Week 3: Letters to Humans, Correspondences with Cats

Our poster for Week 3 of the Exegesis readings, featuring Dick's "big blue cat."

Our poster for Week 3 of the Exegesis readings, featuring Dick’s “big blue cat.”

As we move into week 3 of the reading group we begin to move beyond the letters that we’ve encountered in the first hundred-odd pages of the Exegesis and onward to some intriguing autobiographical matter. This month’s poster (left) features a cat: one with whom Dick seems to be in a kind of psychological or telepathic dialogue. Dick, as is well known, owned a number of cats throughout his life. These ever-present feline friends are more than simply pets, however; they seem to play a role in determining not only Dick’s affective state and authorial experience, but also his ontological philosophy.  It was precisely when Dick’s “big blue cat” ran away that he felt the need to begin ‘rattling on,’ in a letter, to Claudia Bush. As he wrote to Bush at the end of November in 1974,

Can I rattle on some more at you? Especially since the big cat we got ran away as soon as we let him out? Thank you.

At one point in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Anne Hawthorne and Barney Mayerson discuss the possibility that Palmer Eldritch is a kind of deity.  Anne, who is inclined to theology, describes Eldritch as a “being superior to ourselves,” a “creature fashioned by something higher than itself, as we were; God wasn’t fashioned and He isn’t puzzled.” In the midst of this, Anne then interjects with her “cat joke,” which is perhaps worth quoting in its entirety here:

But–let me tell you my cat joke. It’s very short and simple. A hostess is giving a dinner party and she’s got a lovely five-pound T-bone steak sitting on the sideboard in the kitchen waiting to be cooked while she chats with the guests in the living room–has a few drinks and whatnot. But then she excuses herself to go into the kitchen to cook the steak–and it’s gone. And there’s the family cat, in the corner, sedately washing its face.”

“The cat got the steak,” Barney said.

“Did it? The guests are called in; they argue about it. The steak is gone, all five pounds of it; there sits the cat, looking well-fed and cheerful. ‘Weigh the cat,’ someone says. They’ve had a few drinks; it looks like a good idea. So they go into the bathroom and weigh the cat on the scales. It reads exactly five pounds. They all perceive this reading and one guest says, ‘Okay, that’s it. There’s the steak.’ They’re satisfied that they know what happened, now; they’ve got empirical proof. Then a qualm comes to one of them and he says, puzzled, ‘But where’s the cat?'”

“I heard that joke before,” Barney said. “And anyhow I don’t see its application.”

Anne said, “That joke poses the finest distillation of the problem of ontology ever invented. If you ponder it long enough–”

“Hell,” he said angrily, “it’s five pounds of cat; it’s nonsense–there’s no steak if the scale shows five pounds.”

“Remember the wine and the wafer,” Anne said quietly.

He stared at her. The idea, for a moment, seemed to come through.

“Yes,” she said. “The cat was not the steak. But — the cat might be a manifestation which the steak was taking at that moment.”

Stigmata is a novel preoccupied with the doctrine(s) of transubstantiation and consubstantiation, and this obsession is ‘fleshed out’ in a number of ways and in a range of different settings throughout the book. (The primary conceit or allegory through which the novel illustrates the metaphysical notion is in the process by which users of the drug Can-D (the sacrament) can merge with the Perky Pat dolls–Walt Essex and Perky Pat–to become, body and blood, the living flesh of these static dolls.)

Dust jacket to the first edition (1965, Doubleday) of Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

Dust jacket to the first edition (1965, Doubleday) of Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

In the joke above, it is the figure of the cat (this “five pounds of cat”) that Dick mobilises, through Anne Hawthorne, to point to the way in which the doctrine seems to remain antithetical to the very “empirical proof” that is attested to demonstrate it. In the joke, the figure of the cat takes on a supernatural power; its body disappears as it takes on, integrates, incorporates, the material remains of another animal: the cut of steak from a bovine. (Never mind the fact that the joke seems to presume that the cat also eats the bone.) But (we may wonder), does Dick simply use the figure of the cat here to tell this (Anne’s) joke–to propel Stigmata–or does he, like Jacques Derrida in his essay “The Animal That Therefore I Am,” speak of a “real cat”? As Derrida explains, representations of cats in literature, of course, are manifold:

I must make it clear from the start, the cat I am talking about is a real cat, truly, believe me, a little cat. It isn’t the figure of a cat. It doesn’t silently enter the room as an allegory for all the cats on the earth, the felines that traverse myths and religions, literature and fables. There are so many of them (374).

In the Exegesis, Dick draws a close connection between his real cats, real people, and his literary “guide” who that taught him “to write” (128). After briefly discussing his close relationship with editor Tony  Boucher, Dick tangentially turns his thoughts to the life and death of his cat, Pinky, who, we learn, is a kind of reincarnation of Boucher:

However, Tony is still alive, I discovered last year. My cat had begun to behave in an odd way, keeping watch over me in a quiet fashion, and I saw that he had changed. This was after he ran away and came back, wild and dirty, crapping on the rug in fear; we took him to the vet and the vet calmed him down and healed him. After that Pinky had what I call a spiritual quality, except that he wouldn’t eat meat. He would tremble whenever we tried to feed it to him. For five months he’d been lost, living in the gutter, seeing god knows what; I wish I knew. Anyhow when he was changed—in the twinkling of an eye; that is, while at the vet—he wouldn’t ever do anything cruel. Yet I knew Pinky was afraid, because once I almost shut the refrigerator door on him and he did a 3 cushion bank shot of himself off the walls to escape, and clocked a velocity unusual for a pink sheep thing that usually just sat and gazed ahead. Pinky had trouble breathing because of his heavy fur and what they call hairballs. Tony had asthma terribly and needed it [the air] cold. Pinky would sit by the door to get the cold air from under the crack, and struggle to breathe. I will not write a teaser article here; Pinky died of cancer suddenly; he was three years old; very young for a cat. It was totally unexpected. The vet diagnosed it as something else.

I hadn’t realized Pinky was Tony Boucher, served up by the universe again, until I had this dream about Tony the Tiger—the cereal box character who offers you cocoa puffs” (127).

Here we see a condensation (as Freud might say) of Tony Boucher, Pinky the cat, and Tony the tiger. Tessa (Dick’s fifth wife), Dick notes, had brought Pinky over to him when he had been sick in 1972 and 1973 with pneumonia. (128) Dick felt that Pinky was trying to figure out what part of his body was sick, that the cat was able to perceive his illness, and that, ultimately, that perhaps Pinky died in his place: “I recovered by he did not. That was my friend” (128). Much later in the Exegesis, Dick will see Pinky “in the archetypal role of the humiliated, dying savior” (288): “Pinky was Christ,” Dick realises, “because Pinky was mocked, humiliated, kicked and killed” (301).

All in all, Dick’s relationship with his cats serves as an energising prompt to this month’s discussion of pages 104-208 of the Exegesis; in these pageswe are given more details about Dick’s relationship with his cats than in any other part of the published work. The phenomenon that Jonathan Lethem and Pamela Jackson note in the introduction–the fact that “a cat dies and the room is filled with memorial light”–is not the end of Dick’s “strange experiences” after Pinky’s death. In a perverse reconfiguration of the joke from Stigmata, on the night of Pinky’s death, a hand that is placed on Dick’s shoulder “firmly” to console him, while he mourns in the bathroom, turns out to belong to no one, to be a phantasm. Here the material reality (or at least the phenomenal, sensorial aspects of it) have no origin, what is thought to be material disappears into nothingness. In material experience there is a trace of what has disappeared, but from what dimension does it emerge, “‘But where,’ indeed, is ‘the cat?'”

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2 thoughts on “Week 3: Letters to Humans, Correspondences with Cats

  1. Fascinating! I’ve often thought that Phil and Tessa’s cat Pinky somehow held the clue to the whole of PKD’s 1974 weird experiences. Imagine this: The flash of pink light from the pharmacy girl’s Christian fish-sign necklace was subliminally inspired by the presence of Pinky – the cat – sneaking out the door past the girl’s feet! What if Pinky were named Blackie (him then being a black cat) would PKD have been blasted by a beam of dark nothingness that filled him with intense gloom?

    • Thanks David! Reading back over this post, I note the far too numerous typos. Maybe I’ll work these little thought bubbles up into something more polished and fleshed-out later on. Dick clearly loved his cats, and amid the corona of influences on his ontological subject-position, I really do agree that his cats would have modulated his vision of the world in a significant way. And yes, the cat’s having being named ‘pinky’ and the colour of the famous beam is almost irresistible.

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