The Bonfire of the Vanities is associated with Girolamo Savanarola, the ardent preacher of moral reform in late 15th century Florence. Following a devotional practice of the time he had people burn cosmetics, mirrors and frivolous garments as a sign of embracing simplicity of life. Later manuscripts of secular literature were added to the list. He made enemies and was eventually tried for heresy. He, too, died hanged over fire at in the square where he had the books and other frivolities burned.
The tone of the phrase, Bonfire of the Vanities, with its echoes of delight, drama, renunciation, moral fervour, danger and opportunism, suggests the danger that fire brings.
In Savanarola's case the story of the burning of the vanities and his own execution in Florence brings together the rise and fall of a social and religious reformer, the resentment of his young followers who flocked to feed the fires, the exclusion of the poor and luxury of the wealthy in the society of Florence, the political scheming of French King, the Medici family and Pope Alexander VI, the passions expressed in religious and Republican zeal, and the fears of the Pope and others who saw religious fervour and Republicanism out of control.
With such dry and combustible wood to stoke a fire, the men who died on it, and centrally Savanarola, inevitably became lost from view. Only in recent years has he been studied as a person and not as a cipher of a thousand causes and a hundred fears.
In Australia, we don't do bonfires so melodramatically, but we do take bushfires seriously. In the fires still threatening New South Wales and Queensland, and feared in the other states, it was impossible not to feel for the people whose lives, hopes, possessions and histories were threatened by the flames. Bushfires are a human catastrophe evoking awe and compassion.
As with the bonfires in Florence, however, the bushfires also put on view all the relationships between people and with the natural world that shape a society. The passions and interests evoked by these relationships can similarly distract from the plight of the people threatened by the fire.
In Australian bushfires, these passions were aroused when attention turned to the reasons why the fires are so dangerous, and particularly to the part that climate change plays in them. This question threatens political and economic interests. Once it was raised it led to vicious argument, to rehearsing of factional grievances, and to widespread disgust that the plight of the victims of the fire was subordinated to partisan abuse. The vanities of politics and ego that ought to have been thrown on the bonfire were instead pumped up and put on shameless display.
"This only intensified the widespread suspicion that politicians have neither the interest nor the capacity to address the serious issues that face Australia in the era of climate change."
The comparison with Savanarola suggests how readily in public life attention turns from the lives of people to larger issues in which they are seen as ciphers. The larger issues of inequality, hypocrisy and conspicuous display of wealth in Florence, and of the effects of climate change in Australia, are important to reflect and act on, but in public conversation, they have often been raised and debated in order to defend power.
In the case of the bushfires this partisan interest inevitably led to a secondary debate between politicians defending their own reputation and record of governance. This was unseemly, and only intensified the widespread suspicion that politicians have neither the interest nor the capacity to address the serious issues that face Australia in the era of climate change.
The fact that they so easily turned their attention away from the lives of the people threatened by fire to brawling about their own virtues and lack of them offers little hope that the lives of Australians will count with them when they reflect on the causes and the proper response to the fires.
The violence of the fires combined with the heat and drought that formed their backdrop, of course, do demand reflection, and clearly that reflection will focus on the effects of climate change. Scientists, heads of fire departments and other public servants are already engaged formally in those discussions and others more generally.
During the crisis, however, public attention should focus on the people affected by the fire and on how we might support them. Raucous debate and polemic are vanities at such a time and should be thrown on the bonfire.