Felix in fide
An ecclesial feline, review…..
(Far from obscure
Jude of St John’s Savannah with Fr. Dunbar)
The subject and domain of the cat is dangerous, even though it be a common one in the life of churches. In large part this is consequent upon the very strong but deeply divergent views that the cat can arouse. Moreover, as Lynne Truss once pointed out (the sometime literary Editor of the BBC’s now defunct journal The Listener), in an article in The Guardianof London (7thDecember, 2016) once a literary figure associates his or her name with cats no one will take them seriously ever again…. Nonetheless, Miss Truss did herself bravely offer, in spite of this, an admirably handy overview of ten fine literary cat books.
Among these, the purported “coffee table book” entitled Why Cats Paintby Heather Busch and Burton Silver seems particularly worthy of note. Subtitled A Theory of Feline Aesthetics, it features pictures of cats alongside their putative artworks (which, tellingly perhaps, seem predominantly of the “abstract expressionist” school).
The explanatory captions to the many fine illustrations, have been particularly commended, as in:
“Pepper will spend up to two hours carefully examining himself in a mirror
before commencing a self-portrait”;
“Because of the abandoned manner in which some cats paint,
biologists have branded their work as no more than
‘obsessive-compulsive play activity which results in randomised marks
of no meaning whatsoever’.”….
Another notable volume commended was that of, Tobermory by Saki (H.H. Munro). This has been well described as, “the ultimate talking-cat story” in which, during the course of “a country-house weekend before the first world war, a guest claims to be able to bestow the gift of speech on animals. He is challenged to try out his gift on the resident cat, Tobermory”. As it turns out the cat proves “articulate and haughty. And worst of all, he has spent his whole life listening and observing, with the result that he now knows something to the disadvantage of everyone present.” Thus, when someone rashly, asks him, “What do you think of human intelligence?” he is obliged to reply: “You put me in an embarrassing position.”….
Then again, there is Felidae by Akif Pirinçci about a sleuthing cat with the name of Francis Felidae, who “reads books, uses a computer and talks about Kierkegaard”, though this last point might actually be saying more about Kiergegaard than about cats, but we must not digress…..
It would be churlish, however, in ranging across the verdant pastures of this particular literary genre not to commend the especially fine volume entitled, Poetry for Cats by Henry Beard (New York, 1994). Though in the light of the contents, while one would not wish to be pedantic, it would seem that Poetry bycats might have been a better title.
Here there is some material of a directly theological echo as in the following two examples:
first from Milton’s cat there is his Prologue to Territory Lost
Of cats’ first disobedience, and the height
Of that forbidden tree whose doom’d ascent
Brought Man into the world to help us down
And made us subject to his moods and whims.
For though we may have knocked an apple loose
As, we were carried safely to the ground,
We never said to eat th’ accursed thing.
But yet with him were exiled from our place
With loss of hosts of sweet celestial mice
And toothsome baby birds of paradise.
And so were sent to stray across the earth,
And suffer dogs, until some Greater Cat
Restore us and regains the blissful yard….
A work which concludes with a grand ambition:
…Make fast my grasp upon my theme’s dark threads
That undistracted save by naps and snacks
I may o’ercome our native reticence
And justify the ways of cats to men.
We are also offered, from Matthew Arnold’s feline, an extensive work entitled, “Dover Sole”,
The sea smells sweet tonight,
The tide is low, the soft waves roll
Along the beach –on the French coast, a light
Gleams, and is gone. Let’s hope some tipsy Frog
Ran down a poodle. From the tranquil bay
Comes a distant tang of fresh water sole!…..
Epicurus’s cat long ago
Smelled it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind a just deboned turbot
Unguarded in the kitchen, he
Could well have been the father of the thought,
That’s something to be said for gluttony…..
In contrast, on a purely secular note, there is Hamlet’s Cat’s Soliloquy:
To go outside and there perchance to stay
Or to remain within, that is the question.
Whether ‘tis better for a cat to suffer
The cuffs and Buffets of inclement weather
That Nature rains on those who roam abroad,
Or take a nap upon a scrap of carpet,
And so by dozing melt the solid hours
That clog the clock’s bright gears with sullen time
And stall the dinner bell. To sit, to stare,
Outdoors, and by a stare to seem to state
A wish to venture forth without delay. …..
(Shakespeare’s cat, attrib.)
On an altogether different note, there is also that elegantly crafted work
To a Vase by the cat of Elizabeth Barratt Browning:
How do I break thee? Let me count the ways.
I break thee if thou art at any height
My paw can reach, when smarting from some slight….
…I break thee with an accidental graze
Or twitch of tail, if I should take a fright.
I break thee out of pure and simple spite….
…I break thee if a bug upon thee sits.
I break thee if I’m in a playful mood,
And then I wrestle with the shiny bits.
I break thee, if I do not like my food.
And if someone thy shards together fits,
I’ll break thee once again when thou art glued.
But from amidst this extensive collection, when it comes to the fundamentals of an existential perspective, the style and economy of John Donne is perhaps the most fitting final sample:
Vet, Be Not Proud
Vet, be not proud, that though thou canst make cats die
Thou livest but one life, while we have nine,
And if our lives were half so bleak as thine,
We would not seek from thy cold grasp to fly.
We do not slave our daily bread to buy;
Our eyes are blind to gold and silver’s shine;
We owe no debt, we pay no tax or fine;…
….The sickest animal that thou dost treat
Is weller than a man; in peace we dwell
And know not guilt or sin, and fear not hell:
Poor vet, we live in heaven at thy feet.
But do not think that any cat will weep
When thee a higher vet will put to sleep.
(John Donne’s cat).