The artfully confounding cat

Cats can be convenient. When it suits them. They have their moments. For instance, sometimes when you're in book-mode, they may just happen to be in cushion-mode.

It's hardly deliberate. But if they have chosen to curl up in your chair-depths, and you sit on them, they do not necessarily object. They make a warm, soft patch in the small of your back while you lose yourself in chapter after chapter. They may even purr - though that is a sure sign that they are not staying put for you, but because they have decided they would quite like to try being squashed for a while.

This certainly does not have too much to do with the literary aspirations of the feline race. They are as likely to sit on your book as they are to sit under you as you read it. They are not noticeably avid readers. Their armchair expertise is sleeping. They do know a lot about cushions, but about novels, poetry, biographies, or essays they contentedly know next to nothing.

This is odd, because they are arguably far more frequent subjects of books than war, love, football, and gardening added together.

Being among the animal kingdom's most self-regarding egotists, you'd think cats would be eager to read all about themselves. But then they who are an endless mystery to humankind presumably know all they need to know about themselves without our help. Biography, particularly psychologically analytical biography, could well disturb their lifestyle by telling them more than they would like to know about their motivations (which, as even fervent cat-lovers can occasionally be made to admit, are not always as socially acceptable as they might be).

Some artists have a similar don't-let-the-cat-out-of-the-bag attitude. The British sculptor Henry Moore was not a cat. He was decidedly a human and he was, as his fame grew, much biographied. But one book about him, he felt, came too close for comfort to the inner workings of his psyche, and he stopped reading it. He did not want his intuition, his aesthetic instinct, to be too conscious or defined. Very catlike.

Cats, as many of the books about them illustrate (from T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" onward), are as much like artists as artists are like cats.

Eliot's wonderful classic, which has even survived transformation into a musical, is 50 years old this year.

A book just published is about dancing cats. Yes, that's what I said. ("Dancing With Cats," by Burton Silver and others, Chronicle Books). Its author has produced earlier books about painting cats - that is, cats that paint, not cats being painted. Really these books are about the bond that exists between some people and their cats.

The British painter Elizabeth Blackadder has clearly had a relationship with her cats over the years that is something more than domestic affection.

Cats have entered Blackadder's art in enchanting, but also in beautifully observed and true ways.

She paints and draws them almost as if they have included themselves in her paintings. And, typical of cats, that is just about how they came to be there in the first place. They roam, lie around, or sit on her painting table among her pots of flowers and other still-life objects.

Blackadder's art is to make them look as if they have just casually walked over her paper or canvas, and there they are, in the picture. We know better, of course. There is a tentative touch of humor in this. But, as assessed in the most recent book about her work ("Elizabeth Blackadder," by Duncan Macmillan, Scolar Press in Britain, Ashgate Publishing Co. in the US), her cat depictions "have an unsentimental and inquiring line that grants its full and independent existence to the animal."

'Independent" seems an apt word for the wayward ways of cats. Even their dependence (on us) has a confident air of independence about it. Well, plain rudeness, really. They seem tame and soft, but something makes you suspect blatant deception. We once tamed a farm cat, but it didn't completely abandon its (to us) fiendish delight in meting out cruel and unusual punishment to minute rodents, which it now brought to the back door as gifts.

I am informed by a cat-doter that this is not "bad behavior" but "instinct." I imagine she means it must therefore be overlooked and forgiven. Not, I would contend, if you are a mouse.

Why is it hard to convince some people that cats are often, and perhaps basically, antisocial?

Why do these devotees forget the times their cat wildly kicks litter all over the house, hisses and claws at them just as they are putting down the food bowl, and keeps entire cities awake all night with strident rooftop caterwauling?

'Cats Behaving Badly, an Anthology of Feline Misdemeanors," published by Barnes & Noble, is a new book (well, it comes out in February 2000) for cat-lovers and cat-haters. (Yes, it is possible for one person to be both simultaneously.) It is a wickedly funny and clever book (with the emphasis on "wickedly") in its extraordinary variety of quotations, compiled by Michelle Lovric, and in its illustrations by tapestry artist (and now book-illustrator) Lynne Curran.

The illustrations are much more than mere decoration. They are the work of someone who knows cats intimately, loves them, but has few illusions about what we humans (who naturally never behave badly) choose to disregard in our cat-besottedness.

The book is a canny balancing act. The appalling ghastliness and beastly abandon of certain cat behaviors are euphemized only by a sense of comedy. At the end, readers will still love cats, even if they have acquired a fresh conviction of their horrible habits.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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