. He or she is like a volcano and every once in a while, precisely like a volcano, she or he might just erupt.

Yet those whose spark is from without, especially those who derive their internal fire from a vastly higher place, tend to put their own needs last. Indeed, they rarely talk about themselves at all. When you speak to them, you nearly need to pry their lid off, in some cases, to find out what they’ve been up to. You might see them in a hospital waiting room, a volunteer center, a military vehicle, or a church pew. I know some of them by name, such as a friend and his brother with oddly rhyming names, and their dear wives, whose names also rhyme. There is another couple, able and patient, who are like this, too; and those whose name is implicitly non-violent. And then there’s an Italian couple from the far north yet of humbly low origin, and those who, because their son adores animals, would never live up to their last name. They work in shops, in office buildings, in schools, in uniform; they volunteer endlessly, and they deflect credit from themselves. They love their neighbors as themselves, and sacrifice for others each day, all day long. They joyfully enjoy their lives well-lived simply because they have quite often, daily in fact, jauntily stifle their own happiness for others. These folks, whom I won’t name here so as not to embarrass them, are those whom I aspire to be like.

Saint Paul abbey church. Dedication fresco by Thomas von Villach ( 1493 ): Detail showing Saint Paul.
Stift Sankt Paul in the Laventtal, Austria. Dedication fresco by Thomas von Villach (1493): Detail showing Saint Paul.

They are not those castigated by a saint named Paul in a letter to a city called Corinth. There flame burns bright because it is fueled by an ethereal fire. To some, perhaps, they might appear to be common folk. But they are not: they are the heroes of our age.

There is a reason, mythologically speaking, that both the Greek Hephaistos and the Roman Vulcan are always described as limping. The god whom these names represent was cast out of Olympus by Zeus/Jupiter because he angered him as the king of the gods was punishing his wife, Hera/Juno, with chains for sending a storm upon Hercules. The mythological result was a limping fire god.

Lame Hephaistos leans on a crutch.
Lame Hephaistos leans on a crutch. From the East Central frieze of the Parthenon.

Now I don’t intend to suggest that Vulcan’s attempt to free his mother was not a helpful act. But I would suggest that the fact that the god winds up limping might perhaps, if only incidentally, provide an apotropaic totem to any who thinks that charting a course based on one’s own spark, and that alone, is the finest way to live. Indeed, Vulcan’s best act, perhaps, was the making of the armor for Achilles, armor that responded to pride and ultimately only promoted more killing.

Foundry Painter. Attic red-figure Kylix, 490–480 BC.
Foundry Painter. Attic red-figure Kylix, 490–480 BC.

For while this world will encourage us to find our own way, it just may turn out that there is no “own way” after all. And that is the point of The Curious Autobiography, the story behind a life journey like that of Elaine Jakes. It may turn out that there is a closer connection between all human beings than we had ever imagined, that in fact there really is a brotherhood and sisterhood among all humankind, and that there is a Father of all, somewhere far away in terms of divine nature, yet perhaps closer than we have ever imagined in terms of divine love. But that is all the stuff of another blog. In the meantime, I leave you, my dear reader, merely with an invitation to enjoy a glass of wine with a bite of Parmesan—I’m missing that now that I’m back from Parma—and, as you do so, to think about where the true spark comes from and, insofar as any of us can, to take up Spock’s invitation to live long and prosper.

[1] Andreas Bendlin, in Der Neue Pauly 1.2 (2002) 296–298, s.v. “Volcanus”; S. Blakely, in R. Bagnall et al. (eds), The Encyclopedia of Ancient History (New York/London, 2012), s.v. “Volcanus.”

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