Purring and Nothingness
Cats are just about the purest phenomenologists you could name
Since I picked up At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails, a history of modern existentialism by Sarah Bakewell (Knopf Canada), I have stopped reading it only under duress: to sleep, for example, and to pay the hydro bill. Now I’m hoovering up the last few chapters at my daughter’s apartment while she is away, and looking after Lulu, her tortie-tabby cat.
Lulu has been let outside, as she is every evening after dinner. From this apartment on the second floor, she skulks out along the breezeway, then dekes down to ground level via some secret passage near the stairs and hangs out in the shrubbery around the playground. About an hour later she returns, leaps up onto the kitchen window sill and peers in until someone sees her, opens the door and lets her in.
At some point about fifty pages from the end of the book, I realize that Lulu has been out for an hour and a half, maybe longer. Yikes! I step out on the breezeway, lean over the fence, and call down into the shrubbery, Lulu-lulu-lulu! No response.
Bakewell’s book is a far cry from my last encounter with philosophy, at university in 1967, when I signed up for groovy ideas and staggered away with dreary abstractions. Existentialist Café is about human beings—smart ones, with ideas and ideals, with feelings and struggles and contradictions and a blind spot or two, and above all a burning conviction that we must strive to make the world a better place. At the heart of the story are Jean-paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and the writers, artists and philosophers they hung out with in Saint-germain-des-prés on the Left Bank of Paris in the 1930s and ’40s. They forged modern existentialism, a way of thinking and acting that is still part of us.
The story starts in the early 1930s, when the French philosopher and political scientist Raymond Aron sat down in a Left Bank café with Sartre and Beauvoir. Over apricot cocktails he filled them in on phenomenology (from the Greek for “things as they appear”), a new way of thinking that was all the rage in Germany, particularly in the work of Edmund Husserl and his student Martin Heidegger. It had to do with the act of encountering a thing purely as it is, setting aside all knowledge, experience and judgement of it: in French, epoché (from the Greek for “suspension,” as in suspension of disbelief).
Still no Lulu at the window, so I go out and call her again. Little monkey! Testing my mettle? Payback for not letting her sleep on my keyboard when it is nice and warm—i.e., when I am using it? But cats are not vengeful, like humans. They don’t hold grudges. They have a memory of sixteen hours max: when they pee on your duvet it’s an act of anxiety, not retaliation. Or so the science says.
Sartre and Beauvoir were excited by these new ideas, so akin to their own, which grappled with existence, consciousness, knowledge and philosophy as applied to a meaningful and responsible life, to doing something. Sartre believed in existence (being), then essence: that is, you become what you make of yourself, every minute you are alive. Beauvoir’s approach was more holistic, Bakewell writes, allowing for an emotional life and proposing that “free choice, biological, social and cultural factors meet and mingle to create a human being.” But the roots were the same: take responsibility, stay connected, thrive, act. We are more free than we think we are.
Which is important every minute, but the particular pressure on the existentialist café crowd in France, in the 1930s, included the rise of Fascism, a civil war in Spain that threatened to spread and great apprehension among people still recovering from World War I. In that context, questions of personal freedom and responsibility were questions of life and death.
Sartre spent a year studying in Germany and came back in 1934, all fired up. Immediately he began to fold phenomenology into the philosophy that was being hammered out among the artists, writers, journalists, students and other fellow travellers who read and wrote and debated with each other in the cafés (which were warmer than the cheap digs where they lived). He even got hold of some mescaline:
dreams and hallucinations were part of the matrix, and other intellectuals were reporting ecstatic adventures and insights. (But for Sartre, no stranger to mood-altering substances, it “threw up a hellish crew of snakes, fish, vultures, toads, beetles and crustaceans.”)
It occurs to me that cats are just about the purest phenomenologists you could name. Talk about putting aside all sensory and experiential baggage when encountering a thing! The cat sits by the front door, looking at it, waiting to be let out. Someone opens the door. It’s raining outside. The cat retreats and goes to sit by the back door, looking at it, waiting to be let out. Rain. Retreat. Seconds later, the cat sits and waits at the front door again, tabula rasa. Perhaps it’s a wonder Lulu ever finds her way home.
Which reminds me to try again to get her in. I walk out on the breezeway and deploy a method known to cat lovers everywhere: holding out her food dish and banging on it with a spoon. Lulu-lulu-lulu! Puss-puss-puss-puss-puss! Nothing.
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland; France and the UK declared war on Germany; the Soviet Union invaded Poland. Then came the eight-month “Phoney War,” so-called because there were no big land attacks. (Let’s assume the 1.2 million Polish soldiers and civilians who were killed, wounded, taken prisoner or forced to flee did not experience it as one bit phoney.) German and Italian troops also occupied France, so the Paris existentialists were bashing out the meaning and responsibilities of being and freedom—you are free, you must use freedom responsibly, with freedom comes constant anxiety and even terror but you must act—at a time when they were not free. In the 1930s and ’40s this philosophy was wildly attractive to many people, particularly young ones. It also gave the Catholic Church and the Communist Party something to agree on: their hatred of this dangerous talk of individual freedom. The Church put the existentialists’ writings on the official no-no list, and the French Marxists distanced themselves from Sartre, Beauvoir and company.
Could it be that Lulu is absent not because she is reluctant to give up her freedom but because the neighbour’s big scarred tomcat is patrolling the breezeway? If so, we are in the presence of what the existentialists called contingency. Freedom is not absolute—if it were, we would be paralyzed. Rather, freedom is exercised in the context of contingency: circumstances that are beyond our control, such as our bodies, the time and place and family we were born into, the Occupation. Or, in a different setting, a big scarred tomcat. So we act from situations as ethically as we can, keeping in mind that the line between true contingency and a spineless excuse can be fuzzy. I go out and patrol the breezeway, twice, but do not encounter a big scarred tomcat or Lulu or any cat. Other horrifying contingencies that might account for Lulu’s tardiness come to mind. I banish them.
The existentialists continued to expand and refine their ideas, with attention to the work of other philosophers: Martin Heidegger, who was preoccupied with the nature of being as an experiential rather than an intellectual function; Emmanuel Lévinas, for his notions of il y a (“there is”) and his almost Sartre-like articulation of a “heavy, solid, undifferentiated ‘being’ that weighs on you,” as Bakewell describes it; Raymond Aron, a rational humanist who had introduced Sartre and Beauvoir to phenomenology and who did not trust ideological orthodoxies; Maurice Merleau-ponty, a psychologist with a special interest in perception, who could not sign on to the “radical freedom [and] anguished responsibility” at the heart of the new existentialism; Albert Camus, the lonely, alienated writer whose options for responding to the meaninglessness of life came down to committing suicide, taking a leap of faith (philosophical suicide, he said) or accepting the absurdity of it all and plodding on anyway.
Elements of all of these can be felt in the writings and biographies of the existentialists. They agreed that no neat, meaningful explanations were to be found. But suicide? No. Fight on, and interpret the chaos as real freedom. Life is bloody hard, but it is rich with meaning. And no “fate” either—it denies freedom.
Sartre was drafted into the French army in 1939. His eyesight was so poor that he was posted to a meteorological site rather than a battlefield. There he had enough free time to write articles, essays, books and long letters to Beauvoir, and to read the stacks of books she sent him. But in May, soon after the “real” war began, he was captured and placed in a POW camp. Bakewell reports that he did all right there. You wouldn’t think so, of this man who was so solitary, so unbending, so devoted to personal freedom. But in another way it was an affirmation: he still had his existential freedom (one does, no matter what), and talk about an unambiguous contingency! It may even have been a relief for this fellow who could never rest in his frantic quest for pure acts. In the camp he acted from his situation: he read Heidegger’s Being and Time and wrote notes for what grew into Being and Nothingness. His return to his former life—what now appeared to him as bourgeois society—was a bumpy one.
My situation—though not life-anddeath, I hope—is that Lulu has been out far too long and if she does not return, my daughter’s heart will be broken and it will be my fault. I look at the kitchen window for the gazillionth time, hoping to see Lulu there. But I’m not always sure of what I see, partly because reflections from the indoor lamps and outdoor security lights produce ambiguous shapes in the glass, partly because I really want the vague
impressions out there to be Lulu, and partly because my vision isn’t what it once was. Like Sartre I am exotropic (cock-eyed) and monocular (able to see with only one eye at a time, never both at once). Bakewell mentions that exotropia causes fatigue and difficulty concentrating. Will this happen to me? Is it happening already? Has Lulu come to the window several times, and did I obliviously lock eyebeams with her over and over until she finally gave up?
In the spirit of acting from situations, I consider leaving the front door open for Lulu. It’s a warm evening, and new options must be pondered. But no. The reason she must petition us at the window is the fifty- to sixtypercent chance that she is carrying a bird or a rodent—stunned, not dead— in her jaws.
Now that she has been out far too long, Lulu’s absence is massive, even more space-hogging than her considerable presence. It fills the apartment like smoke, or a loud noise. I can barely concentrate even on this wonderful book, in which Bakewell describes absence as more glaring and invasive than presence. Both Sartre and Beauvoir wrote about unnerving disappearances during the Occupation, when habitués of the neighbourhood whom you didn’t know personally, but whose presence you knew, simply vanished. Sartre invoked a sprawling underground monster dragging people down; Beauvoir wrote: “It was, precisely, a nothingness.”
The nothingness in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is also an absence—of encumbrance. This is the absence that bestows absolute freedom: you are not the sum total of your own history and physical being; your very consciousness is not an ever-growing pile of baggage; you are always nothing: over and over, you are free. Free, that is, except for the fact that you must also take up 24/7 self-examination on the great responsibility of this freedom, and the perpetual angst that comes with it.
Not for cats, though. Lulu and every other cat I know inhabit this state all the time without a trace of discomfort, let alone agony. Some people interpret this insouciance as evidence that cats have no standards, or perhaps no memory, but we have more science now about animals’ memory, responses to stress, souls. Cats have at least twelve distinct communication sounds—purr, meow and hiss, yes, but also yowl, spit, chirrup, shriek, caterwaul, snarl and so on. Also we know now what shamans and other magicians have known for millennia: animals are different from humans, so even the mechanisms of comparing them have to be different.
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre set out two realms of being: pour-soi (for itself) and en-soi (in itself). The poursoi is the being to be had through consciousness and choice, available only to humans. The en-soi applies to everything else, animate or not: zucchini, paper clips, cats—anything that doesn’t need to make decisions.
Really? I say Lulu does decide things. She chooses to go out, stay out, claw dried-up dirt-covered leaves out of the plant pot and eat them, jump on my lap and turn on the motor and go to sleep. And there is something deliberate in her approach to a high jump. To leap from the floor to the top of the fridge, for instance, she lowers her hindquarters and waggles her bum for a few seconds whilst eyeballing the destination—reckoning distance, speed and trajectory, surely—and then, in a nanosecond, the launch and the precise landing, not one millimetre off. Surely she has decided to travel to the top of the fridge, even if the mechanics of it are instinctive.
I wonder what Maurice Merleauponty—“the most revolutionary thinker of them all,” according to Bakewell— would say about feline volition. He was a philosopher and psychologist with a special interest in body and perception. In his view there was some give and take between pour-soi and en-soi, and he disagreed fundamentally with Sartre on “existence, then essence.” To him the real mystery of existence is our ability to achieve complicated tasks all the time, seemingly without effort. He believed that newborns arrive with essence and are learning from the getgo. By the time we can reason, imagine and remember—somewhere around age seven—our full essence, at least a beta version, is well in place. So, as Bakewell writes, “Phenomena come to us already shaped by the interpretations, meanings and expectations with which we are going to grasp them.” By the time we’re a few weeks old, if we are neurologically intact, we have wellfunctioning proprioception: a natural, unconscious perception of our own movements and spatial positions, managed by our internal sensory apparatus.
Cats are miracles of proprioception. Whether or not Lulu decides to leap onto the fridge, it is her proprioceptors that manage the trip. And those controls can be compromised. When Lulu comes home from the vet with a plastic cone on her head, you have to keep the windows shut or she’ll fall out right away.
Time to call her again, more loudly and aggressively, down at ground level in case she’s wandered off. I’d rather not, because the building is a quadrangle that becomes a giant upturned megaphone for any sound originating in the playground, and people are putting their children to bed. The last thing they need is a stranger prowling about in the dark, rattling a bag of cat treats and shouting, in falsetto, Lulu-lulu-lulu! Puss-puss-puss! Come on, Lulu! The existentialists are silent on the question of where good manners fit into the question of contingency. In The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), though, Beauvoir writes that there is no absolute goodness; goodness comes from our decisions. So goodness, like freedom, can only exist in situations and is not always easily worked out. Is it okay, for instance, to speak the truth
if it hurts someone? Genuine freedom includes concern for the freedom of others. Like neighbours, say. Or cats.
In August 1944, France was liberated. Sartre, Beauvoir and company danced in the streets with everyone else, but they also called for une littérature engagée and threw themselves into the work of even more intense and copious rabble-rousing. The cafés were jammed. Saint-germaindes-prés was wild with activity: writing and publishing, music, theatre, political debates. By now, information on the massacres, gulags, concentration camps and other atrocities of the recent years had begun to filter through and demanded attention. And there were fresh hells: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, A-bombs exploded by the Soviet Union and the USA, the Cold War, Mccarthyism, the Algerian Revolution, Mao’s proclamation of the People’s Republic of China and North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, among others. To contain their prodigious output, Sartre, Beauvoir and their friends founded the rabble-rousing Les Temps modernes, a journal that is still on the case today.
Then the 1960s took hold, with urgent questions of personal freedom and political responsibility, from a new generation who were pushing back against the war in Southeast Asia and against racism, sexism, classism, colonialism and the rest. Sartre, Beauvoir and their colleagues once again become counterculture heroes and role models, at home and abroad.
That was my generation, and I read the account in Existentialist Café with memories of passionate conviction and a whiff of tear gas. Meanwhile, here and now, what am I going to do about Lulu? How worried should I be? I can’t decide. Or, as Sartre and Beauvoir might say, I won’t decide. Meanwhile, and possibly therefore, Lulu becomes somehow more authentic and I become less authentic. Unless these constraints are of my own making. Am I more free than I feel right now? Has anyone ever met an inauthentic cat? Contingency and freedom entail angst without end, said the Paris existentialists: deal with it.
All right then, while I wait for Lulu I’ll do a round-robin advice panel with the philosophers.
Raymond Aron, a Jewish man who saw what was coming, did one turn with the French army and then moved to England to work for Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces. Good on him, but no cat-retrieving strategies here.
Martin Heidegger, outed as a member of the Nazi party, went through denazification and then brought forth a new approach: letting-be, allowing things to appear, a more mystical approach influenced by Taoism and Daoism. Hmm, maybe.
Emmanuel Lévinas changed his tune and put relationships at the heart of consciousness. The connection between me and another is “more fundamental than the self,” he wrote; “more fundamental even than Being— and it brings an unavoidable ethical obligation.” Suggesting that I must find Lulu even if I have to walk the streets of Vancouver until dawn.
Maurice Merleau-ponty went on teaching, and he worked in resistance organizations with Sartre and Beauvoir, convinced that Soviet Communism was the answer. I know how that turned out, so I’ll take a pass.
Albert Camus struggled valiantly in support of the Algerian revolution, but disagreed with Sartre and Beauvoir and even took a mean swipe at The Second Sex. Meanwhile, he stuck with absurdism, which is part and parcel of living with a cat every day, so not a strategy for tonight.
Jean-paul Sartre grew more and more compulsive, rigid and unforgiving as he aged. Fuelled by cascading world events and his own convictions— and by a blend of amphetamines and painkillers called Corydrane, along with steady doses of alcohol and coffee, then downers to sleep—he pumped out polemics and other works (including a 2,800-page biography of Flaubert) at a mad rate and declared it “bourgeois” to revise or even reread them. He dumped friends, and in 1964 wrote a list of them, with annotations, in his journal. I salute Sartre but there is no counsel here for Lulu and me.
Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex in 1949 (five years after French women got the right to vote), to big praise and brisk sales. In it she made excellent use of Hegel’s master/ slave dialectic as a metaphor for other power imbalances. Sartre’s summary: When opinions differ, ask how a situation looks in the eyes of the “least favoured”; that is, the most oppressed or disadvantaged. That is the version to adopt as the truth. Okay, this one has possibilities. Who is more oppressed, Lulu or me? For bare survival we are equal. Either of us can scrape by without the other: she has a fur coat, for example, and I have a mobile phone. So we can accept the widespread view that cats are callous tyrants reducing humans to pathetic minions who try and mostly fail to please them, or we can acknowledge how dependent and vulnerable domestic cats are and set about righting the power balance.
Oh dear, I nodded off for a minute. Must stay awake and get her inside. I pick up the treat bag again, open the door and whoosh!—lulu zips inside and runs to the far end of the apartment and hides. In other words, she has prey. I look under the couch. Lulu’s green-gold eyes burn back at me, and something rustles a bit.
For this I do not need the existentialists or any other philosophers. “Welcome home, Lulu,” I say. Then I stand up and go to fetch the broom.
Mary Schendlinger is a writer, editor, retired teacher of publishing and, as Eve Corbel, a maker of comics. She was Senior Editor of Geist for twenty-five years. She lives in Vancouver. Read more of her work at geist.com.