Unless there are two British writers named John Gray, the one to which I’m referring has been problematic: an atheist who loves to attack other atheists and osculate religion (see my posts here). However, you can’t fully dislike a man who likes cats, and Gray clearly does. Gray, the head book reviewer for the New Statesman, has just reviewed in that venue a book that I’ve heard quite a bit about (and one I wish I’d written). Click on the screenshot to go to the book; Gray calls his review “What cats can teach us about how to live.”
Despite his malfeasance elsewhere, Gray’s written a great paean to cats in his review, which is very positive. I wanted to put down a few paragraphs of what he says, which nicely expresses what many of us feel about our moggies:
One of the most attractive features of cats is that contentment is their default state. Unlike human beings – particularly of the modern variety – they do not spend their days in laborious pursuit of a fantasy of happiness. They are comfortable with themselves and their lives, and remain in that condition for as long as they are not threatened. When they are not eating or sleeping, they pass the time exploring and playing, never asking for reasons to live. Life itself is enough for them.
If there are people who can’t stand cats – and it seems there are many – one reason may be envy. As Jeffrey Masson, whose The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats is the best book on cats ever published, has written:
In English, if not in “cat”, the word contentment conveys something of a feeling of being at peace with the world or with yourself. It is more of a state than a fleeting emotion. A person can be happy (momentarily) without being content. Contentment cannot be purchased; happiness, on the other hand, has a price. For us, happiness is a serious business.
Whereas human beings search for happiness in an ever-increasing plethora of religions and therapies, cats enjoy contentment as their birthright. Why this is so is worth exploring. Cats show no sign of regretting the past or fretting about the future. They live, absorbed in the present moment. It will be said that this is because they cannot envision the past or future. Perhaps so, though their habit of demanding their breakfast at the accustomed hour shows they do have a sense of the passage of time. But cats, unlike people, are not haunted by an anxious sense that time is slipping away. Not thinking of their lives as stories in which they are moving towards some better state, they meet each day as it comes. They do not waste their lives dreading the time when their lives must end. Not fearing death, they enjoy a kind of immortality. All animals have these qualities but they seem particularly pronounced in cats. Of all the animals that have lived closely with human beings, cats must surely be the least influenced by them.
“When I play with my cat,” Montaigne wrote, “how do I know she is not playing with me?” With creatures that can be understood only partly by us, one can only speculate about their inner life. Yet it is tempting to suppose that the secret of feline contentment is that cats have no need to defer to a picture of themselves as they imagine they should be. Certainly they have a sense of dignity: they avoid people who treat them disrespectfully, for instance. Yet cats do not struggle to remake themselves according to any ideal self-image. Not inwardly divided, they are happy to be themselves.
Again, it will be said that this is because they have no moral sense. There are many cases of heroic devotion in which cats have risked pain and death to protect their kittens. But it is true that they cannot be taught moral emotions in the way dogs have been taught to feel shame. Cats are certainly not virtue signallers. Nor – except when it concerns their offspring – are they at all inclined to self-sacrifice. But given that cats, consequently, do not kill other cats or anything else in order to become martyrs to some absurd belief system, that may be no bad thing. There are no feline suicide-warriors.
I think that about sums it up. Now, if you love cats, and you live in or near Sydney, Australia, I’ll ask you to adopt Champas, who’s been at the Sydney Animal Welfare League for 433 days looking for a forever home. He’s 5 years old, and adorable, and the adoption fee has been cut to $50.
If any reader adopts Champas, or gets someone to adopt him, I’ll send them autographed copies of both WEIT and Faith Versus Fact.