Monday, 3 December 2007

Rise of the Cat People

Last week, I was trying to figure out some whimsical statement for my Myspace Friend Status. I opted for being the newly crowned "Lord of the Cat People". In the days that followed, I found myself pondering this statement and here are the results of my thoughts.

Humans have always anthropomorphised their world, attributing human qualities to non-human things, such as animals, machines, and even countries. In regards to animals, we perceive certain behaviours in the creature and then give them a human label, such as clever foxes, dumb mules, and loyal dogs. These animals may even come to symbolise the concepts attributed to them.

Cats have been with us for a very long time. A grave unearthed in 1983 in Shillourokambos, Cyprus, dating to 7500 BC, contained a human corpse and a pet cat. Just to put that date into perspective, its just 500 years after the end of the Ice Age. Cats have been a part of human civilisation since almost the very beginning. So you can imagine that a lot of anthropomorphising has been going on in relation the cat over the past 9,500 years.

One bit of information that really caught my attention when looking into this was the way humans communicate with their oldest companions – cats and dogs. Humans can intuitively read the animal's sounds and body language to determine its moods, its wants, and its needs and these animals understand the same about us. Some go even so far as to mimic human vocalisations. When you stop to think about this, the fact that such interspecies communication occurs is amazing.

Yes, I used the "D" word. Dogs. I'm not a fan of the canine. I figure that you can beat dating services to hell simply by matching cat people with cat people and dog people with dog people and never the twain shall meet.

Time to talk about Values – again. Values are the foundation for our faculty of judgement. People are drawn to those people and things that we see to manifest our values and we are apathetic towards or reject those things that do not. Of course all this is open to interpretation. Two people can see the behaviour of let's say a cat and form two different interpretations and therefore have two different value-based judgements. This says more about the person making the judgement than it does of the object being judged.

Generally speaking, depending on the animal's socialisation, dogs trust until that trust is betrayed while cats trust only when it is earned. So a dog may be perceived as being friendly and loyal while a cat is seen as aloof and skittish. The truth is that most cats bond to a single person in a family and when it does it can be a very friendly and loyal companion.

A person who is naturally extroverted may consciously or unconsciously perceive a dog as being like them, whereas a person who believes that trust should be earned, is perhaps a bit introverted, and enjoys alone time may identify more with the cat's behaviour.

This is just one example, but it demonstrates what I mean by Cat People and Dog People. To make a more specific definition, a Cat Person is someone whose values and behaviours parallel those values and behaviours commonly attributed to cats.

A brilliant example of Cat People is the character Cat from the British television series Red Dwarf. Though comical by its exaggeration, it speculates what a race of intelligent beings evolved from cats would be like. In one scene he roams the halls with a aerosol can spraying everything saying, "this is mine, and this is mine, and this is mine."

A cat snuzzling it's "owner" is commonly seen as a form of affection, and it is, but not exactly as you might think. The cat is scenting the person and essentially saying, "this is mine", just as Cat does with his spray can. The anthropomorphised cat is seen as the epitome of cool, style, grace, and individualism. The negative spin would be aloof, vain, and selfish.

A male cat is called a Tom and a female cat is called a Queen. Where Cat on Red Dwarf embodies the anthropomorphised Tom, the female of the species is quite different, more like Catwoman from Batman or Black Cat from Spider-Man. She is in a word "sultry". The slang term Tom Cat refers to a womaniser, a man who sleeps around. In contrast, the Queen is the regal seducer who draws men to her. But in both cases, the Tom and the Queen have their fun and move-on. Cats are seen as being emotionally independent, unlike their canine counterparts.

Dogs are pack animals, whereas all forms of feline, with the exception of lions, are solitary. Pet dogs see the family as their pack with the household head as the alpha male. Cats on the other hand see the mutual benefit of the arrangement and will maintain that arrangement as long as it suits them. I have heard it said that an abused dog will remain in that situation, whereas an abused cat will leave.

The differences between cats and dogs is wonderfully illustrated in the film Underworld. The film revolves around a centuries long war between vampires and werewolves. Although vampires are usually associated with bats, this is misleading. The concept of the vampire existed long before the discovery of a species of bat that fed on blood. The bat was named for the vampire and not the vampire for the bat. The behaviours of the vampires depicted in the film are definitely feline. There is even a scene where a startled female vampire leaps up to cling upside-down from the ceiling and gives a cat hiss. Not only are they suave, cool, well-dressed, lazy, and sultry, they are also driven by strong self-interest. The werewolves are loyal collectivists whereas the vampire world is one of political intrigue with each member vying for advantage.

There is a song in the Disney film The Aristocats "Everybody Wants To Be A Cat". Well, I certainly do. My first childhood introduction to the concept of "cool" was Thomas O'Malley from that film. When I look over the characteristics attributed to cats and cat people over the centuries (cool, individualistic, charming, graceful, stylish, sultry, sensual, sexy, lucky, mysterious, magical, proud, regal, self-confident, and emotionally independent) I cannot help but see the parallel characteristics also expressed in Romanticism. These same qualities also appear in relation to vampires, who all stem from Lord Byron, thus providing another link to the Romantic.

In my room, I have a giant poster of the famous advertisement for Le Chat Noir, the same image that appears on my page. This burlesque club was popular among the Decadents, Dandies, and Bohemians of the late 19th century and named for the short story, The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe, who is seen as the father of the Decadent phase of the Romantic Period. I cannot think of a more fitting symbol of the Romantic or a nobler epitome of its aspirations than the cat. Long live the Cat People.