On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Cat

I missed most of the Nietzsche the first time I read “Dream of a Thousand Cats,” but thanks to desireesw’s post I decided to take another look at it. Last semester when I read Friedrich Nietzsche’s essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” (full text here) it blew my mind. So when I first read Neil Gaiman’s story, I thought it was wonderful and it did remind me of some of the ideas in Nietzsche’s essay but I didn’t really think any more about it. Then when I went to do my required comment on “The Truth About The World” I took out my creased, overly highlighted and underlined copy of Nietzsche’s essay and started rereading it so I could write further examples. After a while I realized I was basically just rewriting the whole essay. Then I stopped and reread “Dream of a Thousand Cats” so I could better pinpoint some explicit connections.

For organizational purposes, let’s do a side by side comparison. The page citations here are based on the pdf link to “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” however I took the quotes from my own different copy of the essay in case there are any small differences. While some of them, in context, apply less to the topic than they seem to without context, the overall themes and messages remain the same. I think the essay as a whole is worth a read or ten, but not necessary.

“How miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened.” (p. 1)  Technically the human intellect still existed in the other cat-ruled reality, but if we replace “intellect” with “society” here, it becomes even more poignant in the context of “Dream of a Thousand Cats.”
“Are designations congruent with things? Is language the adequate expression of all realities?” (p. 2) This is interesting because it addresses language: although it seems like the cats are conversing in English, how do we know how they are intended to be communicating in the story–or how they actually communicate? And if language is not the adequate expression of all realities and there is an adequate expression of all realities, the only possible things that it could be are the pictures in the Cat of Dreams’s eyes or dreams themselves.
“We possess nothing but metaphors for things—metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities.” (p. 3)  In context in Nietzsche’s essay this is another commentary on language, but it is also possible in a broader sense. For one example from Gaiman’s story, the human cat owners really have no idea who their cats are (so to speak); therefore they do not possess their cats, merely a metaphor which they believe is their cat. As is also made evident by the story, the metaphor is horribly inaccurate: the Siamese cat’s couple thinks she is relieved by the loss of her kittens.
“Nature is acquainted with no forms and no concepts, and likewise with no species.” (p. 4) This can explain the mobility or changeability of reality within Gaiman’s story. It demonstrates that nature/reality has no preference for either human or cat domination. Therefore, if you dream it it will be. More on this later.
“Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions…” (p. 4) Perhaps one of Nietzsche’s most famous quotes, this goes a long way to explain why the Siamese cat must preach her dream to cats all over the world. The way she sees it, for the rest of the cats, human superiority is a truth because they do not remember or know any other truth.
“For something is possible…the construction of a pyramidal order according to cases and degrees, the creation of a new world of laws, privileges, subordinations, and clearly marked boundaries—a new world, one which now confronts that other vivid world of first impressions as more solid, more universal, better known, and more human than the immediately perceived world, and thus as the regulative and imperative world.” (p. 4)  This, for me, was pivotal in deciding that Gaiman could easily have gotten his inspiration for the story from this essay rather than simply using it or its ideas which have seeped into our culture to back up a story he already wanted to tell. If we replace “human” with “feline,” here, this practically could have been included in the Siamese cat’s speech.
“It is even a difficult thing for [man] to admit to himself that the insect or the bird [or the cat] perceives an entirely different world from the one that man does, and that the question of which of these perceptions of the world is the more correct one is quite meaningless for this would have to have been decided previously in accordance with the criterion of the correct perception, which means, in accordance with a criterion which is not available.” (p. 5-6)  In other words, no perception is “correct” because they are all equally valuable and humans have a tough time accepting that they are not superior beings–which is why, in Gaiman’s story, they have created a perception in which they are superior beings.
 “An eternally repeated dream would certainly be felt and judged to be reality.” (p. 6) This is where the mind f*** comes in. This is the moment when you’re watching The Matrix for the first time and you wonder if you’re actually hooked up to the Matrix. Or, if you’re a cat, this is when you wonder if you’re going to wake up in the morning all huge and go hunt a tiny little human. It also speaks to what I mentioned before, “if you dream it it will be” (intentional Field of Dreams reference). Even if the cats don’t succeed in changing reality, would it matter? Or would they, as Pascal believes, be as happy as cat lords and ladies that dream every night of being ruled by humans? (Nietzsche, p. 8)
“The drive toward the formation of metaphors is the fundamental human drive, which one cannot for a single instant dispense with in thought, for one would thereby dispense with man himself. This drive is not truly vanquished and scarcely subdued by the fact that a regular and rigid new world is constructed as its prison from its own ephemeral products, the concepts. It seeks a new realm and another channel for its activity, and finds this in myth and in art generally.” (p. 7) In the context of Gaiman’s story, this is not only the fundamental human drive but the fundamental drive of humans and cats if not all consciousness. If we replace “metaphors” and “concepts” with “dreams,” it becomes much more relevant. This also ties into the splash page (not sure if that’s the right word) for “Dream of a Thousand Cats” in which there is a partially framed piece of art.
“That immense framework and planking of concepts to which the needy man clings his whole life long in order to preserve himself is nothing but a scaffolding and toy for the most audacious feats of the liberated intellect. And when it smashes this framework to pieces, throws it into confusion, and puts it back together in an ironic fashion, pairing the most alien things and separating the closest, it is demonstrating that it has no need of these makeshifts of indigence and that it will now be guided by intuitions rather than concepts.” (p. 8)  This is another excerpt that I can easily imagine the Siamese cat saying in her speech. I also get a very vivid mental image of her knocking down tinker-toy scaffolds and for some reason wearing hipster glasses, probably because of the bit about ironic fashion. The end, especially, could be read as a big ole f*** you to humans–she will now be guided by her dreams rather than their rules.


Image Credit: detail from http://towakesleepingdogs.tumblr.com/post/20096287483/dream-of-a-thousand-cats-is-part-of-neil-gaimans

  1 comment for “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Cat

  1. April 30, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    I just want to say, I love the approach you’re taking here — explication through annotation!

    Your treatment touches on a lot of really interesting and insightful parallels, but I just want to pull out one in particular: the use of language to construct a world.

    You note that it seems like cats are conversing in English, but of course, we’re only reading a transcription. Really, though, language is far more than the words we speak, write or read — it’s that whole set of metaphors and idioms we use to explain reality to ourselves. (This is Nietzsche’s point, as I understand it.)

    You write about Gaiman’s possibly intentional relation with Nietzsche, but to the extent that “A Thousand Cats” is working with all of those ideas, it’s worth also pointing out how the other creative forces here — Kelley Jones and Todd Klein particularly — use their respective media to also avoid making cat-ness (I know, ha ha Hunger Games) a cute, furry version of human-ness. For instance, Jones doesn’t pencil his cat figures as anthropomorphic, and Klein specifically avoided thought bubble forms to avoid making it seem like a world of magic, telepathic cats.

    Anyway, I guess my point is that your comparison illustrates how rich comics are when it comes to systems of meaning — even non-verbal ones.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking analysis!

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