Section: Life and Letters
"My young friend," Aldous Huxley once instructed an aspiring novelist, "if you want to be a psychological novelist and write about human beings, the best thing you can do is keep a pair of cats." Whether this is good advice or not I do not know, but for me, a simple if more than occasionally pretentious essayist, one cat has done nicely. In recent years I have spent more time in the company of such a creature than I have with any human being, and, speaking for myself and not the creature in question, I find that it has its subtle compensations. It took me a long while to understand that a cat is the animal best suited to my talent and temperament. Since I have shown no talent whatsoever for training either children or dogs, having a cat, which is by nature intractable, has been a great relief. As for temperament, my cat and I share a penchant for being left alone for long stretches; neither of us is overly demonstrative in our emotions; and we are both quite good at gaining attention when we need it. Before leaving the matters of talent and temperament, I should add that cats generally tend to be cleaner, better athletes, and on the whole better suited for the contemplative life than I.
I realize that owning up to a serious admiration for cats puts me in slightly odd company. Whenever I take my own cat to the veterinarian, at a place called The Chicago Cat Clinic, I feel myself in a somewhat unusual crowd. I will not be more specific than to say that, as a group, my fellow cat lovers show marked differences from the regular Sunday afternoon National Football League audience. Yet the admiration of cats does have a lengthy literary lineage. Ever since Montaigne struck off his famous sentence about his cat--"When I play with my cat who knows whether she diverts herself with me, or I with her!"--the link between literary men and women and cats has been forged. It has been notably strong in France. From Montaigne through Chateaubriand through Sainte-Beuve through Huysmans through Colette--ailurophiles all --cats have been on the scene to note some interesting literary composition. The literary history of France, it has been said, could be written through the nation's cat lovers.
They order these things differently in England. The English are most famously keen on dogs. Of all creatures great and small, to coin a phrase, the English seem most partial to their dogs. The pleasures of a small garden, the companionship of a dog, and most Englishmen, at least of recent past generations, felt life paradise enow. To gain some flavor of the English love of dogs, I have just read for the first time the English writer J. R. Ackerley's "My Dog Tulip," his account of life with his Alsatian bitch hound, a book that has long had the status of "one of the greatest masterpieces of animal literature," according to Christopher Isherwood. It does not have that status with me; much too much talk in it for my taste of micturition, defecation, impregnation, gestation, and parturition. Ackerley really wallows in all this, can't seem to write enough about it, but when he isn't doing so he does make vivid some of the strange enchantment that animals have for us, if not necessarily we for them. "How wonderful to have had an animal come to one to communicate where no communication is," he writes, "over the incommunicability of no common speech, to ask a personal favor." It is exactly so; and so, too, that "the only way to avoid the onus of responsibility for the lives of animals is never to traffic in them at all." This many of us cannot bring ourselves to do.
To avoid all such traffic is the perhaps sensible policy of the majority of men and women. With what cheerful disdain they are able to look upon those of us who have chosen to share our lives with animals. Gazing out a sixth-story window upon an ice-laden street on a below-zero morning at a shivering man waiting for a small Yorkshire terrier to do what is euphemistically called its "business" fills one with a reassuring sense of one's own prudence and the comic imbecility of advanced civilization. I have been both the man with that dog and the man in the window, and, while I can testify that life is more comfortable behind the window, I do not in retrospect regret my mornings with that Yorkshire terrier.
My only regret in this line has to do with another terrier I once owned, this one a wirehair, Sigmund by name, an affable fellow who one otherwise sunny afternoon was struck by a passing car. Great damage was done to the dog's leg. Many X rays were required and no fewer than three operations and resettings of a pathetic cast that made a heartrending sound upon wooden floors. Expenses piled up; I have blocked the figures from my mind. A non-animal-owning friend with a cruel sense of humor suggested that there was a good man in Zurich to whom I ought to send the dog. After a lengthy and costly convalescence, Sigmund, I am pleased to report, regained full use of his injured leg--sufficient use, I am less pleased to report, to run away, permanently and without so much as a by-your-leave. Farewell, ungrateful voyager.
I neglected to mention Sigmund's perfidious behavior to the Warden of an Oxford college who one night, awash with champagne, launched into a powerful and unrelenting attack on dogs in general. "So sycophantic," he exclaimed, "so hopelessly uncritical. Nothing more odious than a large dog, its tongue extended, drooling for its master's or anyone else's attention. Pathetic creatures, dogs, the playthings of those men and women who wish unqualified admiration and derive contentment from acting the part of lord over an ignorant, generally slobbering beast." On and on he went, warming to his subject with increasing intensity, so that toward the end of his tirade ownership of a dog seemed roughly comparable to membership in the Nazi party through the war years. A dog owner myself at the time--the aforementioned Yorkshire terrier, named Max, was then in my possession--I felt I must at least bring this up, if not offer a full defense of dogs.
"Before you go further," I said, "I must report to you that I myself own a dog. He is a very small dog, true, but I am much enamored of him."
"Is he old?" the Warden inquired through a champagne lisp.
"Nine years old."
"I see," said the Warden. "My advice is to keep him till he dies. But, pray, do not replace him."
As it happens, I never did. In the fullness of time--and not so full as all that--the charming and beloved Max departed the scene. We later moved to an apartment where dogs were not permitted. Below-zero mornings I remained smugly indoors; returning late at night I felt a distinct relief at not having to brave the dark neighborhood streets. For a longish period I settled in without the company of animals. Without livestock, I won't say it was the good life, but it was a less-encumbered, a much simpler life, than I had become accustomed to.
Evidently I cannot stand too much simplicity. With children grown and gone, the element of tumult and even human traffic much diminished from daily life, I must have felt the want of a little additional complication. I began to notice myself considering other people's pets admiringly. A relative in San Francisco with whom I visited had a cat of such sweet temper, playfulness, and courtesy that I determined that I should begin to look for a cat of my own.
"A cat," said Edith Wharton, who all her adult life kept highbred small dogs, "is a snake in furs." Many people--technically known as ailurophobes--feel likewise. I never did, but I was for many years, given a choice, partial to dogs. Cats, though, have much to recommend them, especially for city living. A cat does not need to be walked; a cat is the only domestic animal I know who toilet trains itself and does a damned impressive job of it. A cat's requirement for attention is of an utterly different order than that of a dog. My cat seems to like my company but does nicely without my conversation. As I write, for example, she is asleep on my desk, atop correspondence I am late in answering and behind a small stack of books. Apart from her dubious value as a paperweight, I like her company, too, when she chooses to give it, though why it pleases me--no, make that comforts me--to have this sleeping creature on my desk is itself a mildly interesting question.
Before going any further, before I begin to give the false impression of vast sensitivity to all forms of animal life, I had better make it quite clear that you are a long way from reading an urbanized, Jewish, modern-day St. Francis. Many are the animals I wish had never made the ark. I have never met a rodent I liked; and rats drive me, as they did George Orwell, nearly ill with revulsion. Slobbering dogs are not my idea of a good time, either; I cannot see a Doberman pinscher without thinking of the gestapo; and Pekingese, of the kind that appear in several of Evelyn Waugh's novels, always suggest to me the possibility of furious nips at the back of one's ankles. Rabbits I can take or leave alone. Birds cannot be topped aesthetically, but I have never longed to own an aviary. Snakes I do not despise, though I much prefer them out of the grass and in zoos. Giraffes and penguins I adore for their lovely, elegant oddity. Monkeys and apes come too close to home.
Everyone can put together a similar list of zoological sympathies and antipathies--love iguanas, hate gophers--but some among us believe in something akin to a special, I hesitate to say mystical, perhaps the best word is romantic, relationship with animals, or at any rate with one animal. Sentimental, even sappy though I know this to be, I fear that, however tenuously, I myself hold this belief. In my case, I think it derives from a strong diet when young of animal movies and literature combined with an absence of any opportunity during these same years to live in a natural way with animals.
Walt Disney, with his fine anthropomorphizing hand, started me off nicely with Bambi, Dumbo, Jiminy Cricket, and other animal adorables now lost to memory. In the short subjects then known as serials, I recall being much taken with the high intelligence of Rin Tin Tin. The Lassie movies--"Lassie Come Home" and others--were even more affecting, for a collie, to a child's moviegoing eye, is incontestably more beautiful than a German shepherd. And the horses, the splendid, muscular, many-hued horses: my friend Flicka, Black Beauty, the dazzling palominos, the dangerous white stallions, the frisky pinto ponies, almost all of them ready to answer to the right human whistle, to count with their hooves, to gallop empty-saddled to the nearest town to bring back help.
Sabu, the Indian boy who could communicate perfectly with elephants, fed the belief not only in friendship between human and animal, but in their near-perfect understanding, given sufficient patience and kindness on the part of the human. This was greatly reinforced by the ever-ineloquent Tarzan, whose own unmelodious diction and brutish syntax, it occurs to me now, may have been formed by too much converse with apes, elephants, and other jungle denizens. Perhaps the only movie of my youth containing a heavy dose of truth about the relationship between man and beast was "The Yearling," made from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's novel, about the sad consequences of a boy who, through love, wishes to domesticate a creature meant to live in nature.
It would be nice to be able to report that I have gotten over my infatuation with this sort of fare, but, alas, it is not so. Another boy and horse movie, this one titled "The Black Stallion" (1979), did it to me again. The movie contains a roughly twenty-minute sequence of an eight- or nine-year-old boy riding upon the bare back of a Leonardoesque black horse plunging powerfully through the azure waters of the Mediterranean, lushly filmed from all possible angles, which I can only say, not very analytically, sends me each time I see it; and, owing to cassette tape, I have seen it four or five times. I gulp, I gush, I am a goner.
Perhaps only a city kid could fall so hard. In the solidly middle-class neighborhood in Chicago where I grew up, I have no recollection of any neighbors with dogs or cats, or scarcely any remembrance of animal life at all. World War II was on. It may well be that, with a scarcity of apartments, our building and those around it did not permit pets. Food was rationed, and meat for dogs and cats was not readily available. I was sent off to an expensive summer camp in Wisconsin when I was eight, but, owing to the war, we were told that the camp had had to cancel horseback riding. Meanwhile, all those movies, along with a fair amount of reading, stoked my untested regard for the companionship of living, non-human creatures. Pathetic to report, even grasshoppers interested me, and I tried to keep a few alive in a jar with a perforated top. I don't think I went so far as to name them; at least I hope I didn't.
When we finally acquired a pet, a dog, it seemed to come too late. We had moved to more spacious quarters, I was well into my adolescence, and the once powerful fantasy of an abiding friendship with an animal could not compete with rivaling fantasies about sports and girls. It was the early 1950s, and our dog was the popular dog of its day, a cocker spaniel. Cocker spaniels came in three colors, black, tan, and auburn, and were usually named, with extraordinarily unimaginative repetitiveness, respectively, Inky, Taffy, and Rusty. Ours was a Rusty. He wasn't a puppy but five or six years old when we acquired him. Whatever the animal equivalent to personality is, Rusty's, near as I could make out, was singularly without interesting idiosyncrasy. A dull guy, Rusty. He was rather sniffy about food, and my mother, who had hitherto evinced no special sympathy for animals, cooked for the dog. The aroma of veal and hamburger sizzling in a heavy black skillet returns to me now; it and other viands were set before him. The result was a diet too rich for his system, and it threw off his toilet training habits. This vastly limited Rusty's tenure with Swiss Family Aristides. In less than a year's time he was farmed out to the man who picked up and delivered our laundry, who lived in the country with a family of ten children. I hope Rusty lived out his days in dull contentment, but "Rusty come home" was never a cry that passed my lips.
Irving followed Rusty, at the goodly distance of some seven years. Irving was a black poodle, sold to me as a toy but who turned out to be a standard. Nothing about poor Irving was quite licit, including my owning him in an apartment where dogs were strictly verboten. I had acquired Irving in the first place to please a woman with whom I was much taken, who was herself quite mad about domestic animals. She had earlier presented me with a hamster to whom, frankly, I was never quite able, as they say, to relate. Owing to Irving's precarious position in the apartment as, in effect, a stowaway, through no fault of his own he was never able to get the business of doing his business down pat. He had to be taken out at odd hours--when, specifically, the coast was clear--or often rushed out just before he was no longer able to control himself. Consequently, all his days he relieved himself nervously, never quite stationary in the act, always shuffling about slightly. Irving was eventually turned over to a childless aunt of mine who already owned a Chihuahua whom she hand-fed and had named--so far as I could make out, without a trace of irony--Caesar. She treated Irving with surpassing kindness, for which I was immensely grateful, since I felt it let me off the hook a bit for what I had put him through.
The woman for whom I bought Irving and I went on to live in a state of holy matrimony and a condition of impressive chaos for nearly a decade. At one point we had three dogs (a mongrelized sheepdog named Luv, the feckless Sigmund, and dear Max) and two Siamese cats (Ralph and Clara were their names), not to speak of a thirty-gallon antique tank stocked with tropical fish. The Siamese cats had two different litters of kittens. (Ralph shall always remain memorable to me for using a bathroom toilet to make water, a trick he must have picked up from the example of the boy children in the house.) One day I came home to discover an enormous collie that had been left at the Anti-Cruelty Society by a young man going off to Vietnam; it proved to be too much, and a few days later the collie was returned whence it came: "Lassie scram." At various times during this marriage I felt less like a husband and father than a rancher.
"Divorced, no kids, no cats," with a few touches of anatomical description thrown in, is not an uncommon shorthand for one man formulating the situation of a woman to another, interested and eligible, man. My second (my current, my final, my dear and irreplaceable) wife was neither divorced nor had children, but she did have a cat, Ursala, when we married. I still had my main man, the Yorkshire terrier Max. Max and Ursala, Ursala and Max--either way it sounded like a delightful German film. Ursala was very black, very elegant, very independent, and not one to bestow affection thoughtlessly. Even now I recall the first time she climbed onto my lap, after I had been around her for some two years, and the enormous compliment I felt in the gesture.
Max, charming and not entirely resourceless, Max, always desirous of friendship, put his best moves on Ursala. When she was sitting on a couch he would gently sidle up; when she was stretched out upon a rug he with tactful caution would approach. But it was no go; for his efforts, he got a hiss and a spit, or sometimes a declawed paw in the punim. We were pulling for Max all the way, hoping Ursala would relent, aching to witness the lion lie down with the lamb. Alas, he had no more chance than a fellow with a few gold neck chains and a lot of cheap astrology talk setting out to seduce Greta Garbo. Another animal fantasy blown out of the air.
But I wish to report a reformation of character, at least in this particular regard, with the entry into my life, some three years ago, of our cat Isabelle. I am not ready to go so far as those authors who, in their acknowledgments to their books, wish to thank their husbands or wives for making them warm and open and caring persons, but this cat has, I believe, taught me a thing or two about the proper relationship between human beings and animals. She has given me much quiet pleasure and no pain whatsoever. I am pleased to have earned her toleration and continue to be delighted by her not infrequent gift of affection. Her demeanor is a reminder that it is possible to get through life without having to be in the least obsequious. Her longish tail, which forms itself at its tip into a question mark when she walks with a certain confident gait, reminds me, when I note it, of the value of skepticism. To gaze upon her in certain of her moods, especially when she is sleeping, can render me almost instantly tranquil. I have decided that this little animal is for me the cat of cats, the long-awaited one, the animal who will mean most to me in my life and who is likely never to be replaced in my affection.
A cat, I realize, cannot be everyone's cup of fur. Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Hitler are all said to have been ailurophobes. Scarcely shocking, this, for if one has a taste for command and a potent will to power, one does better without a cat for company. Cats resist compulsion and are by nature unpunishable; a grown man or woman yelling at a cat makes a ridiculous spectacle. It may be that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but, unless one is fanatical, one cannot hope to teach a new cat old tricks. Besides, they have such interesting tricks of their own. You must either take a cat as she is or leave her alone. "A cat's game," a phrase from tic-tac-toe, means standoff, stalemate, forget about it. Even the notion of owning a cat seems faintly absurd; better to say that one is living with a cat and paying the bills.
When not long ago, after recounting how much pleasure Isabelle's company has given me, I advised a friend to consider acquiring a cat, he shook his head and replied, "I consider cats furniture." An amusing remark, and not without its quotient of truth. A cat can sit in the same place, awake yet supremely supine, longer than any breathing creature going. (As pure furniture, I should add, perhaps nothing surpasses the cat as the most decorative domestic item the world has thus far produced.) To admire this extreme talent for repose in cats, one must oneself have a certain aspiration for repose in one's own life. Schopenhauer spoke to this point of torpid contentment in certain animals--surely cats must have been uppermost in his mind, since he said that neither dogs nor apes had it--this enjoyment of life as simple existence, claiming that those animals command it who live outside anything beyond immediate motivation. "That is why," Schopenhauer writes in one of his aphorisms, "they find complete contentment in simple existence and why it suffices to fill their entire lives; so that they can pass many hours completely inactive without feeling discontented or impatient, although they are not thinking but merely looking."
I once remarked of William Maxwell, some of whose novels I admire, that if he had any serious flaw it was that he tended to anthropomorphize children. I am rather sorry I said that, for I now intend to anthropomorphize our cat. I often try to imagine what, if Isabelle had human speech, she would say. I assume that for the most part she would keep her own counsel, using language only with great precision and never needing to avail herself of words that end in "ism." Comparing hers to a human life, I sometimes envy her the leisure of her days and all the things she doesn't have to do: work her way through the turgid fatuity of a New York Times editorial, make a quarterly tax payment, meet a deadline, believe in progress, feign interest. She need give no thought to owning a fax machine or computer; she need not have anything to do with technical advances. "So that's the telephone," said Degas to Forain, when the latter was so proud of having had one installed in his house. "They ring, and you run." When my telephone rings, Isabelle doesn't even blink. Let us not speak of "call waiting."
When I leave the apartment, I generally say good-bye to Isabelle, even if she is asleep. If this isn't anthropomorphizing, I'm not sure what is. Yet when I return, she generally walks to the door to greet me. (Felinomorphizing, perhaps?) Isabelle is a house cat; she only leaves the apartment in a carrying case--lined, to be sure, with a thick yellow towel--either to see a veterinarian, or to go off with us on a weekend visit, or to board with a relative when we are traveling. You probably ought to know, too, that her front claws have been removed; and she has been--a much less than apt word--"fixed." The declawing and the de-sexing were done more for my convenience than for hers. Letting her run free in our urban neighborhood carries less moral complication; to do so would be to invite her quick departure if not demise. Still, to put the question anthropofelinosophically, would I give up the right to claw and fornicate at will for a reasonable amount of security, food, and comfort? Don't look now, folks, but I believe I already have. In modern life, it is apparently civilization and its discontents for cats, too.
But enough of discontents, of which the world provides sufficient to go round. I don't think many are evident in Isabelle, who, at four years old, is a cat full of fire, which is the way I prefer a cat. When the mood is upon her, she goes galloping down the long hall of our apartment, leaping onto the top of the back of a high wing chair. Or she will jump from my desk to a nearby file cabinet, thence to hop atop a bookcase. She has a lovely way of suddenly appearing--on my desk, on our bed, behind my reading chair--with an effortless little Balanchinian hop that I think of as her "star turn." When she does this, the impression I always get is that of a great ballerina suddenly emergent from the wings. All this while, with all this galloping, leaping, hopping, in a fairly tsatske-laden apartment, Isabelle has never broken a single item.
This cat has given us no trouble over diet, having none of the finickiness about food for which domestic cats are infamous. She even defies the standard generalizations in this line. The essayist Agnes Repplier has remarked that she has "never known a cat that would touch ham": Isabelle relishes it, but then shows little interest in a bowl of milk. The cat, write Frances and Richard Lockbridge, two popular writers on the subject, "is a great victim of the human inclination to generalize." Quite true; and her use to the essayist may be precisely that, in her conduct, she generally tends to defy all generalizations applied to her.
"We cannot," remarked the scientist St. George Mivart, "without becoming cats, perfectly understand the cat mind." Carl Van Vechten, author of "The Tiger in the House," in my opinion the best of all books about cats, puts it rather better: "Faith is needed to comprehend the cat, to understand that one can never comprehend the cat." Whether cats "think" at all is, among ethologists, apparently a matter of serious debate. Yet if it is not thoughtfulness, what is it in Isabelle that has allowed her to become so keen--and she grows steadily keener--at sensing the moods of those into whose hands her fate has rather arbitrarily been tossed? She does not always come when wanted--and never on demand--yet she never arrives when unwanted, and, as it happens, is always wanted when she arrives. And why not? She has brought me, variously, tranquility, companionship, an enhanced sense of life's possibilities. All she in her turn asks is that I never impugn her independence.
Carl Van Vechten writes that the cat ought to serve as an inspiration to the writer, since the cat suggests grace, power, and beauty, and "the perfect symmetry of his body urges one to achieve an equally perfect form" in one's work.
The sharp but concealed claws, the contracting pupil of the eye, which allows only the necessary amount of light to enter, the independence, should be the best models for any critic; the graceful movements of the animal who waves a glorious banner as he walks silently should stir the soul of any poet. The cat symbolizes, indeed, all that a good writer tries to put into his work.
Van Vechten goes on to say that the cat, with his reserves of dignity and urbanity, his magisterial calm overlaying his bountiful energy, "is as nearly as possible what many a writer would like to be himself." There's something to it. There's something also to Van Vechten's adding that the cat can inspire literary creation on nearly any subject--"any subject, mind you, not necessarily on the cat himself." Part of the problem is that cats are a good deal more difficult to describe than are men and women. They are not so easily drawn or painted, either, at least in a way that captures the true individuality that anyone who has lived with a cat knows that his own cat possesses. Here it strikes me that the cat has been better drawn than painted, perhaps because in a drawing the element of character--or, more precisely, caricature--comes through more lucidly.
Close readers will have noted that thus far along I have shied away from describing anything about my own cat except the charming question mark that the end of her tail sometimes forms. Isabelle, you should know, is a tabby, with dark stripes predominating over a taupe background on her long, rather slender body. On her forehead she has the traditional M-shape marking of the tabby; and black lines, which shape themselves into slightly exotic wings, flair out in perfect (as opposed to William Blake's "fearful") symmetry along both her cheeks. Her whiskers are white and emerge from near a dotting or freckling along and just beneath her nose. Plenty of taupe plays about her face; her underbody is a melange of different shades of taupe; her only white fur is under her chin. She has a small head, an extremely elegant one, in my opinion. I much prefer a cat with a small head, for too large a head not only seems indelicate in itself but is a bit too tigerish for my taste. I read into a large-headed cat the tableau of a tiger ripping the entrails of a gazelle near a brackish pond: red tooth of nature and all that, whereas my own clear preference runs to white tooth of dental floss and a warm bathrobe.
I have spent a fair amount of time gazing into Isabelle's face and must confess that I have not found there the least trace of what the French poet Charles Cros suspects, in a white cat of his acquaintance, of what we should nowadays call a hidden agenda: "Je te demande dans ces vers / Quel secret dort dans tes yeux verts / Quel sarcasme sous ta moustache." Nor, peering into Isabelle's blue-green eyes, have I ever discovered what it was that caused George Eliot to ask: "Who can tell what just criticisms the cat may be passing on us beings of wider speculation?" The great French draughtsman Grandville claimed to have discovered seventy-five different expressions on the faces of cats. I have never counted those I have discovered on Isabelle, but among them have been neither uncritical adoration nor secret contempt, which seems to me fair enough.
Lots of music plays in this apartment, all of it so-called "serious" music, much of it coming from radios dialed to classical music stations. This music seems further to becalm the already quite calm Isabelle, who appears especially taken with baroque music, with, I believe I detect, a particular partiality for woodwinds. So utterly content does she seem when lying on a bed or on my desk with music playing that, when I have to leave the apartment briefly, I often leave the radio playing for her. Anecdotes about the enjoyment of music by cats are not uncommon. Theophile Gautier wrote charmingly about one of his cats' reactions to hearing singers whom Gautier accompanied on the piano in his apartment. The cat of the composer Henri Sauguet was bonkers for the music of Debussy. For a time I thought Isabelle quite gone on Bach's Cantata 147, "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," in the Dame Myra Hess transcription. Desmond Morris, the zoologist, claims that "the musical sense of cats is just another feline myth." I am sure he is correct, but I prefer to cling, ever so lightly, to the myth. "Human kind," a certain lover of cats named T. S. Eliot once remarked, "cannot bear very much reality." Perhaps ailurophiles can bear just a jot less.
What may be at work here is the naive hope that a creature who has given me so much comfort and pleasure can herself take comfort and pleasure in some of the same things I do. For a long while I felt similarly about feline companionship for Isabelle and contemplated acquiring a second cat. She, Isabelle, spent the first months of her life in a bookshop--"Cat-free Bookstore" reads the sign in the window of an old New Yorker cartoon, suggesting that there aren't all that many of them--and the first time I saw her she was asleep entwined with a large, gentle marmalade-colored cat named Gingy. Two cats are said to be better than one, or so the current received wisdom has it, especially if one goes off to work and leaves a cat alone most of the day. Isabelle is not alone in this way, yet I have, I suppose guiltily, felt that, in installing her in our apartment, perhaps I have cruelly deprived her of the company of her own kind.
Perhaps. Yet every time I have seen Isabelle with other cats, she has appeared either bored or put off by them. Feline sociability does not seem to be, as they said in the sixties, her "thing." Which leads me to wonder if perhaps it was I who really wanted yet another cat. Adding cats is not difficult to do. Ernest Newman, the music critic of the Times in London, longed for the day he could settle into a house and have a cat. He ended up with three. (Those cats must have heard some splendid music.) The decisive jump, I have always thought, is from two cats to three. If three cats, after all, why not five? And if five, why not eight? I would say that family therapy is strongly indicated somewhere around six cats, at least for apartment dwellers.
I hope that I have not given the impression that Isabelle is a genius among cats, for it is not so. If cats had IQs, hers, my guess is, would fall somewhere in the middle range; if cats took SATs, we should have to look for a small school somewhere in the Middle West for her where discipline is not emphasized. Isabelle eats flowers--though for some reason not African violets--and cannot be convinced to refrain. We consequently don't keep flowers in the apartment. Although my wife and I love flowers, we have decided that we love this cat more, and the deprivation of one of life's several little pleasures is worth it.
I am, then, prepared to allow that Isabelle isn't brilliant but not that she isn't dear. She is, as I have mentioned, currently only four years old, yet already--perhaps it is a habit of my own middle age--I begin to think of the shortness of her life, even stretched to its fullest potential. Owing to the companionship of this cat, I have begun to understand friends who, having lost a dog or cat through age or illness, choose not to replace it, saying that they can't bear to go through it all again.
Solzhenitsyn remarks in one of his novels that people who cannot be kind to animals are unlikely to be kind to human beings. A charming sentiment but far, I suspect, from generally true. ("I wanted you to see why I work with animals," says a female veterinarian in a novel by Jim Harrison. "I can't stand people.") Yet genuine kindness to animals is always impressive. One of the finest stories told about Mohammed has to do with his having to answer the call to prayer while a cat is asleep on the hem of his cloak; with scissors he cuts off the hem, lest he wake the cat, and proceeds on his way.
Searching for the cat who turned out to be Isabelle, I met a woman who converted two of the three stories of her house in a working-class neighborhood over to the care of injured and deserted animals: three-legged cats, a blind German shepherd, an aged St. Bernard in a body bandage are among the animals I recall roaming the first floor. Something like eighty cats lived in the basement. The smell, expense, sheer trouble of it all overwhelmed me and I didn't hang around long. The existence of Heaven, though, suddenly made a good deal of sense, for nothing less can be a just reward for such a woman.
Cats are said to be notably deficient in gratitude. Certainly they are nowhere near so efficient at sending thank-you notes as, say, members of the Junior League. But they have their own extraordinary ways of repaying such trivial debts as they accrue: through their example of repose, through the sensuous harmony of their elegant movements, through their gift of unpredictable but always welcome affection. I need call in no auditor to inform me that my debts to Isabelle vastly exceed hers to me, and that there is no way to pay them off except with a mute gratitude and an occasional privately uttered toast: "Here's looking at you, kid, than which few things give more pleasure."
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Source: American Scholar, Fall90, Vol. 59 Issue 4, p487, 8p.
Item Number: 9011190597