by Teresita Pumará
I tell him that I’m hurting too, ever since I started talking.
Joann Sfar, The Rabbi’s Cat
Some time ago I invited to my house a friend who loves cats. Let’s call this friend F. and let’s refer to F. as “he” because, as my German teacher says, “masculine always stronger is”. F. does not have a cat in the moment, although he did as a child. So, when F. got home, he was happy and excited to meet my cat. Let’s call my cat Mishkin, because that is the name we gave him. F.’s anxiety was so intense, that he was all over Mishkin. He caressed him roughly, he poked him to force him to play with his hand, he chased him around the house and he did not coward when Mishkin showed him his ferocious teeth -Mishkin is a big cat who used to hunt weasels. I must say that Mishkin behaved like a civilized gentleman. He put up with F. with patience and despise. He is the hero in this story. I am the coward. I was always polite to F. and tried unsuccessfully to moderate his anxiety with warnings and fake concern about his safety. I felt pulled between my love and distress for my cat and my wish not to make my guest feel uncomfortable. When F. finally went home, I felt ashamed and sad. I had wronged Mishkin and failed his trust.
I am probably exaggerating. I am a cat person. But feeling pulled between human customs and the wellbeing of a cat left me wondering. Why did F. felt he could disturb Mishkin without minding his own disposition to play or to be caressed? F. obviously felt the cat was at his disposal. Some men feel that way about women. Although F. loves cats, he did not think a cat’s wishes and humour should be respected, and he ignored the signs of annoyance Mishkin repeatedly sent him.
I, on the contrary, have an almost religious respect for cats. I feel honoured when a cat likes me and seeks my hand to be petted. In fact, we do not say Mishkin is our pet, but that we are his humans. I must say, nevertheless, this pagan feeling of mine does not extend to all living things. I like plugging green leaves off trees and break them into a million pieces. I enjoy watching spiders eat their preys. I hate pigeons. Plants always die in my hands. But after sharing five years with a cat I slowly came to understand non-human beings live in a world of their own, a world radically different from ours but superposed to ours.
In the afternoons, I often take Mishkin out to the building’s courtyard so that he takes some fresh air and watches birds flying over his head. I take a book with me, but it is always more fun to watch Mishkin lift his head and sniff as if the wind brought some far away message, and then lie down majestically in his Tischbein’s Goethe position, “All is well in my kingdom”. No matter how used I am to the cat and his ways, I always go through the childlike philosophical experience of wonder. Mishkin presents me the mysterious in the familiar. Nature has a life of its own, he shows me, a way unknown to us, the all-knowers. We are not indispensable to nature.
When I was in the university I assisted to a couple of meetings of a reading group dedicated to French post-war gloomy philosophers. In one of the meetings I went to we discussed a Blanchot text where Blanchot claimed that a human being (most probably a Dasein) could only approach death and experience his finitude when faced with the death of the Other, the death of the fellow… Dasein. I remember everyone talking about the Otherness and the great Abyss and I feeling intimidated and never finding anything clever to say, because I was not sure what where we actually talking about. I also recall I was left thinking about the deaths I had faced and how they left me dumb, as if I was suddenly turned into stone or other inanimate material. The death of the other did not make me feel more human, if anything it made me feel less human and revealed me how much earth, fire, water and air we are. Maybe when faced to death we become aware of the thread we walk on. But only when spying life can we perceive its fragility and power, its self-sufficient virtuality.
In Ursula Le Guin’s Tales of Earthsea magicians exert their power by using the ancient language, which holds the true names of entities. Dragons, ancient, highly intelligent creatures, speak this language, and so by using the true speech magicians can communicate with them. Le Guin’s dragons usually have towards humans the attitude of a Nietzschean god: cruel and condescending, but generous. Something like Mishkin with F., Dragons in Le Guin’s book evoke for me ancient wisdom belonging to non-human beings. They are the perfect stoics. Some twentieth century philosophies taught us that through the awareness of death we become human, and that is what separates us from animals, not reason. I still believe that to be true. But I do not believe in the hierarchy it presupposes. This s because, when I gaze at my cat I feel he learned the lesson, embraced it and jumped to the other side while I stand petrified by death with my eyes fixed in the deepness of the abyss. An abyss I fill with words.