My sister grumbles about sharing dedication space in my book with my cat, Perdita. I like cats. People are fine, but, like Ivan Karamazov, I prefer them in the abstract. Most of them are very stupid. Of course there exist cats, as Carl Van Vechten wrote, “as stupid as any tax-payer.” Some of my friends swear Perdita is one of these, but they’re jealous. Cats can be cruel and stingy and aloof (although most cats are far less aloof than has generally been supposed). And all of them are half insane. But I have never been disappointed or bored or, aside from several scratches and one particularly nasty bite, hurt by a cat. Most cats are interesting, and they are easy to love, which is more than anyone can say for most people.
It’s a cliche, I know. Van Vechten devotes an entire chapter of his indispensable The Tiger in the House: A Cultural History of the Cat to “The Cat and the Poet.” Petrarch, Gray, Issa, Johnson, Smart, Eliot—the roster of poets who have found the cat good to think on is well known. Robert Duncan’s “cat is fluent. He/converses when he wants with me”; Marianne Moore’s cat “Peter” “can talk but insolently says nothing.” William Carlos Williams’s precisely poised syntax and enjambment step into the flowerpot with the cat. Keep the dog far hence, but let the cat, as Swinburne has it,
Stately, kindly, lordly friend,
Here to sit by me, and turn
Glorious eyes that smile and burn,
Golden eyes, love’s lustrous meed,
On the golden page I read.
Van Vechten offers this typically cracked explanation for the cat/poet nexus:
Poets, I believe, are more closely in touch with the spirit of grimalkin, the soul of a pussy-cat, than either prose writers or painters. They should be, because poets are mystics, at least the great poets are mystics, speaking like the oracle or the clairvoyant.... The poet knocks at gates which sometimes open wide, disclosing gardens to which entrance is denied to those who stumble to find truth in reason and experience. Faith is needed to comprehend the cat, to understand that one can never completely comprehend the cat.
This contains a valuable insight about cats (and a lot of nonsense about poets). The cat brushes past our efforts to understand her. Montaigne’s famous question—“When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?”—deepens the more one considers it.
Perdita is obese and slovenly. She often disdains the litter box for purposes other than urination. Sometimes she disdains it in favor of my bed—even, on a few occasions, when I was sleeping in it. She hates everybody but me, especially the women I date. She talks too much. She perches beside my head at four in the morning and meows in my ear until I wake up. She is terrible at catching mice. Once she chased a mouse under a bookshelf. I watched it run out the other side, reverse direction, and run right past her. She stayed where she was, staring under the bookshelf. She stayed there for days. I caught the mouse in a towel and let it go outside.
And Perdita makes me smile every day. She runs to greet me when I come home, and she flops at my feet in the morning to be petted. She loves boxes and balled-up pages of the Nation. She is afraid of vacuum cleaners and tornado sirens. She lies on her back in squares of sunshine with her paws in the air and looks perfectly ridiculous and content. My friend Kristen tells her cat Mouse each morning that he’s her best friend, which is the sort of behavior that makes non-cat-people roll their eyes. But there’s something to it. Perdita and I don’t discuss novels or anything, but we really are friends.
Literature’s not good for much—all it can really do for us is, to paraphrase Harold Bloom, teach us to see, hear, feel, and think. I don’t believe it can make us care about nonhuman animals. But, if we do care about them, it just might be able to enlarge the scope of our sympathy—or bring it into focus. It might remind us that our relationship with the animals is not one-sided. Van Vechten is right to claim that it is Baudelaire who has most successfully captured the enigma of Felis catus, Baudelaire who writes that when he turns from the cat he loves to look within himself:
Je vois avec étonnement
Le feu de ses prunelles pâles,
Clairs fanaux, vivantes opales,
Qui me contemplent fixement.
I find to my astonishment
like living opals there
his fiery pupils, embers which
observe me fixedly.*
*Translation by Richard Howard