Drawing by Dan Kincaid
“It’s Je-Ne-Vee-Ev, not Jeneveev,” said Stuart, introducing his live-in, Genevieve, the viola player. She is 50-ish, stylish and thin, with a shock of white in her hair, like Susan Sontag. She was born in Belgium and takes the same offense as Hercule Poirot for being assumed French. She has a throaty voice in the same register as her viola, although her instrument probably didn’t spend a lifetime smoking unfiltered cigarettes.
We were having dinner, the four of us: Stuart and Genevieve and my wife and me. Stuart did the cooking; Genevieve poured the wine. And oh, how a little Beaujolais can get Stuart talking.
“It has been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who do not. But I’ve never met any of those.”
And Stuart was off to the races.
“Everybody and his brother-in-law splits the world into two categories: male and female; conservative and liberal; Gene Autry fan and Roy Rogers fan; those who get it, and those who don’t.”
Stuart had just finished reading A Vision by William Butler Yeats. Stuart had an epiphany, he said.
“Yeats divides human personalities up into 28 ‘phases,’ like the phases of the moon. It’s really brilliant, if a little loony. Ideally, there is no Phase 1 or Phase 15 — the first and middle phase of the moon’s monthly round of waxing and waning: The new and full moons; these are too pure and unmixed to exist in the real world. But all the phases are defined by their ‘tinctures’ of two essential personality engines, which Yeats calls the ‘primary’ and the ‘antithetical.’ Simply put, the lumpy and the poetic.
“He gets quite lawyerly in parsing the bits. And I had this vision of my own, although it is somewhat simpler to understand.
“It is that underlying every other distinction is this basic, fundamental one: between dog and cat. You can have your phases of the moon, but really, but all those personalities are either canine or feline.”
“You mean, like a dog-person or a cat-person?” my wife asked. “I’m a cat person; we gotta have cats around the house.”
“No,” said Stuart, “not a question of which animals you prefer as pets, but rather, which you are in your cor cordium, your self of selves. We are all one or the other. You can see it in the faces of everyone around you.
“But it goes beyond people. As I now see it, every animate being on the planet is one or the other.
“They are opposed personality types. They function in the world differently and see the world differently.
“For the dog, the world is essentially simple. Truth is truth, up is up and down is down. The dog has a direct relationship with the things of the world: They are what they are.
“A cat, on the other hand, sees the world metaphorically. Things may be what they seem, but are never only what they seem. They can mean one thing Monday, and something entirely different on Tuesday.
“When dogs read poetry, they like to read, ‘what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.’ They can be scholars and critics, and they can be quite discerning and bastions of good taste, but their world view is essentially single-tracked. Their vision is clear, if not very imaginative. Their word is their honor and they have 30-year mortgages.
“Cats love Japanese movies with subtitles and long shots of shifting sands. Dogs like Adam Sandler and Kristin Stewart.
“Cats enjoy the jostle of ideas. Dogs talk about wines.
“You may think I’m tipping the scales in favor of cats, but that is only because I am one. There is downside to either class, and dogs really are important for the continued functioning of the society that makes cats’ lives possible.
“Cats never decide on a college major and fritter away their parents’ money taking courses in Incan pottery and creative writing. Dogs stick to their curriculum and go to Career Days.
“Dogs become Eagle Scouts and join the Rotary Club. Dogs dream of a house in Syosset and a Bill Jr. to take to the zoo. Cats dream of pirates, scoundrels, military heroes and Tamerlane.
“There are many kinds of dogs in the world. Some are bureaucrats and some, the more stylish, wear whatever is touted in Esquire. Hell, the Playboy Advisor was written for them. Some are noble and become doctors or missionaries; others bring my slippers at day’s end.
“It is plain, especially to dogs, that the world functions only because of them. And truly, we couldn’t do without them.
“But cats have eyes that change as the moon changes. They live by their own rules and amend them as their mood shifts. They are filled with prevarication and treachery. Their minds shuffle like a gambler’s deck of cards and we never know what face will show, or what suit. ‘Spades and Diamonds, Courage and Power; Clubs and Hearts, Knowledge and Pleasure.’
“When it comes to poetry, cats often prefer to write their own.”
Stuart noted that my wife writes poetry. He explained that cats don’t only write bad poetry, but rather, all poetry, no matter what the quality.
“Well, there are exceptions,” he admitted. “Edgar A. Guest and Ella Wheeler Wilcox are woof-woofs. But you get the gist.”
(My wife’s poetry has been published in a book, called Rust Sings. I recommend it.)
“There can be little meaningful dialog between the dog and the cat,” Stuart continued, “because they mean different things when they use the same words.
“This frustrates the dog no end; he cannot pin the cat down, while the cat delights in the ambiguity, and will even do what he can to amplify it.
“Dogs are trustworthy. A dog will be on time; a cat will be late, cancel or forget.
“A dog joins the Rotarians; a cat never does, unless he can use his membership toward the end of world domination, or something else he thinks might be fun.
“Among women, cats can wear too much eye makeup; dogs put too much mousse in their hair, like a TV news anchor. The difference is total and complete.
“For instance, a dog can certainly be selfish, but it takes a cat to be egocentric. A telling difference.
“Dogs have faith in the basic goodness of the world, and although they make a place for evil, they nevertheless believe it is something that can be overcome. A cat may or may not believe in evil, but whatever else, he believes in the relativity of goodness and truth.
“This isn’t just people: All animals are also dogs or cats. Think of a sea otter. Cat or dog? There can be no question. Anything that can sleep floating on the ocean surface so curled up that its head rests comfortably on its own belly, is a cat. Sturgeon are dogs. So are bears, horses, elephants and cows — ungulates as a class are dogs.
“It is interesting to see this play out in nature. Don’t be confused by taxonomy. It is not names that define dogness and catness. Foxes, for instance, are classified as canines by the doggy scientists, but they are nevertheless cats. And cheetahs — you only have to look at those stiff, tensioned legs to recognize their essential dogginess.
“The main physical difference is in their bendability. Pick up a dog by his middle and what do you feel? The beast is stiff as a two-by-four. He is uncomfortable off the ground. He whimpers. Put him back down and his tail wags.
“Pick up a cat, and it drapes over you, form-fitting and at ease. I know a man who used to wear his big orange cat as a kind of living Davy Crockett hat. The cat sagged over his skull and down his neck and never wavered. The cat just purred.
“You can tell the relative caninicity or felinicity of a person when you dance some old-fashioned thing like a waltz. If your partner’s spine is rigid, he or she is a dog. A cat-partner will swing and sway with the rhythm like an willow in a gust.
“Does anyone remember seeing archival TV film of Richard Nixon attempting the Twist? The very definition of a dog.
“That is because a dog is all of a piece; he is one thing, head to tail. A cat is a loose concatenation of impulses, a pile of multiple personalities. When a dog dances, every part of him has to move in the same direction at the same time. A cat is syncopated.
“This pervades their world views. A dog is regimented and feels most comfortable when most conventional. A cat is individual, and often takes little notice of what is expected of him.
“Cats and dogs have been eternally at war. The dogs think the cats are kooks, hippies or commie sympathizers (although most communists are as doggie as the board of directors at General Motors). They have difficulty conceiving of anything not established by precedent. Community standards actually mean something to a dog.
“And when it gets down to battle, the dogs, like the redcoats of the American revolution, fight according to the book, in lines standing and kneeling, firing volley after volley on command.
“The cats, rather than being organized soldiers, find the dogs a nuisance and, like American Minutemen, take potshots from various convenient hiding places.
“Groucho Marx, taking his potshots, is the quintessential cat. If a canine becomes too officious, a cat is always there to flick his cigar and wiggle his eyebrows. Although dogs do not understand cats, cats understand dogs all too well.
“Interestingly, although almost all politicians are dogs, the most effective religious evangelists are cats. They don’t actually believe the piffle they spout, but get a great deal of pleasure from persuading listeners to line up behind them, cheering (and sending money).
“Or rather, the cat believes what he is saying as he says it. It is just that tomorrow, he can say something else. I’m thinking of Marjoe Gortner, for instance, or Lyndon Larouche. ‘A foolish consistency,’ they rejoinder.
“A true cat will really enjoy making one argument now, then switching hats or podiums, proving himself wrong in the next breath. The pleasure is in the arguing, not the results. Strife is the natural order of things.
“This makes dogs very, very uncomfortable. For the dog, arguments are proof that the world is out of balance. Equilibrium must be restored: The two sides in a dispute must work it out, so the truth will prevail and peace — the dog’s natural order of things — will reemerge.
“The dichotomy is at the bottom of some of the most familiar cultural pairings we know. Benjamin Franklin, with his “early to bed, early to rise,” was a dog; Thomas Jefferson, with his house filled with maps and stuffed elk, inventive contraptions and lack of heat, was a cat. It takes a cat to say ‘All men are created equal,’ while owning slaves and fathering children with them.
“Tolstoy was a dog; Dostoevsky was a cat. Hemingway went woof woof; Faulkner, meow.
“If you have ever wondered why some old sayings seem to contradict others — ‘Opposites attract’ vs. ‘Birds of a feather flock together’ — it’s because one is true for dogs, the other for cats.
“Even the proverbs that cats repeat, sitting around a cracker-barrel in an old Vermont store, bear this out.
–”The dog sees not the same tree the cat sees.
–”The hours of a dog are measured by the clock; but of a cat, no clock can measure.
–”If a cat would persist in his folly he would become wise; a persistent dog becomes the village idiot.
–”One law for the dog and the cat is oppression.
“Cats have a built-in sense of the ultimate void and how much fun it can be.
“The very earliest organized philosophies broke down along these lines. Plato was a cat. Even now, you can never know for sure when he actually believes some of the hogwash he comes up with. Aristotle, on the other hand was the very model of a dog. ‘Let’s make lecture notes.’
“Of course, just as with Yeats’ A Vision, there are wheels inside wheels, all spinning on their own doggie-cat axis. Yeats expands his vision to include not just personality types, but all of history. Well, my dogs and cats does the same.
“The ancient Greeks were cats, proving with logic, when it amused them, that it was impossible for anything to exist. Romans were dogs: They invented concrete and designed plumbing.
“The Renaissance was a quintessentially dog era, the Baroque that followed it was all cat. Modernism barked, Postmodernism meows.
“Nothing makes my case better than concrete examples. Think John Wayne and Jack Nicholson. Both fine actors, each in his way — think of The Searchers — but I think there is little doubt who is the dog in this pair. Your reaction is instantaneous. You don’t need to explain: It just is.”
“Yes,” said Genevieve. “Like Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”
“Of course,” said Stuart, “That’s why Biden will never be president.”
“What do you mean?” asked my wife. “A cat can never be president? What about Bill Clinton?”
“You got me there,” Stuart said. “But that is a reversal of the pairing. Clinton was a cat and Al Gore was pure dog. These pairings make clear the dog-cat dyad, the paradigm.
“Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Dog and cat,” I said.
“It can become a party game,” Stuart said. “Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman. Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.”
“Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso,” Genevieve said.
“Mahler and Bruckner,” she said.
“For years, the nation divided between doggie Jay Leno and cat-man David Letterman,” Stuart said.
“Well, until Letterman lost his cat license,” I said. “He’s gotten kind of doggie in his later years.”
“See, what a profitable lens this is for understanding the world?” Stuart said.
“It explains the difference between Obama and Putin,” Genevieve said.
“And between Andrew Wyeth and Andy Warhol; between George Burns and Gracie Allen…”
“And between Fidel Castro today and Castro 50 years ago,” Genevieve said.
“Between Jane Pauley and Garry Trudeau.”
“When it comes to marriage, a dog can be happy married to a dog,” Stuart said. “But a cat can be happy married to either a cat or a dog. There is fun either way. Think Mary Matalin and James Carville. But you see, there is a built-in paradox. How many marriages do you know where one party is happy and the other isn’t? The reason, I tell you, is always the same: One dog, one cat.
“Two cats mated can be happy briefly. But such marriages don’t tend to last. Think of a Hollywood marriage and you pretty much get the picture. Variety is not just an ideal for a cat, but a way of life.
“Of course, the arts are heavy with cats, just as the field of accounting is not. You don’t last long at H.&R. Block if you believe arithmetic is a matter of opinion.
“At bottom, we need both animals in the world. You need the dogs to make life possible; you need cats to make it worth living.”
Stuart brought out a flan and a well-used bottle of amontillado and asked if anyone wanted a cigar. Genevieve was the only taker, but then declined. She said she was giving up smoking again. Ninth time. One more and she got a free sandwich at Subway.