Friday, March 20, 2009


"Alas! Why does man boast of of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute; it only renders them more necessary beings. If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst, and desire, we might be nearly free..."
--Mary Shelley, in Frankenstein.

Pumpkin, a.k.a., FartknockerCurrently, my cat Fartknocker (photo pending my getting around to iton the right) is under quarantine. Her sentence: 45 days in the oubliette. Her only crime: losing a fight with an unknown animal. Yes, it's harsh, but we don't accept that kind of failure at castle Keifus, not when such woeful lack of vigilance imperils us all. Now you might argue that this is really a result of my lack of vigilance, you know, letting that rabies vaccine get a month past due, not to mention the sort of vigilant husbandry that leads me to prefer random outdoor turds to cleaning the catbox every week (okay, yelling at the kids to clean the catbox every week, but what I'm trying to say is that it's Hard Work), but really, she should have known better. She should have been tougher than that.

And it's not like I'm not suffering here. I have to be the warden. Not once, but twice a day, I must crack the door to the dungeon (formerly our downstairs bathroom) and demonstrate my god-like powers to this lesser creature. I control the sun: a flick of my wrist, and it's day or it's night. I control the presence of food and (if I remember make sure the toilet lid is down) the supply of water, each brought in as mysterious bounty from the hypothetical spaces beyond the shadowy cave. I administer horrible potions as punishment for Pumpkin's uncomprehended sins, and bear moist treats as my arbitrary reward.

The cat, I'll add, loves me, or at least she is always happy to hear the warden scrape his rusty keys on the lock. She meows plaintively at the door sometimes, but she always bursts out with uncharacteristic affection when I push my body through. I dose her, pet her briefly, and then present the reward. (Incidentally, cat food labels are a new source of amusement to me. They all contain pretty much the same meat by-products with that same thick chemical nose, but they're packaged as individualized wholesome gourmet fare, reinterpreted in a peculiar cat-food-label advertising patois. And I keep wondering: who the fuck is swayed by cat food laced with "garden greens"? Whenever my cats have eaten greens, garden or otherwise, it's always required cleanup.) Often, guilt will extend my visit, but much as the little creature loves me, when she's given the choice between my affection and Mariner's Catch Salmon Dinner Now With More Savory Chunks, it's always the latter she prefers. Similarly, she'll inevitably scramble for Turkey and Giblets Classic Pâté instead of the looming freedom of the open door. I am sure that Fartknocker is being transformed, through boredom and regiment, into an institutional cat, which, frankly, is part of the plan. Soon, she'll be unable to make it on the outside. I understand that prison life can do that to you.

My cat's decision to bolt for the dish instead of the door is stupid, but in the greater sense, I think it reflects her species' relatively high intelligence. It takes some element of higher thought to accept training (even if the system is based on visceral punishments and rewards), and if Pumpkin isn't sharp enough to weigh the long-term benefits of increased freedom against the short-term thrill of highly processed meat animals, then the fact that she can anticipate results and modify her behavior according to those imagined connections tells me she's operating on a higher plane than, say, a hamster that chews through the walls of his cage to rut.

It takes an extra crinkly cortex to be able to drown out those survival and pleasure impulses, that collection of urges which is rather condescendingly called our animal nature. I don't recall if J. M. Coatzee covered this angle, but animals clearly have a spark of cognition too, and the poor beasts most capable of an anthropomorphic-style self-control are the same ones that can suffer the misfortune of being domesticated. Creatures which had heretofore evolved just fine into hunting and scavenging machines, content with the pack or the herd, sniffing assholes with happy abandon, they met man, and sadly let that silly upright quadruped twist their simpler minds toward his own. The beasts continue to suffer under a generations-long experiment to be bred and broken for our consumption, companionship, and entertainment. They live dependent lives, and learn to trade the dignity of their own species for behaviors that will please their masters, or else suffer the oubliette. And for what gain? A rationed taste of Fisherman's Platter with Brown Rice and Garden Greens?

As an institutional man myself, I'm sympathetic to their plight, even if my balls aren't literally cut off. It may seem that I'm comforting myself--okay, martyring myself--with the idea that my lofty capacity to reason, that the majestic mind which puts me so far above the brutes, is the source of my quotidian misery, that it's my evolutionary pinnacle that suffers me to the life of a bespectacled desk jockey, but that is not the case. No, brains are good, but it's the defiency of our impulsive nature that's the problem here, at least when it comes to hunger thirst and desire (I still find brute violence to be terribly overrated, damn that rational mind), and, of course, freedom. And for us poor domesticated bastards? Well, there's still the cat to keep us company.


Thomas Paine said...

One of your best essays yet, Keifus.

Schmutzie said...

Is this a cat post?


You do cat posts here too?

They always eat first rather than flee. My boy Ralph used to try to dart out the back door when I'd open it, and he was an indoor cat. Needed to pin him between the door jamb and my shin to keep him from making a break for it.

But he could never take his eyes off that fresh bowl of 9 Lives gourmet platter. I could have held the door open for him and he wouldn't have even noticed...until he was done eating.

Keifus said...

First, it's not a cat post. It's a general comment on the human condition. Second,it's only the second time I've resorted to this sort of thing. Third, I got to use the word "oubliette", twice no less.

Thanks, TP!

artandsoul said...

This may be one of my all time favorite essays ever. By anyone.

Including me.

(I'm going to - I admit I got no idea how to pronounce oubliette)

Schmutzie said...

You know, at first I was thinking that your piece was a commentary on the human condition, but after reading it twice I decided that, despite the oubliettes, it's a wonderfully written, and cleverly disguised cat post.

Keifus said...

Jesus, is someone sending you people checks or something? Thanks for the kind words (even if it's just a cat post--reminds me, I have hte cutest picture of the white one sleeping in...)

I believe I blame Gene Wolfe for that word. It's an underground dungeon, but the etymology is "forgetting place," which is about right for our poor little Fartknocker.

Bite oftheweek said...

I was talking to my sister who, I discovered just yesterday, dislikes cats. I have to admit that I see her differently now. I find that I just cannot relate to people who could dislike cats. I become suspicious of their humanity.

oh, I almost forgt--beautiful post

twif said...

keif. don't feel bad about writing a cat post. hell, i've given even writing anything and resorted to occassionally just tossing baby pictures up.

Archaeopteryx said...

Beautiful cat. Beautiful post.

I know the post isn't about this, but...from an evolutionary fitness standpoint, domestication is about the best thing that could happen to a species. There are probably more domestic cows alive on the planet now than there were wild cows throughout the history of the species. Same for dogs vs. wolves, and domestic cats vs. wild cats, and so on. I would imagine it's also true about domestic humans.

Archaeopteryx said...

O/T--Hi Bite!

Keifus said...

Bite: Oh, I could think of any number of totally realistic reasons: childhood cat trauma, allergy, sufficient dislike of cat-poo-smell, excessive rationalism (might make your point), anthropocentrism, hypersenstive lap syndrome, nightmarish feline monster lurking in the closet....

twif: Your baby pictures have been pretty rare too. I'm holding out for the bunny suit, though.

Arch: That always makes me feel a lot less guilty about being a carnivore. Think of the cows! (The species, that is.) Some domestic animals do okay in the wild though, even in these urbanized times. Pigs go happily feral, and Hipparchia can tell you about the cats

As for domestication, it appears to have caused speciation once or twice. The case for maize, isn't it? (And does genetic engineering still fit in an evolutionary paradigm?)

twif said...

yeah, i'll have to toss some more up. work sucks. i've somehow been turned into something called a "senior incident manager". basically that means when something breaks in a bad way, i get to tell other people to fix it. i don't even get the fun of debugging anymore.