Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Cat

A few days ago, The Bear died. He was 21, and that’s a venerable age for a cat, yet the news of his death were met with messages of sympathy from a lot of Tom Cox’s readers. I’ve written about Tom Cox and his novels last month, and indeed The Bear had become a familiar character: I had grown to expect his daily, thoughtful pondering on the feline condition — and now he’s gone. Some may think it is a very bourgeois, western thing to mourn the loss of an animal, and, as Tom Cox and many of his readers went to buy necessities for local animal shelters after The Bear passed away, some may also think it is a charity misplaced. Wouldn’t the simplest of morals suggest we turn our love and compassion towards our fellow humans, rather than the pets that have come to populate our lives?

There’s an anecdote I must have heard for the first time, I believe, in a lecture by Abdal Hakim Murad, but which you’ll find around in many versions. Once, there was an imam trained in the best of universities, who went in a small, rural town of Egypt. He was young and brilliant, and he had hoped for a better place to kick off, as it were, his career, but he decided to make the best of it, and, one day, he delivers the most beautiful, the best thought khutbah. Yet, his words are so refined and his meaning so abstract, that he leaves his audience unmoved, but for an old man, who’s crying at the back. Once the prayer is over, the imam goes and congratulates the man on his deep love for God. The old man replies: “Oh, I didn’t understand a lot of what you were saying, but my favorite goat died yesterday, and seeing your beard move like that, it reminded me of her.”

To some, this anecdote shows a man whose interest in the dunyā stands on the way to spiritual enlightenment, but to others, such as Abdal Hakim Murad, it is a story about how great imams are those who understand their community, no matter how remote nor humble. It is a story about how love for one’s goat, or camel, or dog, is a sign of the capacity to love, and therefore to love God. Kindness and mercy for the animals is, of course, an important, well documented aspect of Islam, and of the life of the Holy Prophet himself. Cats, in particular, are seen, since the time of the Salaf, as the natural companions to humans, even blessed by the holy touch of Muhammad.

Islam is by no mean the only religion to reflect on the human love for domestic animals, and this love is by no mean endemic to modern, western cultures. Such a love may be predicated on the respect for the beauty of a created world, or come from a wise understanding of a complex cosmos. It is often reasoned that animals are more natural than humans in a sense, and that, as such, they are also more authentic. Some animals are also seen as mysterious, even domestic animal such as cats, and in the mysteries of their lives and thoughts, one would see the spiritual mysteries of one’s own life. The Internet interest for cats is known to have far deeper cultural roots than the so-called superficial and narcissistic selfie-civilisation self-proclaimed philosophers are used to complacently describe, well-groomed in their freshly ironed shirts under the TV studio spotlights.

So The Bear died, and he was mourned, as were many cats before him. Last year, my cat died. He was named Malo — because chat Malo — and we had just settled in a new town, a few months before. One day he stopped eating, and a week later, he was put to sleep, as they say, only four or five years old. I still don’t know exactly what was wrong with him: his unsuccessful treatment had left me nearly broke, and I couldn’t offer the post-mortem examination. The doctor’s best bet was something like an undetected leukemia. All I know is that the last night the vet called me, and I walked in the streets in the dark of winter, and went in the room by a small, backdoor, as the main desk was long closed, to find Malo screaming and crying because of his unexplained pain. He looked at me with terror and expectation, or maybe it’s what I choose to believe, that in his last few minutes, he still thought I could feed him, or scratch him, find him a warm blanket or clean his litter, and that all would be better then. I kissed him crying and a few moments later, he was dead.

Malo always hated it when I cried. He was like one of these good friends that love you dearly, and yet can’t find anything to say when you’re sad, so they pat you on the back, and take you to fix their car. To be fair, by all accounts, Malo was a mean bastard, and that’s what I liked about him. He would hide in the houses I would built for him with whatever box laid around, and wait for a good opportunity to attack me. Often, when I was working on the computer, he would climb the chair and bite me in the neck. He didn’t like most strangers and made a point they knew it by the time they left. He had a talent for disappearing acts, which was impressive considering he lived in a minimalistically furnished appartement. Once, a couple of friends had to drive him from one corner of France to the other during two days, which he spent, I was told, trying to claw off their hands.

At first, I was puzzled by this violence of which I would later grow so fond. It came as a surprise, as he was given to the friend with whom I was living at the time by a nice family, who had assured her they were sad to part with him, but that they had to, since their little girl had developed some king of asthma. They had called him Marcel, which, when I think back, was already quite suspicious, and described him as a nice, gentle cat, but not very active. He was, in fact, a young, muscular, traditional Siamese, who almost certainly would have enjoyed leather jackets, loud rock music, and vigorous confrontation with the police. After he started endearing himself to us with a few attempted murders, we asked his first vet if perhaps there was something we were doing wrong with him, to which she replied he was simply spirited and we should try to entertain him with paper balls.

Malo obviously preferred human flesh to paper. To be fair, he also liked plants quite a lot, and it was a crucial mistake to leave a bag of fresh vegetables unattended by his side, as it would almost certainly mean waking up next morning in his vomit. With that, he was posh and drank only running water, a so-called primal instinct, according to his vet, that preserved him from the dangers of stagnant pools, but which led to the buying of rather complex machines, paralleled only by the fountains of Versailles. Finding the right fountain turned out to be a bit of challenge, as Malo also enjoyed, it appeared, thermal therapy and basic engineering, and would either bath in the running water or skillfully put the thing appart, when I was asleep.

Blood-crazed yet indoor-trained as he was, he thought he could easily get the upper hand on a herring gull, a sweet delusion I never tried to fight in him, when, ready to jump, he would watch them fly by the window. I could have reminded him of the many times he had fallen of a chair sleeping, or of the several occasions his toy mouse had evaded capture, but eventually I found it sweet he didn’t know how easily the average gull would rip his intestine out. I often wondered since then if he would have retained his naive psychopathy growing older, or if he would have traded his cocaine stash and bad habits for a suburb pillow, and a membership in a right-wing bookclub.

Malo did certainly give new depths to the Malo Song in Britten’s Turn of the Screw. With that, he was also very sweet, which led me to theorize his split personality. Maybe he had ingested some strange and dangerous potion in his unknown youth, or maybe he had just decided, long ago, to go off his meds and enjoy a life full of surprises. Still, every day, he would wait for me to come back from work at the door, and jump on my knees as I sat down, with no interest for food or anything else than a good, long hug. It is true that in the morning also, he liked to be hugged, which he often demonstrated by expediently cleaning the nightstand. When he wanted to play, he would bring his toy to my feet, a doglike behavior often found in Siamese cats. When I wanted to play, he would also indulge me.

He left me with a small scar on my upper lip, better reflexes, and fond memories. His life was short, but, as Achilles, he made his ennemies in battle remember him.

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