The reviewer would like to confront, at the start of her first review, the occasionally embarrassing fact that at some point in the recent past she was considering – never mind with what degree of seriousness – a dissertation on eighteenth-century cats and their literary and cultural significance. Having been told by the advisor seemingly most inclined to support such a project (this advisor being an animal fancier herself: her dog, on occasion, had been permitted to attend office hours and sometimes lectures), that “That way madness lies,” this reviewer abandoned her cat dissertation. The advisor’s statement may have been a jest – serious and interesting scholarly work, as the advisor knew, had been done on animals in literature and culture. The suspicion, however, arose in the reviewer’s mind (perhaps accompanied by a phantom waft of cat-box and spinsterhood) that whether you collect literal or literary felines, you are in some sense embarking down the path to the marginal and strange land of cat-lady-hood, and so she retreated by laying the project aside. And yet literary cats – in footnotes, illustrations, casual mentions in books long forgotten – continue to entrance her. They are, as Tristram Shandy would have said, her hobby-horse (or cat).
This is not to say that I (formerly known as “the reviewer”) renounce the legitimacy of the eighteenth-century cats dissertation: By no means. Late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England was the birthplace of the fashionable lap-dog and the sentimentalization of animals generally. Who could forget the perpetual throng of spaniels at the feet of Charles II? Pepys complains in his diary of his wife’s dog pissing on the floor and recounts with horrified amazement his first encounter with cock-fighting; Hogarth’s best-known self-portrait includes his dog Trump, and his “First Stage of Cruelty” depicts boys and men doing hideous things to dogs and cats. The “Second Stage of Cruelty” depicts work-animals driven to death and a warning verse beneath:
The tender Lamb o’re drove and faint,
Amidst expiring Throws;
Bleats forth it’s innocent complaint
And dies beneath the Blows.
The final stanza pronounces the perpetrators of these cruelties “inhuman” and so suggests – long before there was anything like an animal rights movement – that there is a moral aspect to our relations with animals, integral to our humanity. Robinson Crusoe, once settled in isolation on his island refers to his dog, cat, goat and parrot as his “family.” A recent show at the Huntington Library, entitled “Sensation and Sensibility,” displayed several rustic scenes of cottage life by eighteenth-century artists, chiefly Gainsborough, in which animals seemed to be family members. One particularly sentimental inclusion depicted the sale of a poor cottage family’s lamb: the buyer leads the lamb away as the family’s many children cry or press their faces into their mother’s skirts. Francis Coventry’s 1751 book entitled, The History of Pompey the Little: Or, The Life and Adventures of a Lap-Dog, gave voice to a living fashion accessory that is still with us. Eighteenth-century animals were memorialized in images, allowed to speak in memoirs, integral members of families, and extensions of human identity that still function today (as testified by the tiny dogs of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, as well as Queen Elizabeth II’s troop of corgis).
And this is just the beginning: The prominent historian Robert Darnton’s book The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History describes a massacre of cats in Paris in the late 1730s by several disgruntled apprentices as a symbolic revenge on their bourgeois master and mistress, who coddled and pampered their feline pets while treating their human apprentices “like animals.” So cats become a means of expressing class tensions as well. And Darnton’s essay goes on to offer a survey of the symbolic and ritual values assigned to cats in pre-modern and quasi-modern Europe, particularly France. Cats were associated (as they still are – if only in the linguistic sediment of the slang word ‘pussy’) with female sexuality, for example. From the 15th century the stroking of cats was supposed to increase a man’s success with women, as manifested in such proverbs as “He who takes good care of cats will have a pretty wife.” Darnton also details associations between cats and the occult: Caterwauling was considered an indicator of the casting of spells, or, if under a specific man’s window, a sign of his wife’s infidelity, his own cuckolding; and a cat on the bed of a dying person might be Satan waiting to carry his soul to hell. Stranger still are the magical folk-remedies and beliefs Darton inventories: a cat buried alive in field could clear it of weeds; blood from a cat’s ear mixed with red wine could cure pneumonia; the brain of a freshly killed cat, if still hot, could make one invisible.
My favorite eighteenth-century cat (the cat who started it all), however, is not of the Satanic variety. Christopher Smart’s Jeoffry, whom Smart immortalized in his strange and difficult poem (written sometime in the late 1750s or early 1760’s) “Jubilate Agno” or “Rejoice The Lamb,” was a divine cat. “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry,” Smart begins, “For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.” Smart’s description of Jeoffry’s particular habits has a striking intimacy of detail, and these mundane details of feline existence become emanations of divine order and a recognition of Jeoffry as an instrument of divinity:
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For If he meets another cat her will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn gentleness upon.
The profound strangeness of this poem in the context of the rigorously metered rhyming couplets that form the bulk of eighteenth-century poetry is, I hope, hardly less than its trans-historical strangeness. Even now, in the days of feline and canine clothes, braces, birthday parties, and marriages, Smart’s contemplation of the mundanely named Jeoffry as a being embodying, manifesting, and teaching the ways of God to men is still, I think, equally strange, arresting, and moving.
Much of the rest of “Jubilate Agno” is an odd mystical taxonomy that pairs people, (both biblical and historical persons as well as Smart’s contemporaries) with specific animals and plants: “Let Mephibosheth with the Cricket praise the God of chearfulness, hospitality, and gratitude…Let Micah rejoice with the spotted Spider, who counterfeits death to effect his purposes…Let Anna rejoice with the Porpus, who is a joyus fish and of good omen…Let Ross, house of Ross rejoice with the Great Flabber Dabber Flat Clapping Fish with hands…Let Balsam, house of Balsam rejoice with Chenomycon an herb the sight of which terrifies a goose.” The explanations for these pairings are cryptic, brief, and/or nonexistent (you can understand why the poem was initially thought to be the product of a stint in Bedlam), but the purpose seems to be to assign to specific people a beast or a mineral or botanical variety expressive of some essential quality of their beings – that one man’s soul is expressive of blue daisie, juniper, jasper or onyx, while another’s is of the hawk, Pegasus, porcupine, or crocodile.
Of course Smart was not the first or the last to imagine a correspondence between the variety of human natures and the rest of the natural world. The ancient Roman Aelian’s (AD 170-230) multivolume On The Characteristics of Animals is not so explicit as Smart’s poem in drawing correspondences between the souls of humans and the natures of animals, but the language of Aelian’s descriptions blurs the distinction between human and animal, making his animal subjects seem human in their motivations and behaviors:
The Owl is a wily creature and resembles a witch. And when captured, it begins by capturing its hunters. And so they carry it about like a pet or (I declare) like a charm on their shoulders. By night it keeps watch for them and with its call that sounds like some incantation it diffuses a subtle, soothing enchantment, thereby attracting birds to settle near it. And even in the daytime it dangles before the birds another kind of lure to make fools of them, putting on a different expression at different times; and all the birds are spell-bound and remain stupefied and seized with terror, and a mighty terror too, at these transformations. (47)
A more literal fictional imagining of this notion is found in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), which presents human souls externalized and personified as animal “daemons.” These creature-spirits can speak, and in their species are expressive of the particular nature of the human to whom they are attached. There are other examples of this species fusion and confusion – the Chinese animal calendar, Native American religions, the metamorphoses of Greek and Roman mythology, the animaguses of Harry Potter, for starters: But what does it all mean – if anything – and how does it relate to cat dissertations?
A facile assessment of the desire to find correspondences between human souls and animal species might end in something similar to an exclamation I heard in a lecture on “The Grand Armada” chapter of Moby-Dick. This chapter describes the birthing and nursing of baby sperm whales in a calm, sheltered underwater room created by the rest of the pod with their bodies. Ishmael tenderly compares the expressions and motions of the whale calves to newborn human babies and such descriptions inspired a professor I once knew to exclaim excitedly, “Whales are people too!” Everyone laughed. But he did mean it, in a way. Suddenly, there is a break from the contemplation of whale as prey, enemy, alien “other,” and instead, a contemplation of these creatures in acts and attitudes of such mutual care and tenderness that the only way they can be described, even by their hunter, is “as human infants.” The willingness to confuse human and animal categories might imply a willingness to take a more expansive view of “humanity” or “personhood” that might include non-humans. This view would contend that animals are capable of seemingly human responses (tenderness, affection, care, curiosity, urgency, terror, etc.) that force us, as they forced Ishmael, to see ourselves in them and so – to some extend and however briefly – to respond to them and their behaviors as human – to treat them or imagine them as one of our own.
But if animals, to whatever degree, gain humanity, humans gain something of the creaturely as well. The notion of particular animal species as expressive of human souls suggests that we are not all the same kind of human, and that no single theory of human nature quite gets the whole story: Fox-souled people are like this, cat-souled people, like that, giraffe- and marmot-souled people, other things entirely. Smart, Pullman, and Aelian recognize the totemic power of animals in slightly different ways, but all see in them sacred and mystical types that can help to illuminate aspects of the human – our varieties, vagaries, and eccentricities. In the case of Jeoffry, animals also offer models of holiness: Jeoffry’s sacred “compleat”-ness as Smart describes it – his exuberant, joyful catness – seems a portrait of being-wholeness one could never attempt with a human as the object of contemplation. Jeoffry is a cat in a way that I, or you, or anyone else will never be human – and perhaps this is because we are capable of such variety that we need the whole rest of the animal, vegetable, and mineral world to help us signify the essences of our beings. And we are also too self-conscious, self-fashioning, proud and fond of progress to simply to be human and do human-ish things they way Jeoffry does cat-ish things (bathing himself, hunting mice, stretching, napping in the sun) – What would those things be, anyway – what activities are particularly expressive of the human (Playing video games? Farming? Starting wars? Knitting? Writing blog articles? Bobsledding? Vacuuming?)?
In the end, perhaps I should have stayed among the cats (and the canines, and the monkeys, and the pigs… there are so many more! Gulliver’s Houhynyms, E.T.A Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr, Pierre-Jules Hetzel’s Scenes from the Public and Private Life of Animals…). Perhaps it is a better place – or perhaps, more simply, I am philosophically a misanthrope, of the school of John Wilmot, Lord Rochester (1647-1680). The best-known portrait of Rochester (Johnny Depp’s The Libertine excepted) depicts him standing beside a monkey perched on a marble pedestal; the monkey is tearing pages from a book while Rochester crown him with a laurel wreath. I leave you in the earl’s dangerously capable hands, with the first stanza of his “Satire Against Reason and Mankind”:
Were I – who to my cost already am
One of those strange, prodigious creatures, man –
A spirit free to choose for my own share
What sort of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,
I’d be a dog, a monkey, or a bear,
Or anything but that vain animal,
Who is so proud of being rational.