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The bushfires of the vanities



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.

Andrew Mackenzie surveys the burnt out remains of a property in Torrington, Qld, on 11 November 2019. (Photo by Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)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 were 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.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Andrew Mackenzie surveys the burnt out remains of a property in Torrington, Qld, on 11 November 2019. (Photo by Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, bushfires, climate change



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Existing comments

This is a serious topic Fr Andrew and one where history repeats itself because of the conflict between clearing trees and scrub for firebreaks and the overiding need for home safety. As a child our home was burnt down when I was 12. At the time there were 5 children. You cannot imagine the devestation to be left with nothing but the clothes on your back and grey faced parents who could not even afford food, let alone catholic school fees, uniforms, dead pets and the loss of photographs, and all the mementoes that formed part of their very identity. Consequences. "The Black Saturday bushfires killed 173 people, 120 in the Kinglake area alone. Another 414 people were injured. More than 450,000 hectares had burned and 3,500 buildings including more than 2000 houses destroyed." 12th Central had a log hut, 22 acres at Kinglake.The annual parish picnic took parishioners there in big furniture vans, singing songs with guitars. The huge mountain ash gums were beautiful but when the fires hit they exploded with a deadly ferocity. At King lake lamp posts fell across the roads making vehicle escape impossible. Wildlife Conservation is important but wide sensible firebreaks even more so.

francis Armstrong | 20 November 2019  

I find the government response to the fires of the past week entirely abnormal and anomalous for Australia. In fact, weird. The concerted effort of fire services and government is to fight the fires and support the people. It is always a unified attitude. It is appalling to see government avoiding scrutiny, not leading by example, blaming and scapegoating others, and almost nothing about working together to overcome the challenge. This summer is potentially going to be the most serious season since 1939 and we have a government with no plan and no compassion.

Philip Harvey | 20 November 2019  

Thank you again Andrew for your wisdom, inspiration and challenge. I love the concept of vanities, as it embodies so accurately the current situation. In the words of the song: 'when will we ever learn?' As you point out, if we could look more honestly at history and current realities, a way forward for both compassion and truth is possible.

Jan Barnett | 21 November 2019  

I've just finished watching the 8-part series "The Name of the Rose" adapted from the great novel by Umberto Eco. Fire plays a significant role in this tale of intrigue and murder at the monastery. There was no shortage of raucous debate and polemic either. At the conclusion, the fire in the library of the monastery raged unabated for three days. We have to see our precious environment in a more collective way.

Pam | 21 November 2019  

Good article Andrew. But not only people are devastated. Millions of native animals die in agony. Let’s nurture all survivors.??

Steve Carey | 21 November 2019  

The photo taken at Torrington (NSW?) was an inspired inclusion. Communities and villages have been completely obliterated in the New England area and the living geography permanently changed. Torrington was a delightful village and originally home to Mollie McNutt, an Australian bush poet ( and teacher) who wrote about bird song and the natural delights of local bushland. (The NSW Gould League published some of her verse over the years. ) Years ago Torrington had its own one teacher school (Mollie's husband was the teacher-in-charge) which eventually was closed (like hundreds of similar one teacher schools across the state.) These community hubs were often centres from which bush and grass fires were fought. I have been interested in the life, work and ministry of Savaronola since University days . For those who would like to read more I include a link to available resources : http://traditio-op.org/biblioteca/Savonarola/Selected-Writings-of-Girolamo-Savonarola-Religion-and-Politics-1490%E2%80%931498.pdf Thanks, Andrew for your insights ! Commentary from politicians has been interesting to say the least......."thoughts and prayers" whatever that might mean to them.

Ken Bridge | 21 November 2019  

Another fine article Andrew. However, while I agree with you regarding the crisis and terrifying aspect of these fires, I must say it it not entirely unsympathetic to call out the current government for its lack of action, or dare I say it, active promotion of the fossil fuel industry's contribution to our warming planet. As many a writer has said over the past few weeks, "If not now when?".

Tom Kingston | 21 November 2019  

It would be hard not to concur with Andrew Hamilton's reflection. But the bushfire's polemic starts lop-sidedly, when one faction is so manifestly the one that has fallen short, and hell-bent on continuing so, on environmental (hence social) morality. In that case, as Francis Bradley is reputed to have said: "When all is rotten it is a man's work to cry stinking fish." Circumspect, diplomatically nuanced critique for the sake of appearances - and to spare the sensibilities of those responsible for wilful neglect - cannot cut it here.

Frederick Green | 21 November 2019  

But Australia, and the world, will be in such a crisis from now on. To keep public attention on these crises, it is essential to keep debating them while they are happening or else we’ll lose the plot to other pressing problems. Further ecological collapse is going to happen very fast now.

Malthus Anderson | 23 November 2019  

Thanks Andrew for your insightful reflection. Yet another day of smoke, then thick red dust with near gale force winds yesterday (Monday) in the National Capital. Lastly a brief rain of mud! Meanwhile our politicians up on the Hill were, as usual,arguing semantics while the Nation burns, our fragile and thin fertile soils are blown to New Zealand and country communities head towards despair. What will it take for this Government to act? "How dare you!!!"

Gavin | 27 November 2019  

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