Ursula K. Le Guin’s Blog
81. The Tango
Annals of Pard IX
Cats are pure predators: they hunt live prey. Carrion and other stuff dogs like is of no interest to them. They abhor sweets, and despise most vegetables, though many make an exception for asparagus, or corn, and my big Leonard liked a taste of salad greens and had a passion for raw spinach. We’re told that feral cats get the greens they need from what the prey they eat ate.
Pard is about as unferal as a cat can be. He stays indoors by choice and can’t be persuaded to vary his austere, self-chosen diet of dry kibbles and tap water. But we live in an old house with a lot of holes in it. The outdoors gets in. Live prey occurs fairly often. . . And he’s a very good predator, at least up to a point. He’ll spend whole days or nights in the attic, listening, expecting. He knocks over the trash basket under the kitchen sink every morning to examine it for live content. He knows where the mice were and will be. He knows where the mouse is, and waits for it. And he gets it.
It’s at this point that his predatory purity gets muddled and his skill as a hunter ends. As well as I can figure it out, his Food Perception Zone is so extremely limited that the mouse doesn’t enter into it at all. To him the mouse is a toy, a really good toy — the best imaginable — a toy that will play with him. Oh joy! And he brings it to me.
At this point most people say instructively, “He’s teaching you to hunt.” The idea is that mama cats bring live mice to their kittens and release them in order to teach the kittens hunting skills. This may well be so, but I have trouble extrapolating it to a young neutered male. Pard knows the difference between a woman and a kitten. And anyhow I don’t think he wants to teach me hunting skills. I bring him toys and play with some of them with him. He connects toy-playing with me, so he brings his grand new toy to me to play with.
His first couple of catches were dispatched pretty quickly, I think by accident, through clumsiness. He hadn’t yet learned how not to damage the toy. Alas, he has perfected this skill.
The worst time was a month or so ago when he brought a rather large, extremely vigorous mouse to my room at about two a.m. and released it on my bed. I woke up in time to fling it wildly off in a spontaneous convulsion, which sent it running about on the floor again so Pard could chase it again. Clearly I was behaving just as I should, keeping the toy in motion — so when he found it he brought it right back onto the bed. This time I was wide awake, and made noise and light as well as wild physical upheavals. Pard was delighted.
The mouse remained in good running order for a long time. There was no way I could catch it, but there were dozens of ways Pard could, and did — and then let it go again. It went on and on. It was awful. Even when they both got out into the hall, I couldn’t shut them out of the room, because the room door is about half an inch off the floor and the mouse would have got into the room leaving the cat outside hurling himself against the door. I fled to another room with a mouseproof door and shut it and hid.
That may have impaired Pard’s motivation, because the mouse got away, and he didn’t catch it for two days, though he was on the hunt most of the time. I lay each night in dread of the midnight mouse.
He caught it, and another since then, both in the trash can under the sink (which has steep sides a mouse can’t climb, so it’s like shooting fish in a barrel). He brings his mouse to my room in the dead of night, carrying it carefully, as a mother cat carries a kitten, and with the same alert, head-up, trotting gait. He puts it gently down on the floor — he hasn’t put one in bed with me again, for which I am grateful. The chase then circles round under furniture, into the doorless closet, behind the drum, through the vacuum-cleaner-parts boxes, etc. Rattle rattle, pause — BANG! — long tense pause — skitter, skitter, rustle, thump — long, long pause . . . Rattle . . . rattle. . . Then at last, blessedly, silence. The final silence. Exhaustion or an over-hasty pounce has released the mouse at last.
Pard carries it up and leaves it on the floor of Charles’s study in the attic. That done, he has absolutely no further interest in it. Why Charles gets the body, only Pard knows. We’d like to see it as a thoughtful attention, but it seems rather more like the child who generously gives his friend the toy he broke — “Here! This is a present! For you!”
Knowing that there is no way he can learn Compassion any more than he can learn Cruelty, the skill I wish I could teach Pard is Quick Murder. But whatever it is — the predatory instinct inseparably interacting with the play instinct, I suppose — all he wants of a mouse is for it to go on. And the mouse resourcefully, silently, gallantly dances out its role in the fatal tango.
82. Belief in Belief
“Belief in Belief” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare
83. Cats, Claws, Panic
Annals of Pard X
Do cats bite their nails? I mean, do cats other than Pard bite their nails?
After breakfast, Pard washes his face. Sometimes the soft swipe across the jowl with the spit-dampened front paw turns into something else: he holds that paw pad-first to to his mouth, gets a claw between his teeth, and tugs it. He tugs repeatedly, and hard enough to make a not wholly agreeable tooth-on-claw noise.
In the afternoon, when he is doing All-over Spitbath and Yoga Grooming, he lies comfortably on the lower end of his backbone, seizes one hind leg with one front paw, gets a hind claw between his teeth, and tugs it at the same way. He must be using his felines (surely they aren’t called canines in a cat?) because his other teeth don’t look capable of a grip like that.
I never had a cat before that did this. Sometimes I think he’s cleaning his claws, as we clean our fingernails. Sometimes I think he’s getting off the little shells that claws discard as they grow out. Sometimes I wonder if he’s so bored he bites his nails.
Does anybody know?
Do cats have panic attacks?
One night last month Pard stayed up in the uninhabited part of the attic all night long. In the morning he didn’t come and walk around on me and purr till I got up. He didn’t come and walk all over everything in the bathroom purring with his tail in the air while I got dressed. He didn’t gallop down the stairs ahead of me and stand around purring extremely loudly with the tip of his tail between his ears while I put his kibbles in his bowl.
He didn’t come down at all till I called him with his food call, prrrt-ticky-ticky! and rattled the kibble-can. And I had to come clear upstairs with it. Then he ventured down the attic stairs — stair by stair, paw by paw — eyes like searchlights, ears back, mouth tense, tail low: textbook illustration of Very Anxious Cat. It took him forever to get all the way down to the kitchen, and then he was too anxious to eat — the first time ever that he didn’t clean his bowl industriously and immediately. He’d nibble, and then freak out again and crouch, or run back upstairs. He never did finish that breakfast.
He was that way all day. He wanted to be with me, but was not sociable and couldn’t relax. He led me once up to the attic, and we walked all around in it. I wondered if maybe something like a raccoon or big rat had got in there and given him a scare. But there was no sign of that, and no particular place that spooked him, there or elsewhere. He was just totally, globally spooked. It was very spooky.
It really is not the kind of attic that has ghosts.
I did think of Strange Animal Behavior Before Earthquakes that I used to read about in newspaper supplements in 1938.
The only thing besides earthquakes I could think of that seemed a possible cause for such a panic was my overnight bag, which I’d set out the day before. He’d sniffed it then, with no alarm whatever, and got into it, because it is his privilege and duty to enter all enterable spaces and explore them. He has explored that bag twenty times. He got out again, and thereafter ignored the bag. I wasn’t going to travel till the next day, and anyhow wasn’t in the state I’m sometimes in before a trip; though he’s definitely sensitive to stress and high tension, I don’t think he was picking up my travel nerves. Anyhow, his way of acting out my tensions is to do The Forbidden Things — leap up to the mantelpiece, attack the embroidery on the Morris chair, disintegrate the sofa leg, etc. — and then go hide in plain sight in my armchair, exactly like a wicked three-year-old.
He remained unhappy all day, licking his lips often, tail held low, unable to settle down and sleep — barely distracted from his anxiety for a moment by crunchy Greenies, usually the delight of life.
I wasn’t happy about leaving him, wondering if some physical ailment was making him act this way, though he didn’t move or act as if in pain. He hid out somewhere again all night, but he did come in and walk around on me at six-thirty. He was still tail-down and purrless, but behaving more normally. So I went on my trip.
When I called home, Charles reported that Pard was doing better. Next day when I got home he was pretty well back to normal and the day after that he was fine.
He’s not what I’d call a spooky cat. He’s shy with people, mostly because he sees so few. Sudden noises can scare him (though sometimes he obviously just wants an excuse to race upstairs with a lot of hysterical scrabbling and a huge black bottlebrush tail. After which he saunters back down. Noise? What noise?) And he still generally prefers looking out the window to going out the door. When he does go out onto our second-story verandah, he’d rather one of us was with him; he’s tense and cautious, tail down, the whole time he’s out. Often he doesn’t even go all the way down the stairs to the garden. But mostly, usually, basically, he is a cheerful little body, tail high, purring me awake in the morning, devouring his breakfast and dinner, racing joyously after Greenies, in full control of his household and its routine.
What was that awful night and day of fear? Do cats have panic attacks out of the blue? Does anybody know?
If you know about Nail Biting Cats or Cat Panics, you can tell me by clicking on the Book View Café link to this blog. I will read all reports with interest and gratitude. (You might want to take a look at BVC’s bookstore while you’re there, they publish good stuff.)
— Ursula K. Le guin
84. The Circling Stars, the Sea Surrounding:
Philip Glass and John Luther Adams
“The Circling Stars, the Sea Surrounding” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare
85. Pard and the Time Machine
Annals of Pard XI
“Pard and the Time Machine” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare
86. The Internet as Heaven
Time and space are the basic parameters of being in the world. Plants and animals fill their time and their space without question: the tree or the cow occupies its place in the world and its life-span completely and comfortably, seeking only to continue in them. Human beings as babies and children do much the same.
But the developing human brain loses or abandons this seamless occupancy of the world. People begin to question the size and shape of the space they occupy and the length of time they occupy it. They become restless and uncomfortable, they feel incomplete. Dissatisfied with the parameters of their being, they seek to change or escape them. This dissatisfaction has been called divine discontent. In Buddhism recognition of it is dukkha, the First Noble Truth.
Travel was for a long time one way to augment our limited experience of space. Unfortunately it augmented the experience of time only through discomfort. (Are we there yet?) But high-speed travel, eagerly pursued as a goal for the last couple of centuries and made more comfortable, shrinks time-between-places. At 50 miles an hour or so, motion begins to erase the experience of space, to diminish the awareness of traversal. Awareness of location begins to be limited to the vehicle, with little perception of the world outside it. At supersonic speeds the body has no experience at all of the distance traversed, only of the relatively brief time spent traversing it. At the speed of light the body would probably have no experience at all of either space or time.
However, since travel as we know it involves actually transporting the body, it provides no real escape from space and time. The body, however fast and far it goes, has to end up somewhere sometime.
Human beings discovered long ago that escape from limitations of time and space is possible through altering perception — by imagination, dream, stargazing, getting drunk, getting high, intellectual concentration, contemplation, art, mystical practice. Again, the escapade doesn’t last, since when it ends you’re right back in your own body, but it is a well-tested and popular tactic.
Symbolic language provides one of these means of altering perception. Writing and reading can occupy the mind with a symbolic experience completely excluding local awareness. Of course, eventually the book ends and you’re back where you started from. Although “you” may not be entirely the same person that started out to read the book.
The absorption of consciousness by symbol is heightened tremendously on the Internet. Virtual communication (all of which involves and much of which consists of reading or writing) is a mental or symbolic act that involves the body only in mental attention and some minimal physical motions. By almost disembodying consciousness, it erases awareness of location and lapse of time. On the Internet, corporeal consciousness is replaced with a tremendously versatile, almost purely mental existence consisting of immediate symbolic communication with other people, individually or in great although not clearly realized numbers, and access to symbolic reproductions of reality in the form of information, literature, images, music, games, catalogues of consumer items, etc. This wealth of symbolic reproduction is so extendable and can lead to so many connected and related reproductions that people can wander in it endlessly. Absorbed in virtual communication on the Internet, they successfully escape from consciousness of actuality, including mortality. Symbolic communications, active and passive, fill awareness to the point that the communicator is not aware of time, space, and the body that exists in such a limited region of them.
The Internet’s supply of channels of communication and of symbolic reproductions is already inexhaustible and still increasing.
To be free of the body, tied to no place in time and no time in place, yet having effortless, limitless access to everyone one knows, to all knowledge, and to immediate or securely promised satisfaction of desires would appear to be the condition of a blessed immortality.
What could possibly be wrong with it?
87. The Myth of the Veneer
“The secret world of the Mafia is a concave mirror that reflects and magnifies our world. If looked at properly, it can illuminate aspects of society that are normally out of focus and taken for granted. When we peel away the veneer of law and moral convention, we enter a world where social relations are in their raw state, the use of violence is pervasive, information uncertain and betrayal a common currency, and where the natural bonds of family love are defiled. By looking at the Mafia microcosm, we can understand better who we are.”
This paragraph, from the Times Literary Supplement of September 18, 2009, opened a review by Federico Varese of The First Family, by Mike Dash, a book about the Mafia. I found it such an exemplary mishmash of half-baked statements and half-thought-out notions that I kept it around until I could take it on, mixed metaphor by mixed metaphor, cliché by cliché. I think it was worth doing, because the basic fallacy it expresses is repeated so tirelessly and accepted so widely as the tough-minded, ugly truth. I’m calling it after its favorite metaphor: The Myth of the Veneer.
So, to begin with: What aspects of society are normally out of focus? What aspects of society are normally in focus? When, to whom? Whose eyes are supposed to be looking, focused or unfocused?
How does peeling away a veneer allow us to enter a world?
If you peel away a veneer, you reveal a solid substance of a different nature from the veneer. If law and moral convention are a veneer, the implication is that they are a thin, artificial disguise or prettification of something substantial but less pretty.
What is this substance?
Are we to assume the substance revealed is that of social relations in their raw state?
Does a raw state postulate some “natural” or prehistoric phase of human existence, a pre-social state in which there was no social code, and each individual invented behavior and relationship from scratch?
Social animals such as man all live within a system of rules of behavior and relationship, some innate and some learned, which limit violence within the group, facilitate communication, and make repeated betrayal of trust unprofitable. Almost all human beings, even infants, are continuously engaged in intensely complex mutual human relationships taking place within a society and culture consisting of rules, laws, traditions, institutions, etc. that specify and regulate the nature and manner of those relationships.
There is no evidence that human beings ever lived in asocial anarchy, and much evidence that, like other social animals, they have always lived within a social system. The rules differ greatly, but there are never no rules.
In other words, law and moral convention — social control of behavior and relationship — is not an artificial, enforced constraint, but a substantial element of our existence as members of our species. Non-violent, informative, trustworthy behavior is fully as natural to us as violence, lying, and betrayal.
This confusion about what “natural” means is exposed in the surprising statement that the natural bonds of family are defiled in the world revealed by the Mafia-mirror — a world previously posited as the “raw,” natural one that was concealed by “unnatural” social hypocrisy.
Why would we understand better who we are by looking in the Mafia-mirror? Its selective reflection and magnification appear to “illuminate” only degradation of the substantial and defilement of the natural. We certainly will come to understand better who the Mafiosi are by studying their world. But wouldn’t we better understand who we are by looking at the place of such an institution as the Mafia within the rich, complex world of (more or less) functional human relationships, law, and moral convention in which most of us who read books and blogs are fortunate enough to live?
But Mr Varese, dismissing all that as mere veneer, privileges criminality as reality.
Rip off the disguise and we are all revealed — traitorous, savage, ruthless brutes. It’s a fantasy cherished by many. Particularly, perhaps, by quite honest, decent, literary men.
88. An Unfinished Education
Annals of Pard, XII
“An Unfinished Education” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare
89a. About Anger
Part i. Saeva indignatio
“About Anger” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare
89b. About Anger
Part ii. Private Anger
“About Anger” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare
90. Catching Up, Ha Ha
“Catching Up, Ha Ha” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare
91. The Inner Child and the Nude Politician
“The Inner Child and the Nude Politician” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare
92. Knowing a Book by its Cover
I looked, I liked, and (since I couldn’t read the title) I wondered: Which book is it? What language? I must have forgotten that I had something coming out in Africa? or maybe India?
I looked inside, and saw it was Four Ways to Forgiveness, published in Finland.
The publisher is Vaskikirjat. I’d like to credit the translator and the cover artist, but since Finnish is a language of which I don’t know and can’t even guess at a single word, I don’t know who is which: (Käännös) Jyrki Iivonen, (Kansi) Jani Laatikainen, or (Taitto) Erkka Leppänen. In any case, my thanks to all.
Now I wish I knew if you, Reader, were as surprised as I was to find this is the cover of a book printed in Finland. And if you, like me, are a little horrified by your own surprise — but not surprised at it.
Finland is a nation of about 5 million people. As well as I can figure from the statistics, about 99% of this population is white.
The US is a nation of about 316 million people, of whom around 77% are or consider themselves white.
I believe everybody in Four Ways to Forgiveness is some shade of brown except for those described as black, and the slave population of Yeowe, contemptuously called “dusties,” who are a sort of pale greige. In most of my books, a minority of the characters, or none, are specified as white, while major characters or whole populations are described as dark-skinned.
With very rare exceptions, the cover art of my books in both America and England has utterly ignored specific descriptions in the text and portrayed the characters as white. Often strikingly white — pallid North European types — Finnish, maybe . . .
Many readers believe that writers get to choose the covers of their books. In traditional publishing, it’s a lucky author who even gets a look at the cover before the book comes out. Some of us who have gained a little clout get a clause in the contract that gives us cover approval, but our approval is ”not to be unreasonably withheld.”
Guess who gets to define “unreasonable”?
I’ve fought the blonde bimbos and the hairy-chested, blue-eyed Aryan heroes tooth and nail for forty years. Over and over I have been utterly defeated. Publisher’s cover departments are patronizing and impenetrable. We know what sells, they say. Covers with people of color on them don’t sell.
Cover departments are always absolutely certain that they know what sells. Blind certainty is a hard thing to overcome, particularly when it’s silently supported by a comfortably unquestioning acceptance of racial prejudice.
And so in a way it’s self-fulfilling, for if no one in America ever sees a book with a person of color on the cover, a book with a person of color on it may look quite strange, unfriendly, to something like 77% of possible American readers . . . Oh it’s something about Them, it isn’t about Us, I only want to read about Us.
Dear Finnish publisher and artist, I praise your spirit and thank you for giving my book this joyous and appropriate presentation.
May the publishers presenting my books in my own country look at it and take thought, and take courage from it too. It’s true, what this painting shows: if we bring the good spirit to the dance, we can dance together. There might even be a Forgiveness Day.
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