The Paradoxical Cat

In the nineteenth century, it was common to refer to any cat generically as “pussy” or “tabby.” In this 1869-70 article we can see the great interest that Americans were developing towards compiling knowledge about the animals they were adopting as family members in droves (“Pussy,” reprinted in the compendium, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine vol. XL). Cataloguing a history of cat worship beginning with the Egyptians, this writer traces historical and global attitudes then turns to a rather harsh critique of the feline character. Both defending the cat from the historical “savage cruelty” that has been the hallmark of the Occident’s treatment of the cat, then undercutting his/her own defense by demonizing the cat (“[f]or cunning and treachery are the leading features in the character of cats”), the writer illustrates the conflicted way in which cats were viewed during this period. Alongside a valorization—Kathleen Kete has called this a “rehabilitation”—of the cat remained a strong aversion to its alleged character flaws (selfish, unfeeling, disloyal, supernatural). It was a general question, really: what do we do with the cat? Is it good? Is it bad? Can we trust it?

The article is accompanied with various (multicultural!) images of cats that for the most part portray the cat in a desirable light—yet another jarring contrast to the charges the writer levies against this animal. 

At this moment in our cultural history, the cat occupied a unique paradoxical position, a position which I hypothesize likely served certain interests in the cultural wars. In the third chapter of my book, I am exploring the how and why of these paradoxical discourses about the cat, which were so frequently juxtaposed, as a matter of general practice, against discourses of the loyal and faithful dog. 

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