Fri Jun 24th, 2005 at 09:25:38 AM EST
Friday cat blogging with a European twist: Following up this, I have translated another story by existentialist philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe - an animal fable from his 1941 masterpiece, On the Tragic. Here a bunch of castaway cats face a deep dilemma in trying to survive on a desert island. The fable is an image of the human condition, of which Zapffe took a pessimistic view.
Feel free to treat this as an open thread, complete with pics of favorite felines.
By Peter Wessel Zapffe
Excerpt from On the Tragic, Oslo 1941.
From the Norwegian by Sirocco
Once upon a time there was a ship carrying cats, a lot of cats of all kinds, to a World Exhibition on Hawaii. Underway, the ship sunk ‘with men and mice’, the cats clinging to matresses and other strange things and drifting ashore on a desolate island. There was no life on this island except certain sprightly and irresistibly funny, but sadly inedible beetles, so at first sight they appeared all condemned to miserable death.
Then it was discovered that the soft clay along the beach brimmed with fat and delicious clamshells, easily opened with a claw or two. Thus arose for most a terrible dilemma. The only decent path was surely to leap like tigers for the beetles, the alternative being a foul activity to which no cat of the genus Felidae would descend. They represented the Cat as it had jumped forth from the mind of God, as one of them had learned by mom’s knee while a kitten at Mrs. Bloom’s, and the very thought of it abhorred them utterly.
But ‘cat, schmat’, as the madam also used to say, and sure enough, it was not long before the first ones dipped their paws and were followed by others, there being soon a veritable rush. Indeed they displayed such indifference to feline standards as to lie in the pleasantly sun-warmed mud merely gorging and breeding – their progeny slurping clams as soon as weaned. At fitting intervals they would raise their mudstained faces to squint at the snobs ashore; scorn and ridicule altered with a glowing hatred as the sight of land cats reminded them of their betrayal against the family’s precious heritage.
Optimism became a treasured way to dull their awareness of guilt and inferiority. Before long, they had to extend their defences; the land cats were called neurotics and psychotics – tricky words, but stimulating to the mud colony. Finally an analyst was sent up from the beach; he found resistance against recovery and diagnosed a fear of water. The plebeians were in triumph, but the others too were convinced by the explanation and acknowledged it, knowing well what the bottom line was.
By contrast, the cats of prey became pessimists. Not due to such burdens as the others gave weight to – lesions and starvation, choking and cold – but to finding themselves put into a world of poor terms for the sacred formula in their hearts. In recognition of this fact they instilled reproduction, the future appearing darker day by day.
Then prophets arose among them to teach the art of hope: Once upon a time we all came from a land where the objects of our noble pursuit could also be eaten and digested. Yet many were slothful, neglecting to exercise their nimbleness and strength, and that is why the ship went ashore. Now death awaits the faithful, but after death a new ship will come for the ones who did not fail. And then all those who lived in sin shall perish, and no ship shall come to deliver them.
But hunger tore their bowels, and they would whine in many keys and say: “Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach, in unsrer Brust!” Still some became traitors and went into vulgus and sated themselves, whilst others converted by the prophet’s word and went ashore and cleansed their pelt and prepared for their great departure. The proudest of them formed a fraternity, publically declaring it the duty of any honest cat to die before selling one’s soul for a dish of clams. And when the leader felt his powers waning, he laid down on a stub to die what humans call a tragic-heroic death. Many would revere him as a saint and follow his lead, as they could not bring themselves to useful resignation; those stayed faithful to the highest ideals of felinity, though they saw through the prophet’s consolation and fought despair in their hearts.
Yet a majority in both camps became slaves of eternal doubt, dividing their time between uneasy satedness and abstinence with devouring wants. It was of course a relief to be rid the aristocrats; but the new maxim of merging with the crabs proved unrealisable in the end.