Cats embody different qualities to different people—gods to ancient Egyptians, witches’ familiars to Puritanical Americans, disease carriers and rodent exterminators, howling scourges to writers, cuddly medication to depressives. In the digital age, cats have become cheezburger-craving running punchlines and adorable lunch break distractions.
In short, we’ve become a society obsessed by cats. That doesn’t mean, however, that we had any say in the relationship. “[A]mong all domestic animals cats boast a unique distinction,” writes Tom Chatfield for Prospect, trying to understand Western civilization’s feline affinity, “to the best of our knowledge, it was them who chose us. Or rather, cats chose what humans represented: the plentiful supply of tasty vermin that lived among the stock and refuse of early civilization.”
From a sociological perspective, cat people (this writer included) are fairly irrational. “Vermin-catching skills aside, cats are not useful to humans in any instrumental sense, nor much inclined to put themselves at our service,” says Chatfield, stating the obvious,
In contrast to the empathetic, emphatically useful dog, a cat’s mind is an alien and often unsympathetic mix of impulses. And it’s perhaps this combination of indifference and intimacy that has made it a beast of such ambivalent fascination throughout our history. Felines have been gods, demons, spirits and poppets to humankind over the centuries—and that’s before you reach the maelstrom of the internet and its obsessions. They are, in effect, a blank page onto which we doodle our dreams, fears and obsessions.
It sounds more like Stockholm Syndrome. But Chatfield lucidly acknowledges how the power dynamic might play out in a slightly different world: “I know that [my cat] appreciates the stroking as well as the feeding; but I’m equally certain that, if our sizes were reversed, the only thing that would stop him from eating me instantly would be the pleasure of hunting me first.”