Thursday, March 06, 2014

`In Close Conversation With the Old Cat'

Relax, suspend disbelief and imagine you have just opened a letter from an old friend that begins with these words: 

“It is a sort of paradox, but it is true: we are never more in danger than when we think ourselves most secure; nor in reality more secure than when we seem to be most in danger. Both sides of this apparent contradiction were lately verified in my experience.” 

Depending on the friend we might judge this a mild indulgence in Chestertonian paradox or an ironic sabotage of same. Is our friend being clever or mocking the sort of cleverness that blurs into sententiousness? Hard to say. Let our friend continue: 

“Passing from the greenhouse to the barn I saw three kittens (for we have so many in our retinue) looking with a fixt attention at something which lay on the threshold of a door nailed up. I took but little notice of them at first, but a loud hiss engaged me to attend more closely, when behold -- a viper! the largest I remember to have seen, rearing itself, darting its forked tongue, and ejaculating the aforementioned hiss at the nose of a kitten, almost in contact with his lips.” 

Now he has our attention. Our correspondent has a story to tell, and a rather good one, and he knows how to milk the suspense. Will the snake bite a kitten? Try to swallow it? Will the kittens maul the snake? What does this have to do with our previously mentioned complacency when it comes to security? Keep reading: 

“I ran into the hall for a hoe with a long handle with which I intended to assail him, and returning in a few seconds, missed him. He was gone, and I feared had escaped me. Still however the kittens sat watching immoveably upon the same spot. I concluded therefore that sliding between the door and the threshold he had found his way out of the garden into the yard.” 

Our friend knows how to tell a story in words cinematically, one frame after another. This is how we’ve learned to pace our storytelling, seamlessly juxtaposing scenes and points of view. Next scene: 

“I went round immediately, and there found him in close conversation with the Old Cat, whose curiosity being excited by so novel an appearance, inclined her to pat his head repeatedly with her forefoot, with her claws however sheathed, and not in anger, but in the way of philosophical enquiry and examination. To prevent her falling a victim to so laudable an exercise of her talents, I interposed in a moment with the hoe, and performed upon him an act of decapitation, which though not immediately mortal, proved so in the end.” 

Our friend is a subtle comedian whose humor is linguistic – “in the way of philosophical enquiry and examination.” He reminds us of A.J. Liebling, who referred to heavyweight boxing as “the laying-on of hands” and described Archie Moore as “a late-maturing artist, like Laurence Sterne and Stendhal.” And how does our friend know his chop of the hoe blade wasnot immediately mortal?” He concludes: 

“Had he slid into the passages, where it is dark, or had he, when in the yard, met with no interruption from the cat, and secreted himself in any of the outhouses, it is hardly possible but that some of the family must have been bitten; he might have been trodden upon without being perceived, and have slipped away before the sufferer could have distinguished what foe had wounded him. Three years ago we discovered one in the same place, which the barber slew with a trowel.” 

So our friend’s caution against delusive security was not ironic. We have reason to be careful. As a serious and deeply emotional Christian, we know our friend may harbor primal fears regarding serpents. We’re grateful for the otherwise unidentified  barber, but wonder what he was doing with a trowel. Our friend is William Cowper, the poet and hymnist, writing to his friend the Rev. William Unwin on Aug. 3, 1782. Cowper didn’t leave the story there, though he probably should have. He also turned it into a mock-heroic poem, “The Colubriad” (meaning, roughly, “snake-saga”), a bit of doggerel about cats.

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