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on cats

April 30, 2021

On Cats, by Doris Lessing, is a collection of three of her essays, “particularly cats, “rufus the survivor,” and “the old age of el magnifico.” These are older essays, with older attitudes towards pets, especially about letting them reproduce and go in and out of the house.

The first essay was published in 1967, and in it Lessing talks about the cats who lived and died on a farm in Africa where she spent some of her childhood. She has a good heart, but it may not be what many of us consider today a soft heart. I think she’s right when she says “cats had no place in an existence spent always moving from place to place, room to room. A cat needs a place as much as it needs a person to make its own.”

Lessing has spent time looking at cats and really seeing them:
“She was best sitting on the bed looking out. Her two creamy lightly barred front legs were straight down side by side, on two silvery paws. Her ears, lightly fringed with white that looked silver, lifted and moved, back, forward, listening and sensing. Her face turned, slightly, after each new sensation, alert. Her tail moved, in another dimension, as if its tip was catching messages her other organs could not. She sat poised, air-light, looking, hearing, feeling, smelling, breathing, with all of her, fur, whiskers, ears—everything, in delicate vibration. If a fish is the movement of water embodied, given shape, then cat is a diagram and pattern of subtle air.”

Some of the things she describes are common to many cats. Here’s one that our cat Melian does almost every morning:
“In the morning, when she wishes me to wake, she crouches on my chest, and pats my face with her paw. I open my eyes, say I don’t want to wake. I close my eyes. Cat gently pats my eyelids. Cat licks my nose. Cat starts purring, two inches from my face. Cat, then, as I lie pretending to be asleep, delicately bites my nose. I laugh and sit up.”

She tells stories about cats she has known. One particularly harrowing tale is about an old mother cat who found a protected place to have her kittens during one particularly dry season, and then one night during a torrential downpour came around, plainly asking the humans for help: “we put raincoats over our night-clothes and sloshed after her through a black storm, with the thunder rolling overhead, lightning illuminating sheets of rain. At the edge of the bush we stopped and peered in—in front of us was the area where the old trenches were, the old shafts. It was dangerous to go plunging about in the undergrowth. But the cat was in front of us, crying, commanding. We went carefully with storm lanterns, through waist high grass and bushes in the thick pelt of rain. Then the cat was not to be seen, she was crying from somewhere beneath our feet. Just in front of us was a pile of old branches. That meant we were on the edge of a shaft. Cat was somewhere down it.” They had to leave the cat for the night, she says, but “slept badly, thinking of the poor cat, and got up at five with the first light” when they were able to find the cat and lift her and her kittens from a platform about fifteen feet down an eighty-foot shaft. Lessing observes that the poor cat “must have lost all hope that night, as the rain lashed down, as earth slid in all around her, as the water crept up behind her in the dark collapsing tunnel.” But the rescue was successful.

The two other essays in this volume are shorter, each one focused on a cat Lessing was particularly fond of. The first is “rufus the survivor,” a stray who started the relationship by accepting food and water on a balcony and was eventually allowed in on one chair in the kitchen. The chair became “his place. His little place. His toehold on life. And when he went out on to the balcony he watched us all in case we shut the door on him, for he feared being locked out more than anything, and if we made movements that looked like the door might be shutting, he scrambled painfully in and on to his chair.”

Eventually Rufus was allowed the run of the house, and nursed in his old age: “Once, when he was asleep I stroked him awake to take his medicine, and he came up out of sleep with the confiding, loving trill greeting cats use for the people they love, the cats they love. But when he saw it was me he became his normal polite and grateful self, and I realized that this was the only time I had heard him make this special sound….During all the time he had known us, nearly four years, several times nursed back to health, or near-health, he had never really believed he could not lose this home and have to fend for himself, become a cat maddened by thirst and aching with cold. His confidence in someone, his love, had once been so badly betrayed that he could not allow himself ever to love again.” Lessing’s conclusion is that “knowing cats, a lifetime of cats, what is left is a sediment of sorrow quite different from that due to humans: compounded of pain for their helplessness, of guilt on behalf of us all.”

The last essay, “the old age of el magnifico,” is about a cat named Butchkin who was born and lived to a magnificent age as the “boss cat” in Lessing’s household full of other cats. “When he was a young cat,” Lessing says, “I would wake to find him awake and then, seeing that I was, he would walk up the bed, lie down on my shoulder, put his paws around my neck, lay his furry cheek against my cheek, and give that deep sigh of content you hear from a young child when he is at last lifted up into loving arms. And I heard myself sigh in response. Then he purred and purred, until he was asleep in my arms.”

Like almost all cat lovers, she is particularly fond of the most difficult cats: “he likes it when we sit quietly together. It is not an easy thing, though. No good sitting down by him when I am rushed, or thinking about what I should be doing in the house or garden or of what I should write. Long ago, when he was a kitten, I learned that this was a cat who demanded your full attention, for he knew when my mind wandered, and it was no use stroking him mechanically, my thoughts elsewhere, let alone taking up a book to read. The moment I was no longer with him, completely thinking of him, then he walked off. When I sit down to be with him, it means slowing myself down, getting rid of the fret and the urgency.”

If you love cats, you’ll enjoy these essays.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2021 10:30 am

    Doris Lessing…rings a bell but I can’t place her. I feel like I have read some of her writings.

    • April 30, 2021 10:34 am

      I think The Golden Notebook is her most famous, but she wrote a number of other novels and lots of short stories.

  2. April 30, 2021 10:37 am

    Aw! You have pretty kitties!

  3. April 30, 2021 12:53 pm

    Lovely cats!
    Mine will arrive in a week; can’t wait another day!

    • April 30, 2021 1:13 pm

      Most of the time they are lovely cats.
      I hope your new kittens settle in well. They are so beautiful, from their photo!

  4. magpiemusing permalink
    April 30, 2021 1:08 pm

    Ooh, sounds intriguing.
    Did you ever read “Secrets of the Cat” – by Barbara Holland? It’s quite wonderful.

    • April 30, 2021 1:12 pm

      Yes, I read that years ago, although at the time it was called The Name of the Cat. I do love cat anecdotes from time to time.

  5. April 30, 2021 3:13 pm

    These sound quite enjoyable. And you cats are all looking lovely 🙂

    • May 2, 2021 11:15 am

      They love this time of year. And they’re loving the new blue cushion I got for an outside lounge chair!

  6. May 2, 2021 10:14 am

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and these excerpts! I love the idea of reading essay collections, but novels keep pushing their way to the top of my TBR list instead.

  7. May 3, 2021 4:35 pm

    That’s cute how the cat wakes up its owner.. I heard many terrorizing stories about how cat destroys drapes and furniture with their sharp claws.. that sure will wake its owner up fast 😊

    • May 3, 2021 4:45 pm

      We have scratching posts, but cats will sharpen their claws on the upholstered furniture and the drapes. I replaced one set of sheer curtains after one particularly sharp-clawed little kitten spent its kittenhood climbing up them! Mostly we don’t mind it, though. They live here too. I am very much against the idea that anyone would amputate part of a cat’s paws so they can have nice furniture.

  8. May 3, 2021 9:47 pm

    The passage about the stray cat made me cry! (But then again I have terrible PMS and anything makes me cry.) I’m a big softie about cats, though.

    • May 3, 2021 9:48 pm

      There were lots of places where I teared up a little. It’s that kind of book.

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