Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

‘The anti-pet of bourgeois life’: why the world needs big cat energy

‘The anti-pet of bourgeois life’: why the world needs big cat energy

In the 60 years since Julie Andrews sang about the cheering possibilities of whiskers on kittens, the fetishisation of the feline form has only grown stronger. Earlier this year, Somerset House even opened a Hello Kitty cafe as part of its Cute exhibition. By way of balance there is, of course, a jokey online culture about the unspeakable evilness of cats. These are the ones who deliberately sabotage your printer, or post video diaries commenting on the futility of your dating life. But beyond this binary, there is a more nuanced narrative of the cat as a figure that makes a virtue out of complexity and ambivalence. So perhaps we would do better to think of the cat as dissident, oblique, even radical.

Rudyard Kipling caught this attitude best in his Just So Stories of 1902, a series of whimsical origin myths. In The Cat That Walked By Himself, Kipling tells how Wild Dog was the first animal to venture into the cave of stone age humans, attracted by the smell of roast mutton. The dog becomes a couple’s “First Friend”, a devoted and useful hunting companion and security guard who is happy to submit to the collar of domestic servitude. Wild Cow and Wild Horse soon follow suit, eager to labour in return for plenty of hay. Finally comes Wild Cat, who stalks up to the entrance of the dwelling and proceeds to lay down his terms. “I am not a friend, and I am not a servant. I am the Cat who walks by himself, and I wish to come into your cave.”

Over time the cat warms up sufficiently to develop a transactional relationship with the humans: in return for milk, he will keep the cave free of rodents and occasionally play with the baby. The bond, though, remains contingent and fragile. Kipling ends by telling us that “when the moon gets up and night comes”, the cat goes out to roam the woods or the roofs, “walking by his wild lone”. Whether he will return is anyone’s guess. Behind the whimsy, Kipling was responding to the new understanding of deep time that the publication of On the Origin of Species had revealed in 1859. According to Charles Darwin, rough-and-ready selective breeding over millennia had done wonders to turn generic animal stock into specialist proto-breeds – soft-mouthed dogs to retrieve game and sausage-shaped ones to go down holes, broad shouldered horses to plough the fields and elegant hunters to carry a gentleman over hill and dale. Cats, by contrast, had stubbornly resisted attempts to be bred into usefulness (otherwise today we would have cats the size of Labradors or the shape of Dachshunds sauntering along the street).

In terms of genetic engineering, Darwin regarded the cat as a lost cause: “Although so much valued by women and children, we rarely see a distinct breed long kept up.” He hinted, too, at the reason. The fact was that the cat’s riotous sex life marked it out as an incorrigible disruptor of bourgeois norms. A female cat will scream from the rooftops to let the neighbourhood know that she is in season and keen to hook up with as many toms as possible. When the kittens arrive just over two months later, they will have different fathers, which explains why littermates are often strikingly different colours. The cat, explained the French naturalist Alphonse Toussenel, is “essentially antipathetic to marriage”.

To the Victorians such spectacular promiscuity was deeply contrary to the idea of good moral order. Fertility rates in industrialised countries were falling. Where once a couple may have had up to 10 children, now they had four. Without neutering, a pair of cats, by contrast, in theory, could give rise to more than 2 million kittens within eight years. Here was a Malthusian nightmare in which an unregulated underclass constantly threatened to outbreed a shrinking bourgeoisie.

In the face of such a catastrophe it seemed imperative to embark on a cull. In the mid 1880s welfare groups lobbied the government to introduce licences for cats as a way of making a distinction between those animals that were “owned”, and the vast majority that could be exterminated as mere pests. But the proposal proved unworkable, principally due to the cat’s “right to roam”, which exists to this day (while you can be prosecuted for the harm your dog does to life and limb, you are not responsible for your kitten’s mischief). This penchant for cats to go about their own business is something that the Belgians failed to consider when they tried to recruit them to deliver the mail in the late 1800s. Even today, it would be hard to imagine a cat consenting to the role of service animal, helpfully guiding a visually impaired person across the street or alerting bomb disposal officers to an IED.

Pussy Riot has mounted a series of protests against Putin.View image in fullscreen

This refusal to follow orders explains why in 1909 the Industrial Workers of the World, a global trade union, chose to incorporate a cat into their logo, as a warning that they refused to be pushed around. The threat of wildcat strikes constituted a powerful threat when collective bargaining failed. A contemporary equivalent might be Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist art collective that has mounted a series of protests against Putin, highlighting his links to the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church and the suppression of LGBT rights.

It was the American historian Kathleen Kete who declared the cat to be “the anti-pet of nineteenth-century bourgeois life”. She was referring to the way that avant-garde artists and writers adopted (and adapted) the cat as a symbol of their own resistance to inherited cultural narratives. The most spectacular example is Edouard Manet’s 1863 reworking of Titian’s hallowed Venus of Urbino (1534). In his scandalous Olympia, Manet transforms the central female nude from goddess to prostitute and replaces the devoted lapdog of Titian’s original with a perfidious cat.

Edouard Manet’s Olympia.View image in fullscreen

In purely practical terms, too, up-all-night intellectuals valued the cat for the way it fitted seamlessly into their syncopated lifestyles, so different from the steady beat of bourgeois domesticity. Instead of the dog’s demand for walks and regular meals, the cat was content to remain quietly in the background “as if afraid of being distracting or being annoying”, recalled the French poet Theophile Gautier. Once the day’s creative work was done, French novelist Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly noted that his cat – whose name, Démonette, translates as “Girl-demon” – was happy to sit on top of his growing manuscript, as if helping to hatch a masterpiece. A dog, by contrast, would have chewed it up to get attention.

When the cat did venture out, it was on its own terms. The poet Baudelaire invented the term flâneur to explain a new kind of figure to be spotted on Paris’s Boulevard Haussmann. Here was the “passionate spectator who would move amongst the crowd”, happy “to be at the centre of the world and yet remain hidden among the ebb and flow of movement, a prince who rejoiced incognito”. It would be hard to think of a better description of a cat, an animal that Baudelaire knew intimately. In his scandalous volume of poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), he includes a poem in which he compares his passion for his icy mistress with that for his equally indifferent cat – “[My woman’s] gaze / like your own, amiable beast, / Profound and cold, cuts and cleaves like a dart”. On the other side of the Channel this penchant for anonymous streetwalking was more often associated with men looking for other men. Among the names deployed in Britain for all those enigmatic uncles and brothers who lived at a discrete slant from the bourgeois family was “pussy bachelor”.

And then there were the cliches about single women and cats. Building on the medieval association of witches and their feline familiars, by Victorian times spinsterhood was assumed to automatically involve a cat or two. At a time when statistics showed that females outnumbered males by over a million, the issue of the “surplus woman” was urgently debated in the newspapers and parliament. It wasn’t just a matter of finding jobs for these unfortunate husbandless women. Where was all that female nurturing energy to go? The easy, jeering conclusion was that it was to be lavished on cats. Cats were a woman’s pet – cheaper to keep than a dog and with that same obsession with grooming and looking one’s best. The image of the “cat lady” – single, thwarted, pouring excess emotion into a creature that remained forever the size of a newborn baby – was now retoxified.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992).View image in fullscreen

These associations of the cat with social and sexual dissonance continued as the 20th century unfolded. In 1940, DC Comics introduced Catwoman – originally known as simply The Cat – as Batman’s newest foe. She has since been played on the big screen by Michelle Pfeiffer, Halle Berry and Anne Hathaway. Meanwhile, the late Karl Lagerfeld publicly doted on his white Birman Choupette, who was rumoured to have two maids, a driver and a social media manager. Choupette’s lack of obvious gratitude serves to recall Baudelaire’s lament about the painful asymmetry involved in loving a cat-mistress who will not love you back.

Still, no one got the point about the cat’s refusal to be likable better than Freddie Mercury. Famously devoted to his cats, which were mostly rescue moggies, the musician dedicated his 1985 solo album Mr Bad Guy to “my cat Jerry – also Tom, Oscar and Tiffany”. From here the dedication expands to include “all the cat lovers across the universe”, finishing with a payoff that can only be described as quintessentially feline: “screw everybody else”.

Source: theguardian.com