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  • Cat People
  • Glenn Willmott (bio)

Meditating upon the emblem of St. Mark in a sequence of poems devoted to the “Evangelistic Beasts,” D. H. Lawrence casts a question at Mark’s God: “Would a wingless lion lie down before Thee, as this winged lion lies?”1 This man, both animal and saint, fascinates him, this “lion” who “welped, and was Mark.” A figure plunged equally in darkness and light, in body and spirit, in revelation and enigma, he embodies Lawrentian primitive vitality. Yet the question implies, too, that the mere cat—the “wingless lion”—remains uncertainly apart from his God, resists salvation and retains its strangeness, even as its assimilation to the man, its hybridized kinship, paradoxically confirms this human spiritual perfection. Where does that animal fall, into a new heaven or a darkened earth? And is it a particular cat (Tibby or Marmelade, lion or leopard, domesticated or wild?), or is it the cat in general, or even more generally its animality, which is found at once to transform and evade the human, so? It is unclear how the cat matters to the idea: if we discover in the elusive animal, as Lawrence wishes us to, a redemptive, sensual and spiritual vitality suppressed by modern industrial life, do we thereby leave all individuality and history behind for some primitivist mirage, for a superficially down-to-earth but subtly transcendental assertion?

Thus argues literary scholar Philip Armstrong, though he maintains that Lawrence, along with the modernist avant-garde, also establishes a valuable critique of reigning humananimal relations: “In its distaste for modernity,” the primitivist project in high modernism draws Western society towards the post-Darwinian, “biocentric” animality identified by modernist scholar Margot Norris, and pushes it away from sentimenta [End Page 839] and anthropomorphic clichés of non-human life consistent with ideologies of human supremacy and progress. Yet this critique comes with its own ideological cost, for modernist writing characteristically makes of the animal an abstract synecdoche for the plenum of asocial, feral Nature that is the transcendental signifier of biocentric writing. Modernism steps “outside of history altogether, seeking solace or guidance in a timeless dimension where animals, human environments, and the relations between them can be seen essentially, as they are, as they always have been.”2 I will argue that while it is true that both critique and abstraction are endemic to modernist writing about animals, neither is history programmatically abstracted and transcended, nor does biocentrism readily signify without it. And the cat does matter.

The Modern Icon

In a sweeping historical argument, Michel Foucault argued that Western knowledge has been conditioned by three epistemic epochs. Such grand schemas, dedicated as they are to generalities, have hardly survived a postmodern critical fetish that has unceasingly sought, collected, deconstructed, and rearticulated the differential and the particular. Yet Foucault’s early, tripartite history of knowledge discourses moving from the machineries of pre-modern resemblance, to those of Enlightenment classification, to those of organic historicity in the modern period, which he supposed to have reached an ambiguous, posthuman limit at the end of the last century, seems to describe very well the typology if not history of one transhistorical kind of image: that of the creature at once human and non-human. There have always been popular stories and images of anthropomorphic animals and theriomorphic people. In folk tales corresponding to Foucault’s pre-modern period, for example, werewolves or mermaids partly assimilate the human figure to a dangerous, non-human nature; but as we see in heraldry, in the werewolf and birds in lais of Marie de France, in the pre-Christian animism of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in the scholarly cat of the Old Irish poet, or in many other instances of appropriation of non-human lives to human cultural iconology, these mediatory creatures with a foot, fin, paw, wing, branch, or claw in the realm of a frightening non-human nature also lend attributes of power to a henceforth re-articulated and re-affirmed human institution.3

Such totemic creatures are distinct from the friendly or villainous tricksters that populate other folk tales such those collected by the Grimms—the talking fox, the clothed cat...


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