“Serious cat people, like first-rate art critics, are chivvied by passion into perspicacity. Believing is seeing.”
By Maria Popova
“Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell proclaimed in the introduction to The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, one of the best art books of 2012 and among the finest pet-related books of all time. Cats, on the other hand — despite their long history as literary muses, poetic devices, creative catalysts, and targets of artful grievances — are largely about something else, about some facet or other of our human needs, desires, and conceits: our relationships, our cities, our grappling with mortality.
So bespeaks The Big New Yorker Book of Cats (public library), the highly anticipated feline sequel to last year’s canine edition — a shiny, well-fed tome that gathers the best cat-coddling articles, essays, short stories, poems, cartoons, covers, and other feats of literature and art from the New Yorker archives. Spanning nearly nine decades, the collection featuring contributions from such celebrated minds as John Updike, Margaret Atwood, James Thurber, Susan Orlean, and even the patron saint of “the other side,” famed dog-lover E. B. White.
In the foreword, the great New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane lays out the decrees of cat-connoisseurship:
The first rule of felinology: you need to learn to look at cats down to the last whisker, every bit as closely as they look at you. To them, remember, nothing is lost in the dark.
And another solemn dictum:
Serious cat people, like first-rate art critics, are chivvied by passion into perspicacity. Believing is seeing.
Lane considers the singular allure of using the feline psyche as literary fodder:
This will never be anything but challenging, even if you wear motorcycle gauntlets and a knight’s visor, but it remains a quest to which many writers are lured. Perhaps they view it as a kind of scratching post — ready-made, abrasive chance to sharpen their natural skills.
Even Joyce, Lane tells us, was privy to it — in the fourth chapter of Ulysses, he tackled a “very specific quandary, the spelling of a cat’s ululation … and came up with the infinitesimal swell of ‘mkgnao’ into ‘mrkgnao.’” Lane illustrates the affectionate absurdity of it all with a tongue-in-cheek invitation: “Try both, out loud, but not after eating crackers, and see if you can tell them apart.”
More than anything, however, the anthology embodies the cat’s defining characteristic: its cluster of opposites, rolled together into a giant hairball of cultural attitudes — something, perhaps, at once uncomfortably and assuringly reflective of our own chronically conflicted selves. Lane writes:
So it is, as this well-fed book stretches out in languor, that the array of feline opposites starts to emerge. Cats must be destroyed; cats should be saved. Cats are like us; no, cats are not of this world. Cats can be savored for their fellowship, then eaten for their flesh. . . . Cats exist in these pages, as they do throughout our lives, both as obsessively singular … and as a barely controllable mass, doomed to proliferate forever, like poison ivy or biographies of Napoleon. Above all, for every cat who is liked, accepted or worshipped from afar, there is another who peers into our eyes — those hopeless orbs, superfluous at night — and spies only horror, indifference, and fear.
Perhaps we need to rethink the assumption, deep-rooted but far from well grounded, that writers and cats are a good mix. Sure, Mark Twain had cats, such as Sour Mash and Blatherskite, and, up at the more louche and loping end of American literature, in the life and work of Poe, Kerouac, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Edward Gorey, and Stephen King, you are never that far from the patter of ominous paws; whether a cat has been reared on a diet of neat Burroughs would find a niche at The New Yorker, however, is open to debate. We aim at the scrutable, the translucent, the undrugged, and the verified; whether we even get close is not for us to say, but such aspirations find no echo in the bosom of the cat. The cat sneers at clarity and career plans, and even its major stratagems can be dropped upon a whim. . . .
One of the best pieces in the collection, both for the sheer joy of exquisite language and for its disarming insight into the baffling paradoxes of the human-feline psychic bond, is a long 2002 feature by Susan Orlean, titled “The Lady and the Tigers.” Beyond the undeniable freakshow mesmerism of a true story about a New Jersey woman who owns more than two dozen tigers for no other reason than her intense love for the species, the essay, much like good visual caricature, also reveals a whole lot about the psychology of our ordinary relationships with small domestic cats through this woman’s extraordinary relationship with her gigantic felines. Take, for instance, the evolution of the woman’s tiger menagerie:
After arriving in Jackson, Byron-Marasek got six more tigers — Bengal, Hassan, Madras, Marco, Royal, and Kizmet — from McMillan and from Ringling Brothers. The next batch — Kirin, Kopan, Bali, Brunei, Brahman, and Burma — were born in the back yard after Byron-Marasek allowed her male and female tigers to commingle. More cubs were born, and more tigers obtained, and the tiger population of Holmeson’s Corner steadily increased. Byron-Marasek called her operation the Tigers Only Preservation Society. Its stated mission was, among other things, to conserve all tiger species, to return captive tigers to the wild, and “to resolve the human/tiger conflict and create a resolution.”
And so we get the perfect Orleanean spear at the heart of the human condition in all its absurdity:
You know how it is — you start with one tiger, then you get another and another, then a few are born and a few die, and you start to lose track of details like exactly how many tigers you actually have.
In the process of unraveling the common for the bizarrely uncommon, we also learn some curious factoids:
It is not hard to buy a tiger. Only eight states prohibit the ownership of wild animals; three states have no restrictions whatsoever, an the rest have regulations that range from trivial to modest and are barely enforced. Exotic-animal auction houses and animal markets thrive in the Midwest and the Southeast, where wildlife laws are the most relaxed.
On the internet — and, bear in mind, that was 2002 — things are even worse: On an exotic animals website, you could buy two baby tigers “with white genes” for $1,800 each. Orlean marvels:
It is so easy to get a tiger, in fact, that wildlife experts estimate that there are at least fifteen thousand pet tigers in the country — more than seven times the number of registered Irish setters or Dalmatians.
(What more tragic testament to Quentin Bell’s notion of pets as ornaments?)
In a 2013 piece, Margaret Atwood — she of ceaseless practicality — offers an entertaining solution to the most menacing problem cats present in the ecosystem, a brilliant satire of everything from techno-utopianism to corporate opportunism:
My proposal is called the Robo-Coyote. It would address the fact that billions of migratory birds are killed in North America every year by cats, both feral and owner-operated. When you add to that the mega-millions killed by urban high-rises whose proprietors foolishly keep the lights on all night, it’s a wonder there’s a bird left in the skies. And, since birds are a main predator of forest insects, their dwindling is already affecting the health of our forests. … What’s more, the cats — millions of them — are gobbling up small rodents that are staple fare of owls, falcons, and hawks, which may cause a further decline in those bird numbers.
What to do? No point in proposing a cat cull: the same people who love birds also love cats — I am among their number — and the animal-rights folks would be aroused in their irate thousands. Whatever is set in motion must not harm any cats by a single whisker, and must be enjoyable for kittydom as well.
Hence my Robo-Coyote. With foreseen advances in robotics and 3-D soft-tissue printing, the engineering of this artificial game warden should be well within reach. The Robo-Coyote would prowl the forests, ignoring skunks, porcupines, and rabbits, attuned to feral cats alone and emitting whiffs of mating hormones and possibly some soulful howls in order to attract them. Unlike a real coyote, the Robo-Coyote would be able to shinny up trees. ONce a cat had been lured close enough, the Robo-Coyote’s mouth would open wide. The cat would then enter, descend the throat, and find itself in a comfortable nook, complete with cushion and squeaky-mouse catnip toy.
Thus amused, the cat would be transported by the swiftly traveling Robo-Coyote to a cat fun fair — an enclosure within which cats would be free to chase robo-birds, robo-shrews and moles, robo-squirrels, and even robo-butterflies. A cat’s hunting and playing instincts are said to be separate from its hunger cycles, so the sequestered cats need not eat the robo-prey should they manage to catch any. Food would be supplied on a contract basis by cat-food companies eager to show the world of animal- and bird-lovers that they are doing their best to tackle the migratory-bird issue, while assuring their shareholders that they are improving their bottom line: with the Robo-Coyote deployed in full force, one need not feel guilty about “owning” a cat. And the pet-food companies could even sponsor their own Robo-Coyotes, which could have advertising banners painted on their sides.
Tucked between the essays and short stories are also a number of delightful poems, such as this 1960 gem by Ted Hughes:
Daylong this tomcat lies stretched flat
As an old rough mat, no mouth and no eyes.
Continual wars and wives are what
Have tattered his ears and battered his head.
Like a bundle of old rope and iron
Sleeps till blue dusk. Then reappear
His eyes, green as ringstones: he yawns wide red,
Fangs fine as a lady’s needle and bright.
A tomcat sprang at a mounted knight,
Locked round his neck like a trap of hooks
While the knight rode fighting its clawing and bite.
After hundreds of years the stain’s there
On the stone where he fell, dead of the tom:
That was at Barnborough. The tomcat still
Grallochs odd dogs on the quiet,
Will take the head clean off your simple pullet.
Is unkillable. From the dog’s fury,
From gunshot fired point-blank he brings
His skin whole, and whole
From owlish moons of bekittenings
Among ashcans. He leaps and lightly
Walks upon sleep, his mind on the moon
Nightly over the round world of men
Over the roofs go his eyes and outcry.
(The poem was penned the year Frieda, his daughter with Sylvia Plath, was born — a child nursed on nursery rhymes — so one can’t help but find in Hughes’s playful verses the hint of an irreverent nursery rhyme.)
In 1953, Robert Graves, freshly abandoned by a lover who had left him to marry another man, uses a feline metaphor to be moan the phenomenon of women succumbing to unworthy men:
A perverse habit of cat-goddesses —
Even the blackest of them, black as coals
Save for a new moon blazing on each breast,
With coral tongues and beryl eyes like lamps,
Long-leggèd, pacing three by three in nines –
This obstinate habit is to yield themselves,
In verisimilar love-ecstasies,
To tatter-eared and slinking alley-toms
No less below the common run of cats
Than they above it; which they do not for spite,
To provoke jealousy — not the least abashed
By such gross-headed, rabbit colored litters
As soon they shall be happy to desert.
One curious pattern that presents itself across the art is the apparent golden age of feline-themed covers in the 1970s — a decade in which the visual depiction of cats was as much of a New Yorker cover meme as it is an internet one today.
In a fictional story-within-a-story titled “Town of Cats,” Haruki Murakami hands his protagonist a short story written by an obscure German author sometime between the two World Wars, which paints a whimsical picture of Tokyo’s feline underbelly:
In fact, this is a town of cats. When the sun starts to go down, many cats come trooping across the bridge — cats of all different kinds and colors. They are much larger than ordinary cats, but they are still cats. The young man is shocked by this sight. He rushes into the bell tower in the center of town and climbs to the top to hide. The cats go about their business, raising the shop shutters or seating themselves at their desks to start their day’s work. Soon, more cats come, crossing the bridge into town like the others. They enter the shops to buy things or go to the town hall to handle administrative matters or eat a meal at the hotel restaurant or drink beer at the tavern and sing lively cat songs. Because cats can see in the dark, they need almost no lights, but that particular night the glow of the full moon floods the town, enabling the young man to see every detail from his perch in the bell tower. When dawn approaches, the cats finish their work, close up the shops, and swarm back across the bridge.
In a 2001 poem, Henri Cole explores the parallel universe of felines from another angle:
MYSELF WITH CATS
Hanging out the wash, I visit the cats.
“I don’t belong to nobody,” Yin insists vulgarly.
“Yin,” I reply, “you don’t know nothing.”
Yang, an orange tabby, agrees
but puts kindness ahead of rigid truth.
I admire her but wish she wouldn’t idolize
the one who bullies her. I once did that.
Her silence speaks needles when Yang thrusts
his ugly tortoiseshell body against hers,
sprawled in my cosmos. “Really, I don’t mind,”
she purrs-her eyes horizontal, her mouth
an Ionian smile, her legs crossed nobly
in front of her, a model of cat Nirvana —
“withholding his affection, he made me stronger.”
In his 1992 piece “Cat Man,” George Steiner tells the story of “the most illustrious, compelling cat in the history of literature” — a Montparnasse tabby named Bébert, who was abandoned by his Germany-bound owners at the onset of WWII and met his second owner, the novelist, physician and “manic crank” Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, better-known as Céline, in Paris. Bébert promptly proceeded to enthrall the man into describing him as “magic itself, tact by wavelength.” When the cat’s time came in his Sphinx-like years at the end of 1952, the obituary Destouches wrote — rivaled only by E. B. White’s remembrance of his beloved dog Daisy — was nothing short of a literary micro-masterpiece:
After many an adventure, jail, bivouac, ashes, all of Europe … he died agile and graceful, impeccably, he had jumped out the window that very morning. . . . We, who are born old, look ridiculous in comparison!
In fact, the adage of the nine lives crumbles in the face of the very real grief for a beloved cat, a pattern that recurs across the collection. In a 2003 poem, Frank Wright exorcises his:
ON THE DEATH OF A CAT
In life, death
to you: I am
willing to wager
my soul that it
simply never occurred
to your nightmareless
mind, while sleep
(see it raised
to an infinite
power and perfection) — no death
in you then, so now
how even less. Dear stealth
to an evil
milk fang, whiskered
Perhaps the most recurring theme of all, however, is the concept of the cat not as an extension of the human self, as a dog might be, but rather as something otherworldly, mysterious, with a mind of its own onto which we may project our human intentions and interpretations, but one which we will ultimately never comprehend — a force of nature, often as uncontrollable as its elements, as in this 1960 poem by Elizabeth Bishop:
Dawn an unsympathetic yellow.
Cra-aack! — dry and light.
The house was really struck.
Crack! A tinny sound, like a dropped tumbler.
Tobias jumped in the window, got in bed —
silent, his eyes bleached white, his fur on end.
Personal and spiteful as a neighbor’s child,
thunder began to bang and bump the roof.
One pink flash;
then hail, the biggest size of artificial pearls.
Dead-white, wax-white, cold —
diplomats’ wives’ favors
from an old moon party —
they lay in melting windrows
on the red ground until well after sunrise.
We got up to find the wiring fused,
no lights, a smell of saltpetre,
and the telephone dead.
The cat stayed in the warm sheets.
The Lent trees had shed all their petals:
wet, stuck, purple, among the dead-eye pearls.
Complement The Big New Yorker Book of Cats with the greatest love letter ever written to a cat (and a human), the magnificent Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology.