Cats play the villain in Western culture. It starts with Looney Tunes and never lets up. Cats have a terrible image.
Cats have their admirers, but they are often vaguely ashamed of it. Something about a cat person is odd; cats are strange, solitary, mysterious, you have to be weird to love a creature like that.
If you love a cat, you love something distinctly not human. People are more dogs than cats. We hunt in packs, we're highly social animals, we crave approval. We'd lick ourselves if we could reach.
Cats are aliens, they operate by a different set of rules. I believe much of the antipathy towards cats comes from envy. Cats lives are eat, sleep, play. They are rarely conflicted or neurotic. For every neurotic cat there are a hundred neurotic dogs, and a thousand neurotic humans. Cats have it figured out. Cats are perfected. That's why they're so hard to train. They don't need to do tricks for your approval, mostly because they don't need your approval.
It's a paradox. Cats are what cool people really want to be. That's where the phrase "cool cat" came from. But a cat person? Far from cool. It's some old lady whose house stinks of litter and who hasn't had a man since the Eisenhower administration.
Which only goes to prove how misunderstood the cat is. Cats are much more than living knickknacks for lonely shut-ins. Cats are cool, efficient, predators whose love is as unexpected as it is impossible. Yet they do it and we give it back to them. Because so are we.
If you ever are so fortunate to be offered love by a cat, you will return it, or it will go away. Cats don't do unrequited love. They are pets, not slaves.
Falling in love with a cat is falling in love with an equal. A cat won't guard your house, herd your sheep, guide your blind, or chase your criminals. A cat won't work for you or anyone else. Cats don't work. They live. And they're very good at it. Nine times better than we are.
Sometimes cats are in, sometimes they're out. We all know cats were deified in ancient Egypt. This enlightened attitude was a matter of indifference to ancient Egyptian cats. We are equally familiar with the vilification of cats by the Church in medieval times, when cats were burned as witches. This benighted behavior was somewhat more concerning to middle age felines, but they survived it.
Humans, on the other hand, got rats and the plague out of the deal. That's a pretty high transaction cost for indulging in cat genocide, especially when the genocide didn't work.
We are all fortunate it failed. But only some of us know it. Only some of us know the extreme pleasure--I'll come right out and say it--the sweet bliss of loving a cat and having that cat love us right back.
It's enough to move the poet to raptures of song, to inspire great art and lovely stories; it's more than enough. But, somehow, it hasn't. It is the other love that dare not speak its name. The arts have failed cats.
There is something about a cat that's hard to capture on canvas or paper. I've seen paintings by the Old Masters, masterpieces of portraiture, with people so real they seem to breathe, domestic scenes so cozy and perfect you want to move right in, every brushstroke a testament to enduring genius, the beauty and truth undimmed through the centuries since the Master signed his name to canvas and bequeathed his art to an adoring world.
Then you notice the pretty lady in the velvet dress is holding a hairy handbag with a face. I think it's supposed to be a cat. Could be a purse, though. I know they had cats in the 17th century, but they seem to have been afflicted with a horrible, disfiguring disease.
More likely the cats went a round with the Old Masters and the cats won. It's pretty much the same in literature. On those rare occasions when a cat graces the pages of a book somehow the imagination seems to fail even the best of writers and we get dogs that meow.
"She's as devoted as a dog," they write. "She follows me around, comes when I call, and licks my face, just like a dog!" I've read some version of that a dozen times in books and articles about a beloved pet. It's considered a compliment.
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