P-22: an epilogue of myth

by Guy Walker

P-22 is the newest predator of beauty and lore to have died on the internet. He was one of Los Angeles’ remote icons, like a totem of strangeness from the wilderness that somehow survived until now, like it was some sage-enameled Indian that staggered out of the brush to remind you of his era of antiquity before he finally dropped dead at your feet. P-22 was the mountain lion in the iconic photo you probably saw walking in front of the Hollywood sign; he famously crossed twelve lanes of traffic without incident in 2012; and then, a couple weeks ago, he was euthanized after killing a chihuahua on leash. It’s better that there’s no video of this incident, it requires the grisly bits of your imagination to paint the picture for yourself. Chihuahua owners are already the most questionable group of people, more than QAnon fanatics, more than people who trade NFT’s of sunglass-wearing apes, more than people who still eat at Arby’s into adulthood. For keeping a creature of profound ghastliness into their home, in their bed, their eyes bulging from their skulls like ulcers, their shivering cowardice of trembling bones and arthritic joints yapping at you from behind a screen door. You imagine the incident, this cretin of inbred malnutrition barking at the apex predator, and the owner screaming in unison, together a two person choir of self-immolating trauma; and the mountain lion ripping the thing from its leash, the leash hanging flaccid in empty space like when the goat was eaten by the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park. And then the owner proceeded to snitch on the poor animal, to run and tell on him to whatever authority is in charge of killing mountain lions.

Every so often, an animal of beautiful magnitude gets killed, and if the timing is right—if there are no sufficient headlines that the public ensemble gets to swaddle over for the week—it will affect the cultural nerve and we might throw our collective muted tantrums over how much that animal meant to us and what a shame it is that they’re gone now. When Harambe was pointlessly killed after a three-year old fell into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, he reached memetic stardom. “Dicks out for Harambe” became an outburst of global vitriol. Eighteen thousand people wrote in the dead gorilla for president in 2016. Much sentiment on the internet was calling for the parents of the three-year-old to be killed instead.

When Cecil the lion was hunted down by a dentist in 2015, the collective outrage reached a hysterical culmination of animal worship. Walter Palmer received death threats, fake blood was smeared on the windows of his offices, and the man who clearly thought of himself as the second coming of some Hemingway short story fantasy, burgling through the tall weeds in his cargo shorts, taking his shirt off and fucking the conceit of impotence, he presumably never thought international attention would be turned to him just for some big dick trophy hunt. Many people pay large sums of money to hunt and kill prized charismatic megafauna without consequence. Why did this hunt affect such a visceral nerve? Every so often, we are reminded that the world we come from is not a simple one of machinery, and we were in fact not birthed from the spluttering valves and pistons, the charred and ashen backgrounds of a refinery that squirts out all that is innately human. When a big animal dies in the public arena, maybe it’s simply that we are reminded for a moment, however brief, that the dying light of their eyes are a distant reflection of our own. We surround every inch of ourselves with screens and noise and lights and politics and porn and alcohol, trying to drown out the calls from the wild that mocks us for all our garishness, all this convincing theater that we are building something of real importance.

Weeks ago, when reports came out that nearly 70 percent of wildlife has died off due to human activity since 1970, it made a whimper of headlines for a day or two, but didn’t culminate in any meaningful response. Every year when an updated UNPCC report comes out that says global climate is even more doomed than they calculated the year before, nothing happens. Because the lion and the gorilla are the celebrity darlings of the animal world, the unwilling mascots we roll out to the front lawn like the giant inflatable Santas for the neighborhood to see how enthusiastic we are about the holidays. A grizzly bear doing a drunken cartwheel on the basketball court. The mascot gorilla leaping off a trampoline and dunking during the halftime show. So why does a dead lion or gorilla mean more as a memetic archetype of heartache and loss than the statistic of 70 percent of wildlife loss since 1970? Stalin said something about one death being a tragedy, but a million deaths being a statistic. We want desperately to feel we are part of something larger than ourselves, to weave stories of gods that we all come from, to draw maps in the stars that dictate our personalities, to repeat the old cliché that we are in fact stardust, that the building blocks of life, known as CHNOPS (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur) are in all of us. But an animal is the closest and realest thing we have, it can look at you from an eternity, with a vague recognition that it remembers you from afar. 

Not many had heard of Cecil the lion until he was killed. Same with Harambe. But at least they had names. P-22 was just that, a letter-number combination, a peripheral icon who’s image you might have scrolled passed once or twice before you zoomed in on some woman’s ass. But in their deaths, they came to life for the first time, for a moment even, only to die fully again a second time. And only through their tabloid deaths, they are now defined into some immortal etching of time. They’re initiated as some dying-and-rising deity, like these motifs through ancient mythology that we tell as metaphors for the natural phenomenon we can’t fully come to terms with. The resurrection story is nearly ubiquitous in mythological tellings, like some echoes of the familiar that we tell ourselves to make better sense of our momentary gasp we get to have here. In Aztec mythology, there’s the Quetzcoatl, or ‘the serpent of precious feathers,’ or in another sense, ‘the wisest of men,’ who burns himself to death and resurrects as a flock of birds flying from his ashes. There’s Persephone, queen of the underworld and the goddess of spring in Greek mythology, who was the personification of the fertility and decay of the earth, vegetation that sprouts and grows and dies again. The death of Baldr, from Norse mythology, according to the Vǫluspá was only to lead to his rebirth in the new world. The dying-and-rising archetype exists everywhere, that it suggests a regenerative symbolic order. Under the gaze of a Jungian collective unconscious, he thought that these stories of death and resurrection are part of the “trans-personal symbolism,” and that these more ancient myths of death and resurrection are thematic foreshadowing of Christ. For Jung, the resurrecting deity is now a greater personality, an archetype for the collective unconscious to resurrect as an idea for future retellings and iterations. Animals like P-22 and Harambe and Cecil have been resurrected in their own ways, as abstract gods from those strange frontiers of sadness that are fading further from the horizon.

The death of P-22 is perhaps a simple one: another large lonely predator was finally ousted by our menacing world, and thrown into the death heap with all the others. How can you expect such a large and demanding animal to live peacefully amongst the cascading neons and shimmering noise of Los Angeles? Wasn’t this—I hate to use this horrible word—inevitable? Some bowhead whales have been discovered to be over 200 years old, which means they survived every army of harpoons and whale hunters in their lifetime, what seems a miracle given the scale and time. But P-22 lived here, at the edges of our world. He famously lived in Griffith Park, where aspiring actors and models heave themselves in their yoga leggings up the trails, with a pug or an affenpinscher or a Chinese crested dog prancing along, microchipped and garishly groomed like an adored idiot in a freak show, its last meal an expensive plate of organic free range pot roast blended with an assortment of veggies. These two worlds collide, the primordial and distant, the wild animal peering over the brittle ridge of weeds at our world of Teslas whizzing through gridlike corridors of asphalt and sycamore trees sprouting mathematically from their bullseye in the soil.

Lions are the mythic kings. Heracles protected his city of Nemea by killing a lion with his bare hands, and wearing his skin as a cloak. They are forever engraved as the heroes of the natural world, because they are more than myth. Euhemerism is the term used to read mythology as metaphor that has its origins based on real historical events and people. Stories are then reassembled through its retellings and embellished games of telephone, where they eventually take on new meanings that become metaphors grander and more poignant than in their real origins. Euhemerus, the Greek mythographer from the 4th century BC, claimed that Zeus was human, a dead king who’s tomb could be found somewhere on Crete. This was widely accepted by the people of Crete, the Cretans then being disregarded as atheists. I’d like to think that our resounding melancholy over the death of P-22 is because we regard him as our own fallen king, something real that all of our other made-up worth and pride is built around as a replacement.

Or, the mountain lion never existed beyond the illusory edge of its essence. He was euthanized, pressed into a clinical schedule, like a pet who’s getting too old. He wasn’t hunted down, wasn’t shot from a safe distance as he staggered through the bush. After Cecil was killed, lion hunting in Zimbabwe severely diminished, with populations rising sharply, where hunters avoided it for fear of public shaming, known as the ‘Cecil effect’. A month after the dentist killed the lion, a local hunting guide was killed by a lion, his colleagues suspecting the reason being he was afraid to shoot the lion over public backlash. P-22 is less a transcendental subject than Cecil, not merely because he doesn’t have a name, but a digit (nor because there is a semi-automatic pistol named the Walther P22) but also because in his death he wasn’t reverentially pitied for being the victim in the spectacle and shame of a killer. Someone responsible killed him, and they did it for responsible reasons—stating publicly that they killed him not because he ate a chihuahua but rather because he was suffering debilitating injuries from being hit by a car.

The lion is axiological symbolism, an icon of a more resolute metaphysical naturalism than we’re used to. Wherever a lion remains, he exists as an ontological vulnerability, resistant to our blunders and boundaries. We’ve entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, and P-22 is no longer here to protect us from our blunted fear of ourselves. He’s gone, now more metaphor than king, woven into strange and awful tributes that will eventually disappear forever. In William Blake’s famous poem, The Tyger, he questions Christian paradigms, and why a god would create both tiger and lamb:

Tyger Tyger burning bright,

In the forest of the night:

What immortal hand or eye,

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry.

Blake’s symmetry was once a relevant thing to consider, why a god would create such competing despair, why all his creatures would only live to kill and be killed. But we’re here now, without religion or myth, without the tyger or the lamb or the mountain lion or the gorilla. We’re naked, shivering in a tomb we built for ourselves, with a chihuahua at our side trembling and barking madly at the closed door. We rub the spot on forehead, his alien skull swelling like an orb. He’s such a good boy. Such a good boy.

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