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The Cat Laughs

Kevin Power

Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, by John Gray, Allen Lane, 128 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0241351147

Why can’t a person be more like a cat? More specifically: why can’t philosophers be more like cats? John Gray is a philosopher, sort of. But in some ways he would rather be a cat. “Seldom doing anything unless it serves a definite purpose or produces immediate enjoyment, cats are arch-realists,” he says. “Faced with human folly, they simply walk away.”

John Gray is not a cat. (“Humans,” alas, “cannot become cats.”) Faced with human folly – by which he often means the ideas of philosophers – he does not walk away. Instead, he takes folly apart to see how it works. He is an anatomist of error, an encyclopaedist of asininity. Whatever it is, we’ve got it wrong: this is Gray’s burden, his preachment. He does not philosophise, in the academic sense or in any other. He is an anti-philosopher, an enemy of philosophy as such.

Hired to restore the church’s treasured stained-glass windows, Gray scrapes off the ancient smoke and dust, particle by particle. The glass is now clean, but – he finds – intolerably tinted by human artifice. Such a window, he says, can show us nothing. He takes the window out of its frame and smashes the coloured glass. But no: there is still something in the way. Swinging his hammer, he demolishes the church and sweeps away the rubble. Now what remains is merely what was there in the first place: the world, seen clear. We may have nowhere to worship and no protection from the elements, Gray tells the outraged sacristan, but at least we have dispensed with our illusions.

For “church” read any given system of faith or metaphysics; for “sacristan” read human beings (or, as Gray insists on calling them, “humans”). Gray would have us unsheltered and unfooled: unsheltered by systems, unfooled by our need for meaning. To read his books is to find oneself led by a calm, remorseless guide across a landscape of toppled ruins. Behind you lie the crushed temples of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, humanism, Marxism, Enlightenment rationalism. Up ahead, looming blackly, is the wrecked Death Star of Transhumanism. The guide seems affable enough: a bit humourless, perhaps, but excellent company nonetheless. On the other hand, he is the man who has caused all these ruins to fall. Can we trust him?

I see that I have twice now figured Gray as a wrecker, a demolition man. Is that fair? He’s certainly not a builder, or even a repairer of damaged buildings. But there is more to his work than the smashing of icons. Let me shift the analogy. In Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is an alien torture device called the Total Perspective Vortex that works by showing you precisely where you stand in relation to the cosmic totality. Most victims, perceiving their utter insignificance in the scheme of things, go mad. This is what Gray’s work reminds me of. The ten books he has published since the beginning of the twenty-first century constitute a Total Perspective Vortex intended methodically to disabuse us of the more tenacious of our consoling fictions. Straw Dogs (2002) takes out humanism and secular progressivism. Black Mass (2007) rubbishes Christianity, Marxism, and fascism. The Silence of Animals (2013) dismantles human exceptionalism. The Soul of the Marionette (2015) puts paid to free will and the self. Seven Types of Atheism (2018) points out that even getting rid of God represents a kind of faith. And now Feline Philosophy dismisses the enterprise of philosophy in toto.

The crucial difference between Adams’s Total Perspective Vortex and Gray’s is that to enter Gray’s Vortex feels salutary rather than deranging. Or salutary to some of us at least. Plenty of people have, in fact, been deranged by Gray’s work (though they do, now that I mention it, tend to be people who were pretty deranged to begin with). The libertarian columnist Tim Black, reviewing Gray’s essay collection Gray’s Anatomy (2009) for the formerly Marxist, now merely anti-woke website Spiked, found “all the classic Gray components”:

the contrived aphoristic wisdom; the tedious, derivative anti-Enlightenment riffs; and, knitting it all together, the pompous insistence that humans, forever deluded by a mistaken, Christian-inspired sense of their uniqueness, will, in striving to shape the world in their image, only bring misery upon not just themselves but every living thing on Earth.

Critics who find their beliefs threatened by the book under review often adopt the classic pose of world-weary sophistication (“tedious”, “derivative”): much easier than refuting powerful arguments. And if Gray sounds pompous to the philistine ear, this is perhaps because he knows who he is and what he thinks – qualities that have always been caviar to the general. But this is by the by. Black’s account of Gray is colourful (sorry) but misses the point superbly. As does the account offered by Ian Thomson in the Catholic Herald, which sums Gray up as a “career misanthrope”. As, indeed, does the account offered by the left-wing website Open Democracy, in which Gray appears as a reactionary and “one of the intellectual leaders of the nationalist Right”.

These accounts are representative of the elite response to Gray’s work. For leftists, he’s a rightist; for rightists, a leftist. He has, for instance, been accused of dragging the New Statesman to the right. But he could just as plausibly be accused of dragging the Daily Mail, for which he also writes, slightly to the left. The whole point of Gray is that he doesn’t think in terms of right or left. He thinks in Gray-scale, which encompasses millennia.

But let’s say it again: to call Gray a misanthrope or a reactionary or a nationalist (or to apply to him any other term from the vocabulary of contemporary political morality) is to miss the point. His books are not attacks on humanity as such. Nor is he tubthumping for a particular politics or even a particular morality (I’ll come in a moment to the question of whether or not a specific politics can or should be extracted from Gray’s work). Instead, his books are in the first instance the record of an honourable attempt to discover what can be said about human beings if we dispense, as thoroughly as we can, with the things that human beings have said about themselves. To step out of Gray’s Total Perspective Vortex and ask, “But what’s left?” is to misunderstand the purpose of the Vortex. What’s left, when Gray is finished, is everything: life, death, nature, the universe. All there is, in other words. The point is the seeing. In the final sentence of Straw Dogs, he asks, “Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?”

Gray knows that for most human beings, the answer to this question is no. “Human kind,” says TS Eliot’s overquoted bird in “Burnt Norton”, “cannot bear very much reality.” Gray, you feel, would get on famously with that bird (“Human beings,” he writes in Straw Dogs, “cannot live without illusion”). What might it look like, a world without illusion? What might it mean to see clearly, or as clearly as we can, the reality that we cannot bear? Only secondarily does Gray propose a modus vivendi in response to unillusioned reality. And he isn’t proposing it for the masses either.

Feline Philosophy, a short book ostensibly about cats (Gray is a lifelong ailurophile, or, if you’re feeling less pretentious, a lover of cats), in fact serves as a handy primer on Gray’s thought – it is the Total Perspective Vortex in miniature. Hardened Gray-watchers will not be surprised to learn that, in his book about cats and philosophy, Gray turns out to be pro-cat and anti-philosopher. If this is so, it is because cats, according to Gray, do not philosophise. “The source of philosophy,” he writes, “is anxiety, and cats do not suffer from anxiety unless they are threatened or find themselves in a strange place. For humans, the world is a threatening and strange place. Religions are an attempt to make an in-human universe humanly habitable.” By religions he means any human system that imposes meaning on the world, thereby endeavouring to annul “the abiding disquiet that goes with being human”.

Cats, who “thrive without anxiously inquiring how to live”, are better off without philosophy. “Philosophy testifies to the frailty of the human mind. Humans philosophise for the same reason they pray. They know the meaning they have fashioned in their lives is fragile and live in dread of its breaking down.” In Straw Dogs, Gray suggests that “The examined life may not be worth living.” In Feline Philosophy (from dogs to cats) an echo appears: “Cats do not need to examine their lives, because they do not doubt that life is worth living.”

Having seen off religion, Gray takes a quick tour of the history of philosophy, brandishing his hammer. Plato’s “doctrine of forms” is a “mystical vision”, a “figment”. The Epicureans “cannot secure their tranquil garden against the turmoil of history”. The Stoics advocated “a pose of indifference to life”. Descartes, with his monstrous “experiments” on animals, thought he had proved that only humans had souls; “what [he] actually showed is that humans can be more unthinking than any other animal.” Auguste Comte (an old enemy of Gray’s), advocated with his Religion of Humanity “a watery version of Christianity”. Und so weiter. For Gray, all philosophers commit the same error: “they imagine life can be ordered by human reason.” In fact, “Our lives are shaped by chance and our emotions by the body.” There is only biology and chance: the twin sources of our “abiding disquiet”.

All of this is more or less familiar from Gray’s previous books. What’s new in Feline Philosophy is precisely the feline element. Cats, Gray notes, “do not exert themselves to improve the world, or agonise over what is the right thing to do.” (As the owner, or perhaps I should say the housemate, of two cats, I can confirm that this observation is correct.) Cats are therefore superior to Marxists, Christians, liberal meliorists, and the other improvers of the human lot. Living without the fear of death, and without a distorting “image of themselves”, cats are free to realise their nature – to become, as Nietzsche might put it, what they are. They are therefore, for Gray, potentially the source of a superior approach to questions of morality and love. 

Morality and love are, besides philosophy, Gray’s chief targets in Feline Philosophy. Morality first. “Morality has many charms,” Gray notes. “What could be more captivating than a vision of everlasting justice?” But there is no such thing. What is construed as moral changes from one age to the next. Once people saw the building of empires as moral. Now imperialism is seen as a high-water-mark of human rapacity. Once homosexuality was immoral. Now it is normal, and good. “What morality demands shifts across the generations and may change more than once within a single human lifetime.”

This seems like an unexceptionable truth – though it is, of course, perennially intolerable to the bridegrooms of meaning who constitute the majority of the human race. “Relativism!” they cry, and demand to know how one is to live without morality. (As if relativism itself were morally “bad” instead of simply the way things are.) We might begin, Gray suggests, by acknowledging that “there is no such thing as a universal human agent. All that exists is the multitudinous human animal, with its many different moralities.” Instead of living for morality, or for any other idea, we might consider living in accordance with our natures, accepting a universe that is “a purposeless process of endless change”.

Is this what cats do? Hmm. Gray’s argument in favour of a “feline ethics” hinges on what is essentially a thought experiment, and one that does not entirely refute charges of anthropomorphism (even the Total Perspective Vortex suffers the occasional breakdown). “Simple-minded folk,” Gray writes, “will say the reason cats do not practise philosophy is that they lack the capacity for abstract thought. But one can imagine a feline species that had this ability while still retaining the ease with which they inhabit the world.”

Can one? By “abstract thought” Gray means, basically, language: “Relying on what they can touch, smell, and see, cats are not ruled by words.” Wordless cats cannot live or die for ideas: fair enough. But it is not easy to imagine a species, or even an individual animal, which successfully combines the capacity to dream up ideas with the capacity to resist their allure. Of course, Gray doesn’t mean it to be easy. He approves of Wittgenstein, who

recognised that ordinary language is littered with residues of past metaphysical systems. By uncovering these traces and recognising that the realities they describe are actually fictions, we could think more flexibly. Small doses of such a homeopathic remedy against philosophy – an anti-philosophy, one might say – might bring us closer to other animals.

In the contemplation of an imaginary race of conscious cats, we might find traces of a vaccine against the virus of thought. Here Gray, the aspirant cat, approaches something like a statement of first principles. Scrape the dirt from the stained-glass window of language; demolish the church of ideas; permit us to see ourselves as we are: animals, unbound by the strictures of a transcendent morality, tasked only with seeing what is there.

So far, so Gray. But Feline Philosophy does strike an interesting new note. Hitherto Gray, busy euthanising religions and other illusory systems, has had scant time for the ultramundane – for, that is, the two things that in an everyday sense do the most to give human life meaning. I mean social life and love. Gray is not really interested in “society” (not for nothing was he an early fan of Margaret Thatcher). When he occasionally turns literary critic, he scorns those writers who chronicle the social world of births, marriages, and deaths, and praises instead novelists who work by parable, or by highly compressed imagery, or by both: Joseph Conrad, William Golding, JG Ballard, Philip K Dick, M John Harrison. But in Feline Philosophy, he writes about love for, as far as I am aware, the first time. What happens when you put love in the Total Perspective Vortex?

Well. In the Vortex, of course, love stands revealed as yet another illusion. Summarising Proust, Gray writes: “Love erects a barrier against knowledge, against understanding – whether of others or oneself – that allows human beings relief from being themselves.” Speaking in propria persona, Gray is harsher still: “In love, more than anywhere else, human beings are ruled by self-deception.” Reading this, I do wonder about those of us who have come to know parts of ourselves through love – who have learned, through loving another person deeply and being loved in return, to understand more about ourselves: where we are strong, where we are weak. Most married people would probably agree that it is, in certain crucial respects, much harder to fool yourself when someone knows you profoundly. Love may be a cultural response to biological necessity (we are gregarious animals; human children develop very slowly, and require, to say the least, a lot of tending, so it’s a real plus if the parents stick together). But love does more than disguise an emptiness. At its best, love allows and encourages us to do precisely what Gray says we should: live in accordance with our nature.

For Gray, however, it might be wiser to eschew human love and reserve your deepest affections for your cat. When you love a cat, “The intertwined emotions of vanity and cruelty, remorse and regret that are at work in love between humans [are] absent.” Is this wisdom? Human love may be, from the coign of cosmic vantage, an illusion. But it feels necessary to point out that not all love between human beings is a poisonous brew of vanity, cruelty, remorse and regret. Reading these pages, you reach for the charge, not of misanthropy, but of pusillanimity – for a writer and thinker a far graver crime.

So. You reel out of the Total Perspective Vortex, having rid yourself of faith, the dream of utopia, morality, love, the hope of progress … “But what do we do?” you ask. “How shall we live?” Not by politics, Gray says – unless, of course, you choose to embrace such folly as a form of distraction from the void. (And if you do so choose, Gray will not judge you – at least, not to your face.) How then?

The commentariat persists in reading Gray as if his books resembled other books about the state of the world and the human predicament. In the common run of such books, our condition is deplored, and a solution is advanced (empower workers; disempower workers; destroy privilege; create more privilege). But Gray’s books are not polemics. They do not tell you how to vote, or whether you should delete your social media accounts, or whether you should organise a grassroots campaign for social justice.

If we look to Gray’s method, we can, I think, come closer to ascertaining his exact nature. The books are tricked out with all the usual scholarly apparatuses: quotations, endnotes. But they are not really works of scholarship. The prose is clear – hypnotic, in fact, in its clarity. The tone is one of numinous certainty. But Gray doesn’t do belles lettres or bons mots. Nor does he invite argument or rebuttal. He is not making a case or erecting an aesthetic monument – his values are not the values of the artist. His books proceed, rather, by parable and flat statement: now an aphorism, now a story that encodes his meaning. What else works this way?

Parable and flat statement. Isn’t this how holy books work? The Bible. The Analects of Confucius. The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu (Gray’s favourite, and the source of the phrase “straw dogs”). Take your pick. “To subdue one’s self and return to propriety is perfect virtue.” In tone, if not in content, that sounds like Gray – but it’s Confucius.

“How shall we live?” Gray is here to tell us. His books are not interventions in an ongoing political debate but handbooks for a style of life – call it the life of unillusioned contemplation. Gray’s books are really meant for the few, not the many. They are aimed, not at the millions who seek clarity about contemporary world events, but at the handful of individuals who might be capable of living such a life. Gray’s sense of mission, and his certainty that his mission is foredoomed, explains both the flatness and the numinosity of his prose; it also explains the feeling of weariness, misread by the unwary as misanthropy, that animates his books.

At the end of Feline Philosophy, Gray comes out, as it were, of the closet: he offers, as an epilogue, a brief series of analects, ostensibly the lessons that cats might teach us. “If you are unhappy, you may seek comfort in your misery, but you risk making it the meaning of your life. Do not become attached to your suffering and avoid those who do.” (Incidentally, as I think most of us would agree, avoiding people who have become attached to their suffering is more or less a full-time job.) “It is better to be indifferent to others than to feel you have to love them.” Gray has rarely been so openly instructive.

Feline Philosophy permits us to see more clearly than any of Gray’s previous books his true nature. He is not really the enemy of the prophets but their competitor. Where they seek to seduce the multitude, Gray seeks to console the few. His books are designed to strengthen you against the slings and arrows; to teach you to live, insofar as it’s possible, without the need for meaning.

What about the cats? Feline Philosophy collects many moving and provoking anecdotes about cats, real and imaginary: Mary Gaitskill’s Gattino, who appears in her memoir Lost Cat (2020); the kitten that the war reporter Jack Laurence rescued from the battlefield in Hue during the Vietnam War; Saha, the feline protagonist of Collette’s novella La Chatte (1933). But it behoves me to say that nothing here measures up to one throwaway line in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift: “The cats came and glared through the window, humourless.”

In one word – humourless – Bellow makes what is, for me, an irrefutable argument for the human over the feline. Cats may not suffer from illusion or from the fear of death. But they are incapable of finding anything funny. (I find I can’t resist quoting another Bellow phrase, a few lines later, in which the cats enter the kitchen “bristling with night static”.) An aspiring cat himself, and a prophet for the contemplative few, John Gray does not do humour. He would probably suggest that jokes are merely another form of displacement activity – merely another illusion. And of course reality, seen from inside the Total Perspective Vortex, may not, in fact, be a particularly amusing thing to contemplate. But I can’t help suggesting, in valediction, that some illusions may be worth hanging on to, after all.


Kevin Power’s new novel, White City, will be published by Scribner UK in April.