Let me address the Cheshire Cat, that creature from Alice in Wonderland. When Alice asks why the Duchess’s cat ‘grins like that’, she is pointing to something others before her had wondered. Before Lewis Caroll there was John Wolcot: ‘Lo! Like a Cheshire cat our court will grin.’ Thackeray also said something about Cheshire cats, so it was by no means Carroll’s or should I say Dodgson’s thing: the cat that grins.
I only have those words, the ones I have quoted to you, and the memory of the picture of the cat reproduced in the original version of Alice in Wonderland to go by, when I think of the Cheshire Cat. But it is enough for me to say something to it, this creature who leaves its smile behind long after the rest of it has departed.
The Cheshire Cat allows me to think of something fundamental about love: as does any cat, if I attempt to know it. Cats, in their mystery help me consider the difference between the who and the what.
When I first meet someone and feel drawn to them I notice details, from the colour of their eyes to the speed of their movements. The more time I spend with that person the more of these I notice, and when they are not with me I miss them for their ways, their special qualities, for the difference they bring to my life. These things I would call ‘whats’. The what of another is easy to define. If I spend enough time with someone, however, while I still notice these things I can begin to understand something else, if I allow myself. I find that when the person is with me I am connected to something other than the ‘whats’. I begin to know who they are (Fig 10). And this who, rather than the what, is what can stay with me enough for me to say I love somebody. I love somebody for who they are long after the ‘whats’ have done their business of drawing me in.
The Cheshire Cats’ smile may be unique, but it is more than a facial expression. It is a way into something about the Cheshire Cat that cannot be defined: something indefatigable about the creature’s disarming presence.
All cats are like this, whether or not they come from Cheshire. I might recognise any cat once I have seen it enough, based on its lovely paws or its lopsided ears. Perhaps it has a white patch on its stomach; maybe it has a funny scuttling way of running. After some time, though, these things signal something about the cat I am about to meet which is beyond immediate recognition: these characteristics, these whats, are like hallmarks: to be loved by Tom. What it is that I love, a cat cannot tell me; but in the cat that I love, because I cannot ever know it, I can understand something of myself. All love, a cat will tell us, may relate only to ourselves in so far as we are able to recognise what is loveable; but real love comes from allowing ourselves to connect with what we don’t know, and to move beyond the what. Some of us try to love whats, and cling to these for our lives, only to find in the end we have never found out who it is that we say we love … we love only what we see on a screen; we love someone as we might love a hero of the silver screen. A cat, as I have already said, is a hero like a silver screen, not of it. If we allow ourselves beyond the screen, then what?
This is perhaps rather complicated.
Far more simply, allow me to tell you about the cat I used to know who belonged to a professional wrestler called Kendo. Kendo used to wear a mask when he wrestled, and at first, that is when I met Kendo after an accident that required me to treat him for a certain fear, and Kendo decided to get himself a cat, he tried to get his cat to do the same. He made his cat, Buttons, a small mask out of cloth and rubber that was supposed to make Buttons look like a fiery demon who would accompany him into the wrestling ring. Buttons didn’t look like a demon. Buttons looked like a cat wearing something very strange that it really didn’t want to, and only for a few seconds anyway as Buttons, like most cats, wouldn’t have it.
Kendo was disconsolate. He showed me photographs of Buttons in the moments before she (for buttons was a she) tore the mask off, and asked me: ‘Thomas, why does my cat not love me enough to be a demon for me?’
‘Kendo,’ I said, ‘Do you know at all whether Buttons loves you or not?’
‘But she is just like a demon, the demon I used to dream of when I was a little boy, who would breathe fire all over my parents and destroy them. She must love me, because I feel so much love for her, because she is such a little demon with her sharp little ears, burning eyes and bristling fur. I know her. She is just like me.’
‘I see.’ I paused a while, so that I knew Kendo was listening to me. ‘Kendo, from what I have seen of Buttons, in your photographs and in the flesh, I do not think she is temperamentally anything like a demon. She seems placid and peaceful, apart from when you ask her to wear a mask like you do. I think that when you say you love her for being a little demon, that you know her, and that she is so much like you, you are doing what so many of us do: you are looking into her eyes and seeing the life there as something that burns (fig 11).
I think she shines. And when you say she is such a little demon you are projecting yourself onto her. You are asking her to play the part of you, starring in the film of your life. But she’s a cat. You need to let her reveal herself to you. For her to be a screen to you, for sure; one that will allow you to see yourself.
From what you have told me can you already see how your younger, fiery little self needs to be loved in ways that it seems your mother and father were incapable of. You love her fiery little face, as you see it. She doesn’t have a fiery little face, Kendo. She has a sweet, restful face, open enough for her to be the screen you need, so you can start to love yourself. If you can’t see this, Kendo, you will spend your whole life loving people and things who stand for the you who wasn’t loved enough. I’m so sorry about that, Kendo. But let Buttons be free. Let her be herself and learn to love her as she is.’
Kendo, who was wearing his own mask, something he often did in our sessions together, tore it off and smiled at me as if he had won the greatest prize imaginable. I see,’ he said. ‘I see.’
‘And Kendo, I see you.’
Kendo never looked back. Occasionally, whenever I was passing through the Midlands I would arrange to see Kendo and Buttons; and it was during these sporadic visits that I really came to understand that part that loving a cat can play in a life. The more open Kendo seemed to become to Buttons, the less violent he himself became. I would visit their bungalow near Wolverhampton and find Buttons chasing butterflies in the garden while Kendo made jam in the kitchen. Kendo saw something of himself in Buttons which he would never have glimpsed if he hadn’t allowed that small ginger cat to be herself rather than the demon he had cast her as.
It was as if he had understood something without it having ever been said: cats are telepathy.
It was as if his life developed in ways he could never have imagined: cats are change.
It was as if he learned how to love by somehow losing sight of himself, letting go of that fiery demon he had imagined for himself as a child. The last time I saw Kendo he was about to become engaged to a young French yoga practitioner called Lulu.