Dr Rachel Fraser

Creaturely Purpose

A review of Jeoffrey, The Poet’s Cat: A Biography by Oliver Sodden (The History Press, 2020) and Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life by John Gray (Allen Lane, 2020)

In 1755, the poet Christopher Smart was short of funds. Desperate for money, he signed a contract that required him to produce a weekly paper. Under the strain of constant writing, Smart became obsessed with the ideal of constant prayer. He began to pray in public, and to interrupt his friends, insisting that they do the same. This was taken as a sign of madness —‘by falling upon his knees and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place’, remarked his friend Samuel Johnson, ‘poor [...] Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind’. Two years after signing the contract, Smart was confined to an asylum. Whilst confined, he wrote the long and peculiar poem ‘Jubilate Agno’, a poem both concerned with prayer and itself intensely prayerful.
            The poem opens full of animals: the ram, the camel, the silk-worm, the elk, the adder and the ‘Humble-bee who loves himself in solitude and makes his honey alone’; reading the poem, one feels the eerie, adamite power and pleasure of naming that children’s books (‘Apple’, ‘Ball’, ‘Cat’) channel so intently. Later in the poem, we get herbiary as well as bestiary; the names of plants — moon-trefoil, cow-wheat, tower-mustard and stickadore — are made to feel like lovely incantations. What gives the poem its gorgeous, animate magic, though, is that Smart’s flora and fauna are not merely symbols of human devotion or, signs in a divine language awaiting a codex; they are worshippers in their own right. This expansiveness is clearest in the poem’s most famous section, in which Smart writes about his cat, Jeoffrey, with whom he lived alongside in the asylum, and whom Smart sees as satisfying the ideal of constant prayer that proved so fateful for Smart himself:

For I will consider my cat Jeoffrey
For he is the servant of the living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.

It is this cat, Jeoffrey, who acts as the (ostensible) subject of Soden’s book. Other than in being about, well,  a cat, Soden’s biography follows a conventional template. It begins with Jeoffrey’s birth and early life in a Covent Garden ‘bordello’, describes various picture-book adventures – Jeoffrey meets the King, Samuel Johnson, and Samuel Johnson’s cat – and ends with the aged Jeoffrey’s retreat to the countryside and death.

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve (1504) 

It’s a vexed project, to write the biography of an animal. What, after all, is the point of a biography? A biography must be more than just a list of deeds, encounters, and adventures; it must include these, yes, but only because their accumulation forms a kind of outline, through whose shape the subject himself — his character — may be glimpsed or inferred. To write an animalbiography, then, is to take up the question of animal minds, and the extent to which we can limn their outlines.
            ‘Not to much extent at all’, goes one response. In a famous essay, Thomas Nagel remarks, that in trying to imagine what it is like to be a bat:

It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one's arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one's mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one's feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.

Nagel is often read as making a relatively crude claim about the limits of the human imagination: bats (for example) perceive using echolocation, to imaginatively grasp what it is like to be a bat, we would need to grasp what it is like to rely on echolocation; but this we cannot do. J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, for example, reads Nagel as making something like this argument, and rebukes him for it: ‘I can think my way into the existence of a bat, or a chimpanzee, or an oyster, or any being with whom I share the substrate of life’. At times, Soden seems interested in helping us to make like Costello, to ‘think our way in’ to Jeoffrey’s existence:

He [Jeoffrey] saw the world in a two-hundred degree vista of moving lights and darks, a tingling monochrome of darkness and motion, interrupted by spurts of blue and green. Reds were foreign to him, but so was complete darkness, and at night he prowled round the yard and along the wall [...] tracking the symphony of scent that spun itself across the paving stones, as clear to him as a web of coloured lines […]

But the imaginative procedure this invites is somewhat algorithmic and mechanical: olfaction is modelled on audition and vision in turn; we are left with little sense of the cat’s otherness (‘tingling monochrome’ is a little better). And even these unambitious attempts at feline phenomenology are few and scattered; for the most part, Jeoffrey’s sensibility and episteme are presented as quite human, or understood by way of subtraction from the human: Jeoffrey watches people that he does not know to be theatregoers, he sees Chinese lanterns but does not know that they are props for a play. Soden acknowledges a debt to Virginia Woolf, whose own attempt at animal biography, Flush (1933), a life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, is often read as social commentary, but Woolf is at least as interested in thinking her way into the existence of a dog as she is in the Brownings; Soden, it seems, is rather more interested in eighteenth-century London than in how such a London might have appeared to a cat.
            Soden’s attempt to capture the life of an animal in something like a narrative form — albeit a rather  disjointed picaresque — stands in sharp contrast with the poem that inspires him. In Smart’s poetry, Jeoffrey has no ‘life-story’, however minimal; his experience has no beginning, middle, and end, but only a daily rhythm. Perhaps this contrast is meant to serve as clever commentary on the limits of biography. Perhaps Soden, in writing Jeoffrey with largely unabashed anthropomorphism, is inviting us to reflect on the extent to which all glimpses of interior life — whether animal or human — are no or little more than a kind of projective fantasy. And perhaps the notion of an inner life at all — a stable, inner self that unifies the disparate episodes of a life — is nothing more than a cultural myth, one which haunts the project of biography and becomes embodied through that very haunting, as readers craft themselves according to its intimations. Hagiography and annal, after all, the ancestors of biography, are cultural technologies of a different sort: in these more ancient machines, there are no ghosts.

Goya, Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga (1787–88)

Smart’s own life — confined to an asylum on account of his disruptive praying — is all too legible as a fable on just these themes. Ideals of prayer, like ideals of writing, toggle between ideals of extemporaneity and spontaneity — prayer as the free expression of some inner truth — and ritualised prescription, on which inner states are the product, rather than the engine of public, bodily states. But the vision of prayer articulated in ‘Jubilate Agno’ is neither of these. The poem is wholly unconcerned with inner life; it is wholly joyful, yes, but it presents joy not as a feeling packed up in the casket of the mind, but rather simply as one way of being an embodied, active creature. Consider these lines about Jeoffrey:

For first he looks upon his fore-paws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the fore paws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
Where Nagel worries over whether we can know what it is like to be a bat; Smart is not all that concerned to capture the ‘what it’s like’ of being a cat. (I am studiously avoiding the obvious puns.) To even ask the question that Nagel asks — to become enchanted by this shiny philosopher’s widget, the ‘what it’s like’ of phenomenal consciousness — is already to be in grip of a vision of creaturely being — a vision structured by oppositions like ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ — that we might well want to resist.
            The philosopher Arthur Danto offers a clue as to how this resistance might go: 

                Saul became Paul, Tiresias became a Cretan harlot, and settled a famous                                       quarrel between Zeus and Hera; Pope Gregory a porcupine; Gregor  Samsa                                   a cockroach. I can imagine these or similar things happening to me but I cannot                         imagine what it would be like for them to have happened. A writer can make me feel                   just as though I were living through the events [...] he describes. But it is for just that                 reason not at all like living through those events; for one must be radically                                     self-alienated in order to feel just as though one were living through the events one is                 in fact living through: that would be to be separated by a psychic distance from one’s                 own life.

At first glance, Danto might seem to be an ally to Nagel; like Nagel, he seems to be keen on the limits of imagination. But Danto’s point here is subtle and easily missed. Danto is drawing a distinction between the feeling of living through an event and feeling as though one is living through an event. (Recommendation: read that sentence twice.) One way to get a grip on this distinction is to consider how reflecting on a sensuous activity changes its character. Take something simple, like scratching an itch. One can scratch an itch without thinking about it, quite unselfconsciously. But we can also reflect on the activity of scratching an itch. By doing so, we transform the scratching from an activity simplicter into an object of our attention: discrete, bounded and structured. If we do this, we become, at least to some extent, alienated from the activity of our scratching. A writer, Danto might concede, can make you feel just as though you have scratching an itch as your object of attention. But to feel as one feels when one has scratching as an object of attention is quite different to feeling how one feels when simply scratching; this latter, if it can properly called an experience at all, is an experience to which one cannot attend without destroying it.  (Writing this, self-conscious itches are erupting all over my body.) So, when Danto says, ‘I cannot imagine what it would be like for them to have happened’, he is not, like Nagel, making a point about the limits of the imagination, but rather point about the very structure of experience: some ways of being in the world simply cannot be made into objects of attention; we can, at most, glimpse of them in the corner of the mind’s eye.  Applied to the case of cats, Danto’s thought might go like this. To be a cat is not, in the first instance, a matter of having one’s cat-activities as the objects of one’s cat-experience; rather, it is to engage in cat-activity — to look, as Jeoffrey looks, upon one’s fore paws and see that they are clean. And whilst a writer might be able to make me feel as though my cleaning at my forepaws is the object of my attention, they cannot make me feel just as though I am cleaning my forepaws. Nagel’s natty talk of ‘what its like’ not only elides the difference between the two but covertly imposes the very psychic distance that it purports to discover. Notably, it’s a phraseology that Elizabeth Costello resists. ‘I can think my way into the existence of any animal’, she claims; not ‘I can know what it is like to be any animal’. When we ask what it is like to be a bat, we ask about the experience of a creature who has been alienated from and stands at a distance from its creaturely life, a being for whom its batness has become — as our human lives are for us — an ‘ issue’ for it;  all of which is to say, a creature which is not a bat at all.
            If Nagel’s too-neat phrase is a technology of psychic alienation, it is only one of many. Sartre took storytelling to be another. ‘Man, says Sartre’s Rocquentin, ‘‘is always a teller of stories, he lives surrounded by his own stories and those of other people, he sees everything that happens to him in terms of these stories and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it’. For Sartre, this impulse is far from laudable; to live one’s life as though recounting it traps one in a bad-faith fantasy: to live an event is to be inside it, not thinking about it ‘from the outside’, but it is from just such an ‘outside’ that a narrator must consider their subject. Sartre is not, here, making the relatively modest claim — dramatised in literature at least since Cervantes’ don Quixote and most exquisitely by Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary — that a determined misreading of one’s own life as, say, a Romance or Bildungsroman — can blind one to the way things really are, but the far bolder claim that there is an in-principle mismatch between the necessarily-spectating stance of the narrator of, and one who is authentically embedded within, a life. Amongst contemporary philosophers, the most prominent of the narrative-sceptics, Galen Strawson, agrees with Sartre that the narrative impulse should be treated with caution. But Strawson is more optimistic than Sartre insofar as he sees more daylight between homo sapiens and homo narrans. ‘Man is a storytelling creature’, proclaims Roquentin; ‘Er, not me’, comes Strawson’s rejoinder. Strawson distinguishes between two psychological types: those he calls diachronics and those he calls episodics. Diachronics are those whose sense of themselves is as one who is spread out through time, who existed in the past and will survive into the future; episodics, by contrast have no real sense that it was them who sat in a schoolroom, drove down that country road, or knocked over that glass of wine. Strawson claims Iris Murdoch, Michael Montaigne, Stendhal and Hazlitt for the episodic camp to which he himself belongs; the diachronics get Nietzsche, Plato, and Heidegger. (Pick a team.) The episodic Strawson professes a cool bemusement at those confident diachronics who, like Charles Taylor, claim, that it is a ‘basic condition of making sense of ourselves’ that we grasp our lives as ‘an unfolding story’. 

Tippoo's Tiger

            John Gray’s Feline Philosophy belongs — though he is less subtle than Sartre and less stylish than Strawson — in this tradition of narrative-scepticism. For Gray, cats’ indifference to emplotment is one of their many virtues. (Others include their amoralism and their love of sleep.) ‘Not making stories of their lives’, Gray writes, cats cannot ‘think of them as tragic or wish they had never been born’. Being episodics (though that’s not a term Gray uses), cats do not, like humans, spend their time either fixating on or desperately trying to distract themselves from the inevitability of their own death. (On this topic, Gray’s own book is a little too episodic for its own good: ‘only humans know a day will come when they themselves will die’, he says on page 37; on page 92, he intones the contrary: ‘cats know when their life is coming to an end’.) Gray quotes Pascal with approval:

the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly
in his room [...] The only good thing for men...is to be diverted from thinking of [their mortal condition], either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy.

Gray quotes a lot of philosophers in this book, but Pascal is one of the few that he seems to have actually bothered to read; Spinoza and Descartes, by contrast, are confidently mangled. For example, in his exploration of feline amoralism, Gray quotes  from Spinoza’s Ethics:

            Hence it follows that a man who lives according to the dictate of reason endeavours as               far as possible not to be touched with pity. He who rightly knows that all things follow               from the necessity of divine reason will find nothing at all that is worthy of hatred,                       laughter, or contempt, nor will he feel compassion [...] he who is easily touched by the               emotion of pity, and is moved to tears at the misery of another, often does something of             which he afterwards repents; both inasmuch as we can do nothing according to                           emotion which we can certainly know to be good, and inasmuch as we are easily                           deceived by false tears.

Gray glosses Spinoza as arguing that ‘pity is a kind of pain’, evil because ‘pain is evil’, a ‘cause of sorrow which depletes vitality’. Gray makes Spinoza sound like a crude Benthamite. This is quite at odds with the quoted  text, in which  Spinoza articulates something like the proto-Kantian view that pity, unlike reason, is a fallible guide to right action: those who are moved to act by pity do not act from knowledge, they may be led astray.  Elsewhere in his Ethics, Spinoza does defend a kind of egoism, but it is not the shallow hedonic egoism suggested by the claim that ‘pain is evil’. For Spinoza, pain and sadness are not mere sensations, but the passions felt by the mind as it loses the power to sustain its own existence, and so becomes less perfect.
            Poor Descartes’ treatment is even worse. He is repeatedly pilloried for his view that animals are automata; Gray gives no hint that this view might have hidden depths. The Catholic Church made automata a familiar feature of early modern Europe: there were, says Steven Shapin in an essay for the London Review of Books, ‘mechanical Christs on the cross, bowing, shaking and rolling their eyes in agony; the crowing mechanical rooster on top of the great Clock of the Three Kings in Strasbourg Cathedral; [and] angelic automata, carrying saintly souls to their reward’. Protestants, Shapin notes, ‘hated this sort of thing’, insisting that matter was mute and incapable, only capable of animation by spirit; for the Catholic Descartes, by contrast, machines do not need ghosts inside to be alive: pumps and clocks don’t just simulate life but are themselves vital. Where Descartes really goes wrong is not in denying that animals have souls, but in supposing that doubt is a tool we can use to uncover the structure of reality. When we doubt the existence of the external world — this table, the tap in the corner, my crossed legs and the curled toes at the end of them — we retreat, pull-back from our naive and natural attitude. The phenomenologist Edmund Husserl would later call this epoché , or ‘bracketing’.  And ‘bracketing’ is an appealing label: when we bracket a word or phrase, we may shift emphasis or tone, but the words themselves, their core sense, remain unchanged, whether or not we put them in parenthesis.
            Experience, though, is not like this at all. Once I bracket my naive commitment to my leg’s existing, the experience of scratching it becomes quite different to how it was before, for a naive commitment to the existence of my leg was somehow ‘written in’ to the content of the initial feeling.  It turns out that the ‘I’ of Descartes cogito is not a raw constituent of our everyday way of being in the world, which ‘bracketing’ reveals; rather the ‘I’ is a product of the bracketing itself. It is only once we take ourselves up as this ‘I’ that our activities can become objects of this ‘I’’s attention; for before the sceptical retreat there was no subject separate from and directing the activity; we simply were the activity. Descartes did know something like this: ‘I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship’, he wrote. But he never quite managed to reconcile this insight with his method of doubt. Unreflectiveness is not like a dust that gathers on the mind which can be blown or brushed off to reveal the gleaming object below, rather, unreflectiveness is part of the mind. And because the method of doubt produces and manages subjectivity, rather than revealing it, we cannot, as Nagel tries to, simply export its model of subjectivity to animals, who have never been touched by it.

If Gray admires Descartes at all, it’s for his quotability. Descartes is said to have ‘coined the phrase’ I think therefore I am — as if the cogito were a slogan! — and Gray’s own prose aspires to aphorism rather than argument. His would-be epigraphs have a formulaic symmetry: ‘Posing as a cure, philosophy is a symptom of the disease it pretends to remedy’, ‘Reason points to faith, [Pascal] believed, but he knew reason could not keep anyone faithful’, ‘Not needing such darkness within themselves, cats...are nocturnal creatures that live in the light of day’. What’s most puzzling about Gray’s book, though, is not it’s lack of interest in careful reading or thinking — those things, after all, are often hard and somewhat boring — but its near total lack of interest in cats. There are some nice enough anecdotes about human-cat relationships (a kitten rescued from Vietnam, Samuel Johnson buying his black cat oysters) scattered in between Gray’s sub-standard Spark Notes and gloomy musings about Death, but he has very little to say about why cats, in particular, might be worth our theoretical attention. Dogs, snakes, horses and sea-lions don’t make stories of their lives or worry about dying any more than cats do, so why write a book about cats in particular, rather than about animals in general? (The honest answer might be: he already wrote that book, Straw Dogs, twenty years ago.) The closest Gray comes to answering this question is in his discussion of cats’ quality of affection, which comes, he thinks, without attachment or dependence, unlike dogs, who have `acquired [too much] of the human sense of self’.
            My own love of cats has two great springs. In the first place, I love cats for the same reason I love analytic philosophy: both manage, quite improbably, to pair playfulness with viciousness. (Gray does not realise that philosophy can be playful, seeing it instead by turns as ‘the practice of illuminating the prejudices of middle class academics’ and a kind of sickness unto death.) But what I find most mesmeric about cats is the way they have of being in their bodies. These bodies are so labile as to be almost liquid. My cat can curl up into a perfect round doughnut, but the next minute stretch herself out so long that I marvel at their having been that much cat to unravel. Her paws are by turns tiny compact buds and then leonine, clawed, outspread. All this is done with unselfconscious ease, suggestive of a way of being a body quite without the aches and armour that our flesh is heir to. They flow like water, and yet they are full of creaturely purpose. Its sensitivity to this quality that makes Smart’s ‘Jubilate Agno’ so precious, and insensitivity to it that makes Soden’s tribute feel so flat. You should read Smart’s poem. It’s beautiful. And then you should seek out a cat, and kiss it with kindness.