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by John Helmer, Moscow 

Grief for his loss has prevented me from writing about Krissy (Kris, Kriska, Krisichka, Kiryusha from КРЫСА meaning “rat”). He is the cat to whom I belonged who died at our home in Moscow nine years ago, on December 9, 2011.

The efforts of a Russian oligarch to kill me, and then, having failed at that, to expel me from Russia; and the equal exertion of Australian foreign ministry and aluminium business officials to cover up the crime, prevented me from being with Krissy when his heart stopped beating. For several hours in advance, perhaps for a day, he knew death was coming; he was seventeen cat-years old – 84 in human years. He also knew that my kind of practical optimism to save his life would be fruitless this time. He had survived so much already. He, his mistress and I had often considered the risks of exposing oneself to bad Russians and bad Australians. One of his lives had been saved, he knew, by a South African, a very good one.

John Gray, a British philosophical writer who loves cats, tries to explain these things from their  point of view in a new book, which  until Gray came on to a section about Spinoza was encouraging,  Between Spinoza’s birthday in Amsterdam on November 24 – he would have been 388 last week – and Krissy’s dying day, there are a few things which deserve to be remembered. Russian things.

Gray’s Russian things include hatred of the Russian revolution, of Vladimir Lenin and Felix Dzerzhinsky; and his infatuation with two men who turned their hatred into Orthodox mysticism in Paris, and regime-change plotting in London — Nikolai Berdyaev and Isaiah Berlin.  (Between 1940 and 1944 Berdyaev’s Russian nationalism was anti-communist enough for the German occupation command to leave him scribbling undisturbed at his exile home in a Paris suburb.)

Gray depends on them for his judgement of how much better off Russia would be today if Russians had followed their advice. This is not a view that can be attributed to the Russian cats who have multiplied and prospered since the defeat of the regimes Berdyaev and Berlin backed. Gray’s book does a lot of attributing his own views to cats.

Left, the oldest pet cemetery in Europe, the Hyde Park Pet Cemetery, first established in London in 1881. Right, Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) and Isaiah Berlin (1909-97).

Krissy was born in Moscow into the time when Anatoly Chubais was destroying everything and everybody for the enrichment of himself, his employer President Boris Yeltsin, their families,  and their many well-wishers abroad — to his credit, Gray wasn’t one of them.   More than twenty million farm animals were slaughtered in that decade for lack of feed, fuel, and market.  Domestic pets survived better than their masters whose life expectancy was cut by more than twenty years.

Krissy was found by my wife inside the entrance of the apartment building sheltering from the bitter November weather outside. A few days old, mewing noisily to attract attention, he was covered in foul street mess and his own.  Because he would not stop following after her, she adopted him and named him, because in his desperate condition he looked like a rat.

This week’s celebration of the life we led together should also acknowledge that this week too, at long last,  Chubais the depredator has been stripped of his state job, and is now unemployed, at least by the Russian state.


Source: https://www.statista.com/
 A European Union survey of 2019, conducted to measure the pet food market, reported that Romania led with 47% of households owning at least one cat, followed by Latvia (38%), Hungary (34%), Slovenia and Poland (33%), and Lithuania (32%).  The UK wasn’t measured. https://www.statista.com/ -- published in July 2020. Higher pet ownership is reported in Latin America, but there dogs are more common. Turks lead the world in keeping birds in cages.

According to an interview Gray gave to the Guardian a few weeks ago, he wrote his book in memory of one of his cats who died early this year.  Politics, in Gray’s view as reported by the leading fabricator among  London newspapers of info-warfare against Moscow,  “is a succession of temporary and partial remedies for permanent and recurring human evil” – Gray’s and the Guardian’s excepted, of course. “Any political movement that believed it possessed a monopoly of wisdom, had gulags or concentration camps priced in,” Gray said to the Guardian’s hurrah.    

The Washington Post is the other Russia-hating newspaper which has reviewed Gray’s book: “if you’d learned anything by the end of the book, it’s surely that to pursue meaning is to chase a mouse that isn’t there.”  The newspaper  doesn’t notice Gray’s references to Berdyaev and other Russians in his book. It does find fault with Gray’s understanding of cats as cats: “Other, more spurious claims — about the nature of cats themselves — may give readers pause. Anyone who’s learned to apply Gray’s own supple, contrary brand of thinking will question suppositions like ‘cats are never bored’, ‘cats are happy being themselves’ and ‘cats do not need to divert themselves from the fact that they will some day cease to exist’,  for which he offers little to no empirical evidence. ‘Happiness is the state to which [cats] default when practical threats to their well-being are removed’, he claims. ‘That may be the chief reason many of us love cats. They possess as their birthright a felicity humans regularly fail to attain’. Certainly, this fits the popular image of cats; it’s what people mean when they say how nice it would be to be one. But how much of this alleged contentment is sentimental projection?”

Gray’s mistakes about Russia are puerile, not feline. He writes that Ukraine was a singular country inside the Russian empire. He claims Berdyaev became a Marxist “like many at the time” – Gray thinks Marxism is an adolescent fashion, like wearing stove-pipe trousers or square-toed shoes,  so a clever mind could grow out of it – Berdyaev was “no longer attracted by Marxism” – without a pause for evidence to test the theory.   Bolshevism, according to Gray, was an “immortality cult”; the Soviet communist party drew its members with the promise of “release from solitude”; totalitarian movements are “attempts at a cure for mass neurosis”.

Gray’s mistakes about cats aren’t exactly mistakes. They are failures of observation. This often happens with human minds which earn their wages by retailing to a market what it is willing to pay money to hear. Gray’s cats didn’t miss him when he was absent, he reports. He turns this into universal feline philosophy: “They will not miss [us] when we are gone,” Gray writes on page 23. “A cat may seem hardly to notice when the most familiar human in its life goes away”, he repeats on page 70.  

This was not how Krissy behaved, nor is it the finding of most cat owners who watch closely. Krissy demonstrated his apprehension when he noticed the signs of imminent departure – the packing of a suitcase; a rising tension in the human voices; food stocking; names he associated with the car to the airport. Krissy hated being taken to another person for minding; he once leaped three stories off a balcony to escape, and nearly starved to death in a sewer pipe during weeks of human searching for him.  

Cats prefer to remain in their homes when their masters go away. When the masters return, cats will demonstrate vivid anger at being left. Krissy’s anger took many forms, including vocalising, clawing, keeping his distance; hiding.  It hasn’t occurred to Gray that the indifference his cats showed towards him is evidence they thought he wasn’t a nice fellow to live with. He allows this to be understood from his cat’s point of view by reporting, as if it’s a feline universal, that “cats seldom show jealousy when another human being comes into the life of the human they live with”. From this it’s possible to understand that Gray’s cats were only too glad when someone replaced Gray in the household.

There are many other claims Gray makes which are plain wrong about cats. “Meat-free life would be death to cats”, he says – Krissy was obliged by his South African vet to become vegetarian after his kidneys packed up; he was only too glad.  Between an infant’s vegetable puree for diet, and the death sentence proposed by the Russian vet, Krissy made the choice Gray doesn’t recognise.  

Gray has an unremarkable face (right) which would not be noticed if it weren’t accompanied by an academic rank, publisher’s blurb,  and exaggeration typical of a Murdoch property like The Times which started its review by calling him “our pre-eminent prophet of doom.”  According to Gray, cats “express emotion through their ears and tails rather than their faces”. According to Gray’s cats, a flick of ear or tail is all Gray’s face ever got. Krissy, by contrast – indeed all Russian cats – had a vast repertoire of facial expressions which he managed with eyes, mouth, nose, whiskers, brows.  That Gray didn’t see this is best explained by the cat’s point of view that they were reciprocating what Gray’s face couldn’t manage to communicate to them.

“Cats do not love,” Gray reveals even more of himself, “in order to divert themselves from loneliness, boredom or despair. They love when the impulse takes them.” Evidently, Gray has never been caressed by a cat. If his cat had kissed him with his nose to his lips, or pawed at his mouth, Gray must have ignored the cat and kept talking. Indeed, Gray has been so busy talking for trade that he has entirely failed to hear cats vocalising with a considerable repertoire which differs from individual to individual, and from one communication environment to another. Krissy’s vocalisations expressed hunger, anger, anxiety, contentment, and many other emotions, desires, and views about what the humans were doing at the same time. He would also answer back.

Gray acknowledges the inspiration of his four cats over thirty years, but that’s on the next to last page of his book. He and they have nothing to contribute together, directly. Instead, Gray tells stories already written about cats by others – Montaigne; an American journalist named Jack Lawrence; Colette; Patricia Highsmith; Junichiro Tanizaki; Mary Gaitskill; Berdyaev. The only Englishman Gray mentions – apart from himself – is the wordy Samuel Johnson (1709-84) whose only judgement Gray records about Hodge his cat was that he was “a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed”. By the Johnsonian standard of loquacity,  that’s almost dumb.

Contrast Trim, the cat who circumnavigated the world several times with the world’s greatest seaman of the time, Captain Matthew Flinders of the Royal Navy (1774-1814).  In his book named for and dedicated to his cat,  Flinders observed that “when [Trim] was animated by the presence of a stranger of the anti-catean race, [his tail] bristled out to a fearful size, whilst vivid flashes darted from his fiery eyes, though at other times he was candour and good nature itself. His head was small and round – his physiognomy bespoke intelligence and confidence – his whiskers were long and graceful, and his ears were cropped in a beautiful curve”.

Left: Matthew Flinders. Right, the statue of Trim outside the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

“His desire to gain a competent knowledge in practical seamanship was not less than he showed for experimental philosophy. The replacing of a topmast carried away, or taking a reef in the sails were what most attracted his attention at sea; and at all times, when there was more bustle upon deck than usual, he never failed to be present and in the midst of it, for as I have before hinted, he was endowed with an unusual degree of confidence and courage, and having never received anything but good from the men, he believed all to be his friends, and he was a friend to all. When the nature of the bustle upon deck was not understood by him, he would mew and rub his back against the legs of one and the other, frequently at the risk being trampled underfoot, until he obtained the attention of someone to satisfy him… On taking in a reef, [he] never presumed to go aloft until the order was issued; but so soon as the officer had given the words, ‘Away up aloft!’, up he jumped along with the seamen…”

To Flinders,  his cat “possessed more originality than the Turkish spy”.

Gray, the Oxford philosopher, has no such comprehension.  Very strangely, he does not acknowledge the speech of cats, and how communicative their vocalisations can be to those who know how to listen. The only sounds Gray reports hearing himself from cats is purring. He also reports, from a book he’s read, the wail of a Vietnamese cat which Gray interpreted as “a call for no one but himself”. That’s a pretentious way of saying Gray has no idea what the cat meant.  

“Living like a cat means wanting nothing beyond the life you lead. This means living without consolations,” Gray concludes – “and that might be too much for you to bear.” Is this another misjudgement by Gray of cats, or is it Gray’s all too human fatuity?

There are many in this brief book. Why, for example, should Gray bother to quote Pascal as saying something as fatuous as: “human beings are unusual in having a second nature formed by custom”? Pascal had expressed himself more profoundly on his cat (and himself) in a document which was discovered in Oxford in 2013; this has become Pascal’s Pensée Number 925. 

“Human beings,” Gray concludes “chase power in order to give themselves a sense of escaping death”. But “if cats could understand the human search for meaning they would purr with delight at its absurdity”. Since purring was the only feline sound Gray reports hearing, that must be because, from his cat’s point of view, the cat thought Gray was absurd.

Krissy purred in many different registers up and down his throat, each with a different meaning which for interpretation depended on the context. Krissy’s meaning was never so slight.

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