Cruel Graces

The cat, who regrets nothing

The grace of a cat is rooted in cruelty. Not just the cruelty of the kill itself, which, if you abstract it from the pain it imposes, is beautiful as a dance. Humans, as we know to our general sorrow, are well-practiced in abstracting the beauty of acts from the pain that founds them. But there is another, deeper, cruelty in the hunt: the necessary hunger that drives the cat to kill so beautifully. The cat, large or small, cannot eat anything but meat. It is denied a choice.

Humans are not, and perhaps this is the basis of literature. The cat will not suffer existential despairs, crises of conscience, regret over hurts disbursed in the pursuit of satiety. Human beings–that is to say, human beings who have maintained their sanity in a cruel and complex world–do feel regrets, even before the fact. Oedipus, for example: his father, a king, forewarned that his child would murder him and marry his own mother, sends him off to live with a neighboring king. The neighbor king raises him as his own beloved son. When Oedipus is grown, he learns of the same prediction, and, horrified, exiles himself so as not to kill the man he thinks his father. On the road, he meets his real father, argues with him (in an early example of road rage!); they fight, he kills the old king…and so, as the son of a king himself, takes over the kingdom–marrying his mother. When all is revealed, his mother kills herself, Oedipus blinds himself, and regret becomes the air that he breathes.

This is an example of classic Attic irony: the very act you trust in to save you seals your fate. It is also an example of the machinations of our souls when faced with cruelty–our own, or that of our gods.

There is probably nothing to be written in fiction of the life of a cat, unless the writer imbues it with that human strength and frailty that is a conscience. The life of a human turns on the knowledge of pain and mortality, not just the pain and mortality faced by ourselves, but the pain and mortality we may, and sometimes must, inflict on others. To our regret.

My novels so far are disguised as mysteries, but they aren’t really. In a classic genre potboiler, the hero doesn’t change. He does what he must, without regrets. Usually, in the classics, this involves kiling a man and abandoning a woman, and sometimes killing a woman as well. The hero never changes; he is a machine for submitting to a “man’s fate,” and does what he must, like a cat. In my books–and this is why I use the device of an “accidental detective,” as one reviewer put it–there is no professional detachment. The protagonist is no soldier or cop trained into useful psychosis. He dreads what he may do, as well as what may be done to him. He fears that he may become something he can’t respect. That he might have to blind himself to his own humanity, in penance for his pride in acting rashly.

Regret is everything. It makes the difference between a plotline and a tale. If we did not die, there would be no literature. That is the cruel grace of art.

Rick Risemberg