Oliver: Thoughts on love

Oliver, in a photo taken by a friend while I was in hospital for a week in May

Oliver, in a photo taken by a friend while I was in hospital for a week in May

My little cat Oliver, whom I loved dearly, died in July. He was perhaps ten months old – with rescued street cats, of course, there is no way to be sure. He had been sick for a few days, coughing and feeble; but I didn’t fully notice till he began refusing food and hiding in dark places: a sign, though I didn’t realize it, that a cat believes it is going to die. I took him to the veterinarian on a Wednesday. He cried softly, mewling against my shoulder, as we descended the elevator; in the taxi, he tried to hide beneath the seat. The doctor said he had severe pneumonia. They shaved part of his leg and attached an IV drip to rehydrate him. But as soon as the slow flow of liquid struck, something happened: he screamed and leapt in the air, as if galvanized. I tried to hold him and he bit my right hand hard, just at the thumb; I carried the scar for weeks. Then he tumbled over and lay there, still. The doctor massaged his chest, and gave him a shot of atropine, but his muzzle was turning blue. I was too stunned to realize quite what was happening. He died staring at me, his mouth open; the look in his eyes was both blank and insistently expressive, as if he were saying to me, simply: You see.

I haven’t been able to say much that made sense about it since. For a long time now I have been thinking about what, or how, a life — any life — means. This is different from “the meaning of life,” a question that is, as the President would say, above my pay grade. (Who gets paid to provide such answers anyway? The philosophers I’ve known must have hid their incomes under a bushel.) It’s instead a question of what one specific life can signify, so slight, so almost-always soon forgotten. What does it mean for such an evanescent thing to mean? If an individual existence means anything after it is gone, that must lie in what we say about it, how we re-imagine and retell it. But this seems a cruelly fragile significance for an extinguished life that once meant so much more to the one living it.

This question is valid for animals as for humans. Animals may or may not have consciousness like ours. (Julian Jaynes points out that it’s impossible, watching any human going about her business, to tell whether she is actually conscious or an automaton at the beck of inner voices. Yet we give humans the benefit of the doubt, although – in the case of Donald Trump, or President Sisi, or indeed almost anyone on TV – the inner voices might be a more plausible explanation. I don’t see why we shouldn’t grant the same credit for consciousness to the pets sharing our lives, who look at least as convincingly as if they know what’s what.) Even if they are conscious, though, we humans have the power of language as they don’t. We are meaning-making animals, and the meaning of the animals we love resides uniquely in our minds, our words. Our pets give us a trust that, duplicitous and uneasy, humans can’t offer one another. In return, we only give them words they cannot use.

So I wonder what Oliver meant; what I can say about this vulnerable, short-lived little animal who only indifferently noticed that I had given him a name? He came to me in November of last year, in a sidewalk café near where I lived in Doqqi. I went there to meet some friends, and when I arrived, a tiny orange-and-white street kitten was on the lap of one of them. He was dirty and scraggly, with an infection in one eye. He was also desperately affectionate; put down, he would try to scramble back up to you, as if he wanted nearness more than anything, even food. I couldn’t leave him; after asking my friends what to do, I decided to take him home. He whimpered as I carried him down the street. The elevator frightened him – he cried frantically as we rose in it, far more grievously than when, months later, he descended it the last time. The artificial light in my flat stabbed his eyes and terrified him, and he burrowed under my jacket and clung to the back of my shirt. Several traumatic baths were needed before he was presentably clean. The conjunctivitis faded quickly. It took a day or two to decipher his sex; when I did, I named him Oliver, after Dickens’ little orphan.

Oliver in early December 2014, about a week after I brought him home

Oliver in early December 2014, about a week after I brought him home

Cats are tragic animals, tragic in a comprehensibly human way. Their happiness is in the womb or in the first few weeks when they’re drawing on their mother’s teats, a fantasy of amplitude and union. (Watch a grown cat, sleeping, knead and suck anything that reminds it of a maternal nipple.) Then life turns on them, harsh, insufficient, cruel. When they’re barely old enough to fend for themselves, their mothers reject them brutally, like Baptists finding out their kid is gay. After that they form no compensating connections within the species. Cats are loners; they don’t prowl in packs like dogs; they struggle against their own kind to live, and sex is a penetrative skirmish in the war of all with all — if you’ve seen (or heard) cats fucking, it’s like one of Mike Tyson’s wet dreams. In fields or forests this life has logic. In a city like Cairo, it is dreadful; hundreds of thousands of street cats populate its trash piles, fighting to survive in a misery that brevity cannot redeem. Yet in all this they are animals recognizably like us: by night, dreaming of a lost maternal plenitude; by day, hacking day their way through a life without comfort, with a forward-thrusting impulse to survive that cannot restore them to the happiness of dreams. I suppose I’ll be accused of anthropomorphizing animals; instead, though, I’m situating our human rage and suffering back in the animal world from which it sprang. Schopenhauer must have studied cats in the wild. In them, the Will that wills nothing but its preservation, but cannot will contentment or satisfaction, appears naked of the disguises that make it bearable to humans; and so does the sorrow for a lost time when nothing was willed or needed.

Yet when they connect to us humans it’s something quite different, devoid of the violence that rends relations among themselves. They don’t strive with us; they suspend the war. Ethologists trace the domesticated cat’s bond with a particular human to its deep memories of its mother when she was carer and provider. Surely that’s true to a point. But cats aren’t idiots. They don’t blindly identify these large, hairless, stumbling apparitions with the resurrected mother. Their attachment contains the buried past while transmuting it into something else. (Often while I worked, Oliver would lie on one of my old thick blankets, which smelled of me but was reassuringly hairy in a cat-like way, and knead and suck it while drifting off to sleep. It was a fantasy object in which his memories could merge with the actuality of my scent. His bond with me showed its origins in nostalgia then; but, when he was awake, that bond was different – much less oral, for one thing – as if he knew that it was bound to the mast of the future, not the past.)

Cats take a lost utopia and, changing its terms, turn it into love for us. Without leaving the instinctual world for a moment, they acquire something like a moral life, one not shaped by the adult struggle to survive. Of course the transcendence of natural limit is small and local; morality is never complete, never permeates any self; no cat ever stopped dismembering mice because he loved a human. (Hitler, after all, became a vegetarian, but never stopped being Hitler.) Still, the accomplishment is something nature never fully planned. Turning backward to move forward, a cat’s love transcends the conditions and the destiny it was born with. Transcendence both rejects and redeems what it transcends. All morality is a map of an imagined future, but it comes from memory, from the faint dream traces of an unrecoverable past. Escaping the ukases of necessity means recollecting a time before need.

Oliver was intensely, astonishingly full of love. He loved to love people. Mostly this focused on me, but whenever he met a stranger he approached the encounter with passionate interest, as though he wanted to figure out what could be loved about this person. (When a cat grows up, its gaze tends to narrow; the broad stare of kittenhood that we think so innocent turns shuttered and aloof. It’s an aid to predation, a way of veiling exactly where the hungry look aims. This never happened to Oliver, though, for some reason. His eyes stayed wide and open till he died, as if he wanted to absorb as much of the world as he could.) In a street kitten, this was amazing. I don’t know how he became this way. In cruel Cairo, street cats learn to fear humans early; people spend on cats their casual sadism left over from family and work, as if they were tossing pocket change. At a downtown café last year, I used to see a cat with a tail skinned from the tip, bloodied down a third of its length. It darted round for days showing this raw stump in terror and pain, till it stopped appearing any more. I can’t reconstruct what made Oliver take the immense risk of loving a species so eager to torture, so quick to forget. But he took the chance, and he loved.

Oliver approaches a new friend at my birthday party, June 2015

Oliver approaches a new friend at my birthday party, June 2015

He was so inseparable from me for months that it’s hard to detach discrete memories. I remember the way he stretched, usually lying beside me in the bed in the morning, more profoundly than I’ve ever seen a cat stretch its limbs before: his body taking in the sheer contentment of being there. Although like most cats he was not enthusiastic about having his belly touched, he liked to lie on his back, cradled in my arms, staring up at me; at such moments he would let me strum his stomach like a banjo, as if he were saying, I know you like this; it’s OK. Early on, I tried shutting him out of my bedroom some nights, because I’m allergic to cat hair. I stopped because he would sit at the doorsill the whole night crying – not because he wanted food, his bowl was full, but because he wanted nearness. I remember how, when I leaned over him, he would reach up his paw and press my face. It was a firm touch, but too pliant to be meant to keep me distant. He would stare at me intently then, as if to say: There you are.

Another thing I have thought about lately, in a disconnected way, is love. As I grow older, I grow more convinced that love is something tangible in the universe, existing above and beyond beings who try to love; a force that inhabits us, almost irradiates us, briefly and from time to time (because our frailty could hardly bear such a suffusion constantly). It’s impersonal in the sense that it seems to dwell outside us. Yet it still calls us back to the things of this world, to apprehend the absolute individuality of the objects it chooses. There is a wonderful essay by Edward Mendelson on W. H. Auden, my favorite poet since I was a child. A heretical Christian, Auden had his own religious vocabulary. “Auden used ‘miracle’ to refer to anyone’s sense of the unique value of one’s own unpredictable individuality”; and he used “God” for the force that understands the individuality of every thing in creation. God is the giver of all Proper Names.

“To give someone or something a Proper Name,” he wrote, “is to acknowledge it as a real and valuable existence, independent of its use to oneself, in other words, to acknowledge it as a neighbor.” The value that is acknowledged through a proper name is not measurable in any objective sense; it exists in the eyes of the beholder. When human beings imagine a beholder who finds such value everywhere, they think in terms of God, or, as Auden wrote in another late poem, “the One … / Who numbers each particle / by its Proper Name” – a deity who knows the name of every electron in the universe, rather than thinking about them in collective, statistical terms.

That is love in its largest shape, of which we experience little, local portions. Poets grasp this paradox of an immense power transfiguring our particular selves. They tell us that to let this power invade us gives us meaning, just as the power lets us recognize the meaning in others. Perhaps that force that is not us, is all that will remain of us. Philip Larkin wrote about “our almost-instinct, almost-true”:

What will survive of us is love.

One more thing I remember. There was a time from November through January – the first few months after I took in Oliver – when the cruelty in Egypt seemed out of control. Stories of arrests and torture spread, formed the ground bass beneath every conversation. My friends were leaving the country; what they left behind was fear. We were all certain we would be arrested. I kept a small bag packed under my bed for when the police came. Each day I repacked it methodically (colored underwear or white? do they allow dental floss in jail?) as if trying obsessively to put order in the paranoia, to arrange its mad metastasis into a coherent plan.

I can’t describe what it meant, amid all this, to have the nearness of a small animal who wanted nothing but to love and be loved. He wakened me every morning, sitting on my chest, sensing something was out of kilter, with no remedy to provide but love. His simplicity made things seem sure. Purity of heart can save others; he woke me out of the nightmare of the fallen days to a dream that fear was the fragile thing, that our barbarous human hatred quailed before the invulnerability of compassion. He offered the hope that love survives in this suffering world, that it transforms us. For that I owe him much of my self, although I never had a way to say it. Goodbye, Oliver. I love you.

Oliver at my birthday party, June 2015

Oliver at my birthday party, June 2015

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Poem of the day

whauden2Wystan Hugh Auden died forty years ago, on September 29, 1973, in his sleep after a poetry reading in Vienna, Austria. He was 66. I read his obituary in Time Magazine a few weeks later; I was ten years old. Discovering Auden for me was the discovery of — I meant to write, what you could do with language, but I realize I want to say something else: what language could do with you, an impersonal power coursing through the husks of words that, freed, could shock you to delirium, or wring you and your attempts at meanings like a wet rag. That chasms of mood so jagged, sinister, and deep could open after shuffling a few sounds struck me as an appalling secret underneath the world, as though Hagia Sofia or the Alhambra, which haunted my imagination though I’d never seen them, could be constructed out of matchsticks. All through my teenage years an old paperback of his Collected Poems sat on the floor near my bed. Even today to think of its cover, stark green letters on white like an Icelandic landscape, gives me a sense of companionship coupled with fear and awe. No other writer except Nabokov has ever affected me so much.

Here are three poems from the sonnet cycle In Time of War, written on a visit to China during the Japanese invasion, in 1938. The first alludes to another great poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who suddenly recovered his powers after long depression during a stay in the Château de Muzot in Switzerland in 1922; in a few weeks, he completed the Duino Elegies. In a letter he wrote that, having finished the work, “I went out and stroked the little Muzot, which had protected it and me and finally granted it, as if it were a large old animal.”

When all the apparatus of report 
Confirms the triumph of our enemies;
Our bastion pierced, our army in retreat, 
Violence successful like a new disease, 

And Wrong a charmer everywhere invited; 
When we regret that we were ever born: 
Let us remember all who seemed deserted.
To-night in China let me think of one

Who through ten years of silence worked and waited,
Until in Muzot all his powers spoke,
And everything was given once for all:

And with the gratitude of the Completed
He went out in the winter night to stroke
That little tower like a great animal.

๛ ๛ 

No, not their names. It was the others who built
Each great coercive avenue and square,
Where men can only recollect and stare,
The really lonely with the sense of guilt

Who wanted to persist like that for ever;
The unloved had to leave material traces:
But these need nothing but our better faces,
And dwell in them, and know that we shall never

Remember who we are nor why we’re needed.
Earth grew them as a bay grows fishermen
Or hills a shepherd; they grew ripe and seeded;

And the seeds clung to us; even our blood
Was able to revive them; and they grew again;
Happy their wish and mild to flower and flood.

๛ ๛ 

Wandering lost upon the mountains of our choice,
Again and again we sigh for an ancient South,
For the warm nude ages of instinctive poise,
For the taste of joy in the innocent mouth.

Asleep in our huts, how we dream of a part
In the glorious balls of the future; each intricate maze
Has a plan, and the disciplined movements of the heart
Can follow for ever and ever its harmless ways.

We envy streams and houses that are sure:
But we are articled to error; we
Were never nude and calm like a great door,

And never will be perfect like the fountains;
We live in freedom by necessity,
A mountain people dwelling among mountains.

Poem of the Day

Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia

Prague, August 1968

August 1968 (by W. H. Auden, 1907-1973)

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master Speech.

About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.

(N.B. Auden wrote the poem about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Although he was politically conservative by this late point in his life — and supported the US war in Vietnam — some suspected it might also refer to the police violence at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968.)

Chicago, August 1968