“Loving is a habit and takes practice, like any other,” Martha Gellhorn said when she rescued a small cat on a West Indian island. She bought it a little basket and carried it with her as she hopped about by boat in the Atlantic during WWII. Before flying back to the States, she realized the absurdity of what she had done and gave the cat to an Air Force base while realizing it had been much happier in its original forest home.
A judge recently decided that a dog was a sentient being, not a lesser creature, which is a fine thing to recognize, and high time too. But still that dog is subjugated to the whims of its owner. What and when to eat, where to sleep, even the elimination of its body waste is on somebody else’s schedule--and then there’s the true crusher. Dogs and other animals aren’t admitted to into heaven. Even Buddhism allows that to happen only after a human incarnation, although dogs, far more than many people, exemplify the Buddha nature like nobody’s business.
Cats of course go way beyond sentience into omniscience and divinity, a state that no doubt existed long before humans could record their speech in writing. Among modern deities, Shiva is the one they are most closely related to, but cats would rather destroy worlds that others have created than to take that energy to create one themselves. That is what humans are for, and lurking in the dispassionate gaze of any cat is the sad truth that we are doing a piss-poor job in that ongoing act of creation. Still we are the best that they’ve got for the task and they continue with their silent directions which we ineptly follow.
People who dislike cats are the ones who are most closely attuned to the power that felines wield, although they fail to articulate that vague knowledge. “Dogs love their owners; cats tolerate them,” is usually as close as they get to voicing their unexamined knowledge that cats rule the universe. And what’s more, cats are certainly not going to let us into whatever heaven they may have constructed.
Like Martha Gellhorn, my life feels incomplete unless it includes a cat for me to love. Still I have never really believed that my love is reciprocated in the same way that I bestow it upon any of the felines that have shared my bed and board. When I do their bidding, they emit approval that at times I can almost convince myself is affection. Even the small black feral kitten that I adopted in Bangkok never gave me the same regard that he had for his counterpart, another small black kitten who found him and became his partner in crime. I was always the warm lap, the pair of opposable thumbs, the imperfect instrument who made sure that he had what he wanted.
In The Summer Book, Tove Jansson just about sums it up when she describes the hopeless passion that a little girl feels for an impervious tomcat. For a long time I thought this was the perfect depiction of the flawed nature of human love, but now I know I was wrong. It’s a recognition of the despair that we feel when we realize that our divinities are impervious to human demands and desires, especially the feline variety.