If a cat could talk

Felines walk the line between familiar and strange. We stroke them and they purr, then in a trice they pounce

by 2400 2,400 words
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‘Hold back the talons of your paws/Let me gaze into your beautiful eyes.’ Charles Baudelaire, ‘Le Chat’. Photo by Gallery Stock

‘Hold back the talons of your paws/Let me gaze into your beautiful eyes.’ Charles Baudelaire, ‘Le Chat’. Photo by Gallery Stock

David Wood is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, Nashville. His books include Time After Time (2007). He is also an earth artist and runs Yellow Bird sculpture park.

Saturday was a small snake. Each morning for six days, Berzerker — half-Siamese, half-streetcat, with charcoal fur and a pure white undercoat — had deposited a new creature on the doormat. On this last day, the snake was as stiff as a twig; rigor mortis had already set in. I wondered if there was a mortuary under the porch, a cold slab on which the week’s offerings had been laid out. What were these ritualistic offerings all about? Gift, placation, or proof of lethal skill? Who knows. On the seventh day he rested.

When I look at any one of my three cats — when I stroke him, or talk to him, or push him off my yellow pad so I can write — I am dealing with a distinct individual: either Steely Dan Thoreau, or (Kat) Mandu, or Kali. Each cat is unique. All are ‘boys’, as it happens. All rescued from the streets, neutered and advertised as mousers, barn cats: ‘They will never let you touch them,’ I was told. Each cat is a singular being ­— a pulsing centre of the universe — with this colour eyes, this length and density of fur, this palate of preferences, habits and dispositions. Each with his own idiosyncrasies.

At first, they were truly untouchable, hissing and spitting. A few weeks later, after mutual outreaching, they were coiling around my neck, with heavy purring and nuzzling. They do indeed hang out in my barn — I live on a farm — and are always pleased to see me at their daily feed. Steely Dan, unlike the other two, will walk with me for miles. Just for the company, I suspect. Occasionally he will turn up at the house and demand to be let in. He is a favourite among my friends for his free dispensing of affection. But the rift between our worlds opens wide again when he shreds the faux leather sofa with his claws. When scolded, he is insouciant.

‘When I play with my cat,’ Montaigne mused, ‘how do I know that she is not playing with me rather than I with her?’

Since the Egyptians first let the wild Mau into their homes, cats and humans have co-evolved. We have, without doubt, been brutal — eliminating kittens of the wrong stripe, as well as couch-potato cats that gave the rats a pass, cats that could not be trained, and cats that refused our advances. My Steely Dan, steely eyed professional killer of birds and mice (and snakes, lizards, young rabbits, voles, and chipmunks), lap-lover, walking companion extraordinaire, is the product of trial by compatibility. This sounds like a recipe for compliance: domestication should have rooted out the otherness of the feline. But it did not.

The Egyptians domesticated Felis silvestris catus 10,000 years ago and valued its services in patrolling houses against snakes and rodents. But later they deified it, even mummifying cats for the journey into the afterlife. These days we don’t typically go that far — though cats and cat shelters are frequently the subjects of bequests. We remain fascinated both by our individual cats and cats as a species. They are a beloved topic for publishers, calendars and cartoons. Cats populate the internet: there are said to be 110,000 cat videos on YouTube. Lolcats tickle us at every turn. But isn’t there something profoundly unsettling about the whiskered cat lying on a laptop (or somesuch), speaking its bad English? Lolcats make us laugh, but the need to laugh intimates disquiet somewhere.

Perhaps because we selected cats for their internal contradictions — friendly to us, deadly to the snakes and rodents that threatened our homes — we shaped a creature that escapes our gaze, that doesn’t merely reflect some simple design goal. One way or another, we have licensed a being that displays its ‘otherness’ and flaunts its resistance to human interests. This is part of the common view of cats: we value their independence. From time to time they might want us, but they don’t need us. Dogs, by contrast, are said to be fawning and needy, always eager to please. Dogs confirm us; cats confound us. And in ways that delight us.

In welcoming one animal to police our domestic borders against other creatures that threatened our food or health, did we violate some boundary in our thinking? Such categories are ones we make and maintain without thinking about them as such. Even at this practical level, cats occupy a liminal space: we live with ‘pets’ that are really half-tamed predators.

It is something of an accident that a cat’s lethal instincts align with our interests

From the human perspective, cats might literally patrol the home, but more profoundly they walk the line between the familiar and the strange. When we look at a cat, in some sense we do not know what we are looking at. The same can be said of many non-human creatures, but cats are exemplary. Unlike insects, fish, reptiles and birds, cats both keep their distance and actively engage with us. Books tell us that we domesticated the cat. But who is to say that cats did not colonise our rodent-infested dwellings on their own terms? One thinks of Ruduyard Kipling’s story ‘The Cat That Walked by Himself’ (1902), which explains how Man domesticated all the wild animals except for one: ‘the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat. He walked by himself, and all places were alike to him.’

Michel de Montaigne, in An Apology for Raymond Sebond (1580), captured this uncertainty eloquently. ‘When I play with my cat,’ he mused, ‘how do I know that she is not playing with me rather than I with her?’ So often cats disturb us even as they enchant us. We stroke them, and they purr. We feel intimately connected to these creatures that seem to have abandoned themselves totally to the pleasures of the moment. Cats seem to have learnt enough of our ways to blend in. And yet, they never assimilate entirely. In a trice, in response to some invisible (to the human mind, at least) cue, they will leap off our lap and re-enter their own space, chasing a shadow. Lewis Carroll’s image of the smile on the face of the Cheshire cat, which remains even after the cat has vanished, nicely evokes such floating strangeness. Cats are beacons of the uncanny, shadows of something ‘other’ on the domestic scene.

Our relationship with cats is an eruption of the wild into the domestic: a reminder of the ‘far side’, by whose exclusion we define our own humanity. This is how Michel Foucault understood the construction of ‘madness’ in society — it’s no surprise then that he named his own cat Insanity. Cats, in this sense, are vehicles for our projections, misrecognition, and primitive recollection. They have always been the objects of superstition: through their associations with magic and witchcraft, feline encounters have been thought to forecast the future, including death. But cats are also talismans. They have been recognised as astral travellers, messengers from the gods. In Egypt, Burma and Thailand they have been worshipped. Druids have held some cats to be humans in a second life. They are trickster figures, like the fox, coyote and raven. The common meanings and associations that they carry in our culture permeate, albeit unconsciously, our everyday experience of them.

But if the glimpse of a cat can portend the uncanny, what should we make of the cat’s own glance at us? As Jacques Derrida wondered: ‘Say the animal responded?’ If his cat found him naked in the bathroom, staring at his private parts — as discussed in Derrida's 1997 lecture The Animal That Therefore I Am — who would be more naked: the unclothed human or the never clothed animal? To experience the animal looking back at us challenges the confidence of our own gaze — we lose our unquestioned privilege in the universe. Whatever we might think of our ability to subordinate the animal to our categories, all bets are off when we try to include the animal’s own perspective. That is not just another item to be included in our own world view. It is a distinctive point of view — a way of seeing that we have no reason to suppose we can seamlessly incorporate by some imaginative extension of our own perspective.

Jacques Derrida and his cat ‘Logos’. Photo by Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis Jacques Derrida and his cat, Logos. Photo by Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis

This goes further than Montaigne’s musings on who is playing with whom. Imaginative reversal — that is, if the cat is playing with us — would be an exercise in humility. But the dispossession of a cat ‘looking back’ is more disconcerting. It verges on the unthinkable. Perhaps when Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote (of a larger cat) in Philosophical Investigations (1953) that: ‘If a lion could talk we would not understand him,’ he meant something similar. If a lion really could possess language, he or she would have a relation to the world that would challenge our own, without there being any guarantee of translatability. Or if, as T S Eliot suggested in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), cats named themselves as well as being given names by their owners (gazed on by words, if you like), then the order of things — the human order — would be truly shaken.

Yet the existence of the domestic cat rests on our trust in them to eliminate other creatures who threaten our food and safety. We have a great deal invested in them, if now only symbolically. Snakebites can kill, rats can carry plague: the threat of either brings terror. Cats were bred to be security guards, even as their larger cousins still set their eyes on us and salivate. We like to think we can trust cats. But if we scrutinise their behaviour, our grounds for doing so evaporate.

Look into the eyes of a cat for a moment. Your gaze will flicker between recognising another being, and staring into a void

It is something of an accident that a cat’s lethal instincts align with our interests. They seem recklessly unwilling to manage their own boundaries. Driven as they are by an unbridled spirit of adventure (and killing), they do not themselves seem to have much appreciation of danger. Even if fortune smiles upon them — they are said to have nine lives, after all — in the end, ‘curiosity kills the cat’. Such protection as cats give us seems to be a precarious arrangement.

No story of a cat’s strangeness would be complete without touching on the tactile dimension. We stroke cats, and they lick us, coil around our legs, nuzzle up to us and pump our flesh. When aroused, they bite and plunge their claws innocently and ecstatically through our clothes into our skin. Charles Baudelaire expresses this contradictory impulse, somewhere between desire and fear, in his poem ‘Le Chat’ (1857): ‘Hold back the talons of your paws/Let me gaze into your beautiful eyes.’ A human lover would be hard put to improve on a normal cat’s response to being stroked. Unselfconscious self-abandonment, unmistakable sounds of appreciation, eyes closing in rapture, exposure of soft underbelly. Did the human hand ever find a higher calling? Baudelaire continues: ‘My hand tingles with the pleasure/Of feeling your electric body’. It feels like communion, a meeting of minds (or bodies), the ultimate in togetherness, perhaps on a par with human conjugal bliss (and simpler).

But the claws through the jeans give the game away. The cat is not exploring the limits of intimacy with a dash of pain, a touch of S&M. He is involuntarily extending his claws into my skin. This is not about ‘us’, it’s about him, and perhaps it always was — the purring, the licking, the pumping. Cats undermine any dream of perfect togetherness. Look into the eyes of a cat for a moment. Your gaze will flicker between recognising another being (without quite being able to situate it), and staring into a void. At this point, we would like to think — well, that’s because she or he is a cat. But cannot the same thing happen with our friend, or child, or lover? When we look in the mirror, are we sure we know who we are?

Witch’s cats were called familiars, an oddly suitable term for cats more generally — the strange at the heart of the familiar, disturbing our security even as they police it and bring us joy. They are part of our symbolic universe as well as being real physical creatures. And these aspects overlap. Most cats are unmistakably cut from the same cloth. But this only raises more intensely the question of this cat, its singular irreplaceability. I might well be able to replace Steely as a mouser, to find another sharp set of teeth. Steely II might equally like his tummy rubbed and press his claws into my flesh. And to my chagrin, Steely I and Steely II could each offer themselves in this way to my friends, as if I were replaceable. I was once offered a replacement kitten shortly after my ginger cat Tigger died. I was so sad that I toyed with the idea of giving the kitten the same name, and pretending that Tigger had simply been renewed. In the end, I could not. But the temptation was real.

To quote Eliot again:
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover —
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.

Cats, one at a time, as our intimates, our familiars, as strangers in our midst, as mirrors of our co-evolution, as objects of exemplary fascination, pose for us the question: what is it to be a cat? And what is it to be this cat? These questions are contagious. As I stroke Steely Dan, he purrs at my touch. And I begin to ask myself more questions: to whom does this appendage I call my hand belong? What is it to be human? And who, dear feline, do you think I am?

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Comments

  • Aplmustdie

    Actually, cats are the only animal that has not been domesticated. The chose to cohabitate with humans. The Egyptions had graineries. Cats started hanging out because the rats were a ready food source. Gradually, the became acustomed to people and started accepting their company . . .. and food. I think that is why cats are so different, each an individual. There are signs this is changing though. Where at once, cats were strictly solitary hunters, multiple cat households are forcing them to learn to cooperate. There are many observed instances where they are starting to hunt as pack animals. One cat will flush out game while the others wait.

    • alanborky

      "acustomed to people...accepting their company...that is why cats are so different, each an individual."

      As a Liverpool kid in the Sixties early Seventies I lived in a neighbourhood filled with an enormous number of derelict houses and got to observe a number of feral cats living in lion like prides and those cats truly were strange with nothing remotely like a personality and to find yourself surrounded by a tribe of 'em coldly standing their ground without so much as the slightest hint of fear as if to say "No...YOU piss off!" was a truly disturbing experience.

    • Peter Trachtenberg

      Actually, the self-domestication is supposed to have begun in Mesopotamia, about 12,000 years ago. Its mutual benefits were immediately obvious. The mystery is when the relationship between cats and humans evolved from convenience to affection, or the wily appearance of it. I write about it in my book Another Insane Devotion. http://www.amazon.com/Another-Insane-Devotion-Love-Persons/dp/0738215260/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1374723695&sr=8-1&keywords=Another+Insane+Devotion

      • David Wood

        Thanks Peter. Your book looks fascinating. I must read it.

        • Beverly Seaton

          Yes, thanks. The book is speeding to my Kindle right now.

  • Caroline

    What a wonderful study of the most special of species. You've really captured the enigma that is the cat - the reason some of us prefer them to dogs... I don't spend much time reading "for fun" on the internet but I saw this on my work Twitter feed (must have been retweeted by someone) and it just sucked me in and kept me reading until the end. Bravo/Meow!

  • alanborky

    David the truly peculiar power of cats I suggest's underlined by the fact like goats they're associated with the dark arts and like goats they have decidedly non human like slitted eyes yet in spite of the fact those eyes look evil and calculating to a degree a goat could only dream of matching it's the eyes of the goat we're actually spooked by!

    • David Wood

      Goats (I have eight) don't curl up in my lap quite so compliantly. But you're right about the eyes.

      Here is an image (that Aeon did not use) of my cat Steel Dan Thoreau starring in the very Indie film "Flow" (in production). I made white stepping stones over a stream, inviting an alien to use them. Steely turned up and walked across

      • Gerlof de Roos

        It's all ANTROPOMORPHISM.

  • dearth_vader

    Can we ever really know a cat? No, and why would we want to?. The rest of this is a waste of space.

  • Levitating Cat

    Hi David,

    Just wondering who wrote the following:

    Look into the eyes of a cat for a moment. Your gaze will flicker between recognising another being, and staring into a void

    T.S. Eliot?

    Terrific article, thank you.

    Cheers,

    Rick

  • http://thewayitis.info/ Derek Roche

    You do realise that both your cats and yourself may well be being manipulated by the parasitic protozoan Toxoplasma gondii, don't you? After reading this article in The Atlantic last year, I've never been able to look at a cat in quite the same way again.

    • David Wood

      Could Toxoplasma gondii be a benign symbiotic mediator, bonding cat and human?

  • Dr Prometheus

    Nine million cats in the UK. Each one kills say 2 birds a week. So 18 million birds die each week. That is 936 million birds a year. And nearly all cats also carry the Toxocarin parasite. 500 children in the UK go blind every year because cats shat in their sandpits.
    One third of car accidents are caused by adults infected with Toxoplasma cysts in the brain, caught from cats. Thats 400 kids killed or seriously injured each year.

    Cats should be banned.

    • AandO

      Banning cats is idiotic - have you heard of the Black Death? It was made worse by the killing of cats - not only that, but your numbers are WAY off...here is merely once recent study that shows that cats do not kill that many birds (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22567526).

      Also, they keep vermin and the infections they carry to a minimum. For example, in NYC, there are estimates that for every human living in the city, there are seven rats. I don't know about you, but as a NYC resident, I'd prefer to have cats around than allow that number to increase.

      Additionally, there are studies (here is one... http://www.livescience.com/2102-birds-glad-cats-eat-rats.html) that speculate that cats kill some bird predators and help bird populations.

      How many dogs maul or serious hurt (or kill) people? Do you propose a ban on dogs? What about how many birds are killed and eaten by other birds? Should we try to eliminate birds?

      Not only is banning cats a foolish idea, if you think it is in any way enforceable, you are living in a fantasy world.

      • Dr Prometheus

        I think you are the one living in a fantasy world. Who else would try and argue that its OK to keep cats even though they send 500 kids blind every year, and kill or injure 400 kids in car accidents? You are clearly infected with Toxoplasma and its caused your brain to think that cats are more important than kids.
        That woman who threw the cat in the bin did the right thing. Except she should have poured petrol in, stood back, and the flicked in a lighted match!

        • http://www.livinginthehereandnow.co.za/ beachcomber

          If you're so concerned with child welfare you should begin with parents who drink, smoke and feed their offspring food which contributes to diabetes and heart disease ...

        • Guille Ramos

          Talking about threats to the world, any more harmful creature than humans?

    • Buckley

      I don't know about banned, but they need to be indoor pets and not to be allowed to raom free. They need to be fixed. The feral population needs to be controlled. However if you allow your intact cats to roam free and procreate humans are contributing to the problem.

    • H. Blanchard

      1/3 of car accidents? Oh please. Only 9% of the US population tests seropositive for toxoplasmosis, so even if all of them jump into their cars at once, it seems unlikely.

    • Granite Sentry

      One would think someone named Prometheus wouldn't be so protective of birds.

    • bobgrumman

      Let's say you're right. Dr. P. Why not try to find a cure for this toxoplasma instead of banning cats? Meanwhile, have the government find a nice island without cats people like you could go live on. As for the birds, it seems to me sad that cats do seem to kill more of them than I'd like, but so do other birds. And human beings are doing far more to reduce the bird-population by converting ever-increasing amounts of wilderness to highways and parking lots than cats are.

      In any event, it seems to me that what cats add to the value of human life is vastly more than they add that diminishes it.

      Incidentally, I can't believe the UK has only 9,000,000 cats.

  • olmo

    Does anyone know cats? Do you, for example, think that you do? I must admit I have always considered that their existence was never anything but shakily hypothetical.
    For, if they are to share our world animals have somehow to participate in it. They must, to however small an extent, fall in with our way of life, tolerate it; else by their hostility or their fear they will merely measure the distance that separates them from us, and relations between us will consist solely in that.
    Take dogs: the admiration and trust evidenced in their approach to us often make some of them seem to have abandoned their most primal canine traditions and turned to worship of our ways, and even of our faults. That is precisely what makes them tragic and sublime. Their determination to acknowledge us forces them to live at the very limits of their nature, constantly -- through the humanness of their gaze, their nostalgic nuzzlings -- on the verge of passing beyond them.
    But what attitudes do cats adopt? Cats are just that: cats. And their world is utterly, through and through, a cat's world. You think they look at us? Has anyone ever truly known whether or not they deign to register for one instant on the sunken surface of their retina our trifling forms? As they stare at us they might merely be eliminating us magically from their gaze, eternally replete. True, some of us indulge our susceptibility to their wheedling and electric caresses. But, let such persons remember the strange, brusque, and offhand way in which their favorite animal frequently cuts short the effusions they had fondly imagined to be reciprocal. They too, even the privileged elected to enjoy their proximity of cats, have been rejected and denied time and time again, and even as they cherish some mysteriously apathetic creature in their arms they too have felt themselves brought up short at the threshold of a world that is a cat's world, a world inhabited exclusively by cats and in which they live in ways that no one of us can ever fathom.
    Has man ever been their coeval? I doubt it. And I can assure you that sometimes, in the twilight, the cat next door pounces across and through my body, either unaware of me or as demonstrated to some eerie spectator that I really don't exist.

    Rainer Maria Rilke, preface to 'Mitsou'.

  • Oren

    I don't think cats do not need us. Mine does need me. He follows me, talks to me and is always no more than 3m aways from me. I have another cat, which doesn't seem to need me, but if I give it to other people, it gets very upset. So I don't agree with what's being said about cats in the article.

  • Granite Sentry

    Cats are a mystery all right. But most of us are at least better off than Dr. Schrodinger, who can't even tell if they're alive or dead.

  • dmfant/dirk
  • http://napomartin.wordpress.com Napo Martin

    I have a cat and recognize many of the facets exposed here on their behavior.

    However, the article prompted me to review 1. Baudelaire's dates of birth and death and consequently 2. the etymology of the word electric - because somehow I thought Baudelaire died too early to know what an electric feeling can be.

    Baudelaire died in 1867, and was then probably aware of the attraction electric elements have. Wrongly, I had thought electricity was still a mystery in the mid 19th century.

    I still looked up the French original poem and there it is: "De palper ton corps électrique" (source: http://fleursdumal.org/poem/132 ). If I may add, the accepted English translation does no do justice to the French verb "palper", the original being more erotic than the austere "feeling".

    Further, electricity was somehow discovered by Ancient Greeks, at least they came up with the word "ἤλεκτρον" which translates into "yellow amber", a material they knew for its electrostatic properties.

    One never stops learning.

    • Charles

      Electricity is still generated today by the simple process of induction which Michael Faraday discovered in the 1830s, which was well-known during Baudelaire's lifetime.

      In my opinion, most articles on cats including this one make too much of the otherness of the cat. Every cat I've had has been extremely affectionate above all. That's why I have them, their mouse-catching prowess notwithstanding.

      Looking into their eyes I see a loving, devoted companion returning my look, with little hint of strangeness. They are attuned to attracting human affection, and they show this plainly by sidling around us and rubbing up against things, practically begging us to stroke and scratch them. When we do they start purring, which seals the deal as far as I'm concerned.
      I wouldn't be surprised if they had started this kind of affectionate behavior soon after taking up residence in the Mideast granaries thousands of years ago.

      Sure, they are independent and stand-offish at times. But they don't debase themselves into slaves like dogs. A more balanced, self-respecting attitude, I think.