May 13, 2004

Cat & Capek blogging

I've spent most to the night putting books on shelves, and I've all but run out of shelf space but still have any number of books to find places for. It's been a demoralizing experience, because I'd much rather be reading them than dusting them off and trying to figure out some kind of order for them (quick -- does Nabokov belong with the Russians or the Americans?). But it's been a useful exercise in one respect -- a number of volumes I assumed had been long lost are in fact still among my books.

I was particularly happy to find that a collection of Karel Capek's writings, Toward the Radical Center, was not lost, after all. Capek, a Czech, was a brilliant writer, and the "radical center" perhaps accurately describes his outlook. My favorite piece from the book was the first one, translated by Dora Round and revised by the volume's editor, Peter Kussi:

From the Point of View of a Cat

This is my man. I am not afraid of him. He is very strong, for he eats a great deal; he is an Eater of All Things. Give me some!

He is not beautiful, for he has no fur. Not having enough saliva, he was to wash himself with water. He meows in a harsh voice and a great deal more than necessary. Sometimes in his sleep he purrs.

Let me out!

I don't know how he has made himself Master; perhaps he has eaten something sublime.

He keeps his rooms clean for me.

In his paws he carries a sharp black claw and he scratches with it on white sheets of paper. That is the only game he plays. He sleeps at night instead of by day, he cannot see in the dark, he has no pleasures. He never thinks of blood, never dreams of hunting or fighting; he never sings songs of love.

Often at night when I can hear mysterious and magic voices, when I can see that the darkness is all alive, he sits at the table with his head bent and goes on and on, scratching with his black claw on the white papers. Don't imagine that I am at all interested in you. I am only listening to the soft whispering of your claw. Sometimes the whispering is silent, the poor dull head does not know how to go on playing, and then I am sorry for him and I meow softly in sweet and sharp discord. Then my Man picks me up and buries his hot face in my fur. At those times he divines for an instant a glimpse of a higher life, and he sighs with happiness and purrs something which can almost be understood.

But don't think I am at all interested in you. You have warmed me, and now I will go out again and listen to the dark voices.

Elsewhere in the volume, Capek compares human and cat societies, and notes that cats do not trust one another. "And you know, we human beings cease to be savages only as long as we trust one another. ...If I distrusted my fellow passengers on the streetcar, I would have to keep my back to the wall and spit like a cat to frighten them; instead of which I hand peacefully onto my strap and read the paper, offering them my unprotected back."

Capek concludes the essay,

Well, I will go now and stroke my own pussy cat. She is a great comfort to me because she trusts me, although she is only a little grey beast who has strayed in from God knows what corner of the unknown wild of Prague's back alleys. She starts purring and looks up at me. "Man," she says, "do rube me behind my ears."

And now it's time for me to track down my own cat, who's outside, most likely hunting down some fo the first trickle of cicadas or glowering at one of his neighbors, get him inside and get some sleep.

Posted by Ideofact at May 13, 2004 11:35 PM

A fascinating passage from Capek! It puts me in mind of a comic strip from [I think] Nicole Hollander, on "cats and owners dream each other's dreams," in which a puzzled cat has a thought bubble, "what the hell is a powerpoint? and who cares about achievement matrices?" the human is leaning back at a conference table, "I picture Wallace screaming, in my implacable clawed embrace."

Posted by: John Cunningham at May 17, 2004 03:30 PM