I have a cat. The phrase “I have a cat” shows the utter paucity of the current idiom in expressing the nature of relationships between the human and the non-human. What do I own, in this cat? His comings and goings I have asserted some say over, through the perplexing technology of doors and windows. His food and water I pay for and distribute. This is the summation of my proprietary claim. His passions and internal life are his own – as are mine. His motivations and desires are intensely private, I have no notion of them. He is, in every sense, his own cat. In what sense is he “my cat”?
Perhaps it is better, than saying I have a cat, to say that I am in relation with this cat. Our lives are intertwined, in this house, in this world. I own his food, which is to say, my food is his. I own this house he lives in, which is to say, my house is his house. He is my guest, and as such, we are bound by a complex ritual of gifts and respect. Pharaoh is the name of my cat.
Even his name-which he does not respond to reliably, as if to say, “is it my name? How curious.”-is not mine, or not exactly. This cat came into my life by way of a neighbor named Jane. Jane’s lot in life was a tragic one, and I do not feel comfortable telling her story for her, but suffice it to say our paths diverged when she was evicted from the building next to mine. But before that, most spring evenings, Jane would come to her porch and scream for this cat to come inside. She would bellow . . . something.
When Jane was evicted, and the cat was abandoned and then adopted by me and Atenea, my wife, it turns out that we couldn’t agree on what it was that Jane would shout every night. I had heard “Nero,” Atenea, “Pharaoh.” We agreed, either way, it boded ill to name a cat after a tyrant. We settled on updating his full name to “Pharaoh-Let-My-People-Go the cat” and called it a day.
There is a long tradition of writing about cats, and I’m afraid the majority of it is rather twee. There is a tendency toward tongue-in-cheek descriptions of them, or worse, writing from their perspective. “My human” makes a jocular appearance. The phrase “feline grace” tends to be abused. I struggle to understand why this should be so. Obviously, one of our main reactions to cats falls under the heading of cuteness. We are filled with the warm feelings of protectiveness and joy that fill us when we look at a baby. We want to cuddle them. I’m not denying that warmth of feeling, but I still think that reducing the relationship between humanity and their domesticated companions to cuteness is missing something.
There is some writing about cats that I enjoy. The Old Irish poet of Pangur Bán seems to me to have struck a lovely note of equanimity with his cat. Together they stalk through the night, him with his books, the cat with its prey. This, to me, gets much closer to the heart of the joy of living amongst animals, high above the simple adorableness of any given creature. We see ourselves in alien forms. Watching Pharaoh, I am lithe and listless, or I am curled and at peace, or joyfully leaping from perch to perch. He is my soul in miniature, seeking warmth and curiously exploring.