I Am a Cat

July 5, 2017

I fell in love with San Francisco, and with Northern California generally, while a postdoc at Berkeley in the early 80’s. It was a tumultuous period in my life. Adding to the usual hassles of new job, new home, there had been a recent death in the family, and my marriage was on the rocks. Quickly settling down to professional responsibilities just wasn’t in the cards. For several months, a daily battle was fought between the lab and the Bay, a battle the latter often won, particularly if the sun was already breaking through the clouds by early morning. This pattern couldn’t continue forever, aided by my research mentor’s gentle prodding, I eventually returned to steady work, but the allures of walking through San Francisco, hiking the Marin headlands, and driving Highway 1 towards Mendocino and Big Sur, have stayed with me.

Fortunately for me, my wife, a Berkeley grad, and my younger daughter, currently a Berkeley grad student, are more than willing to join me in SF adventures. This explains why I was able to lead them over to the Japan Center in October 2015 and the Kinokuniya bookstore, and why no one protested when I made my way to the cashier with two books, one of which was I Am a Cat by Sōseki Natsume.

The book’s cover advertises everything that might be said about it, “Richly allegorical and delightfully readable, I Am a Cat is the chronicle of an unloved, unwanted, wandering kitten who spends all his time observing human nature.” Here are two reviews, Kirkus Review and a compilation of Goodreads reader reviews.

I can’t help, however, adding more information from the cover. Apparently, Natsume published the first chapter as a short story in a literary magazine thinking that would be the end of it, but due to popular demand “expanded it into this epic novel, which is universally recognized as a classic of world literature.”

Epic? If ‘epic’ brings to mind a grandiose tale, say, a story about a family’s changing fortunes over several generations, or a titanic clash between the forces of Good and Evil, prepare to be disappointed. I Am a Cat is told entirely by the unnamed cat, a creature who by its very nature is compelled to spend most of each day asleep, and who is ruled by a combination of territorial, skeptical, and inquisitive, impulses when awake. That said, the conversations the cat overhears, and the subsequent cat-commentary amuse. Here are some excerpts that have some meaning for my life as a teacher, Zen practitioner, and an occasional player of go.

I Am a Cat on teachers:

(Vol. I, Ch. I) My master seldom comes face-to-face with me. I hear he is a schoolteacher. As soon as he comes home from school, he shuts himself up in the study for the rest of the day; and he seldom emerges. The others in the house think that he is terribly hard-working. He himself pretends to be hard-working. But actually he works less hard than any of them think. Sometimes I tiptoe to his study for a peep and find him taking a snooze. Occasionally his mouth is drooling onto some book he has begun to read.

(Vol. III, Ch. I) Perhaps I might usefully offer the following succinct conclusion based upon my foregoing remarks, namely, that in my opinion the ideal subjects for teasing are zoo monkeys and school teachers. It would be disrespectful to compare a school teacher with a monkey in the Asakusa Zoo, disrespectful, that is, not to monkeys but to teachers. But truths will always come out, and no one can deny how close the resemblance is. As you know, the Asakusa monkeys are restricted by link-chain leashes so that, though they may snarl and screech to their hearts’ content, they cannot scratch a soul. Now, though teachers are not actually kept on chains, they are very effectively shackled by their salaries. They can be teased in perfect safety.

On Zen:

(Vol. II, Ch. II) I have heard there was a Zen priest called, I fancy, Bodhidharma, who remained so long immobilized in spiritual meditation that his legs just rotted away. That he made no move even when ivies crept through the wall and their spreading suckers sealed his eyes and mouth, did not mean that the priest was sleeping or dead. On the contrary, his mind was very much alive. Legless in the bonds of dusty vegetation, Bodhidharma came to grasp such brilliantly stylish truths as the notion that, since Zen is of itself so vast and so illumining, there can be no appreciable distinction between saints and mediocrities.

(Vol. III. Ch. I) Indeed, it appears that, when on pilgrimage, wandering Zen priests would invariably pick out a place to rest or sleep where there was “a tree above and a stone beneath.” That slogan refers neither to any aesthetic ideal nor to the self-mortifications of pentitents but to a particular technique for reversing rushes of blood to the head, which was first worked out, no doubt in his early days as a rice-pounding, kitchen scullion, by the Sixth Patriarch of the Zen sect, His Ineffable Holiness Hui Neng. Test the method for yourself. Sit on a stone and, in the nature of things, your bottom will grow cold. As the buttocks chill, any heady sensations associated with risen blood will sink away to nothing. That too, beyond all shadow of doubt, is also in the nature of things. One marvels, does one not, at the percipience of the Sixth Patriarch.

(Vol. III, Ch. I) It is an ancient idea that imitation of the conduct of some acknowledged master will produce in the ape the same mental state as graced the model. According, to this theory a man who behaves like a drunkard will eventually feel what a drunkard feels, while a man who squats sufficiently long in the attitudes of a Zen master, enduring the agony while a joss stick burns itself to nothing, will, somehow or other, experience the master’s experience of enlightenment.

On go:

(Vol. III, Ch. IV) Since I know so little of the world outside my master’s house, it is only recently that I first clapped eyes on a go board. It’s a weird contraption, something no sensible cat would ever think up. It’s a smallish square divided into myriad smaller squares on which the players position black and white stones in so higgledy-piggledy a human fashion that one’s eyes go askew to watch them. Thereafter, the devotees of this strange cult work themselves up into a much-sweat, excitedly shouting that this or that ridiculous little object is in danger, has escaped, has been captured, killed, rescued, or whatever. And all this over a bare square foot of board where the mildest tap with my right, front paw would wreak irreparable havoc. As Singleman might quote from his compendium of Zen sermons, one gathers grasses and with their thatch creates a hermitage only to find the same old field when the thatch is blown away. You set the pieces out and then you take them off. A silly occupation. Why don’t the players keep their hands in the folds of their kimonos and simply stare at an empty board?




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