{The Fire Breather}

Though he be strong, he is not fierce; though he be powerful, he is not violent. Although he be dependable, righteous he can’t be; though he be wise, he is not heard. He is a Fire Breather: his word burns like a torch; like Elijah’s does it purify – but can it ever be understood? By whom?

He casts a curious figure in the wilderness, as he stands by the shore, by the riverbank, on the mountain, on the traffic island in the city; in the square; shadowless, peerless, ageless. The inner beauty of his mind obscured and masked by the dust on his brow and the mud round his ankles. His hair all a-tangle, his white beard streaked now only with the occasional charcoal, with a strand of dark blond here, or there ginger. His scent is not sweet, nor is he at first glance a joy to behold. 

At second glance the wrinkles around his eyes show as laugh lines, and they are merry with wisdom. At third glance the light in his eyes shines bright as a flame: the oxygen of an insight beyond.

Through meditation and study and practice he has mastered the art of putting his mind above matter, and so he has learnt to walk on water, but he can only do so when nobody watches because he knows that if anyone were to see him, they would turn him into a miracle worker, a prophet, a freak. A messiah. A wonder of no more worth than that it defies the simple laws of contemporarily understood physics.

He will not have it. He will not be entertainment. He will not speak of his understanding, nor will he surmise his premonitions other than to those who are able and willing to pause. And stay silent, but for a while. Ere they ask questions. Those who are capable of phrasing these questions from a hunger for knowledge, a desire to learn. They are not many. The shouting, the screaming, the screeching, the demands for explanations, the sarcastic tones and the jibes, the heckling, the laughter, the desire—the instinct—for tearing him down, the lust for his failure, for his destruction, for him being hung drawn and quartered, for his undoing, are great.

He knows this, and he inwardly smiles. He has the capacity in his heart to forgive. He is magnanimous in his disposition towards those who hate him, who wish him silenced, who relish him misunderstood. Because he knows: one day something or someone will catch fire from his word and the fire will spread and will cause a great conflagration from which the lands will emerge purged and fertile for new thought to grow.

That is not his aim nor his goal nor his intention, that is just his purpose. His purpose is to quietly whisper into the din of the crowd that will not heed him, and plant the seeds he was given to sow. Until one takes hold. Until from just one or just two or just three or four first, and then four or five more, some thing starts to grow. He doesn’t even know what that could be. He has no certainty that it will not be dangerous, poisonous even, or be made such by others who will take what they find and turn it upside down, inside out; who pervert him and his gentle teachings into dogma and strife. He cannot prevent this from happening, if it must. He can only be true to his purpose, his purpose being his word.

Fear not the Fire Breather, but neither dismiss or ignore him. And doubt not the might of the Word.


‘Stupidity,’ Sedartis thunders, ‘is the enemy. Stupidity is the outrage: the crime!’ Here is that word again. ‘Perpetrated not by the stupid, they may never have learnt—never have had a chance to learn—not to be so; no, it’s the chief crime of your society. As long as you allow stupidity not just to exist, but to flourish in your midst; as long as you cultivate, nurture, elevate and celebrate it, you deserve everything you get.’

I feel chastened, although I have no answer. Sedartis does not expect me to: ‘You talk of equality. You talk of democracy and a fairer society. And yet you blind yourselves to the evil that trumps all: you lull your masses into ignorance and then keep them there. Because you’re selfish, egotistical, greedy and lazy, you “give the people what they want,” which you keep telling them is soft porn mush and their own supposed “reality.” You invite them to be abysmally stupid on your television shows and think you’re doing them a favour because they recognise themselves: you make stupidity the norm, and condemn aspiration to intellect as a pretentious frivolity. You dismiss intellect itself as an irrelevance, knowing full well that without intellect you wouldn’t be here where you are, in your privileged position. You keep your people stupid because that’s how you keep yourselves aloft and rich; you fear them, and you dread what they should do if ever they latched on to how you enslave them.

I sense a pause. It doesn’t last. ‘You feed them what scraps they already know, and shore up their prejudices; you belittle intelligence as “too clever by half”—how can you even hold on to an expression like that?—and smirk at anyone who thinks in public. How can you have built a civilisation in which not only one percent own more than half of all material wealth, but another one percent at most are really schooled in handling knowledge, when you know that knowledge is power.’

That’s a crass exaggeration, and unlike Sedartis, I want to protest.

‘All right, so that may be a crass exaggeration, I concede: you educate more people now, in absolute terms as well as relative, than ever before, but you’ve had so much time to make so much more progress than you have, you should be embarrassed that so many of you are still struggling so much.’

That, I find hard to argue with. Is knowledge power, still, though? ‘Thinking,’ he thinks at me, ‘is an exertion, yes. That does not absolve us from it. So is walking, yet walk we must, otherwise we grow fat, stale and lethargic. Flossing is a pain, but you do it, even if reluctantly, to hold on to your gums. Life is not convenient, no matter how successful we are at making it so. So even if it hurts: use your brain. It will shrivel, shrink and stink if you don’t.’

Stink? I can tell how angry he is. ‘I am not angry, my friend’—Sedartis hears me well before I speak—‘I am outraged. I am outraged at the stupidity you allow on this planet. At the casual simplicity you cast over everything, and at the way you make do. At the quick quote soundbite approach you have taken to politics. The commercial current that runs through your culture. The inoffensiveness of your art. The soft sell in your science. The infantilisation of your culture. You constantly ask: what is the simple story, what the three-act moral narrative. Because you are too torpid to connect the dots for yourselves. You open your mouths, crying, “feed me!” – You’ve regressed into infancy, and you wallow in your own incapacity. You suckle the nipple of light entertainment, and if you do wean yourselves off it, you go on to sugary bottled “fun,” and then you wonder why your teeth are all rotten, and you’re incapable even of crunching an apple: you’ve become toothless, grown-up-but-refused-to-grow-up, idiot babes. You have lost sophistication, elegance and wit. You shun the strain of inquiry, and you moan and moan and moan.

‘Like the whiny brat in the stroller whom you have elevated to a tiny emperor and given permission to terrorise your existence, you yourself throw your toys out of your pram and expect someone else to bend down and pick them up for you and hand them back to you. Everything is somebody’s fault. It’s the government’s fault. It’s the neighbours’ fault. It’s the immigrants’ fault. It’s anybody else’s fault but yours. Have you listened to yourselves? You are a disgrace to your species, the way you behave, and you know it, but you will stone me for saying so to your face.’

I am stunned. I have never experienced Sedartis like this. I’m a little afraid. And in awe.   

He senses my discomfort, my fear. He calms down: ‘Species. That in itself is too simple, too categorical. I know you need simplicity, you need categories. But look at yourselves from a distance, or look at yourselves close up: you are so near to your nearest cousins that you can barely tell yourselves apart. Yet you think you are a majestic, exclusive achievement. You are nothing of the sort, you are simply first on your planet, and alone in your solar system. But there are so many solar systems in so many galaxies, you need not fear of finding yourselves alone: this universe, as well as any other, is teeming with life.

‘Your problem is not your position, not your location, not your intelligence: your problem is your perspective. Your nearest cousins, the dolphins, the bonobos, they may be a few hundred thousand years, maybe a few million years behind you on their evolutionary path, but that doesn’t make them categorically different. It just makes them slower at something you can take no credit for. What you can take credit for is this: your culture. What you do with your advantage. And that is why your stupidity is unacceptable now. At one point, in the not so distant past, you were just like the great apes, scavenging for food, fighting each other for primacy over your females, thinking of nothing other than preserving, projecting, your genes. Slowly, gradually, you emerged from the dullness of your existence and you became conscious, intelligent beings.

‘How dare you not use your intelligence? You will get there, of course; you will reach your next level, as every other life form reaches its own. You will merge with your inventions, you will make yourselves immortal. You will begin to populate other worlds, if nothing else as a hybrid of human and human-made machine. That is all very well. But choose how you get there. The pain that you’re causing yourselves and your fellow creatures on earth is excruciating, when you already have the means to not inflict it at all. All you have to do is use your intelligence and learn that you are not the thing that matters, you are part of the thing that matters, and that is enough.’

‘What is the thing that matters?’ I ask Sedartis.

He remains silent. He remains silent for a long, long time, and we sit together watching the squirrels and the birds, and imagining the bonobos and the dolphins and the cows and the lions and the beautiful, but a little clumsy, giraffes.

I take his silence to mean, ‘I don’t know either,’ and it saddens me that he doesn’t know either, but I know he doesn’t know either, and I wonder does anyone know, anyone in the multiverse of infinite universes at all, or are we all just a part of it, unknowing but yearning to understand, and failing but trying and playing our part.

‘It doesn’t matter, you see,’ says Sedartis. And now I can really hear him. ‘It doesn’t matter at all. All that matters is that you make the most of it. Whatever it is that you can. That is all that actually matters, because you have no control over anything else.

‘You can’t control when you are born. To whom. Where. You can’t know why. You can’t dictate the terms of your existence, but you can take them and deal with them well. And by dealing with them well, you may alter them. Whatever is given, you don’t have to take just as it is. What you do have to do is make the most of it. And you really have to make the most of it. You really have to not take no for an answer, you really have to probe deeper and go further and demand of yourself more. Because if you don’t, somebody will. And they may not understand what you understand. But you understand what I understand, and that is how we are connected, how we are part of it all, how there is a greater scheme of things, and how our moment here is tiny, but we can, must, make it magnificent.’

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