Thursday, August 13, 2015

Dr. Johnson's Cat

I remember reading Dr. Johnson's novella, Rasselas, in high school and not being much taken with it. And so, I'd rather forgotten about Samuel Johnson until a dear friend of mine gave me a curious book entitled, Horace Walpole's Cat. The book is a delightful literary labyrinth of unexpected connections, sparked initially by the author's dissertation on Rousseau's novel. And in this curious maze, we meet some of the creatures that kept the authors company in their vale of tears.   

Watercolor Cat by Endre Penovic
Having shared (perhaps foolishly) Horace Walpole's estimation of Johnson (that he was a "saucy Caliban" and a "tasteless pedant"), I was charmed to discover his affection and gentility towards his lowest leonine, Hodge: 

On one occasion, Boswell, on seeing Hodge scrambling his way up the north face of Johnson's belly in a very affectionate manner, while the Doctor 'smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail', remarked on how fine the cat seemed to be. Johnson replied, 'why, yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this.' Then, as if perceiving that Hodge was a little 'out of countenance', he immediately added for the cat's benefit, 'but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.' 
Hodge, before the Johnson home, seated on a dictionary
On another occasion, Johnson tells Boswell about some feckless young gentleman of good family who has been reduced to such depths of depravity that he was last seen 'running about town, shooting cats.' At which point Johnson picks up Hodge and strokes him reassuringly: 'But Hodge shan't be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.' 
(Frayling 9-10)

Reading through these anecdotes, I was delighted by the character of Johnson, by his deference for his pet. There is something curiously universal about how humans, smiling and half-whistling, relate to pets. And yet, anyone who has owned multiple pets knows that each animal has a distinct personality and that one's relationship with that animal differs from one's relationship with any other pet. They are as much individuals as you and I. 

It occurred to me, while reading about Johnson, that anyone who showed such gentility to a humbler creature of the Lord doubtlessly must show deference to all creation. And, in spite of any sardonic filter, he must ardently love the world and see it with the clarity only love produces (the kind of clarity that allows one to perceive defects vividly while recognizing that the defects are not what defines). I must give Johnson a second chance. 

Perhaps you disagree? Benevolence towards animals, you say, is nothing more than foolish sentimentality. I answer that, although Boethius says authority is not the strongest argument, David Bentley Hart has already written a nice piece about why you're wrong, and I would rather include a poem by Auden than answer myself. 

Auden and puss
From "Ten Songs" 


DOG     The single creature leads a partial life,
        Man by his mind, and by his nose the hound;
        He needs the deep emotions I can give,
        I scent in him a vaster hunting ground.

CATS    Like calls to like, to share is to relieve
        And sympathy the root bears love the flower;
        He feels in us, and we in him perceive
        A common passion for the lonely hour.

CATS    We move in our apartness and our pride
        About the decent dwellings he has made:
DOG     In all his walks I follow at his side,
        His faithful servant and his loving shade. 

(I can't help but point out that while DOG critiques "apartness", he speaks as an "I" and CATS, while valuing it, speak as a chorus...) 


  1. It's not foolish sentimentality. Kundera captures it well: "We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions—love, antipathy, char­ity, or malice—and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals. True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Man­kind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it."

    1. Of course it's not. Thanks very much for sharing the quotation from Kundera. I've never read him, but I suppose I should!