In which we watch the sun rise in a story’s dark heart.
Beyond Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, farther up the Congo near the river’s source in the central plateau, that’s where I lived and worked for two years dodging hippos on the rivers of Zambia as I calculated cross sections and measured water currents to determine water flow in cubic feet per second.
That’s where I met the cheetah.
I’m telling you this because that cat taught me something about a little-discussed element of “story”— the nature of a protagonist’s “change of heart” at the Act II crisis.
I know, I know, postmodern writers disavow this whole business of “character arc”. They have no interest in portraying the human organism as a self-transcendent being. And so they overlook the reason readers read and why we writers write.
We are self-transcendent beings.
We have the ability—given the right conditions—to rise above ourselves. To see ourselves more objectively. To self-detach. To look down on ourselves as part of a bigger picture.
I’ve discovered that stories work to the extent that they portray this most-human potential. Without it, fictional characters would perish in their existential cul-de-sacs. Check it out for yourself—protagonists resolving their dilemmas by leaving their brittle old belief systems behind—it happens in every good book and movie.
This self-transcendence is elemental to “story”—and yet no one’s talking about it.
No one is talking about it!
I can’t believe I’m the only one who ever met a cheetah.Photo by Vince Hemingson
I was lying in the elephant grass shooting her with my spring-wound 16mm Bolex. The cheetah was devouring the shoulder of goat I’d set out as bait. Having run out of film, I get up to leave and she made straight for me and clamped down on my hand.
I felt the grumbling in its belly. The guttural rumbling rattled my skeleton. I can still feel it. It wouldn’t let go. It has hold of me, to this day. My guide, an older woman, said, “Don’t move.”
I couldn’t even think. I couldn’t even panic. My heart, of course, kept beating
She approached the cat, knelt beside it, stroked its throat and whispered sweet nothings in its ear. My brain, as I said, was on strike. So, I had no opinion of this situation.
I had no opinion. Can you imagine that! I was inside that cat. I might well have been. I was! My boundaries blurred.
So, this is the heart of darkness?
Unable to make the slightest move, and with thought useless, I was super-alert. I became aware of a broader scheme of things. I saw a world in which I was no less a part, but only a part. I loved that cat.
There was nothing wrong with this picture. I think the cat loved me, too. Of course, I would have preferred that the cheetah unclench, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker. What seemed to be of more importance was the quality of that moment.
My attitude to the moment was one of utter compassion for everything.
Had I died, I would have been the hero of my own story, without a doubt.
The rumbling became a grumble, then a purring. She released me. We walked away. I’ve never been the same.
Moral of the story?
a) Wash your hands after carrying bloody meat on an African safari.
b) Self-transcendence—in fiction as in life—it rules.
NOTE: I expand on this incident in an upcoming eBook titled “Deep Story”.
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