The Philosophy of Cats

he has such a hard life ...

We’ve been having a series of cold nights and days here in Perth. It actually feels like winter, only with little rain. But there is enough chill to make me want to cuddle up near a heater and make chicken soup every night. My cat is adorably splendid all year round, but he does love winter when the heater comes out, and big blankets, and he doesn’t have to hide from the irritating air-conditioner. He is also a fabulous source of heat himself – a big ball of warm fur. Winter suits him, in all his majestic kittiness. His deliciously baking, biscuity smell when he sleeps blends well with me luxuriating in baking cookies in winter (an unthinkable task in the middle of summer here). We both sway hypnotically in front of the heater and adore my woollen home socks. He will now sleep at my feet on the couch to receive belly rubs, while I warm my toes. He loves the smell of chicken matzo ball soup, like a good Jewish cat.

So in the middle of this winter kitty comfort, I’ve been reading this book. Philosophers, feel free to laugh at me now. I apologise in advance for this pseudo-philosophic post. It is perfect reading for me now, and I feel the need to annotate one particular essay I loved in the book by Allison Hagerman called ‘Cats and the Aesthetics of the Everyday’. Yes, I’m aware how pretentious this post is going to be, but I seriously don’t care. Cat lovers unite.

Melbourne

“Cat lovers are well aware that the word ‘meow’ is an insufficient limitation of the sound a cat makes. Cats usually make a variety of sounds, and not just with their vocal cords. Cecil is master of the silent meow, Lily has an insistent wail that comes on to announce the approach of the dinner hour, Dharma does a lot of trilling from the depths of her throat, Fama is the queen bee of chirping and chattering at the birds in the window, and Fig, born to a feral mother, calls like a pterodactyl when he’s lonely. There’s the sound of tiny nails skidding across the linoleum, the rhythmic rasping of cat claws in the scratching post (hopefully), and the random thump of things that go bump in the night.” (pp. 64-65)

Kobi is a chatty fellow. To condense all he says into a single ‘meow’ would be reductive. There’s the long, drawn-out wail when he wants to go outside, the ‘just to let you know’ chirp when he’s done something in his litter box, the pigeon-like cooing and cheerful chirping with birds at the window, the surprised worried meow when he encounters another neighbourhood cat, the constant whinging when he’s hungry, the sweet ‘hello’ when he hasn’t seen me for a few hours and shows me his soft belly, the tractor-loud purring as I find that spot at the back of his neck to scratch, the quiet pleasurable hum from deep inside his body as I scratch him behind the ears and under the chin, the satisfied slurping noises when he eats, the contented sigh as I plonk him on a blanket, the frustrated series of huffs and puffs when he can’t catch something, the ‘hey there, nice human’ ‘moo’ sound when he head butts me, the question mark meow when he hears something strange, the loud ‘wow’ screech when he’s scared.

I wonder how anyone who spends some time with cats doesn’t recognise that they have their own internal world, complete with its own language. The amusing thing is that we’re the ones who are trained by them. Cats, in their own seductive way, make you learn the difference between one sound and another. And so, you learn to listen better, and you learn to love other sounds that could just as easily be lumped together: in the garden and in the park, there are different types of trees, and I’ve gradually recognised that each rustling of leaves on each type of tree has its own rhythm and sound. My cat has made me more sensitive to sound, and to the sensory world as a whole.

Jaffa

“Cats themselves rarely smell like the things they leave in their litter boxes or sometimes spray on the walls. Rather, they have a warm, dusty, and sometimes sweet baby-like smell along their cheeks and their shoulder blades. And because cat fur is such a rich purveyor of the smells of a cat’s environment, a lot can depend on whether or not there is fresh laundry or new grass in which the cat can indulge in a bit of rolling.” (p. 65)

Have you ever smelt the particularly soft fur at the back of a cat’s ears? I recommend in when you’re having a particularly shitty day. Or any day, really. Warm, dusty and baby-like pretty much sums up Kobi’s smell. He smells like dusty books and biscuits, like milk and cakes, like coffee and bedsheets. I’m convinced Kobi does more for my health and sanity than any trip to the gym (ugh, sorry, I hate gyms). But I’m reluctant to think of him as existing for my own pleasure alone. He is his own being. That delicious smell that wafts around him and which he carries around with such quiet cat dignity, has nothing to do with me. And he seems to know it. He dispenses his warmth and dustiness liberally, but you have to earn his loyalty first.

Zichron Ya’akov

“The vent is a three-by-four-foot rectangle covered with a metal grate. We walk around it in the winter because when it’s hot it can melt the bottoms of your shoes pretty quickly. The cats will occasionally lounge around its perimeter, and when it’s cool enough, some will indulge in a quick back-scratch on it. Sometimes this yields little tufts of floating fur, which drift upward due to the warmer air currents in that location. I think this is what inspired Fig to start batting dust-bunnies across the grate, on purpose, to watch them rise and spiral slowly to the tops of the bookcases around the room. ... At first, I was a bit dismayed by this performance. I took it to signify that the house needed some serious cleaning, which it usually does. But putting aside that utilitarian interpretation, I saw something more – namely, the oft-forgotten element of air. Aesthetically, we are prone to hone in on the visible, bracketing off synesthetic experiences as too muddled to analyze. But in watching the dust-bunnies float there above the heater, the invisible air was made visible by proxy, and at that moment, I suddenly became more aware of the way it felt against my skin. I have Fig to thank for reawakening my aesthetic sensibility for the invisible.” (p. 70)

Kobi has a habit of trying to ‘catch’ air. He will lift his paws to warm air from my heater and then curl them as if to ‘cup’ the air. Or he will lift his nose high to the wind outside and then stretch upward towards it with his whole body. These are the moments he makes me reconsider things that I interpret as ‘utilitarian’ myself, as aesthetic instead. It’s very enjoyable, for example to watch what warm air can do to my frozen fingers. They get really sore from typing when it’s cold. When I take a break to thaw them out in front of a heater, I stare at the colours shifting on my hands: green and blue melting into a peachy rose. I have Kobi to thank for that, just as Hagerman has Fig to thank for turning the invisible into an aesthetic sensibility. Because I can watch Kobi for hours in front of the heater, and I can watch him for hours appreciating air. I wouldn’t look at my own hands the same were it not for me looking at his paws.

Call this pretentious indulgence if you will, but cats, with their abundant self-love and need for pleasure, fascination and sensory stimulation, show us how cool it is to be alive in the everyday. It’s a necessary reminder for someone like me who tends to be inside my own head too much, leaving the body far behind. It’s also a pretty significant reminder for a wider culture obsessed by the aesthetics of ‘beauty’ rather than the aesthetics of simply being alive; one is a superficial distinction between bodies based on certain criteria of ‘attractiveness’, the other is a deeper appreciation of being alive and having a body. It’s hard not to appreciate your body when you live with a cat; they are such experts in appreciating themselves and their instincts.

Zichron Ya’akov

All quotes are from What Philosophy Can Tell You about Your Cat, all photos are my own.