Monday, March 21, 2011

"The Cat Inside," Burroughs: "You don't buy love for nothing"

"My relationship
with cats has saved

me from a deadly,
pervasive ignorance."

(William Burroughs,
The Cat Inside)
This weekend I became the property of a fourteen-year-old cat, Dylan, who has returned south after some length of years spent in Brooklyn's cozy and green corners. As time goes on I will perform the duties of being his human. I join the ranks of some famous folks who have had their otherwise irascible public reputations dangerously undermined by an attraction to the care and feeding of cats. The unlikeliest of these may be that old literary sleight-of-hand man, William Burroughs, himself.

For all his tales of the debauched human condition in a score of books (among them: Naked Lunch, Place of Dead Roads, Nova Express, The Soft Machine) Burroughs in his later years claimed a cat-spirit as his Familiar and became friends with a succession of lean and hungry strays, dedicated hangers-on, and occasional visitors to his home in Lawrence, Kansas. Some of these were cats, apparently. Who knew that old and rusted, corrugated tin woodsman had a heart after all?

Burroughs's affection for Ruski, Calico Jane, Wimpy, Fletch, and Ed is a sentimental turn in a career made famous by the routines of Doctor Benway, Clem Snide, and Danny the Car-Wiper (who finds a suitcase stuffed with a human leg in it, on Christmas Eve, only to discover that he can't sell it to score). Even cats have their routines, though, making them the perfect sidekick in the Burroughs universe. As Burroughs puts it, "Of course he wants food and shelter. You don't buy love for nothing."

Brion Gysin's original cover artwork for The Cat Inside

This slight book, originally published in a limited edition in 1986, is a series of scenes, dreams recollected, and cat comings-and-goings at Stone House, as he called his home outside Lawrence. At first Burroughs seems shocked at his own unrecognizable self in the diary pages: "I am absolutely appalled. So often, looking over my past life, I exclaim 'my God, who is this?' Seen from here I appear as a most unsightly cartoon of someone who is awful enough to begin with ... simpering, complacent, callous." Of course, much of his observation soon comes to reflect on the nature of man and beast, and what they learn from each other:

The white cat is "the cleaner," or "the animal that cleans itself," described by the Sanskrit word Margaras, which means "the hunter who follows the track; the investigator; the skip tracer." The white cat is the hunter and the killer, his path lighted by the silvery moon ... you can't shake your white cat because your white cat is you.

"Someone said that cats are the furthest animal from the human model. It depends on what breed of humans you are referring to," Burroughs writes, "and of course, what cats." For someone whose w
riting has always delighted in the shock of recognition -- the varieties of human depravity are familiar, yet boundless -- Burroughs' observations throughout The Cat Inside are surprisingly forgiving. He writes that the book is an allegory in which his past life is presented in the form of a cat charade; and in many instances the ways of cats reflect the pure animal instinct for survival. This quality Burroughs finds unjudgemental in cats, but is abhorred by finding it, increasingly, in man -- and his dogs.

I am not a dog hater. I do hate what man has made of his best friend. ... A cat's rage is beautiful, burning with a pure cat flame, all its hair standing up and crackling blue sparks, eyes blazing and sputtering. But a dog's snarl is ugly, a redneck lynch-mob Paki-basher snarl ... snarl of someone (who's) got a "Kill a Queer for Christ" sticker on his heap, a self-righteous occupied snarl. When you see that snarl you are looking at something that has no face of its own. A dog's rage is not his. It is dictated by his trainer. And lynch-mob rage is dictated by conditioning.

One aspect of a cat's life which must have intrigued Burroughs is the cat's ability to adapt quickly and thoroughly to the human routine for food, shelter, and survival. With his keen hobo's eye for confidence-games and trickery, Burroughs can appreciate the many wiles of a conniving cat in need of dinner or a warm place to stay in winter. He even remarks, in hobo style, of the secret language dogs and cats might use to indicate an easy target:





When Burroughs noticed that no dogs came around the Stone House, he added another:

F--------- CAT HOUSE!

This isn't Ol' Possums Book of Practical Cats, by any means, and Fletch is no Rum-Tum-Tugger. But it's easy to see in these notes the old sharpshooter found it comforting to view cats as kindred spirits. Ruski and Wimpy, Ed, Fletch and Calico Jane (named for Jane Bowles) shared a certain, knowing acceptance of human faults, even if it's just as long as there's a nearby tin of cat food, and someone -- their human -- to open it at dinnertime.


The above fore-mentioned. said...

I am sure you will enjoy having Dylan in your life. I agree with Burroughs about cats having routines, they organise these themselves and they are subject to change without any notice.

Oscar is my first cat ever and he is now about six years old, he has recently decided to sleep on the end of the bed and does not vacate this position until about 10am. meaning I can't make the bed until he decides to leave. This was not always the case, previously he has adopted the coffee table as his main spot, unmoved by anything that may be on it, subsequently my university papers are always bookmarked with cat hair. He also used to sleep on top on the wardrobe, or open cupboard doors and sleep inside on the clothes.

He goes through phases also regarding venturing out, some days he will go all day and then return to sleep and he will do that for a week or so, and then he will stay inside for days. Then he will vanish and I will see him across the road asleep on the neighbors veranda.

He bites my pen when I write in my journal, he tries to curl up on my laptop when I am typing, he will chew on the rings on my fingers when i am on the lounge, he stalks the kitchen when I cook, he will sit on the edge of the bath when I shower and he will seek any lap that is on offer. But he is very independent despite all that. Everything is on his terms, but I wouldn't be without him.

M Bromberg said...

Wonderful comment. Thanks! I'm glad to hear there are others for whom cat-ownership is primarily a means of providing their feline with a one-person staff.

Dylan's sister Flame became quite accustomed to being the queen of her friend's apartment. When Dylan arrived from far-away Brooklyn after an absence of years it created a bit of a row.

Dylan seems to be adjusting nicely, though, other than the occasional yowl. He's on his cat perch much of the time, "reading the paper" as I call it -- looking out the window and watching the birds.

He spends a lot of time making sure the new young robins are properly plump. (Not that he'll ever get close to them, of course!)