What goes on inside the curious world of a cat's mind?
TOM came to us for unknown reasons. A stranger in our midst, yes, but feral? He was clearly somebody’s pet but having learned from other cats in the neighbourhood that the place up the road offered a better alternative to the life he had – good (and regular) food, a warm place to sleep, and reasonably congenial humans – he’d opted to chance his luck on our doorstep. What makes cats go walkabout and choose where they hang their hat? Why us? What do you see, Tom, when you come into our home?
Tom wasn’t the first. In fact, by the time word had passed down the feral highway to Tom, our house had already become a refuge for migrant felines. Georgie was the first; picked up on the side of a dusty, rural road in a poor state of health, and definitely feral in the true sense: unowned, living and surviving outdoors, and avoiding human contact. She inhabited the shed: she could earn her keep as our mouser. But a violent storm quickly changed her stand-offishness and she acquiesced to the security of the house. OK, I must confess, I worried about her and brought her indoors. She didn’t object and, whilst co-location was kept at couch length distance for many weeks, she sought street-life less and less. However, “as every cat owner knows, nobody owns a cat”.
Some say the Egyptians domesticated cats, eager for them to keep rodents at bay in their huge grain stores. So revered was the cat that felixide meant a death sentence for the human murderer and cats were mummified just like human partners: a cat cemetery at Beni-Hassan had over 300,000 cat mummies. But did the cat come indoors because we wanted it to or did the cat make the purely prudential choice of living within a ready-made corral of its chosen prey? Rudyard Kipling mildly chided us for our anthropomorphic arrogance in his story, ‘The Cat That Walked By Himself’, which explains how all animals eventually got domesticated by humans; all except one: “the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat. He walked by himself, and all places were alike to him”.
One thing we can’t do is find the answer from observing the cat’s inscrutable behaviour. Do we really ever know how much the cat cares for us or is it, as is often said, “dogs have masters; cats have servants”. Bastet, the Egyptian goddess of love, had the head of a cat. Was this just so much wish fulfilment? To hope that the creature that besotted us, loved us back? And what of when it tires of our offerings: does it leave us so easily that we might wonder why it ever stayed? Are we just one episode in Tom’s fickle path of serial monogamy?
When humans were hunter gatherers, dogs were our natural companions, staying close for an easy meal and guarding our kill from other scavengers. When humans became “civilised”, the cat became the natural partner in, what has been described as, “one of the most successful ‘biological experiments’ ever undertaken”. Yet, despite our 12,000-year connection, we’ve never learnt to truly reconcile our incompatible relationship needs: humans are the insecure, anxiety-ridden lovers, constantly seeking attachment, requiring reinforcement that we’re wanted and needed. Cats are avoidant and non-committal: love (they have learned) is unavailable to them, adopting a default emotional position that it is unsafe to rely on others.
Bobby, the black shorthair, never made it across the divide. Wilder than the others, he lived under the deck for several weeks, eating the food we put out every day but resisting any form of contact. We never saw him during the day, unlike the other refugees that we’d espy around the paddocks at other times. He was too damaged, too fearful, unable to give up on his wild existence – as inhospitable as it might be – and he was gone as mysteriously as he’d arrived: feral.
The deck, or rather under it, had become the halfway house, the staging post for wandering cats to assess their options and choose between an independent life and domestication. Why they come, we’ll never know. All are lacking any markers of human ownership but all display unequivocal evidence of a former domestic life, such as being litter trained. Bernie lived under the deck for about three weeks. Being a long-hair it was impossible to ascertain her sex without getting hold of her. So, Bernie seemed a good choice for a name: easily short for Bernadette if, as it turned out, she was a she; short for Bernard if we discovered otherwise. Does she like her name? She certainly knows it. But what name would she give herself?
Anybody who has read T S Elliot’s ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ (rather than merely seen the Lloyd-Webber musical) knows that cats have three names: the proper name that we give them; the pet name (and its variants) that we use every day, and the unknowable name that a cat gives itself. Mr Bojangles is Jangleman, Janglepuss, or simply Jangles. But does he see himself as we see him: a very fat, contented, sleeping cushion. In his eyes is he a mere Bagpuss or a proud Bagheera?
Looking into his eyes gives us no answer. Without the facial muscles available to dogs and humans, we cannot gauge any sentience behind their gaze. And neither can they from us. Experiments have shown that cats show no response to a smiling face that is any different than to a frowning face. They can’t recognise in us what they can’t recognise in each other. The frustration was too much for the French philosopher and sociologist, Michael Foucault, who called his cat “Insanity”.
It was not simple coincidence that led, perhaps the greatest, philosopher of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein, to use a feline example to explain the incommensurability of alternative frames of reference. That is, humans’ ability to communicate with each other is dependent on their shared frame of reference: an interpretation of the world shaped and created by our sensory organs being, for all intents and purposes, identical amongst all members of the species.
Our language(s), evolved over millennia, began with naming words or sounds and developed through metaphorical use into a complex world of adjectives, adverbs, and verbs. Those naming words owe their origins entirely to our unique perspective on the world, shaped by our physiology. How would an alien, with no arms or legs and sense organs fundamentally different to ours, ever understand us when they have no experience of how we perceive the world. Our own variations of language are translatable because, by and large, they are languages created by members of the species that share the same frame of reference. But with regard to non-humans, as Wittgenstein said, “if a lion could talk, we wouldn’t understand what it had to say”. That is, if a cat really could possess the ability to speak a language, it would have a relation to the world that would challenge our own, without there being any guarantee of translatability. It’s futile trying to guess what Tom or Georgie or Bernie might be thinking; and if we did find out we might well be disappointed in what is revealed.
Perhaps our affection for our cats lies chiefly in the tactile dimension of our relationship. There are few animals, and fewer domesticated animals, that provide us with such sensory pleasure from stroking their fur and feeling the deep resonance of their purrs of satisfaction. As the existential philosopher, David Wood describes it, “a human lover would be hard put to improve on a normal cat’s response to being stroked. Unself-conscious self-abandonment, unmistakable sounds of appreciation, eyes closing in rapture, exposure of soft underbelly. Did the human hand ever find a higher calling”?
They lick us; they press their cold noses up to our lips when we sleep; they rub against our legs and curl up under our arms; they cuddle us under the covers; their pump our flesh and we forgive them the sharp sting of their needle-like talons. Even when aroused and through their excitement they innocently bite and plunge their claws into our skin, we don’t deny them and accept that they know not what they do. But then they give the game away. It’s all on their terms and never about ‘us’ but only about them. Is that what keeps us coming back: the longing for such deep emotional and sensual togetherness that always just eludes us. Are we the unrecognised victims of the cat’s own take on an abusive and controlling relationship?
Cats, through every relationship with every different and unique character we meet, are all at once our intimate ‘lovers’, our companions, our comforters, whilst being strangers in our midst, ungrateful ‘takers’, never quite accepting their vulnerability and giving into our desire for them to choose to stay because they need us.
Georgie has been with us for twelve years. She soon migrated from her aloof position at the far end of the sofa to seeking out my lap wherever I sit or my chest wherever I lay. And yet. And yet, she oozes that air of independence, even in her dotage, that says to us that she stays because it suits her and if she felt there was somewhere else of greater interest then she’d make her choice. Do we love her any less for it. Ironically, we love her more.
So, as I ponder the mind of a cat, I can’t help but reflect on my own existence. As much as I wonder what it is like to be Tom, Bernie, Georgie, Jangles, or Tibbs, I wonder about what they have made me and who I have become. To whom does my stroking hand belong? What is it like to be me? And who, my beloved feline friends do you think I am?
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