July 03, 2006

Insignificance

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd;
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied—not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.

I do not believe in God, but I believe in cats. Little gods, they are, I often say: like gods but real, manifest. Tangible where God is not, where God is none of these. I believe in them, with awe and fascination, with pleasure and with joy. My heart skips at the sight of an unexpected cat: running, slinking, sitting, prowling, contemplating me with curiosity and suspicion from its superior position. "A cat!" I cry, catching my breath on seeing a cat leap a gap or scamper down an alleyway. "A cat!" I cry, "a pussycat!" as a cat comes round the corner and watches my rub my fingers together in an effort to attract them with movement. "A cat!" I cry, "it is a cat! It is indeed a cat!" as a cat inspects my appearance from atop a wall. I cannot help it. I have not always been like that, but now I am: over the last ten years, give or take, I have become a worshipper of cats. Their friend, their advocate, aware always of their presence or of the possibility that they may come. I am ready for them, permanently. I look for them and when one is seen, my mood, where low, is lifted: where high, is transmitted to the cat and anyone who is with me.

I think about them often, and often I think about why this is so. How has this come about? Their grace, their beauty? There is no creature in the world so perfect as a cat. Their intelligence, their cunning? These, too - to be in the presence of a cat is to be aware of a mind that will do battle with your own. But while these would inspire admiration, admiration is short of joy. What do they have, these cats, such that I experience such joy in seeing them? What have they done, what do they do? I didn't understand: so in search of understanding, I turned to God. Or not to God directly, not to the non-existent God but to the idea of his existence.

Because while cats are real and God is not, that was not all that separated them in my mind. The God-idea claims moral virtue, claims that he, or it, embodies Good: while what they actually embody is Power. We flatter God and worship him as a courtier might have flattered a Pharoah, living in the permanent fear of punishment and death. A cat makes no such claim: a cat could not care less about your opinion. The God-idea prescribes your moral code. It is the God-idea's most basic and important purpose - the God-idea instructs you how to live. The cat makes no prescription, other than its wants and needs should come before all others. Both God and Cat are egoists, but when the cat is satisfied, the cat's will is done. God, for his part, is never satisfied. The cat tells you what he wants - God tells you what to be. Which is what is evil about the God-idea, unavoidably evil, evil in its very nature. A cat does not tell you you should be like a cat: nor does it tell you what sort of person you should be. A cat creates no universes and destroys no worlds.

Yet that is not all there is to God, or his Idea. I cannot abide the moral lessons, I hate and fear them: but sometimes I understand the idea of God as Creation, as the wholeness, the greatness, the hugeness of the world. The idea of God that comes from the contemplation of the sky, once one is outside the man-made city and can see its whole extent, its infinite variety of colour, where one can feel its vastness and set it against one's own impossibly tiny self. Or the idea of God that comes from experiencing the presence of teeming nature, a proliferation of different colours, different natures, different purposes, the organisation of the ants, the fragility of the butterflies, the way the greenness changes from moss to grass to bush to tree. The many millions of variations that exist on each of these, the hundreds and thousands that exist around you, beneath you and above you as you walk and watch, far too many even to register except by closing your eyes and feeling them everywhere and you as part of them, as part of this Creation multiplied to infinity, which does not spring from God but from which springs the idea of God.

Or there is the idea of God which springs from feeling the awful emptiness of Creation, the spaces that exist between the stars, the loneliness that consists of your own singularity, the fear of falling into the chasm. I suffer from vertigo and a few weeks ago I was in the Pyrenees: I would close my eyes as we went round corners in the car, trying to avoid seeing, with my eyes closed, what I would visualise when they were open. But even when we stopped, and walked, or sat on one side of a valley and looked at the other, I felt the distance between them, felt it as a void, felt it as if falling. And even when I did not think of falling, I felt my smallness, with the mountainside above me, below me and opposite. With the silence, save the flow of the Ara at its bottom, of the valley. Steep mountainsides and us: and other life seemingly absent, except when, occasionally, a bird of prey would circle, far above us. Or below us, since later we drove up to an elevated village, to a restaurant, and from the window I saw a bird - an eagle, a hawk? - circling, looking for the life of which I could see none, and which, if it existed, the bird sought to end.

It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot

From its gaze over the emptiness, from its desire to remove from that emptiness whatever might live and move, appeared that other idea of God, of the Universe as yourself alone and God as the means of your obliteration. God as a world full of life and God as a world empty of it: opposite poles but poles expressing a shared idea, that you yourself are of little moment, no importance. You yourself are overwhelmed, much more than overwhelmed, whether it be by the extent of nature or by the extent of emptiness. None of these things are God, as God does not exist. But they are the idea of God, which derives from the feeling of God, which derives from the feeling of being overwhelmed.

We stayed in a little town called Broto, quiet but not silent, that same sound of the river, with the gushing of water from the falls called Sorrosal.


























We arrived close to night and when night fell, one could hear it, a few hundred metres away: its crash muffled and perceived merely as a rumble, but its potential, its power, implict in that rumble, understood. When morning came, we went and looked: I stood close to the fall, on the rock opposite its pool, outside its fall but close enough to be surrounded by spray. I stood there, on the rock, with the rumble become a roar, with the spray all around me so that whether I closed my eyes or kept them open mattered not a jot. I was enveloped: I was within, so completely within as to have little knowledge of myself, little awareness that there was a self, that a discrete and separate self existed, could exist, could ever have existed. Not totally: I could still think, could still perceive, could still feel I am. But while I could have felt it, I could not, at that moment, while I stood within the spray, have understood it, still less said what it meant. It didn't matter. I no longer mattered. I felt that, and later understood, and I was glad of it.

What does not need to matter, does not matter. I do not need to leave a mark upon the world. I used to want, not to be famous, but to be known: to be a name to which people made reference, a name to which a meaning was attached. I used to write, for many reasons but with this among them:

Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.

Not for money, though to no small extent, as a substitute for money. Not for fame or even influence but in some way, to prove to myself that my life had not been wasted, that I had done the things that I could do. I used to want to change the world, but the world changed itself without my help and not in the way I would have wanted: to make no difference oppressed me with the knowledge of my own futility. And then my life, my mind exploded, for reasons unconnected: after that I could not have written even had I had the will to do so, even had the thought of writing not filled my mind with dread and fear and horror, with the impossible vastness of the task and the certainty of failure even if I could somehow complete it. I gave up, or realised I had given up, or understood, half-understood, half-grasped at the understanding that I could not finish what I started and therefore could not start.

There was little by way of I am, for a while, for a long while indeed. I am not, now, who I was then, in name or place or function, though there is a thread that links us, thin but real, real but thin. I am never sure how I got here from there, but I travelled in the company of cats. In cats I took my solace, though it was not what they offered me. They took from me what they wanted, not what I wanted to give. I could not impress them: I could not impress myself upon them. They accepted me, but did not need me. I realised none of this, not at the time. I understood only that they were good for me. I do not believe I even realised that they were remaking me. Not until I had stood underneath the waterfall at Sorrosal and understood the unimportance of I am.

I do not need to leave my mark. I may not even notice it where it is made. Recently, in a chess magazine to which I have a subscription, I saw an advert for a newly-published book, by an author that I like: I registered the advert and the existence of the book, the front cover of which took up most of the page. I turned the page: and only later, when somebody told me, did I realise that the cover, which I had spent no little time looking at (partly to identify the players, partly because the photo is inverted and the board the wrong way round) bore my mark. My name: my quote, a sentence from a previous review. There I was. A name to which people made reference. I hadn't even noticed, and I laughed.




















I am ready, I think, to write again: soon, very soon. To write, you must know who you are: I think I know this, now. To write, you must know what you want to say:I think I understand this, now. But to write, you must also need to write:

A man makes art because he has to. Why was that made?
You have to be ready. I think that I am ready. I think I need to write: but now, what happens after I've written does not matter. That would be a question of I am.

Little gods, they are. They made me, or remade me, or enabled me to happen once again. Their grace, beauty, intelligence: their solitary nature. Their suspicion of people, too, which qualities I share, which make me identify with cats in a way one can never identify with God. All these things, they are, but one thing more and greater, which I feel in Huesca, outside the places which made and shaped me.

Outside and without my country, speaking little, understanding less. Not yet part of this, never likely to belong to it entirely. I wonder if it is not the goal that I have unwittingly aspired to for all my life, always wanting it but never realising that I wanted it. Not until, in the fourth decade of my life, I was taught it, by cats. This is the reason I love them, more than any other. Because they taught me what I wanted. They taught me insignificance.

3 Comments:

At July 03, 2006 6:08 pm, Anonymous Sean said...

There's a line from Orwell's Why I Write I've always remembered. An unusual line, or more specifically, an unusual choice of words. Orwell describes his power of facing difficult facts. Power of facing. I like that, even if I'm not entirely sure why he opted for of, rather than to.

 
At July 05, 2006 10:01 pm, Blogger Ed said...

Hawk Roosting is one of my favourite poems and the lines you quote are my favourite lines from it.

 
At July 07, 2006 12:09 pm, Anonymous Backword Dave said...

You really do write beautifully about cats.

Sean, I can never remember the names of parts of speech beyond the basics and a few Latin terms I picked up later, but it seems to me that "to face" or "to X" implies a possibly transitory action; 'of facing' implies time. "He drank his tea." vs "He spent the day drinking tea." In short, I think GO made the better choice.

 

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