Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Cat Who Taught Buddhism

When I first read the 1931 Newbery winner The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth, I didn't like it at first, nor even know quite what to make of it. It's a little fable about a poor artist whose housekeeper comes home from the market, not with the needed and expected food, but with a little white cat with yellow and black spots that she has purchased with their last few coins. Over the course of the short story, the artist, the housekeeper, and the cat repeatedly choose to be kind and compassionate towards each other, even when their acts of kindness come at great personal cost. Their loving-kindness ultimately results in a miraculous event, and in material and artistic success for the artist while the cat dies of joy.

It's a story that jars against my worldview and life experience, during which I've learned that, while kindness is indeed an excellent thing, it does have to be balanced by self-preservation, particularly when one is dealing with a narcissist or an abuser and acting with self-sacrificing kindness is a recipe for being further exploited and abused. No miracles or afterlife is ever going to redeem those who have given too much of themselves. And I had to snicker a little at the scene in which the cat catches a bird and then sets it free when it sees the bird's terror and despair, because cats are not only carnivores that would not survive long on a vegetarian diet, but are also one of the few species that really enjoy hunting. (My cat would rather mouse than sleep.) In fairness to the book, the little spotted cat is described as an unusual cat with a remarkable capacity for emotion and empathy.

When I set aside my need for realism, I find things to enjoy about the book. There are no sociopaths or abusers in the tale, which means the characters are able to practice selflessness to their heart's content without anyone taking advantage of it. The story describes the unhurried and mindful process by which the artist works so beautifully that it draws one in. The illustrations, by Lynd Ward, which are also meant to stand in for the work of the artist in the story, are unquestionably lovely. The cat's grief at being excluded from the species of animals allowed to adore the Buddha is palpable, and the resulting change in the Buddhist status quo on cats moving. But I still found it difficult to swallow the cat's death from joy as a satisfying denouement. And I thought Coatsworth really ought have included some sort of preface that provided necessary context and background information for North American readers who know nothing of Buddhism. A little bridge building does make it easier for the uninformed to cross into new territory.

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