Talking animal crackers

We once worked for a man who looked at the members of his staff and saw dogs. The man loved dogs, we hasten to add. It just seemed to give him a clearer angle on the character and special virtues of a subordinate to connect each one with a particular breed.

Naturally, we always wondered under what breed he classified us. Did he mutter to himself at salary-review time, ''Loyal as a spaniel''? Or was the comment, ''This reporter digs like a terrier''? Perhaps the verdict read: ''Playful as a Corgi pup.'' We wouldn't have minded that.

But our secret vanity is that the editor simply could not find a kennel to place us in, though he stayed awake trying, until one night he thumped his favorite Labrador retriever and cried: ''Great Scott! The man's a cat.''

Which brings us to a new collection of caricatures by Jim Morin, titled ''Famous Cats.'' Mr. Morin succumbs to a terrible temptation toward puns in his captions (Truman Catpote, Walter Cronkat, Elvis Purresley, etc). Would a cat be so unsubtle? But there is no denying that personalities as various as Henry Kissinger, Richard Burton, Albert Einstein, and S. J. Perelman are illuminated by the metaphor of being perceived as cats. Whatever is watchful, tidy, indolent , graceful, or snooty emerges in purest form. We and Mr. Morin see things we might not otherwise dare to see, just as in fables writers dare to say things they might not otherwise dare to say, flat out.

One cannot be called a prig if one puts one's earnestly exhorting speeches in the mouth of a turtle or a goat. Or as the French fabulist Jean de la Fontaine wrote (in Marianne Moore's translation):

Animals enact my universal theme,

Educating man, fantasist though I seem.

La Fontaine considered Aesop's fables - the source from which he drew - the most ingenious device in the history of literature. The novelist Bernard Malamud seems to agree that it is ''the ultimate imaginative act to create a creature - no, wait, there's a better word - a living being who is not human and yet can talk, giving you the opportunity of presenting a miracle in every sentence.''

From Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear through A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh and Richard Adams's rabbits of Watership Down, the English seem to have fostered a tradition of talking walruses and dormouses and thinking owls and pussycats. Do the nannies of English writers teach them to love their Teddy bears more than American writers ever learn to do? Even the austere George Orwell went to all fours to get a fabulist's slant on politics through the barnyard dialectics of ''Animal Farm.''

American fables, on the other hand, seem to run down awfully fast from Bre'er Rabbit to Mickey Mouse to crocodile labels on designer shirts. At the moment, we appear to prefer science fiction and the talking robot, though it could be argued that fables are the first, and still the best, science fiction. It could also be argued that fables would solve a lot of the frustrations of contemporary fiction writers - and readers.

Bored by realism? Tired of antiheroes? Absolutely fed up with irony? Try fables. Every man becomes a Charles Dickens, filled to the top of the inkwell again with character and plot and moral indignation.

The fable permits jaded writers and readers the luxury of a second fresh look at life. We could all use that. In the absence of serious offers, we hungrily take Garfield. And doesn't that tell us something? And doesn't it tell us something that even editors need their metaphorical dogs?

Getting back to that fitness report, we wonder if our old editor wrote: ''Plenty of conceit in you. Unblemished belief in your own perfection. And utter lovableness.''

No, that was D. H. Lawrence at a rather giddy moment, writing about his Pekingese (''Oh Bibbles, oh Pips, oh Pipsey . . .'').

Well, some things are better not known.

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