Out Divine Corners Way
by Jonathan Shimkin
When my neighbor’s away, I take care of his cats. One is colored like an arctic landscape – white with black patches. The other, silvery grey, wheezes like an asthmatic. Our relationship was established on strictly utilitarian grounds: when I show up, they get food. Wheezer and Tundra (not their real names) would greet me at their bowls, attuned only to the sound of the food tin being opened. Over time, as they took my measure and deemed it trustworthy, we’d get playful; as I took theirs, I felt a familiar sense of kinship reasserting itself, that old, uncanny mammalian bond.
My first cat, half a lifetime ago, was a litter-runt, discovered abandoned beneath a garden hedge. We took the little fellow in – he fit in one cupped hand – and fed him from an eye-dropper till he could manage his own bowl. We called him Nebbish. Once you get to naming them, the bonding process takes on some of the emotional color of family relationships. Nebbish would clamber up the leg of my pants and perch on my shoulder, as if eager to adopt my vantage, just as I would eagerly adopt his, at ground level, when we tussled or batted objects back and forth. He spent the winter indoors and, one early spring morn, I was awakened by my girlfriend in tears with the news: Nebbish had ventured outside and, crossing a road, likely for the first time, been hit by a car. I buried him in our backyard and mourned like a keening widower. I don’t know that I ever got over it.
Mourning for animals isn’t simply a sentimental displacement of mourning for humans (though it can be that), but a natural consequence of the creaturely comity that links our lives. As we’re destined to outlive our pets (unless we’re into tortoises), we receive such grief tutorials again and again. As per Yeats: “Man is in love and loves what vanishes, / What more is there to say?” Cats teach us, among other things, about vanishing.
John Gray, a cat person serious enough to have authored a treatise on “Feline Philosophy,” wrote: “Cat-lovers do not love cats because they recognize themselves in them. They love cats because cats are so different from them.” But this seems a half-truth at best. If people valued difference so highly, they’d content themselves with Pet Rocks. We name our cats in a gesture of kinship, yet their names echo, when we call, across the gulf of speciation. I think it’s the play of difference and similitude – all the ways we’re akin mixing with all the ways we’re not – that makes the relationship so compelling, so personal. Wheezer and Tundra combine behaviors that are idiosyncratic enough to seem individual and generic enough to be species-wide. The same could likely be said about me.
Cats are type-cast as aloof creatures, self-sufficient and indifferent, but when I tend my neighbor’s cats, I provide not only food, but needed contact and attention. They gaze at me and I gaze back, in extended moments that I find both comforting and unsettling. Without that contact, my neighbor, when he returns, finds their state to be noticeably more agitated. The creaturely relationship extends our sympathies.
Cats provide not only companionship, but proximity to something beyond domestication, something essential to the well-being of the human psyche. They’re like portable tracts of wilderness, and we require the moderating influence of things that escape our comprehension in order to retain humility about the things that don’t. “Living with animals,” Gretel Ehrlich said, “makes us redefine our ideas about intelligence.” Maybe it’s that slight yet pivotal relinquishment of our own centrality in the scheme of things that compels our turn towards animals. They check our human grandiosity, providing a salutary reminder that we share the planet with others and remain in interdependent thrall to the whole of it.
Even Descartes, who denied that animals had souls and likened them to machines, had a pet dog. His name was Monsieur Grat.
Jonathan Shimkin, writer and editor, may be contacted at email@example.com, or via his website: jonathanshimkin.weebly.com