In the risky-generalization department, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote: “If we stop caring for animals, we will stop caring for people.” Whatever the truth quotient here, many people do indeed care for their animals passionately and often at great expense. While on a book-promotion tour in California, I was driven by a woman who told me that she had just spent $6,000 for chemotherapy for her 12-year-old wire-hair terrier. Years ago, it was a sign of perfect looniness when an elderly spinster left her (sometimes sizable) estate to her beloved cat. Today, this seems a touch more sensible than leaving money to one’s university or college.
To offer a risky generalization of my own: One of the major differences between people who have pets—and perhaps among humankind in general—is that between those who favor dogs and those who favor cats. Many, myself among them, like both, but never equally. Those who favor dogs are surely in the majority. Dog owners expect, and generally receive, pleasing affection from them. Unalterable devotion is the last thing one is likely to receive from a cat. Affection one might receive, but entirely on the cat’s terms, which is to say when it is in a mood to dispense it. Cats are independent in a way no domesticated dog is likely to be. Unless they are sure of a reward, they tend not to come when called, and are intractable generally. Cats do not travel in packs and as often as not eschew the company of other cats, whom they often fear will horn in on their territory. Cats, in short, are for the most part in business for themselves.
Worshiped in ancient Egypt as the animal of the gods, if not gods themselves, cats throughout history have also been despised, loathed, thought evil incarnate, tortured. The cause of cats is not helped by the fact that something on the order of 10 percent of the population is said to be allergic to them. No word exists to describe those who fear and sometimes hate dogs, while “ailurophobe” describes the more common phenomenon of someone with a strong antipathy to cats. “Ailurophobia,” writes Carl Van Vechten in A Tiger in the House, perhaps the best book ever written about cats, “is a stronger feeling than hate; it is a most abject kind of fear.” Van Vechten goes on to describe the extreme reactions of ailurophobes, from nervous worry to violent terror to actual convulsions at the mere sight of a cat. Only snakes and rats are hated more than cats.
History’s most famous ailurophobe was probably Napoleon. The 16th-century French poet Pierre de Ronsard expressed his hatred of cats in the following quatrain:
There is no man now living anywhere
Who hates cats with a deeper hate than I;
I hate their eyes, their heads, the way they stare,
And when I see one come, I turn and fly.
And yet, for the past two decades, I have lived with a cat. With three different cats, to be precise; two calicos, one tabby, all females. I prefer female to male cats; feline, after all, suggests femininity. The tabby, Isabelle by name, had to be put down, her body riddled with cancer at age 13. The first of the two calicos, Hermione, I found one morning dead at the age of five under a chair in our living room, presumably from an aneurysm. The third, Dolly, we adopted five years ago from the Evanston Animal Shelter when she was seven. No two cats are quite alike, and that has certainly been true of the cats rooming chez Epstein. Isabelle tended to be elegantly passive and accommodating, allowing strangers and children to pet her. Hermione was rambunctious, awakening my wife at 6:30 a.m. for her own breakfast, going bonkers when a can of tuna was opened, forever attempting to escape into our outer hallway. Dolly has been impressively patient and charmingly content. Her manner and the pleasure she brings I should like briefly to describe.
Most people prefer to adopt kittens, but when I first saw her, I found Dolly’s rich coat and intelligent face irresistible and, on a subsequent visit, so did my wife. She is brilliantly tricolored—black, white, marmalade orange, all prettily melding into one another—with a small head and pleasingly plump body. I frequently describe her as one of those fat cats from City Hall. Little is known of her previous history. She was apparently left in a cat carrying case one evening on the steps of the Evanston Animal Shelter. Perhaps her owner had died, or moved, or married an ailurophobe. A college student who was a volunteer at the shelter and who took Dolly home for a brief period left only the information that she, Dolly, liked to be brushed. Adoption, of animals as of humans, is always a crapshoot, but in Dolly, a cat perfectly mated to us, the roll came up a solid seven.
When I brought Dolly home to our apartment, I showed her the placement of her litter box in our main bathroom, and no further tour was required. On her own she discovered the three bowls—one for water, another for dry food, a third for a small daily portion of moist food, collectively known as the buffet—that lie on the kitchen floor to the left of the refrigerator. She took over her predecessor Hermione’s bed. She cased the joint, soon picked out a few favorite spots, and has ever since walked about it as if she held the mortgage.
Dolores was her name when we brought her home. Dolores, however, sounded too dolorous, and my wife quickly changed her name to Dolly. This allowed me to master and not infrequently sing to her the Jerry Herman lyric of “Hello, Dolly”: “So nice to have you back where you belong.” The naming of cats is a serious business. My own belief is that cats are too dignified for overly affectionate names. Hippolyte Taine kept three cats, named Puss, Ebène, and Mitonne. None, in my view, is sufficiently stately. I know a young man who acquired a sphynx, or hairless cat, and named him, cruelly, Chemo. I like an earnest, adult name for a cat: Linda or Clara, say, or Ralph or Sidney. T.S. Eliot, in “The Naming of Cats,” puts this serious matter in comic terms:
The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
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,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo, or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey—
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter—
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Dolly is one cat that curiosity will never kill. Friends or strangers come into our apartment, and she does not stir to greet them. She has never shown the least interest in life in our outer hallway. She spends a fair amount of time atop the back of the couch, which we have come to call the mezzanine, in the room where we keep our television set, viewing the street six stories below or napping off when the mood strikes her, which it frequently does. She is alarmed only by the noise of vacuum cleaners or thunderstorms, both of which drive her into one of our closets or under our bed until the havoc caused by either passes. While she can flick a paw or turn over her body quickly, I have never seen Dolly run; a brisk waddle is the best she does. Although possessed of a full set of claws, in the five years she has lived with us, she has caused no damage of any kind, not the least scratch on any of our furniture, not a single tchotchke knocked over or chipped. Through the day she gives off an aura of calm, serenity even.
Soon after I arise and head toward the kitchen to prepare my tea and toast, Dolly puts in her first appearance. I fill the dishes of her buffet. She nibbles a bit of this, a touch of that, and follows me to the chair in my living room where I do an hour or so of morning reading. She appears at my feet, asking with her eyes to be picked up and set upon my lap, which I am more than pleased to do. There she sits, gazing outward at the street, purring gently as I stroke her back and administer further strokes under her chin, which she seems especially to like.
With Dolly on my lap in the early morning, my head clears and random thoughts begin to flow. Among them thoughts about her life, her happiness being alone with two older human beings, desires she might have or once have had that cannot any longer be satisfied. After 20 minutes or so, she departs my lap and waits upon a nearby rug for me to brush her. She will sometimes wait as long as 45 minutes for a five-minute brushing. Whence did this patience derive? I suspect from her months in a small cage at the Evanston Animal Shelter. After the grooming, we proceed into the kitchen, where she gets her morning reward of six chicken-flavored Greenie treats.
Much of the day Dolly sleeps. Does she dream? And if she does, of what do these dreams consist? A freer life? Memory of kittens to which years before she may have given birth? At dinner she now sits on my lap, which makes eating a touch awkward, but I find the honor of her wanting to be there worth the awkwardness. In the evening she lies between my wife and me on the couch where we sit to watch television. Here she tends to nuzzle up to my wife. (Sisterhood, after all, is powerful.) Something immensely becalming there is about having her there with us as the television set blares away at English detective stories or Chicago Cubs or White Sox games. Her day ends with six more Greenie treats. On winter nights she sometimes sleeps at the end of our bed. Otherwise she sleeps in her own bed or on a wing chair facing a bank of windows.
WHY DOES HAVING Dolly with us give such pleasure? In Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, John Gray, a retired professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, helps answer the question. Toward the close of his brief and well-written book, he writes that “while cats have nothing to learn from us, we can learn from them how to lighten the load that comes with being human.” Cats are Gray’s ostensible subject, but his true subject is human nature: “If cats could look back on their lives, might they wish that they had never lived? It is hard to think so. Not making stories of their lives, they cannot think of them as tragic or wish they had never been born. They accept life as a gift,” he writes, with the implication that human beings do not.
Throughout his pages, Gray distinguishes the differences, social and philosophical, between cats and humans. Cats do not form social groups, or recognize leaders, including human leaders. Nor do they know jealousy or boredom. They show few signs of sharing the feelings of others. Altruism, a word coined by Auguste Comte in the 19th century, is unknown to cats, which means neither are those programs for the improvement of life that have caused so much trouble for human beings. “Cats are happy being themselves,” Gray writes, “while human beings try to be happy by escaping themselves.” Cats, he notes, have no need to go to the opera. Cats, unlike us, have no self-image. “Their senses are sharper and their waking attention unclouded by dreams. The absence of a self-image may make their experience more intense.”
In their dealings with human beings, cats, according to Gray, “may come to love human beings, but that does not mean that they need them or feel any sense of obligation to them.” They appear to love, again unlike human beings, not out of motives of despair, loneliness, or boredom, but chiefly in reaction to kindness. All they want from human beings, Gray writes, “is a place where they can return to their normal state of contentment. If a human being gives them such a place, they may come to love them.”
They seem to be without family feeling. Once their kittens are ready for the world, they take off on their own, without, so far as we know, any regrets on either side. Cats “show no signs of experiencing guilt or remorse, any more than they do of struggling to be better than they are,” says Gray. “They do not exert themselves to improve the world, or agonize over what is the right thing to do.” They are not immoral but amoral, quite content to be themselves, which is of course what most human beings should like but find it so difficult to be.
Cats do not worry, at least not such that we can notice. (If Dolly has any worries, perhaps it is only that I shall forget her treats.) Above all, they do not seem to share that greatest and most ubiquitous of human fears, that of death. So far as we know, only human beings live with an awareness of their decease. “The human being who thinks nothing of death does not exist,” John Gray notes, adding that “humankind “is the death-defined animal.” He also reminds us that if human beings are prepared to die for their ideas, they are also ready to kill for them. “Killing and dying for nonsensical ideas,” he writes, “is how many human beings have made sense of their lives.” When cats die, on the other hand, it is generally “because they no longer want to live.” While human beings attempt to take consolation from philosophy—the late Roman politician Boethius wrote a book during a jail term called “The Consolation of Philosophy”—cats live on nicely without such support. As psychoanalysis was said by Karl Kraus to be the disease of which it purports to be the cure, for Gray, “philosophy is a symptom of the disorder it pretends to remedy.” Human beings have philosophy; cats have the simple enjoyment of everyday life.
Could my regard, bordering on reverence, for Dolly have anything to do with my being a writer? Writers have claimed not merely affection for but affinity with cats. They have been an almost standard subject for poets to write about; cats appear, for example, in many of Baudelaire’s poems. “As an inspiration to the author I do not think the cat can be over-estimated,” Carl Van Vechten writes. “He suggests so much grace, power, beauty, motion, mysticism.” The cat, he adds, may even serve as a model for the critic: “The sharp but concealed claws, the contracting pupil of the eye, which allows only the necessary amount of light to enter, independence, should be the best of models for any critic.” Over the years, French writers have shown a particular partiality to cats, many of them—Chateaubriand, Colette, Pierre Loti—adding substantially to the felinature, or literature about cats. Among the English, a famously dog-loving nation, Jeremy Bentham and Samuel Butler, neither of whom were high on human beings, turn out to have been ailurophiles. American cat-loving literati have included Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, Henry James, Sarah Orne Jewett, and the essayist Agnes Repplier.
As I come to the end of this essay, Dolly, having been brushed and treated, is currently asleep on the mezzanine. She will leave a time or two before the morning is out for a trip to the buffet for a nibble and a sip of water, after which she often cleans herself. She is likely to put in an appearance while we are lunching at our kitchen counter. The most unobtrusive of creatures, she requires little attention, asks nothing of us. She makes no noise, apart from the pleasing tap-tap of her clawed paws against our wooden floors on her way to her litter box. Later she will join us to watch the evening news. What the stock market has done, how great the rising murder toll in Chicago, the latest scurrilous lies of politicians, the unending anger of victim groups, about all this Dolly couldn’t care less, while we human beings care a great deal, though we can do little or nothing about any of it. Makes one wonder whether she, Dolly, a mere creature, and not we, despite calling ourselves homo sapiens, hasn’t got it right.
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