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The truth about the leopard.
16 November 2000
I stand naked under the African sun, a knife in one hand, a spear in the other. Never has the air tasted as fresh as this. I take one step backward, one forwards and then another. I hunch. My eyes drink the light, greedily. The leopard faces me only metres away, head to the floor, back arching skyward.
I breathe in. The leopard breathes in. I tense and hold the group. Its muscles tighten. I grip the knife, harder. The wind brushes the grass in clean long sweeps. And as the world turns around us, we. both. lean. into. the. other. just. a. fraction -- And the leopard soars.
Who am I? How did I get here?
I was in Serbia, for the revolution. We felt like we could tear down all the old ways and start again. I met an American, L----, who counselled us not to go too far: "You seek to create only truth, but where will you head when everything is possible?
"You want to attain the myth of Utopia. You want the myth of PAN where the laying on of hands becomes an economic transaction. But you want it without the myth of the leopard."
I left the next day and followed him back to the great deserts of the USA.
"Myth is two things," he would say, "True, and not true." I learned this from him over many months.
The world, he told me, in the midst of that glorious desolation, is too complicated for us to understand. Myths are a shortcut to enlightenment; a shorthand for great thoughts. Myths are true because they exist within their reality. The don't reduce the logic that surrounds them into simple parts (because life doesn't work like that), and they don't try to extend what they're part of. Myths have to be could-be-trues.
They're stories, albeit greater and grander stories. Myths provide lynchpins for our personal and social narratives. These titans striding, these origins, these love stories: they give meaning to the most trivial aspect of our lives.
"What is the myth of Christ without the crucifixion?" he taught.
Of course I didn't believe him. "We don't need myths any more than we need prejudice," I would reply, laughing at him.
And then he would explain to me why myths can't be true.
Myths so rooted in reality that they could happen are testable. They can be seen, observed. The Y2K apocalypse myth still stands because it contained within it a prerequisite: that the computers were not fixed. We fixed, it didn't happen. And so the myth of warding and destruction remains inviolate.
Thus a myth must contain within it contradictions and confusions, and above-all no evidence. This does not stop the story from being true: it is the idea of the myth which must remain unexaminable, atomic.
Myths carry with them their own defence. We thumbed a history of McCarthyism together. "Witness the strength of capitalism," he said.
The leopard is such a myth.
"Tell me the truth about the leopard," I said, late one stormy night.
He smiled in the darkness, moonlight beaming through the wild palms playing stripes on his chest.
"The leopard is the dream of destruction. It is the domestic becoming greater than us and pulling us down."
I argued: "But you're constraining humanity. On one side you say we are pulled by the Utopian ideal, but on the other the danger of nature, of the leopard, pulls us back. These stories aren't important or helpful. You're not speaking truths: You're an agent of myth holding civilisation down from greater things."
L--- shook his head. "We need constraints. With a manifold destiny humanity couldn't decide where to turn."
I left him eventually, to find the leopard myself and to kill it. Such great things could society achieve without it!
I destroyed so many things. Consider the yeti. A two metre man-ape is running towards you down a mountain. A ravine to the left of you, clowns to the right, and your worst-case scenario handbook is out of reach in your little great bag. Pop quiz, asshole: What do you do?
You don't stop to take photographs. It's a good myth; untestable. Had there been documented evidence we'd know it wasn't true. (You'll notice that, to uphold the myth, photograph after photograph is dismissed as fraud.)
Now imagine you have identified the true origin of the whole universe and of man and everything, and it turns out to be a single person. Say, one of your neighbours. Do you stop to take notes? Do you write down everything he says? If all the prophecies are being fulfilled and you expect to ascend to the kingdom of heaven tomorrow do you amass such a body of evidence that it is still available two thousand years later? Such widespread, accepted evidence would clearly put the alleged event in the realms of fiction and fable.
So what does this mean? Two hairy men in the wilderness, both implausible, both almost true; one with evidence and one without (good evidence please, before we have any arguments). The myth is useless - it tells us not to go up into mountains - but the fable guides the lives of billions of people.
L----, in other words, was wrong. And I say, why should we be bound?
So I found this spot. On this very spot man for the first time took up a tool and in doing so took control. In this exact place, a single man uttered his first word, the first word, and thus forged the human. Here, in the grass and dust under my feet, one man stood upright and set off -- forwards. And others followed him.
I stand here, stripped to my skin and holding my knife aloft. The leopard will leap onto the blade. In a second I will free all humanity to reach for eternity.
The leopard is a cat - a biggish cat - with spots. It can climb trees.
But it's not: The leopard is a killer. The leopard is what's in our homes, writ large and able to bring us down in a second. It gives edge to our wants and needs. It defines our society, causes us to interact and have respect for the universe. It propels us to not be content or complacent. It moves us to expand; it focuses our creation; it drives us onward.
Without it we would collapse like a bubble at the first sign of adversity.
It's not just this cat here in front of me, it's the concept of leopardhood. Now I understand. How could I ever destroy this thing?
Cast not off your chains my friends. We must celebrate that which binds us.
I open my hand and drop the knife.