Ursula Le Guin

The Wave in the Mind

“Cats know exactly where they begin and end.”

There is a fracas in my room and it’s directed at me. The cats. One wants to be brushed, because he remembered I did it this morning and thus, know how. The second wants to be let in a room that is currently closed for a reason beneath his standards of reasons rooms should be closed. Both will get their way momentarily.

Both know they will get their way momentarily.

Photograph of Morse. Matching his eye color to the small discs in Fenella Elms' work.
Morse. Matching his eye color to the small discs in Fenella Elms’ ceramic “Flow.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Cats are truly aware of themselves. Perhaps not a mind aware of itself, but certainly a mind aware of its body.1

When novelist, creator of worlds out of words, Ursula Le Guin (October 21, 1929 – January 22, 2018) remonstrates peacefully that “a cat knows exactly where it begins and ends,” she is essentially saying the same.

Cats know exactly where they begin and end. When they walk slowly out the door that you are holding open for them, and pause, leaving their tail just an inch or two inside the door, they know it. They know you have to keep holding the door open. That is why their tail is there. It is a cat’s way of maintaining a relationship. Housecats know that they are small, and that it matters. When a cat meets a threatening dog and can’t make either a horizontal or a vertical escape, it’ll suddenly triple its size, inflating itself into a sort of weird fur blowfish, and it may work, because the dog gets confused again – “I thought that was a cat. Aren’t I bigger than cats? Will it eat me?”

It strikes me, from my years of experience as a cat owner, that cats not only recognize their space, but they own it as well. And if they cannot, they retreat to higher ground, space they can own. They carve out spots and scents, designing the house to their liking, so when something is moved, or a door is closed, it goes against their sense of how things are.

Cats go about righting the wrong, barking for the door to be reopened, for new things to be smelled (and sat on) all the while keeping this absolute spatial genius to themselves.

Edward Lear in 1887. Featured in Lear's "Nonsense Alphabet" in the Examined Life Library.
Edward Lear, author of “The Owl and the Pussycat” and other nonsense verse in 1887. Lear’s arm was thrust into this position because he had been holding his cat Foss, who abandoned the frame right before the picture was taken.

In his masterful collection of feline-inspired verse, T. S. Eliot claimed that all cats had three names. One for the humans, one for the stature, and one that only the cat himself knows.

Le Guin returns is to this idea of physical self-awareness, and how it differs from human awareness:

“Cats have a sense of appearance. Even when they’re sitting doing the wash in that silly position with one leg behind the other ear, they know what you’re sniggering at. They simply choose not to notice. I knew a pair of Persian cats once; the black one always reclined on a white cushion on the couch, and the white one on the black cushion next to it. It wasn’t just that they wanted to leave cat hair where it showed up best, though cats are always thoughtful about that. They knew where they looked best. The lady who provided their pillows called them her Decorator Cats.

If cats see themselves in this way, a body totally aware of itself, how does that integrate with movement, beauty, and aesthetic ideals?

I have an exquisitely tall friend and I once asked him what it was like to be tall and he said he really only noticed it when confronted with opposition: a shorter ceiling, a shorter person, too-short pants. Walking in a field by himself, for example, it was nothing.

We don’t really know what size we are, how we’re shaped, what we look like. The most extreme example of this ignorance must be the people who design the seats on airplanes. At the other extreme, the people who have the most accurate vivid sense of their own appearance may be dancers. What dancers look like is, after all, what they do.

Barbara Hepworth and cat, Nicholson
Barbara Hepworth with her cat Nicholas and “Curved Reclining Form,” 1961. Photograph by Ida Kar. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Human self-awareness is relative, whereas that of a feline is absolute. Le Guin notices that our self-awareness relates to beauty.

Cats and dogs are smarter than us. They look in the mirror, once, when they’re a kitten or a puppy. They get all excited and run around hunting for the kitten or the puppy behind the glass … and then they get it. It’s a trick. A fake. And they never look again. My cat will meet my eyes in the mirror, but never his own.

Who I am is certainly part of how I look and vice versa. I want to know where I begin and end, what size I am, and what suits me. People who say the body is unimportant floor me. How can they believe that? I don’t want to be a disembodied brain floating in a glass jar or a sci-fi movie, and I don’t believe I’ll ever be a disembodied spirit floating ethereally about. I am not “in” his body, I am this body.2

I pondered this “disembodied brain” and it returned me to how I felt when I was pregnant. Pregnancy was very difficult for several reasons, not the least of which was that my body was no longer my body. It became a baby protecting-growing-nurturing machine. No more, no less. My uterus had no memory of how to love or hold. Whatever self I have wobbled around in the vast chamber unbound and neglected, disembodied.

It was only when I gave birth that I felt reconnected to by body. My arms and chest and lips had long memory of hugging and loving and I knew immediately what to do with my babies, once they were on the outside.

Helpless Devotion to Pets
Luna. Photograph by Scott Danzig.

In her wonderful collection of essays on cats, novelist Doris Lessing included a short tale about a cat that gave birth and was – familiarly -alienated by the process. I remember reading it and thinking, this is odd, this doesn’t feel like a cat.

Exception that proves the rule, perhaps.

On the day of the birth she was in labour for three hours or so before she knew it. She miaowed sounding surprised, sitting on the kitchen floor, and when I ordered her upstairs to the cupboard she went. She did not stay there…

I took her up, and made her stay in the cupboard. She did not want to. She simply did not have any of the expected reactions. In fact, she was touching, absurd—and funny, and we wanted to laugh. When the contractions grew strong, she was cross. When she had bad pain towards the end, she miaowed but it was a protesting annoyed miaow. She was annoyed with us who concurred with this process inflicted on her.

From Doris Lessing’s On Cats

Imagine yourself cat. Fully inhabited in the body, fully aware of where you begin and end, even without opposing or defining forces. Or more than that, imagine you have eyes on your arms like octopuses or scent glands in your lips like horses. How is the world different? How is beauty different?

Lewis the cat in the bedroom.
Lewis considers his position. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

If you are, unlike me, free from the petty needs of feline pets, then companion Le Guin’s The Wave in the Mind take a stroll around The Examined Life, I’ve collected quite a few cat-themed things – as any cat owner does. Like an essay on our helpless devotion to pets, the recent science on how pets make us human, and demonstrate our natural instincts towards empathy, as well as T. S. Eliot’s masterful collection of feline-inspired verse. There is even a bone for dog-lovers: Mary Oliver’s melodies of love for our most beloved companions.

Enjoy. I’m off. My mind is here but my body is opening doors and brushing chins.