January 11, 2007

The Necessary Consolation

A table space cluttered with books and papers, notebooks and pens and pencils for underlining. A window before it overlooks rooftops. There are children in the museum on the horizon, cars small and constant on Lakeshore Drive, garbage men lifting the heavy stench of the curbed cans on the block below, tired people scattered in the commuter trains that make the dull sound of metal scraping as they slide by; appearance measures out the time. The world is at work. The trucks throttle and roar, beep when they back up. Another train passes, this one heading south.

And at the table, the flirtations with thought occur just apart from that hive of activity; apart from and still a part of the world. Up here there is the sound of typing, writing, a page turned, and miraculously, the constant presence the cats. There is a wonderful tradition of the cat and the desk and it is a great lesson to turn from the focus and find them assuming some position, pose or slant-eyed gaze. Nothing tormented, but nothing vague and easy, either. Their presence is in the heavy sighs of sleep, the other's bold morning meows of enthusiasm becoming a deep, vibrating purr. It has become impossible not to think of them as endorsing these efforts to think, to translate solitude out of solitude, to take in the world and remake it in some tentative, active understanding.

At the same time they are the counter-balance to the absorbing retreat and delusion. They are constantly in motion or at rest, so purely so that they captivate and claim a different register of our attention. As love objects, they pacify and expose.

In the close of her preface to Writing is an Aid to Memory, Lyn Hejinian writes, "Though we keep company with cats and dogs, all thoughtful people are impatient, with a restlessness made inevitable by language."

Yes, language imposes itself as an object in the world, a stone to which are we bound, or which we try forever to roll up a hill, or from which we hammer out a figure hunched and restless, head set upon a fist. "In a full and extensive solitude / I do not understand" Hejinian reminds.

But the cat and the dog, the living creature at peace or fret, seeking the place of rest, exploring the corner of the room, stretching out under the desk-lamp light, imploring our hand, offer up the without of language, brief cure for its anxieties. So one may be impatient and stricken with whatever does not materialize in, or yield to, thought (as it seems, too many think it simple to think, as if reading what is were a matter of common God-given sensations). The animal reminds that this is all a way of existence, and that beside it the small overtures to touch the word, if genuine, constitute, beside the cat on the desk, "a place in the world where breathes the truest sympathy, the most sincere compassion for all the diverse facets of the heart." With those words the French philosopher Jean Grenier, in his essay on his cat, Mouloud, argues for the permanence of patience in the presence of struggles to know.

Describing an attic room where he worked and Mouloud would set his paws against the page, the lesson of the creature is a blissful, joyous attention, including the interruptions and pauses for paws and scratches and movements to other windows and their frames of reference. The object is not as important as the attitude with which it is approached. The greedy cat of a city alley angling for scraps and survival is not, he says, as properly placed as a cat in an apartment appointed with a corner stove and a window overlooking canals, a space from which to watch the boatmen carry on. Our studies, he says, like the cats' watching, is a way of living in the world:

"There is nothing better for enduring the coming days than sitting down for several hours at any odd subject. Renan persistently studied his Hebrew dictionary every morning and this brought him the consolation necessary to live. I do not believe that 'studies' can have any other interest. Everything one can learn is contemptible, but it is not contemptible to learn the game of patience which allows us to await our end."