Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"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)
It has been a few months now since I said farewell to an occasional eighteen-year-old cat companion, Dylan, who  returned south after some length of years spent in Brooklyn's cozy and green corners. As time went on I performed the duties of being his human, and I joined 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.

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