One of the most attractive features of cats is that contentment is their default state. Unlike human beings – particularly of the modern variety – they do not spend their days in laborious pursuit of a fantasy of happiness. They are comfortable with themselves and their lives, and remain in that condition for as long as they are not threatened. When they are not eating or sleeping, they pass the time exploring and playing, never asking for reasons to live. Life itself is enough for them.
…Whereas human beings search for happiness in an ever-increasing plethora of religions and therapies, cats enjoy contentment as their birthright. Why this is so is worth exploring. Cats show no sign of regretting the past or fretting about the future. They live, absorbed in the present moment. It will be said that this is because they cannot envision the past or future. Perhaps so, though their habit of demanding their breakfast at the accustomed hour shows they do have a sense of the passage of time. But cats, unlike people, are not haunted by an anxious sense that time is slipping away. Not thinking of their lives as stories in which they are moving towards some better state, they meet each day as it comes. They do not waste their lives dreading the time when their lives must end. Not fearing death, they enjoy a kind of immortality. All animals have these qualities but they seem particularly pronounced in cats. Of all the animals that have lived closely with human beings, cats must surely be the least influenced by them.
Let me be clear. Gray is one of my favorite writers and thinkers. I agree with most of what he writes, and even when I don’t, he’s still usefully thought-provoking. In his capacity as a book reviewer, though, I’ve noticed for some time that themes which have become prominent in his own recent books, such as Straw Dogs, The Silence of Animals, and The Soul of the Marionette, tend to bleed over into his reviews. Reading the above passages, it’s impossible (for me, at least) to not be distracted from the book under consideration — a book about the history of house cats, in this case — and put into mind of Gray’s own writings, in which he criticizes and scorns what he considers to be the fallacies and follies of political liberalism, its overweening faith in reason, and mankind’s inability to live contentedly in a form of Keats’s negative capability. It’s a bit like having a mental pop-up ad intruding into my thoughts.
In this particular phase of his career, he strikes me as the prose equivalent to Robinson Jeffers, whose concept of “inhumanism” seems to bear a strong family resemblance to Gray’s godless mysticism. Like Tor House, Jeffers’s granite dwelling on the California coast, Gray’s reviews occupy an austere, forbidding perspective under which the themes of the book being reviewed, if possible, are used as supporting stones to be cemented into his own philosophical edifice. Should they lack intellectual solidity, then, like waves, they dash themselves into mist upon the unforgiving rocks of Gray’s worldview.
The problem with having a theory of everything is that everything becomes about your theory. It could simply be a result of my close familiarity with Gray’s own work, but I find myself anticipating, in each review, what feels like the inevitable paragraph where he makes the implicit measurement against his own perspective and pronounces the book in question to be worthy or wanting by comparison. Perhaps it’s unrealistic of me, but when I read a book review, I prefer the reviewer to be heard but not seen.