Touchstone: Anagogical Reading of ‘To Build a Fire’

Touchstone is a great magazine, period, and if you don’t subscribe, you really should. I read every issue cover to cover and always find something to make me think and re-think what I’ve thought. For example, where else but Touchstone can you read a critique of Jack London’s short story ‘To Build a Fire’ from the traditional lens revealing the four layers of meaning? David Haddon’s purpose in ‘Never Absolute Zero’ isn’t to advocate that lens — he works pretty hard to make the point that London transcends his atheism in his art — but he opens his critique with a short review of its value:

Dr. Louise Cowan, longtime professor of literature at the University of Dallas​, taught that an analysis of a work of literature is not complete until the critic has evaluated it not only at the literal, allegorical, and moral levels, but also at the anagogic level—the critic must evaluate the work’s relation to ultimate spiritual reality. Thus, at the two highest levels, we must compare the morality and metaphysics discernable in an artist’s narrative with the moral order discernible in what C. S. Lewis called the Tao (or Natural Law) and with the order of creation revealed in Scripture.

Those of you who have Spotlight or Harry Potter’s Bookshelf or even just the posts here at HogwartsProfessor know that this sort of reading, what we call iconological criticism after Northrup Frye, is a large part of what I’m after in writing for ‘serious readers’ of popular fiction. As such Mr. Haddon’s article was a delight to read and I encourage you to read it in full. He makes his point about London’s story being evidence of a perspective greater than the materialism of his professed politics and offers a different perspective on the anagogical than I have.

Just to show I read it closely, though, I’d make two points.
First, Dr. Cowan’s sequencing of the four layers of reading has the ‘moral’ following the ‘allegorical’ rather than preceding it on the way to the sublime or anagogical summit and Mr. Haddon’s interpretation follows her lead. Though traditional — Aquinas uses this sequence, for instance, as does Dante in his request for a ‘polysemantic’ reading of the Comedia — I don’t think these authorities justify bumping a ‘moral’ or tropological’ reading over allegory.

Why not? For one thing, Aquinas’ reading (after Boethius, I suspect) is not the sequence as it was given in the original, that is, the interpretation of Hebrew scriptures by Talmudic scholars. The acronym for these four layers in Hebrew and Aramaic was P-R-D-S (frequently ‘PaRDeS’ or “Garden” in Hebrew): P standing for pashat or ‘simple,’ R for remez meaning ‘hint,’ D for drash meaning ‘search,’ and S for sod or ‘hidden.’ And Aquinas and Dante are not married to the sequence of the last three layers, only to the distinction of the ‘literal’ and the ‘non-literal.’ I’d suggest, too, that what Aquinas meant by ‘tropological’ has more to do with what we understand as ‘allegory’ than with ‘morality’ as such, except in the interpretation of Scripture.

More important than the historical usage of iconological criticism, the switch of allegory before moral reading breaks the epistemological foundation of layered interpretation. As seen in the chart below, the three layers beneath the surface or historical narrative of any reading correspond to the greater knowledges beneath sense perception and understanding, namely, opinion, science, and wisdom.

The moral layer corresponds with ‘opinion’ rather than ‘science,’ that is, sure knowledge derived from reasoning, or, better, knowledge had by looking through data as transparencies to see the principle or law of which they are only symbols, i.e., allegory.

Mr. Haddon, however, because he reads ‘allegory’ as less than ‘moral,’ makes too little of ‘To Build a Fire’s anti-hero as Man per se rather than just one man in the frozen Yukon wilderness (about which inclusive idea of Man see another great Touchstone article, this one by Anthony Esolen).

C. S. Lewis famously despised allegory, (well, not really) at least when it was used to describe his fiction, because he understood the popular misunderstanding of allegory as mechanical connecting of story to ‘real world’ correspondences, ‘Big Lion is Jesus,’ ‘War of the Ring is WWII,’ etc., rather than symbolic or transparency-reading, alieniloquium, ‘One-thing-standing-for-another-thing,’ in which the signifier was the story element and the signified was something transcendent or at least much greater than historical events or persons.

Mr. Haddon, in following Dr. Cowan and Lewis after Aquinas, is forced to make the moral, the right and wrong of ‘To Build a Fire’ carry much more weight than it can. As allegory, however, of human hubris and life without the virtues, it works wonderfully, in itself and as passage to the anagogical reading Mr. Haddon makes.

I said I had two points and the second is less tendentious or pedantic, I hope.

Mr. Haddon rests his case on the story transcending Jack London’s materialist worldview, by which is meant de facto atheism, on London’s assertion that the character dies for lack of “imagination:”

London blunts the story’s suspense by explaining to the reader in advance why the chechaquo must die: “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things and not in the significances.” Thus, he was “quick and alert,” not stupid; but he failed to appreciate the dangers of traveling alone when it was colder than 50 below because of his lack of imagination—and for this he dies. But London’s proffered interpretation strangely ignores the real reason for his protagonist’s death, which the narrative itself makes apparent.

Mr. Haddon may be right, in fact, I’m certain he is right in his thesis about the intentio auctoris here not being as great and perhaps being even contrary to the grander intentio operis found in ‘To Build a Fire.’ But he could also be misreading London when he writes, ““The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things and not in the significances.”

“Imagination” in the 19th century meant much more than it does now, especially in literary and theological circles. Coleridge famously equates the Primary Imagination as something akin to if not identical with the human spiritual faculty or capacity, the “heart” of the New Testament. It’s not just a cranial ability to conjure mental pictures or images without the benefit of incoming sense perception.

Read in this light, London’s describing him as a man “without imagination” who was unable to pick up on the “significances” is a pointer to the greater meaning of the story Mr. Haddon argues atheist London is unaware of, even denying. I agree with the critic in doubting that Jack London was writing to share a challenging and edifying story of Man separated from the “significances,” most notably, lacking humility before Creation and Creator.

I wonder, though, if Mr. Haddon, in his rush to suggest that atheists have no sense of the sublime, transcendent, or anagogical isn’t over-reaching and under-reading London’s artistry. His comment about imagination and the story structure of hubris vs wisdom makes me think Jack London was not unaware of his message, one that might not contradict the this-worldly politics of the author.

Read ‘Never Absolute Zero’ if you have a minute and let me know what you think; your comments and corrections are coveted as always. And, if you’re not a Touchstone subscriber, please give that a thought!


  1. Thank you for pointing me towards the Touchstone essay–I enjoyed reading it together with your response.

    One niggle: wasn’t it Tolkien, rather than Lewis, who famously despised allegory?

  2. Interesting post.

    Concerning the order of understanding: My immediate reaction is that Mr. Haddon, Dr. Cowan, St. Thomas Aquinas, et al, have it in the proper order. I’m not entirely convinced the moral order is “visible” given that so many fail to perceive it. This failure, I believe, is on account of many folks allegorical understanding malfunctions on the way to the moral level of understanding.

    I’m also not convinced Jack London “was not unaware of his message,” that he could have seen the otherworldly significance of “To Build a Fire.” We can’t question London, so obviously we’ll never know. However, materialists and atheists who write fiction and whom we can question will, pretty much, across the board flatly reject anything other than a materialists reading of their stories. They may qualify and quibble that readers may see what they want to see, but when it comes to what the writer intended a writer with a strictly materialists frame of mind rarely, if ever, accepts an interpretation that points to “the sublime, transcendent, or anagogical.”

    Furthermore, if an atheist has a “sense of the sublime, transcendent, or anagogical,” than it begs the question: Why does this person confess atheism?

  3. Three quick responses:

    (1) On the order of understanding: the Thomistic sequence, forgive me please, doesn’t make sense from an epistemological or cosmological view while the original does, as I explain. Aquinas and Dante argue for it as a “truth, beauty, and goodness” triptych of sorts beneath the surface of the literal, and following Plato and Keats, that makes a certain sense if you equate these as qualitative aspects of the divine. That isn’t a four layer cake but a literal/allegorical with three shades in the latter. Offering the moral as above the allegorical when the moral is evident in good-guys/bad-guys leaves me scratching my head. Aquinas et alia are arguing for and operating within an iconological perspective for seeing through story and scripture transparencies; I am left to wonder if you are.

    (2) The generalizations about atheist writers denying the sublime make me long for specifics, or better, a focus on London and this story. Reading the story and Mr. Haddon’s criticism actually “begs the question” ‘Do you think a story of human hubris can be written from any perspective except humility?” This story certainly is. Atheism, to your last point, is usually — in the atheists I have known — a rejection of devotional religion and unthinking Phariseeism in favor of experience of the noumenal in the natural world. Which is exactly what we’re discussing; London’s atheism, per se, doesn’t preclude spiritual writing and experience, only religious categories and speech.

    (3) No comment on the “imagination” point of the post, alas!

    Thank you for the push to clarify my thinking on the iconological criticism and the seeming but not necessarily insuperable differences between traditional and Thomistic ordering of the layers.

  4. I recently noticed a potential alchemical layer in “To build a fire” given the readily apparent reference to the sulfur/mercury contraries. Does anybody else think this might be present?

  5. I think the story gives an example of a failed alchemical process. The main character is told by an old man from a town interestingly called Sulphur Creek that it is not a good idea to travel in such extreme weather without someone else. He recalls this advice several times throuout the work. Then comes the line near the end, when he is near being entirely frozen:
    “It struck him as curious that he could run at all on feet so frozen that he could not feel them when they struck the earth and took the weight of his body. He seemed to himself to skim along above the surface, and to have no connection with the earth. Somewhere he had once seen a winged Mercury, and he wondered if Mercury felt as he felt when skimming over the earth.” All this while surrounded by silvery snow (or quicksilvery snow).
    Beyond this the setting suggests the alchemical stages, but with a different end than it should. In the first paragraph it describes the setting as: “It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun.” This suggests the Nigredo stage of the alchemical work. Then there is the white stage later in which “At twelve o’clock the day was at its brightest. Yet the sun was too far south on its winter journey to clear the horizon.” The white snow becomes the most present aspect at this point. And then comes the catastrophe of the novel, the sun never rises, he is unable to create the fire, the red stage never happens. He by denying any value to the Sulphuric aspects has been forced to the Mercurial, and it ruins the process, rather than a unification of the contraries, the work is destroyed.

  6. First rate! Given London’s background, this makes sense. He writes the anti-alchemical piece about Human Arrogance and Pride making transformation and even survival impossible.

    With admiration

    John, hat off for the great reading

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