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Archive for January 13th, 2020


A still from Keri (Cats of/in Istanbul) – touching movie as much about the people who care for the cats as the cats themselves – they are waiting for fishing ships from Greece


Charles Burton Barber, Coaxing Is Better than Teasing (1883) — didactic Victorian narrative art

For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit
— Christopher Smart, My Cat Geoffrey

Friends,

I’ve been wanting to write a blog on the literature of cats, about cat stories, cat pictures, cat poetry, so as to suggest that there is a particular quality to stories about cats, poetry about them, even pictures that distinguishes the “kind” from stories about animals in general, other animals, dogs, people, a sort of tone or stance that underlies and unites them all. Well, stories, images and movies not hostile to cats, not produced by crazy people who in history have conducted massacres (see Robert Darnton’s “The Great Cat Massacre” in a book named after this essay) and persecuted the cat (cats endured a long period of persecution in Europe, starting in the twelfth century and ending only sometime in the nineteenth). I kept putting this off. No longer.


George Morland, The Artist’s Cat Drinking (1792)

The quality is admiration, admiration for their resilience, for their individual and group persistent survival. Stories told of stressed cats, of how against all probability, great odds, seeming counterproductive behavior, and sometimes (to the reader and poor creature enduring it) inflicted torture, they carry on. We marvel at their individuality — since there is a continual repetitive catness about their casually observed postures, stances, relationships with us.

I am moved to make this seemingly unprovable assertion and cite some of the best writing I’ve read by a given author (cat as muse), as well as about the cat, because I just read and then re-read, savoring as I went V. S. Naipaul’s The Strangeness of Grief, posted online December 30th, 2019 and printed January 6th in the New Yorker.

Naipaul, a wonderfully poignant ironic writer (deserved his Nobel, and the one Booker) begins with his father’s death but his essay morphs into the calamitous deaths of two cats, one carelessly murdered (the mother), the other torn to bits by desert dogs (its kitten), and then a long history of the life and death of a kitten whom the author adopts, brings up, provides for, is companion, staff, lover and finally protector and life-prolonger of: Augustus. Augustus a cat whose life has been at risk, and near extinguished several times, but saved again and again by a vet.

My simple-minded take-away is that an outdoor cat is in very great danger of loss of life and that modern human life also presents real dangers to a cat it can’t recognize for itself. Also how fragile they are. That they have been such a successful species as a species is because they have evolved to be women’s best lover … Naipaul whose work is characterized by a deep kindness and melancholy.


Henriette Ronner-Knip (1878) — famous for her luxurious cats, this one may have been a real one she owned


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Minette the Kitten (1894)

My favorite, maybe the best book by Doris Lessing is her On Cats, which also opens with cat massacres that occurred periodically in the South Africa of Lessing’s childhood, after which she goes on to be the biographer of a Grey Cat and Black Puss, then Rufus the Survivor, and finally “the old age of el magnifico.” I wrote an appreciative essay on this book (scroll to the bottom to read her magnficent peroration) more than eight years ago: From this essay:

The closing stories are the most moving of all “Rufus the Survivor” is about a cat who has a bad home. He is mistreated. He is shut out during the day; he is too thin; it’s clear he is sometimes hit. He is cowed and has learnt to be a sycophant. It’s a story of how slowly he insinuates himself into Lessing’s home and gradually ever so gradually gets first her to allow him to stay, and then to stay for a while, and hen to live there. How he has to maneuver to get grey and black cat to accept him. How she takes him to the doctor for his ills and how he does not like it ever. Gradually he becomes braver and more confident and leaves the house to make friends. He even probably visits his ex-owner. She worries about this, but it seems the ex-owner does not try to keep Rufus. Rufus learns to show love and allow others to love him.

El Magnifico is a hero’s story. As the cat grows older, he gets cancer, and in order to have more years of life Lessing must amputate one of his legs. He cannot of course understand this. He assumes that she has utterly betrayed him not just in taking him to the Vet, but allowing this terrifically painful thing to be done. Ever after he has the worst troubles going to his litter box just outside the house (in a garden or yard), going up and down stairs, climbing things. But she cannot explain she is giving him more life.


Manning’s Miou

Then there’s Olivia Manning’s Extraordinary Cats: Lessing had tough cats; Manning had vulnerable ones. I wrote an essay on Manning’s book too (scroll all the way down). The central core of Manning’s book is a life history of specific cats she has owned and their personalities, how they interacted with other cats. She is (unexpectedly) more inward than Lessing. There are many fine deeply humane moments — a love of these animals that is deeply empathetic making the reader their valuable lives. Manning also offers real insights into the interrelationships of people and cats.

By now the reader may be saying, ‘This is ridiculous. She writes of cats as though they were humans.’ But are they so very different? The fact is that when an animal, any animal, enters one’s home, it becomes something more than an animal. The change is brought about not merely by human fantasy and human need: the animal itself is drawn out of its animal world and advances to meet our wider understanding.


Desmond Morris’s Cats in Art is the best general philosophical art history I’ve read.

The text is better than my other omnibus volume: Caroline Bugler’s The Cat: 3500 years of the Cat in Art has more pictures but her text soon gives out into a catalogue which is sheerly informative and descriptive of a particular image and they are not so well-chosen, do not delight or interest as Morris’s continually do. Morris too critiques and presents attitudes towards the cat and what we can know of the lives of the domestic cat since we have first proof of their existence. Early on they were seen as “working” animals in the sense that they attacked small animals people considered vermin; but they were also early on companions and associated with women. Then the medieval period where horrendous persecution of cats began or was first recorded. It seems to begin with the decline of learning, a deep resentment of nuns using cats as companions, and male fantasies of witches. Especially endangered (and still in danger) are black cats. The cats’ pigment system was another element that led to human cruelty in times or places where people find enjoyment in animal torture. I was roused to indignation on their behalf and getting a fuller picture of what lies behind 18th century and the kind of mass shooting of cats, throwing them from great heights recorded in the 19th century as well as by Doris Lessing. And the pictures unexplained by Bugler fall into place. I hope he traces the growth of decent behavior towards non-human animals across the 19th century. I have found talking to people today they resist the application of the word “persecution” to systematic cruelty towards cats. Throughout his book Morris uses this kind of language for not only cats but all the animals he includes: mostly domesticated, for his topic is human relationships with cats as revealed in pictures.


Paul Gaugin’s Mimi and her cat (1890)

He shows how expensive cats are the ones most painted with super-rich people in the 19th century. He is tracing art movements, and it’s telling that impressionism consciously focuses on moods of cats, their relationship to the world. The post-impressionistic yield surprises: I don’t know a number of these painters loved cats. There is a painting Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley (to whom Shakespeare’s sonnets to a gay young man may be addressed) while in prison with his cat Trixie nearby; they have the same expression. Morris describes all the cats carefully — he gives In choosing non-realistic images he is wonderfully intuitive about what speaks to us, giving them equal importance with any human animal, aware they too have a burden of existence too. I wish I could scan in them all — but you must buy and then love and savor this piece of cat literature.


Bunny and Kipper by Beryl Cook

I have too many books to talk of so now must be content now to cite but a few more of the best: by a professional vet: Nicholas Dodman, The Cat Who Cried for Help (the obtuse cruelty of owners is chilling, one removed her cat’s voice-box because the sound of the crying grated on her nerves), about attitudes, emotions, psychology of cats; Jenni Diski begins and ends with her cat, Bundy, What I Don’t Know About Animals

She calls herself “post-domestic. ” A “domestic” life in animal studies means you grew up with working animals around you (cows, chickens, horses). So her first experience of animals includes watching her mother buy, cook and then serve a chicken for the family to eat. She says soon after she felt impelled to save a baby bird from a nest who was not grateful but terrified. The bird couldn’t understand what she was aiming at, could not trust, much less love her. The result was the poor bird hid behind the stove in their small kitchen where it was dangerous, and they had to pull it out by force. By the time they prodded it out, it was badly wounded; Jenny ended up wishing the bird would die immediately. The point was how vulnerable animals are to us in our habitats.


Rosa Brett, The Hayloft (1828-82), pre-Raphaelite artist

Most books about living with animals are by women, but this very good one A Cat is Watching is by Roger A Caras: his idea is to try to enable us to see how a cat sees us; this is an enjoyable and informative book filled with revealing photos of cats at play, eating, sleeping, frightened and many black-and-white drawings and illustrations. A wee bit dull in the writing, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Tribe of the Tiger has much to tell of the inward life of the whole tribe of cats. Different species brought together, cats in different milieus and a myriad of questions and tentative answers. I suggest Abigail Tucker’s The Lion in the Living Room is a (morally stupid) book which pretends to be sympathetic to cats, and keeping animals as companions (pets) but is a stealth attack on cats as ruining our environment. Don’t be fooled. Rather like Kate Chisholm’s Hunger Games is a ferocious attack on anorexics by someone claiming to have been anorexic, Tucker pretends to be a cat lover while telling us all much that we believe about having a relationship with cats is a delusion. I know how Jane Goodall would reply.

To conclude, or as to cat poetry, don’t miss Stevie Smith’s Cats in Colour or Marge Piercy’s Sleeping with Cats. This poem is from an anthology I bought as a memento from the Charlotte Smith conference (in a shop in Sussex), Cats: A Literary Anthology ed. Carolyn M. Jones (from medieval and Montaigne, to French and recent, to science, to comic chapters in novels)

Cats sleep anywhere
Any table, any chair,
Top of piano,
Window-ledge,
In the middle,
On the edge,
Open drawer,
Empty shoe,
Anybody’s lap will do,
Fitted in a cardboard box,
In the cupboard
With your frocks–
Anywhere.
They don’t care!
Cats sleep anywhere.
— Eleanor Farjeon


Les Aristochats — popular French Cartoon

I collect books about and with images of cats, from Edward Gorey to Kliban cats to Susan Herbert’s quiet parodies of “great art” and famous scenes or photographes. Here’s Gene Kelly cat in Singing in the Rain:

This has ended up a cheerful blog.

Ellen

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