Purring and Noth­ing­ness

Cats are just about the purest phe­nome­nol­o­gists you could name

Geist - - Perfect Bound - MARY SCHENDLINGER

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.

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