Doris Lessing | Critical Review by Harriet Ritvo

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of Doris Lessing.
This section contains 1,384 words
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Critical Review by Harriet Ritvo

SOURCE: "A Dog's Life," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, Nos. 1-2, January 13, 1994, pp. 3-4, 6.

Ritvo is an American critic and educator whose works include The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (1987). In the following excerpt from a review in which she also discusses the books The Hidden Life of Dogs (1994) by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and Cats: Ancient and Modern (1993) by Juliet Clutton-Brock, she examines the revised version of Particularly Cats … and Rufus, arguing that Lessing implicitly criticizes "many of those who study animal behavior [and automatically treat anthropomorphism as a weakness that distinguishes the soft-headed and the simple-minded among humans."]

Although they may not always be aware of it, pet animals are caught between worlds—members of the family, in an emotional sense, but only in very rare cases having any of the responsibilities or rights of their human companions. However comfortable, or even privileged, their lives may seem, they are always vulnerable—not only to the caprice of their owners, but, if they are allowed to spend part of their time at liberty out of doors, to the random cruelty, spite, and greed of other people. If sold or abandoned, they may find relations with humankind abruptly altered, so that they end their days in a laboratory or a cage in a pound, not on a sofa. And their status is often equivocal. An accountant once advised me (incorrectly, as it turned out) that although the costs of moving books, furniture, and close relatives were tax deductible, the cost of moving cats was not.

Conversely, if pet cats and dogs are not quite human, they are not quite animals either. They have lost their wildness, and the reciprocal intensity of their relationships with people distinguishes them from most farmyard beasts. Of course some pets turn out to be capable of independent lives if their human support system disappears, and both cats and dogs can still interbreed with their nearest wild relatives. But many thousands of years of adaptation to the exigencies and opportunities of human companionship have produced psychological alterations perhaps as profound, if not as striking, as the physical differences between the chihuahua and the wolf.

Few people would bar a labrador retriever or a siamese cat from their homes, at least on grounds of temperamental unsuitability; and even fewer would admit a wolf or a European wild cat to similar intimacy. But this obvious reaction begs several more difficult questions. Domestic cats and dogs are complicated organisms, and their actions are far from merely instinctive or automatic. What qualities of temperament or personality account for their relatively accommodating dispositions? What explains the reciprocity of the relationships that many people enjoy with their cats and dogs? Has their protracted and intense experience of domestication made pets more intelligent and adaptive than their wild relatives, or less so? Do they have minds, and, if so, what is on them?…

Like most pet owners, Doris Lessing shares [Elizabeth Marshall] Thomas's conviction of mutual understanding and reciprocal communication taking place between humans and their animals [see Thomas's The Hidden Life of Dogs, 1994]. In Particularly Cats … and Rufus (reissued, after a quarter of a century, with the addition of one chapter and many fine illustrations by James McMullan) this conviction constantly informs [Lessing's] moving, sympathetic, and shrewdly observed descriptions of her life with cats. Thus she says of one animal she nursed through an unpleasant illness: "No, of course cats are not human; humans are not cats; but all the same, I couldn't believe that such a fastidious little beast as black cat was not suffering from the knowledge of how dirty and smelly she was." And she describes the way that another cat accepted her explanation for inadvertently threatening him, after he had let her know, by fleeing, that he feared raised sticks: "I picked him up, brought him back, showed him the harmless broom handle, apologised, petted him. He understood it was a mistake."

Lessing's experience with domestic cats has been unusually broad. Before she moved to Londoner, she had lived on a Rhodesian farm where the family's many cats had to deal with the special dangers and opportunities of nearby wilderness, as well as the ordinary ambiguities of agricultural life—whether one was a barn cat or a house cat, for example. Yet despite the alarming presence of snakes and eagles and other exotic predators, the greatest threat to these rural African cats, as to the housecats of Europe and North America, was posed by human beings. Lessing makes this point by means of a very sobering anecdote. Controlling the numbers of various animals, domestic and wild, was the responsibility of Lessing's mother, and she routinely drowned superfluous kittens. But after years of slaughter, she wearied of these duties and refused to perform them, ultimately leaving Lessing and her father alone with an exploding feline population. In what Lessing describes as "the holocaust of cats," they shot as many as they could find.

Despite this strong language and the quietly conveyed horror of the experience, Lessing claims that she did not grieve for the dead animals. An earlier trauma—abandoning a cherished kitten when her family had moved from Persia to southern Africa—had forced her to harden her heart against the emotional claims of cats. Thus she begins a memoir of typically urban experiences with pampered pets, thoroughly integrated into a human household, by recalling the poignant paradox that underlies all human relationships with cats and dogs. As much as their similarity to us may be acknowledged by the intimacy with which they share family life, the consideration accorded their wishes and demands, and the time and money devoted to their maintenance, their difference is constantly made clear. Although particular animals may be valued, even extravagantly, cat and dog life is cheap. Even the strongest bonds between human and pet can be violated with ease, and for reasons that would, in an exclusively human setting, be considered trivial or even criminal.

Lessing displays this paradox in her own sensibility and experience. Capable as a teen-ager of shooting cats without flinching and as an adult of killing excess kittens (she does not say how), she participates in the lives of her pets with deep empathy, shares vicariously in their triumphs and disappointments, tries to cure their illnesses, and mourns their aging and death. She exercises her controlling influence gingerly, trying to balance their needs and desires with her own. She is, for example, particularly uneasy about depriving her cats of their sexuality, because she feels that with it they lose some of their looks and their personality. Thus she describes the transformation in a favorite cat that had been spayed. "Her confidence had been struck. The tyrannical beauty of the household had vanished…. A strident note entered her character…. In short, she had turned into a spinster cat. It is a dreadful thing we do to these beasts. But I suppose we have to do it." And she continues to do it when she feels she has to.

Although Particularly Cats is hedged around by the tragedies of feline existence, it is memorable as an account of the depth and the pleasures of the relationship between humans and cats, in which Lessing describes a series of feline companions, each distinct, each admired, and each beloved. Her account is intensely personal and particular. She makes no claims to objectivity or to any authority besides that of the eyewitness. She portrays herself simply as a committed cat lover, and even offers occasional, slightly uncomfortable, specimens of the language in which she addresses her pets: for example, "beeeoootiful, delicious puss." Nevertheless, Lessing presents as powerful an argument in her way as Thomas does in hers, and to much the same effect. For both a degree of identification with animal feelings—anthropomorphism—offers direct insight into the minds and characters of domestic animals, an enlightenment not available by any other means. And both therefore raise the question—Thomas explicitly and Lessing implicitly—of why many of those who study animal behavior should automatically treat anthropomorphism as a weakness that distinguishes the soft-headed and the simple-minded among humans. Perhaps the people who minimize the possibility of communication and understanding between humans and other animals are the ones who should have to defend their assumptions.

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This section contains 1,384 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Harriet Ritvo
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