Nonfiction > Carl Van Vechten > The Tiger in the House > Chapter Thirteen
Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964).  The Tiger in the House. 1922.
Chapter Thirteen
        Les bêtes sont au bon Dieu;
Mais la bêtise est à l’homme.

I HAVE written, how skilfully I cannot tell, on the manners and customs of the cat, his graces and calineries, the history of his subjugation of humankind. Through all the ages, even during the dark epoch of witchcraft and persecution, puss has maintained his supremacy, continued to breed and multiply, defying, when convenient, the laws of God and man, now our friend, now our enemy, now wild, now tame, the pet of the hearth or the tiger of the heath, but always free, always independent, always an anarchist who insists upon his rights, whatever the cost. The cat never forms soviets; he works alone.
  We have much to learn from the cat, we men who prefer to follow the slavish habits of the dog or the ox or the horse. If men and women would become more feline, indeed, I think it would prove the salvation of the human race. Certainly it would end war, for cats will not fight for an ideal in the mass, having no faith in mass ideals, although a single cat will fight to the death for his own ideals, his freedom of speech and expression. The dog and the horse, on the other hand, perpetuate war, by group thinking, group acting, and serve further to encourage popular belief in that monstrous panacea, universal brotherhood.   2
  For the next war man will build ships which can make sixty or seventy knots an hour; submarines will skim through five thousand leagues of the sea with the speed of sharks; and airships will fly over cities, dropping bundles of TNT. Saïgon, Berlin, Cairo, Paris, Madrid, and even Indianapolis are doomed to disappear. Man himself will become extinct; crude, silly man, always struggling against Nature, rather than with Nature behind him, helping him forward and across, beyond the abysses and torrents and landslides of existence. And presently everything we know will be over, another cycle of years will begin, and a new “civilization” will arise.   3
  For man has persistently, and perhaps a little intentionally, misunderstood the Prometheus legend. Prometheus was the enemy, not the friend, of man. The fire which he brought to earth was a devastating flame and Zeus, the Nature God, chained him to a rock to protect humanity. This misuse of holy things, this turning of good to the account of evil, this misapplication of natural principles to unnatural practices are the commonplaces of history, the foundations of our present state, and the causes of all misery.   4
  But the cat will survive. He is no such fool as man. He knows that he must have Nature behind him. He also knows that it is easier for one cat alone to fit into the curves of Nature than two cats. So he walks by himself. For Nature here and Nature there are two different Natures and what one cat on the other side of the fence has to do is not what another cat on the other side of the fence has to do. But the great principles are obeyed by all cats to such an extent that twenty, a hundred, a thousand cats will willingly give their lives, which they might easily save, to preserve an instinct, a racial memory, which will serve to perpetuate the feline race. The result will be that, after the cataclysm, out of the mounds of heaped-up earth, the piles and wrecks of half-buried cities, the desolated fields of grain, and the tortured orchards, the cat will stalk, confident, self-reliant, capable, imperturbable, and philosophical, He will bridge the gap until man appears again and then he will sit on new hearths and again will teach his mighty lesson to ears and eyes that again are dumb and blind. Shylock’s doom was foretold by Shakespeare from the moment the poet asked the poor creature to say, “the harmless necessary cat.” For it is possible, nay probable, that the cat, unlike man who forgets his previous forms, remembers, really remembers, many generations back; that what we call instinct may be more profound than knowledge. And so Providence wisely has not allowed the cat to speak any language save his own.   5
  We may dominate dogs, but cats can never be dominated except by force. They can be annihilated, at least a few of them can, but never made servile or banal. The cat is never vulgar. He will not even permit God to interfere with his liberty and if he suffers so much as a toothache he will refuse all food. He would rather die than endure pain. Thus, like the Spartan, he preserves the strength of his stock. He may at any moment change his motto from Libertas Sine Labore or Amica Non Serva to Quand Même.   6
  There is, indeed, no single quality of the cat that man could not emulate to his advantage. He is clean, the cleanest, indeed, of all the animals, absolutely without odour or soil when it is within his power to be so. He is silent, walking on padded paws with claws withdrawn, making no sound unless he wishes to say something definite and then he can express himself freely. He believes in free-speech, and not only believes in it, but indulges in it. Nothing will make a cat stop talking when he wants to, except the hand of death.   7
  He is entirely self-reliant. He lives in homes because he chooses to do so, and as long as the surroundings and the people suit him, but he lives there on his own terms, and never sacrifices his own comfort or his own well-being for the sake of the stupid folk with whom, he comes in contact. Thus he is the most satisfactory of friends. Among men (or women) it is customary to say, “We’re dining with the Ogilvies tonight. We don’t want to go but they’ll never forgive us if we don’t.” Meanwhile the Ogilvies are muttering, “Good God! This is the night those horrible Mitchells are coming to dinner. I wish they would telephone that they cannot come. Perhaps their motor will break down on the way!” The cat neither gives nor accepts invitations that do not come from the heart. If he tries of his friends sometimes, so do I. If he wishes to move he does so. Perhaps to another house, perhaps to the wilds. If he is suddenly thrown on his own resources in the country he can support himself on the highway; he can even support himself in town under conditions that would terrify that half-hearted, group-seeking socialist, the dog. The cat is virile, and virility is a quality which man has almost lost. St. George Mivart insisted that the cat rather than man was at the summit of the animal kingdom and that he was the best-fitted of the mammalians to make his way in the world. 1 I agree perfectly with St. George Mivart. I do not see how it is possible for any one to disagree with him. But the cat makes no boast of his pre-eminent position; he is satisfied to occupy it. He does not call man a “lower animal” although doubtless he regards him in this light. I have dwelt at some length on his occult sense. It can scarcely be overestimated. He has not lost the power of gesture language. With his tail, with his paws, his cocking ears, his eyes, his head, the turn of his body, or the waving of his fur, he expresses in symbols the most cabalistic secrets. He is beautiful and he is graceful. He makes his appearance and his life as exquisite as circumstances will permit. He is modest, he is urbane, he is dignified. Indeed, a well-bred cat never argues. He goes about doing what he likes in a well-bred superior manner. If he is interrupted he will look at you in mild surprise or silent reproach but he will return to his desire. If he is prevented, he will wait for a more favourable occasion. But like all well-bred individuals, and unlike human anarchists, the cat seldom interferes with other people’s rights. His intelligence keeps him from doing many of the fool things that complicate life. Cats never write operas and they never attend them. They never sign papers, or pay taxes, or vote for president. An injunction will have no power whatever over a cat. A cat, of course, would not only refuse to obey any amendment whatever to any constitution, he would refuse to obey the constitution itself.   8
  Feathers is very tired of this book. She has told me so more than once lately. Sometimes with her eyes, gazing at me with impatience while I write. Sometimes with her paws, scratching scornfully at the sheets of paper as I toss them to the floor. Sometimes on my writing table she insinuates herself between me and my work. When I began this book she was a kitten, a chrysanthemum-like ball of tawny, orange, white, and black fuzzy fur, and now she is about to become a mother. Yes, while I have been writing a book, Feathers has experienced teething, love, and now soon will come maternity. It makes me feel very small, very unimportant. What I have done in fourteen months seems very little when it is compared with what she has done.   9
  The mystery of life deepens for her. Her eyes are slightly drawn. She is less active and she wishes more repose. She needs the warmth of my knees, where she desires to sleep uninterrupted by the sound of clicking keys. She is pleading with me to come to an end. And I cannot resist her prayer. See, Feathers, I am nearly done. I am writing the last page. You can come to me now and spend the hours of preparation in my lap, and I offer, rather than this poor book, to test myself as a literary man, after Samuel Butler’s method, by naming your yet unborn kittens. I shall call them, if Nature gives you five, and the sexes permit, aurélie, Golden Feathers, Coq d’Or, Prince Igor, and Jurgen.
    March 4, 1920.
    New York.

Note 1.  St. George Mivart: “The Cat,” P. 492: “The organization of the cattribe may be deemed superior, because it is not only excellent in itself, but because it is fitted to dominate the excellences of other beasts.” [back]



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