“Once, when I was a child, I saw in a menagerie a panther, which struck my imagination and for long held my thoughts captive. It was not like the other wild beasts, which dozed without thought or angrily gazed at the visitors. It walked from corner to corner, in one and the same line, with mathematical precision, each time turning on exactly the same spot, each time grazing with its tawny side one and the same metal bar of the cage. Its sharp, ravenous head was bent down, and its eyes looked straight before it, never turning aside. For whole days a noisily chattering crowd trooped before its cage, but it kept up its tramp and never once turned an eye on the spectators. A few of the crowd laughed, but the majority looked seriously, even sadly, at that living picture of heavy, hopeless brooding, and went away with a sigh. And as they retired, they looked back at her once more- a doubting, inquiring glance- and sighed, as though there was something in common between their own lot, free as they were, and that of the unhappy, eager, wild beast. And when later on I was grown up, and people or books spoke to me of eternity, I called to mind the panther, and it seemed to me that I knew eternity and its pains.”
-Leonid Andreyev, The Lie, 1901
This road leads to the depths of our being; to unknown, unseen homes which we recall only in fragments- and even they cannot be seen from here.
It is unknown to me when the bars first appeared; whether they enclose me, or enclose the various onlookers; and, finally, whether they are real bars of cast iron, or a filtering of sorts from my eyes to what lay beyond them; or, an interpretation from outside, a patterned grid that protects the interpreter from their experience of me, as thermal vision, bioluminescence or detection of ultraviolet light may protect or privilege the vision of other creatures.
Maybe the bars I see are a manifestation of a peculiar sort of compassion- the compassion of safe distance, of containment- the kind that would lead one to support a charity on another continent while treating the cast of their daily lives with petty wrath, allowing no quarter for a thousand imagined threats they send forth. Or, a sectioned, categorized sort of worth- a box with clear labels, sectioned off from other beings, expressing the pretense of understanding through simply being named (I understand the sky as “sky” because it was given that label, long ago- to the extent that the label “sky” supplants any awe, mystery, openness or wonder when faced with this raw thing, older than any of its names, because it is just a “sky”).
If the bars were placed upon me from outside myself, how long have they been there? I jog through metaphysical amnesia, pulsing through snatches of memory redolent with misunderstanding, warped interpretation, resonances with constructed meanings out of touch with the actualities of what others feel- the ear-popping pressure of having an identity in the first place. When did my failure to connect fuse the iron rods together, snap the rusty lock and hand the key over to someone I have not met yet? Is my recognition of these bars a resignation to the notion of some enclosed peace, the still unknowable, unreachable place within experience, before conscious decision, where visions and imaginings sail without borders?
Or accepting the possibility that I myself placed these bars here, around the onlookers themselves, I have to wonder about the source for such a need. Are they the bars of elitism, a projected specialness that, in containment of all others I have met and even those I haven’t, helps to define my view of myself, shining back in blurry light and shadow from the polished, glinting lock, like carnival glass? If so, I could preen all I wanted in such warped reflection- in the end it would still be an enclosure of this mercurial flow I conventionally refer to as a self.
The polished sheen of the lock, though warping light the way one heart can warp the depths of another, could also reflect those on the other side of the bars. Like leaning over and watching the side of a goldfish bowl, they choose what they see to not be the mottled distortion of their own reflection, but of the safely contained contents inside. A “goldfish smile”- the known, contained and predictable, its inferiority established through distance itself, spreads across the onlooker. They have decided that the contents should live- without deciding why, beyond knowing that it’s their desire to have it so. For the best way to feel the gift of freedom, to most, is to have the power to withhold freedom from some other being. I know, whichever side of the bars I’m on, if there is such a side to these spherical rods, that the cultures which blather on the most about personal freedoms are the ones with the most prisons, the most contained and ghettoized subcultures- as if the gravity of freedom itself finds identity in the number of distant satellites drawn towards it, but not welcome at its core. Safe orbits, like pacing panthers, reassuring the free that their own pacing is merely an echo, a phantom limb of walls strung up like tentacled appendages of both captive and captors, once there but now dissolved.
Of my own bars, though I can’t honestly say what put them there, whether they shut in or shut out, whether for my own safety or for others- I know that they are rooted in the projected control of space itself, as projected control itself is rooted in capping and lidding the seeping gases of the unknowable that we find ourselves inhaling with every breath. The ground of uncertainty is like a mountain; these pinpricks of control, of ownership, these thin fences of containment, affect a paper-thin surface that has nothing to do with the sheer depth of mountains.
No matter the source of such wish for control, whether it be from my heart or from another, the ground that sustains these tiny bars will always be beyond any grate, fence or wall placed upon it; and if, as my long-held assertion stands, the nature of the mind is the ground (the one that we fall on in states of delusion; the one we also lift ourselves up from, using it for balance & support), then if I truly walk towards the indiscernible home of this mind, those tiny bars that distress me will have to walk alongside, until they tire, and drift back to form the walls of another cell, somewhere else.
I only know this is possible because of the love that dissolved these bars before- a devotion that couldn’t be stopped by any issue of control, or ego, or presumed mapping and plumbing of knowledge. Although the poisoned, brambled hill on which I climbed soon turned to ashes and phantom cinders, all of it, every moment, contained more than any iron bar could ever hold in. It was not what I may call “zoo compassion” – that strange fusion of pity, identity and distance of which Andreyev spoke- it was the raw compassion of the ground itself- that which springs into vision before vision, into thought before thought, from a place and age beyond any projected grid of space or of time. A ground that leads to unknowable, unenclosed realms, that I can’t see from here- but I make the path as I walk, the trees on either side standing sentinel, barring nothing. If iron bars can be imagined, so can the rust that will render them crumpled detritus, in the darkest corner of the woods, lying helpless on the ground.