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From devil’s spawn to a feline personality—the change that has occurred in our perception of these ...
2023-09-12 21:26:00

Who Meows at Whom?

Daniel Mróz, from the archive,1966 r.
Who Meows at Whom?
Who Meows at Whom?

From devil’s spawn to a feline personality—the change that has occurred in our perception of these creatures has more to do with us than it does with them.

Read in 13 minutes

The eternal debate of whether cats or dogs are superior is less than sensible (both dogs and cats can be marvelous companions). Yet there is no denying that cats have recently taken the lead as people’s favorite pets. Laura A. Vocelle, an American authority on the subject, writes in Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat that in 2015 to 2016 in the United States alone, nearly ninety million cats were under people’s care, while around the world their population exceeded six hundred million.* Every social media user has likely noticed that cats have taken over the internet: their videos claim millions of likes on Facebook and Instagram, cat memes are among the most popular, and adding a photo of a cat to your post is a foolproof way of increasing your followers. Grumpy Cat, Simon’s cat, or the highly expressive Stepan from Kharkiv, whose evacuation from war-torn Ukraine last year was followed on social media by tens of thousands—who among us has not seen them at least once? We all have a cat-lover in our circle of friends, we may even be that person ourselves. Perhaps this explains the joke that cats have taken over the world?

Watch Those Jokes

Here, a problem arises: a seemingly innocent joke, and one of the most popular kinds, is based on the harmful stereotype of the cat as a manipulator, covertly desiring power. People still stereotype cats, sometimes making them malicious, vengeful, and defiant and at other times free, independent, and individual. Not everyone knows both ideas are inaccurate: the traits of cats, like those of people, are not permanent, and these animals surely do not possess human attributes. If someone were to say, for instance, that people are envious, they’d look like a fool; we all know that some are and some aren’t. The same goes for cats. They’re different. They vary in terms of personality and history.

“I would like to dispute the widespread view of the unchanging Nature of the Domestic Cat, as well as its stereotyped portrayal as independent, unpredictable, and mysterious, for which it was once despised, and is presently much-loved,” forcefully declares French historian Éric Baratay in his book, Cultures Félines (Cat Cultures).** “Too often we forget that this image, created by naturalists, writers, artists, and philosophers, particularly those in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was inspired by special cat-human relationships, creating the proper feline conditions and environment for them, and all of it together produced a special kind of cat, the embodiment of a certain version of cat, and not the Cat as such.” Baratay, who is tied to the Université de Lyon and is a specialist in animal studies (interdisciplinary studies exploring animal-related issues in the social sciences and the humanities), focuses on the shifts in feline behavior models from a historical perspective, encompassing the lives of several generations of these mammals in a defined territory. He does not deny the existence of biological determinants, which are, to some extent, binding in cats (much as human biological determinants condition us), but he stresses that they are more flexible than we are accustomed to, giving cats a truly broad framework for lasting behavioral variations. In interacting with a changing environment, household cats not only produce cultures that differ from one another, they can also pass on the cultural models they produce to future generations.

Take belly rubbing. Cat behaviorists believe that if animals do not learn to be stroked this way in the first months of their lives, they will not like it, and if they do consent to it, it will only be for a short time out of kindness to their caretaker—then they lose patience and start biting. In our home this law does not hold: both our stray cats, taken in at around the age of six months, love to be pet in this way, they encourage it and want it to last forever. Moreover, they don’t scratch or bite—ever! These are the particular traits of our household cat culture, developed through long-term interaction.

It should come as no surprise that Baratay takes his research apparatus from the human social sciences and humanities. “Now, as we increasingly acknowledge the existence of differences between cats and their complexities, it turns out that in studying them, we can use tools made for the complex creatures par excellence, human beings,” he explains. In studies of cats’ lives he adopts the anthropological premises of the school of personalism; above all, he focuses on individual cats, on the stories of Mimi or the personality of Blaise. He does not see culture as a system isolated from life, and denies it is permanent—every culture, including that of cats, is a dynamic process subject to constant construction and selection. As such, Baratay believes we ought to build a sociology, geography, and ethnology of cat behavior. He calls his field of study “animal historical eth(n)ology.”

A (Mis)understanding

Éric Baratay’s approach to cat studies signals a fundamental change that has and continues to transpire in human-animal relations. Its vital symptoms include a shift from the “it’s only an animal” approach, justifying cruelty and exploitation, to courts doling out punishments for animal abuse, ethically motivated veganism, such unprecedented phenomena as the evacuation of animals from Ukraine, or the category of “non-human person.” This is based on the premise that humans are not the “crowning glory of creation”—they are animals among other animals, and many traits erroneously thought to be exclusively human are shared with other species, including high intelligence or the capacity for mental suffering. This means universalizing the right to life, respect, and well-being. Although the list of these non-human persons presently only includes selected species (killer whales, dolphins, orangutans), more and more caretakers are changing their attitude toward their furry friends. It’s less humanizing them and more respecting the value of their different species. The experience of living with a cat leads to the same conclusions that science has reached through other methods: people and cats have much in common. So much, that we can coexist quite well. Baratay writes: “It has been shown that, when it comes to social behavior, people and cats have equal structures and brain functions, inherited from a common ancestor. This facilitates interaction and socialization between them, and similar physiological and neurological mechanisms in expressing behavior and emotions.”

We should stress: these “equal structures” and other similarities do not mean an identity. The meaning we ascribe to cat behavior often disagrees with its true meaning in the animal world. We understand it differently, humanly; yet paradoxically, this misunderstanding builds a greater bridge between us. Human-cat interactions, Baratay explains, “partly presuppose a mutual misunderstanding” and this “lies at the heart of the clumsy, complex, and fickle pairing.” A good example may be the cat’s habit of bringing its prey to its caretaker’s bed: we like to see this gesture as a sign of love and appreciate the present. Meanwhile, the cat has just chosen this place as the safest spot for a freshly hunted stuffed mouse. This basic misunderstanding does not stop us from feeling mutual satisfaction (we feel we’ve been given a gift, the cat has a sense of security) and it strengthens our mutual relationship.

Descartes’s Razor

The flip side of the subjectification of animals in today’s world is the old heritage of ignorance still lingering here and there, and the associated insensitivity. This appears not only in stressing the differences between people and animals, but also the distinctiveness and superiority of Homo sapiens over nature. These attitudes are deeply rooted in Western religions and philosophies.

To this day, Christians like to recall Yahweh’s command to Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis: “Fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28), which is seen as justifying human egoism, or anthropocentrism. This is harmful because it is human egocentrism that has led to the cruel exploitation of animals and the plunder of natural resources, and consequently, climate change since the 1970s along with the associated lethal weather anomalies. The negative impact of the Christian religion on the Westerner’s approach to nature could not be mollified by the odd desperate attempts to counteract this evil, such the Gospel of the Holy Twelve, a fictional apocrypha written in 1901 by Gideon Ouseley, in which Jesus has mercy on the cats and extols a vegetarian diet.

Cartesianism—a philosophical tendency considered foundational to Western modernity—has also had a long following in European culture. This is a standpoint developed in the seventeenth century, based on the metaphysics and philosophy of French mathematician René Descartes. He stated that the mind and body differ substantially and are independent of one another. This seemingly innocent concept translated into many further conceptual dichotomies, separating culture from nature and people from animals. In Cartesianism, an animal became with regard to humans what the body was to the mind: soulless matter, meat to be carved up. Descartes wrote with terrifyingly mechanistic detachment: “First of all, I perceive that there is a big difference between the mind and the body insofar as the body, by its nature, is always divisible whereas the mind is evidently indivisible. When I reflect on the mind (or on myself insofar as I am simply thinking a thing), I certainly cannot distinguish any parts in myself; instead I understand myself to be a completely unified and integral thing. And even though the whole mind seems to be united with the whole body, if however a foot, an arm, or any other part of the body is cut off, I know that nothing is thereby taken away from the mind” (Meditations, trans. Desmond M. Clarke). This utterly external, borderline psychopathic way in which the philosopher sees the body is at the core of global capitalism, which began to choke the planet a few centuries later.

A Culture of Hatred

The history of Christian Europe is the history of the persecution of cats. “The Church still focused on imaginary links between cats and the forces of evil,” writes Laura A. Vocelle about the Middle Ages. Cats were persistently demonized, becoming victims of crime. They were used to combat the Church’s opponents; the hierarchs created and spread images of Jews surrounded by cats, symbolizing heresy, and in the thirteenth century, crusades were organized against the Catharists, whose name derived from the Latin catus. The extermination of the Catharists followed the accusation that they worshiped Satan in the form of a cat and practiced sexual perversions with these animals.

The belief in the tie between cats and women is older than Europe, and probably traces back to ancient Egypt where the goddess Bastet was patron of fertility, motherhood, and the home fires. She was a powerful and popular deity whose cult spread from the Nile across the whole of the Roman Empire. It was only under the rule of Emperor Theodosius I in the fourth century that Christianity’s position strengthened enough to delegalize pagan cults throughout the empire, including Egypt. The old gods slowly faded into oblivion—their figures blurred and their competences mixed. The sinister association between cats and women was probably the work of the Greeks or Romans, permanently joining the Egyptian cults of Isis and Bastet with those of Artemis and Hecate. The latter was the goddess of necromancy, the Moon, and magic, and could shape-change, which links up with the notion that women later accused of witchcraft were able to transform into cats. It was said that by day they surrounded themselves with cats, using them as means of transport when they traveled for their Sabbath, and then together they worshiped Satan, who also could turn into a cat. Generations of French people, Baratay writes, were brought up convinced that “on St. John’s Eve there was not a single cat in town, for they had all headed for a great Sabbath.” In the town of Metz in Lorraine, known for the frequent burning of alleged witches for four centuries, cats were publicly burned as well. “Although cats were good at controlling the vermin population,” Laura A. Vocelle notes, “people repaid them with bestial death in flames, and even threw them from bell towers and other tall buildings: at the cloth hall in Ypres this was practiced until 1817. Most of these revolting deeds were accompanied by church ceremonies and commemorations of saints.”

As such, it ought not to surprise us that in Christian art the cat personified a dark force opposed to God, and in superstitions and legends, as a “messenger of the demons” or “devil’s brood,” it brought sickness, misfortune, and death. In the mid-eighteenth century this hateful ideology was crowned by Georges de Buffon’s Natural History, in which cats were “scientifically” ascribed duplicity, hypocrisy, and perversion, and even were said to have insincere eyes and a furtive gait.

The long process that led human-cat relations to their present state began in the late Middle Ages—here we find the oldest testimonies of the beauty of cats living alongside people. These are few in number and mostly come from aristocrats or monks from contemplative orders, and thus, people with time and other resources for fostering empathy. These attitudes began to spread in the Renaissance—still only among the elite and often as a result of the import of Syrian or Persian cats with light-colored fur, which the Europeans perceived as the opposite of the common black alley cat. It sometimes happened that people would praise their Eastern pets and fiercely persecute the despised alley cats.

Our furry friends still did not have names in that epoch, yet there was far less tendency toward violence against them. Step by step, cats began to gain subjecthood in people’s eyes. The first epitaph for a cat was written in France in 1558, the first book about cats—Les Chats by François-Augustin de Paradis de Moncrif—came out in 1727. Its author, a writer and a poet, stressed the role of cats in the history of humanity (Egypt) and their presence “at the side of people of great intelligence and power, from Montaigne to Richelieu.” It was the eighteenth century that brought a great breakthrough in cat history: for the following three centuries, their positive reappraisal in Europe would grow until, by the latter half of the twentieth century, solicitude and care for these animals became the norm in the West. Living conditions also gradually changed for household cats, and as a result, their behavior and culture. “Today overt violence prompts outrage and is exemplarily punished,” writes Baratay. “Today’s cats have become the most valued companion animals in the countries of the West, and in Americanized Japan.”

The Pack Life

It is true: cats and people are closer than ever before. They are treated like family members, or part of a pack of various species, sometimes including dogs, with whom these allegedly asocial furballs can get along just fine, under the right conditions. Cats are given costly medical attention, transported in cars and planes, taken on walks in leashes and to cat playgrounds; we bring them to cat psychologists, prescribe them pills for depression, and buy them plots at pet cemeteries. For many people, their close relationship with their household cat is no less valuable than friendship with another person. As Baratay notes, in the twenty-first century, active cats are increasingly appreciated—ones that like to play and have contact with people—and this, in a kind of feedback mechanism, this ensures that they become more and more this way.

A personal approach to living with cats demands big things from us, encapsulated in two words: love and respect. In everyday terms, this means that a great deal can be learned from cats, not only self-control and equilibrium but also the art of making compromises and concessions. These include securing windows and balconies with netting (though many find this aesthetically unappealing) so that the cat does not fall, wound itself, or get lost; setting up scratch-poles in the home or building a “cat road,” even though these constructions rarely match our interiors; and giving up houseplants that are poisonous to cats, such as peace lilies, monsteras, or poinsettias, even if they are among our favorites. It also means we cannot be lazy by neglecting the cat’s needs, we must include some playtime every day, and take into account the special needs of the feline when planning such cataclysms as long trips, a new child in the family, renovations, or a move.

Yet the most important thing is to stay vigilant toward our own biases, of which no one is completely free. Convictions of the “inborn” nastiness of cats, immortalized in the popular jokes about how they maliciously piss in our slippers, vengefully overturn our Christmas trees, and other stunts, are heard so often even from cat-lovers that cat behaviorist Aleksandra Zawadzka-Glinka included a warning in several points in her book A Cat (Has) Lived with Me:

“Whatever problem your cat may cause, remember:

He wasn’t acting out of spite (no cat is ever spiteful).

A cat’s behavior is a symptom—it is how he tries to tell you that something is wrong. Something has changed in his health or in his environment to make his behavior problematic.

A cat does not seek revenge—he calls out for help.”***

This bears remembering.

Illustration by Marek Raczkowski
Illustration by Marek Raczkowski

Translated from the Polish by Soren Gauger

*Vocelle, L.A., Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat (Lightning Source Inc, 2016). 

** Baratay, Eric, Cultures félines (XVIIIe-XXIe siècle): Les chats créent leur histoire (Paris: SEUIL, 2021)

***Zawadzka-Glinka, Aleksandra, Zamieszka(ł) ze mną kot (Kraków: EMG, 2022)


Renata Lis

is a writer and translator, whose works include “Lesbos” (a book about love and exile), and completely unique biographies of Flaubert and Bunin, for which she was nominated for awards (one of which she won). She can’t decide whether she’s a pine dreaming of being a palm, or the other way around, so she alternates her travels between Greece and Russia; she’s been as far as Kamchatka.