"It was a black and hooded head; and hanging there in the midst of so intense a calm, it seemed the Sphynx's in the desert. 'Speak, thou vast and venerable head,' muttered Ahab, 'which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee.'" — Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; Or, the Whale
"I CAN HAZ CHEESBURGER?" — Happy Cat, unattributed photo
A list titled "Why We Look at Cats" would look something like this:
- Cat faces look like human faces, kind of, sometimes.
- Like a reminder of a cat curled up on our chest (maybe?)
- Because people on message boards told us to and the Internet is run by a cabal of people on message boards.
- Little, like babies
- We think we need more babies but we don't.
- Cats convinced us to build the Internet.
- The Internet is our Egyptian temple to cats.
- Something about how terrorism and economic decline allow us to do little but wait around for the next thing we are afraid of and during that banal, terrified waiting, there is nothing else to do but click on the next picture of a cat.
- Everything in the past decade relates to 9/11, somehow.
I know that's what the list looks like because I've been carrying it my wallet for the past three months. A summary of that list looks something like this:
Listen, we look at cats an awful lot these days and nobody really seems to know why. This is a good place to stop if you don't care about that. Here is a gallery of pictures of cats instead. We won't judge.
A few months ago, the newspaper's editorial staff was assembled around the conference table to discuss the major stories we planned to cover in the coming year. I had brought a blue-lined reporter's pad scribbled over with incoherent notes, as per usual. The business reporter explained an intricate relationship between public transportation projects and business developers. The crime reporter recounted details of an unsolved murder that continues to haunt a neighborhood on the Westside. A framed issue of the newspaper hung on the wall with a big picture of a Remington handgun.
After about a half hour, the room's attention turned to my direction. I looked down at the notepad and my eyes settled on a four-letter word that I'd written in all capital letters in the right margin. I closed my eyes and said it aloud.
The room was silent. When I opened my eyes, the entire table was looking at me. The news editor's face was screwed up, as if he had just tasted something both sour and rancid. Another editor asked, "What about cats?"
"I think," I paused. "Just cats. I think cats are a big story right now."
"But, what about them?"
I looked at the notes on my reporter's pad as if they had anything to do with cats, trying to make up something to say about cats.
"I read this, like, story in the New Yorker the other day." I paused. Everyone stared. "And, well, I didn't actually finish it, but the beginning was this part about an executive at YouTube explaining entertainment history for the past 50 or 60 years. He said this thing about how network television, back then 50 or 60 years ago, was a mass entertainment at the time. Like, everyone watched the same thing or if they didn't watch it, they knew somebody who did or had an opinion about it or something. Then, cable came along and that mass entertainment became fractured into these niche entertainments. Like ESPN or MTV, they could be kind of specific while still being about broad things like 'sports' or 'music.' Then the Internet happened, which was like a compound fracturing of that fracture, and people didn't even have to watch the same channel anymore. Like, one person could just be into watching videos of horseback riding or something and another person could not even realize that videos of horseback riding exist. But what that leaves us with right now are fewer and fewer of the big mass cultural entertainments. Like, the things that everybody knows about or has seen or has some opinion about one way or the other. Like, the Beatles playing on 'Ed Sullivan' or, just, I don't know, just like the idea of the Beatles quote unquote. So, what I think I mean when I say cats are a big story is that cats might be the big mass entertainment of our time."
The news editor let out an emphasized sigh. Some people shuffled papers.
"I guess what I'm trying to say is that if understanding the Beatles is important to understanding the '60s, trying to understand cats is just as important to understanding our time, like, you know, post-9/11."
The meeting ended about an hour later.
I decided to start by looking at every funny picture of a cat on the Internet. The endeavor would need a strict method, so I scheduled a day every week for two months to be out of the office and explained to my editor that I needed this time to "report" on "cats."
My plan for reporting on cats looked like this: I would brew a pot of coffee and put on my robe. Then I would open up my laptop and look at pictures of cats for about eight hours, never lingering on a picture for more than a few seconds. I wrote out the plan on a cocktail napkin at a bar after work. I saved the napkin. It has this rough little equation on the side that indicates my plan to look at about 10,000 pictures of cats per eight-hour session.
I started that first morning by looking at ICanHazCheezburger.com, which is something like the Library of Alexandria for funny pictures of cats. Its archive contains the earliest and most archetypal funny pictures of cats on the Internet: Happy Cat, a chubby gray cat that holds his face in an oddly human-like smile; Monorail Cat, a fluffy brown cat lying atop a flat surface so that his body appears to be a monorail car traveling on a track; and a seemingly infinite number of variations of the "cat in an unusual posture with ungrammatical caption" pictures. I sipped coffee, clicked. Sipped coffee, clicked.
I fell asleep on the couch. After waking up, I looked at some more recent pictures of cats: a website devoted to "metal dudes with cats," selections from a book of cats dressed in Japanese fashion, and about 10 different videos of a Japanese cat named Maru who likes to jump into boxes.
I made a sandwich.
To fight a sudden, overwhelming feeling of unproductivity, I quickly emailed a number of popular cultural people asking them what they thought about cats. Novelist Tao Lin said, "I don't know what to say about cats." The White House did not respond to requests for a statement about cats. Comedian Judy Tenuta said, "We like to see cats suffer, because cats really dominate people. They're sort of independent. They get their masters to become their slaves." Oprah Winfrey did not respond. My guess for the email address of David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, seems to have been correct, but he did not reply. On the other hand, email@example.com is not a valid email address. Sarah Silverman's publicist said, "She's not available, but thanks for reaching out."
I wasn't sure what I was looking for. I changed out of my robe, stepped out the back door of my apartment and that's when I saw it.
It was, from that distance, just a pile of white fur. Closer, though, there were tiny pink paws and noses too big for their faces and eyelids that couldn't quite open. The litter of kittens was six in all, plus the big momma lain on her side with teats flaring. The kittens could barely stand. One would extend each of his limbs so that his head rose above the rest, only to stumble on the first step back into the heap.
This was a revelation, I thought. The day had actually amounted to something. I got so excited that I jumped right into my car and went to buy myself a beer.
"So, that's when it hit me," I tell the Professor. "That I'd been sitting inside looking at pictures of cats on the Internet all day while this pile of stray kittens had been sitting outside the entire time."
Every once in a while, usually when I'm working on something longer, I call up a friend and have a few drinks while we sort out the story I'm trying to tell. Over the course of working on this story about cats, I called a lot of different friends and had a good number of drinks and more than a few conversations about cats. Even though these conversations happened with a lot of different people, for the sake of time let's just say they happened with one person and that person is named the Professor. Because why not?
This time around, the Professor patiently listened my recounting of the day's work, took a sip of beer and said, "I don't understand where you're going with this story."
I had thought she was going to like the part with the kittens, but it suddenly seemed inconsequential. "Me, either," I said.
"Where is the drama? What is the story?"
"But isn't that exactly the thing about cats? There isn't any drama. There is just one funny picture of a cat and then another funny picture of a cat."
"So, why do we look at them?"
"Right? It just makes no fucking sense. We just keep clicking on them and clicking on them. Even though if you've seen one, you've really seen all of them—"
"No. No, you're missing the point. You need to tell us why we look at cats."
I didn't know what to say about that. We sat in silence for a little while.
"Start from the beginning," she said. "Tell us about the history of cats, the science. If you can tell us how we got here, then we can have a better idea of where we are."
The ancient Egyptian wing of the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University is dimly lit. The smell is musky. There are mummies here, real ones wrapped in ceremonial cloths and kept just below protective glass casings in their coffins. There is a very large, inscribed sarcophagus. The rooms have been built and lit in a way so that you can almost feel as if you are coming across these treasures hidden in a tomb. There is also a mummified cat.
Dr. Peter Lacovara, an Egyptologist who has spent the last 30 years of his life studying ancient Egyptian culture and art, curated this wing. Lacovara is the type of guy who sounds a bit uncomfortable and terse if you ask him about himself, but as soon as you get him going on the role of cats in ancient Egyptian culture, he's a talking machine. When I asked him if the Egyptians were more cat-crazy than we are today, he shot back, "They had a whole temple dedicated to cats. I'm not sure it gets more cat crazy than that."
The cat temple was built in the city of Bubastis, a name that more or less means "House of Bastet," the feline goddess. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, traveled to Bubastis sometime in the fifth century B.C. and wrote this about the cat temple:
"Temples there are more spacious and costlier than that of Bubastis, but none so pleasant to behold. It is after the following fashion. Except at the entrance, it is surrounded by water: for two canals branch off from the river, and run as far as the entrance to the temple: yet neither canal mingles with the other, but one runs on this side, and the other on that. Each canal is 100 feet wide, and its banks are lined with trees. The propylaea are 60 feet in height, and are adorned with sculptures (probably intaglios in relief) 9 feet high, and of excellent workmanship."
He keeps going and going about it. Apparently Herodotus was impressed with the temple. He also says this:
"On every occasion of a fire in Egypt, the strangest prodigy occurs with the cats. The inhabitants allow the fire to rage as it pleases, while they stand about at intervals and watch these animals, which, slipping by the men or else leaping over them, rush headlong into the flames. When this happens, the Egyptians are in deep affliction. If a cat dies in a private house by a natural death, all the inmates of the house shave their eyebrows ... The cats on their decease are taken to the city of Bubastis where they are embalmed, after which they are buried in certain sacred repositories."
Right, cats regularly used to fling themselves headfirst into giant fires. Which sounds a lot like ancient Egyptians used to fling cats into fires because they probably didn't spay and neuter and had way too many of them, but who am I to disagree with Herodotus? In any case, Bubastis was apparently the sacred epicenter of cats and also the place for an annual festival attended by several hundred thousand people where women would throw "their clothes over their head," drink a lot of wine, sing songs, and have a feast. All in the name of, you know, cats.
For Lacovara, explaining why cats were so important to ancient Egyptians is quite simple: "They killed snakes, mice, and all of the things that threatened the household." This household cat goddess Bastet was, more or less, important because cats could play a functional role. An animal that can sit in your lap and also kill other animals that are messing with your food? It seems so obvious why the cat would become a god in their eyes.
Yet, this makes the current question about cats even more unclear. Cats have never been less functional than today. If anything, cats are celebrated for their laziness, their lack of function. Their killing powers are now largely exercised on beautiful, soon-to-be-extinct birds, at least according to songbird activists and author Jonathan Franzen. Our current obsession with cats seems to have done the exact opposite: to remove all function from the cat by making it an image, an art object that succeeds precisely because it accomplishes nothing.
The mummified cat in the Carlos Museum is actually a kitten. Just 6 inches in length, you could easily miss it in the glass case. I walked passed it twice before I noticed the object wrapped in miniature, kitten-size strips of linen. According to the case, the kitten mummy dates to a time around when Herodotus visited Egypt. It is also extremely cute. Those tiny strips of linen bring to mind what an awakened mummy cat would look like in a cheap horror movie from the '50s. The shape looks a lot like a mummified penis. I laughed, convinced that I was looking at the world's earliest lolcat.
Fast forward to right now and you might think the Egyptians have us beat. We have no temple to cats, no festival with hundreds of thousands of people celebrating in their name. But we don't really build temples anymore; we put things on the Internet. Millions of people go there in their name.
It is easy to think that cats might just belong in some ghetto of the Internet, like pornography or fantasy sports teams, until you start paying attention to every time they show up. A snapshot of it looks like a collage of our entire culture: kittens presenting the worst lines of Sam Sifton's restaurant reviews, someone on your Facebook page making a joke about Easter with pictures of rabbits and cats, that guy Tyler from Odd Future rapping while wearing a cat T-shirt, NPR announcing that it devoted its Instagram account to only pictures of cats, cats rallying for Obama, and those are only things that happen while you're trying to do something else.
Then the Professor is sending you these links, like, every day, about "How Your Cat is Making you Crazy" or a cat with the same name as you at an animal shelter, or this really great mug shot of a cat or cats dressed up like literary characters in the New Yorker or cats that somehow physically embody the spirit of certain fonts or cartoons of cats on drugs, and you start thinking that either you have crossed the line into becoming that person who has created a delusional, all-encompassing conspiracy theory based around the facts of your own personal life or that cats really have permeated our culture to every possible degree.
You try to think that you're not crazy, so you email Madeleine Rae Davies, a blogger for Jezebel who sometimes works the cat beat, and she sums it up like this, "People go fucking crazy over them. Every month, there's a '[INSERT ANIMAL] is the new cat!' meme, but it never really sticks. Right now, sloths are having their time in the sun and before that it was otters and before that it was lorises, etc., etc., but cat videos have never gone away. They're classic like George Clooney and pizza margherita. No one is ever going to stop liking those things."
If you want to put away the theories, just turn to the science. There is a YouTube clip from a couple of years back entitled "The Science of Cute" that quotes the work of two researchers, Konrad Lorenz and Paul H. Morris, who explain the biological reasons of how and why animals look cute.
For them, it comes down to big eyes and big heads and little bodies and uncoordinated movements, all of which apparently remind us of babies and nurturing small, soft things, something we are apparently biologically hard-wired to do. Which is a fine explanation, if you don't mind the fact that it doesn't explain why we look at cats more than say penguins or lambs or even puppies, which get some attention but nowhere near the attention cats get.
A couple weeks ago, the Professor asked me to cat-sit while she was on vacation. So, I hung around her place, drinking coffee and reading and filling up a bowl with cat food whenever it seemed low. The cat didn't like me or something. He would leave the room if I was in it, would yell for me to let him out and then rush out the door before I could run my hand along his back.
After a few days of this, I found him on a couch, sleeping in a spot where the sun came in through the window. I picked him up and laid down with him and the sun patch on my chest. I whispered in his ear, "Why?" He only purred, his warm weight on my chest while we both went back to sleep.
I dreamed I was in a big warehouse full of cages and those cages had cages inside of them that each had a cat inside of it and each cat was making the most horrible kind of cat noise that a cat is capable of making all at the same time so that I could only hear this chorus of screeching horror. Some of the cats had mange, so their fur was peeling off like skin on a zombie. A cat had one eye hanging out of his head like he had been hit by car. There were cats with missing limbs. A voice on a loudspeaker was saying, "Arthur, Bill, Biscuit, Blackie, Boots, Cheshire, Chester, Fraidy, Ginger, Milo, Mittens, Muffin, Princess, Patch, Sassy, Shadow, Tiddles, Tiger, Whiskers." And these cats were being let out of their cages one by one and led into this room that was clearly labeled "GAS CHAMBER," but they couldn't read the sign because they were cats.
When I woke up, the Professor's cat was gone and there was just a big patch of sweat on my chest where the cat and sun had been. I drove back to my house to look for the pile of white kittens that had been living in the bush. They had disappeared, leaving a small matted circle of grasses. I asked a couple of neighbors. They didn't know anything.
I drove to the animal shelter nearby and I was directed to a small room that had about 30 cats held in individual cages and told to wait to speak with an "Adoptions Counselor." It wasn't like the dream: All of the cats were sleeping, peaceful, uninjured. The white kittens weren't there, but at least none of the cats was screeching.
A woman walked in shortly after me and we waited for a minute or two in silence until she said, "I can't believe they left us in the room with the cats."
"You're not here for the cats?" I asked.
"For a dog," she said. "I hate cats."
I looked at her incredulously, and she offered a long story about growing up. Her mother had been afraid of cats and, though she couldn't say why, she had taught all of her children to regard cats with a kind of wary, suspicious attitude. The woman said that she didn't feel safe around cats.
"But," I stammered. "But what about, like, funny pictures of cats on the Internet? Do you like those?"
"Yeah, of course, but those aren't these," she said and pointed to all of the living, breathing cats in cages around us.
"Do you think it is possible that cats on the Internet aren't actually cats?" I asked the Professor. "I mean, maybe I've been going about this all wrong, thinking that we're actually interested in cats right now. Maybe we're not interested in cats at all."
"I thought the whole premise of your story was that we're very interested in cats right now."
"Yeah, but maybe we're not interested in cats, but about this deeply cynical need to validate what we do with Web traffic, with more likes on Facebook, more retweets on Twitter. Cats are just this perfect metaphor for that sort of bullshit personal validation, for something completely flat and meaningless that nevertheless means something profound because it got a lot of attention on the Internet."
"Well, we have somehow associated these inhuman robotic functions with actual human emotions. I read a study the other day that said the more 'friends' you have online, the more likely you are to be an asshole."
"But what does that actually have to do with cats?"
"We just care about cats if the cats can fit in our iPhone or if the cats are, like, images of cats that can be clicked into or out of existence at any moment. I mean, I think maybe the reason that I wanted to write this story in the first place is some sort of cynical desire to write about something with a bunch of meaningless SEO-friendly words in the headline."
"Are they really meaningless?"
"I don't know. Sometimes when I'm looking at these pictures of cats I feel like I'm staring at the Sphinx in the desert trying to find some sort of meaning in a stone that will never speak to me."
"Have you heard that story about the pyramids in Giza? They say they're the ears of a giant cat head built down into the desert sands."
"I feel like that's the only thing I ever hear anymore. Like, I just reread Freedom and now I think the whole last scene where Walter has a cat-proof fence built around his lake property is just a metaphor for the futility of trying to keep the Internet out of our personal lives."
"So, wait, is this story just about how we pay too much attention to the Internet and not enough to the stuff right around us?"
"No, I mean, I hope not. I was going to give all of these facts and figures about how many feral cats there are in Atlanta and how many are euthanized every year and put those right next to all the numbers about Web traffic related to cats and how much we look at them. I was going to go a shelter where they euthanize cats and watch one die while looking at lolcats on my phone, but the animal shelter that I kept on visiting and trying to talk into letting me do this stopped returning my messages and started telling me their director was 'out of town on vacation.'"
"They stonewalled you."
"Yeah and they probably thought I was a creep. And it started to sound like a big stupid PSA, anyway. People know that they should adopt cats if they want cats and I don't need to tell them that."
"So, what is the story about?"
"Just cats, I think. They're a big story right now."