Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Monkeys, Cats and their Paws
I don't suppose I'm alone in finding Landseer's "The Cat's-Paw" by far the most disturbing of his paintings:


For reasons I can't now recall I was searching for it on the web this morning, and the first description I found was from a coffee table book called The Cat in Art by Stefano Zuffi: "This painting, marked by subtle cruelty... shows a monkey trying to burn the cat's paw by holding it over a brazier."

No, no, no! This totally misses what makes Landseer's painting so shocking. The monkey isn't "trying to burn the cat's paw" at all; it's trying to get the chestnuts. The cat's paw is entirely a means, not an end. Compare and contrast this sixteenth-century illustration of the same story, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder:


It's hard to read a monkey's expression, but it seems to me that there's a sadistic smile on Gheeraerts's monkey's face. It wants the chestnuts, yes, but it's also enjoying the control. That's disturbing too in its way, but it's a common-or-garden cruelty. Landseer's monkey by contrast barely knows the cat is there: if it had seen the poker first, it would probably have used that. That is the face of evil in our own times. That is the face that collapses factories in Bangladesh for the sake of a cheap Primark T-shirt. That is the face of ATOS, staring fixated at the bottom-line chestnuts and not caring how many people must be burned to get them. I don't believe for a moment that people who shop at Primark are "trying to burn the cat's paw". But the factories still collapse, and the dust spreads thinly over all of us.

Meanwhile, "The Pot of Basil" is almost two centuries old, but remains chillingly up to date. Hypocrite lecteur, -- mon semblable, -- mon frère!

With her two brothers this fair lady dwelt,
Enriched from ancestral merchandize,
And for them many a weary hand did swelt
In torched mines and noisy factories,
And many once proud-quiver’d loins did melt
In blood from stinging whip;—with hollow eyes
Many all day in dazzling river stood,
To take the rich-ored driftings of the flood.

For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gush’d blood; for them in death
The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark
Lay full of darts; for them alone did seethe
A thousand men in troubles wide and dark:
Half-ignorant, they turn’d an easy wheel,
That set sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.

These are new to me. I think you are right in what you say, and it is interesting and fills me with horror. I am going to think for a while, and see if I have anything more sensible or detailed to say.

I had never seen the Landseer before... and will now never be able to unsee it. :-P A truly chilling image. I think you're right, too, that there is something more viscerally disturbing about the Landseer when compared with the Gheeraerts. Something about the way the monkey is physically dominating the cat - to the extent that when I first looked at the image, I thought it was raping her - and the cat's open-mouthed scream of agony (in the Gheeraerts, the cat just looks like it's sort of hissing).

I'm glad I don't live in a place where I'm likely to run into any monkeys going about my daily business. I think if I saw one today, it would turn out badly for both of us.

I think that Landseer recognized, as perhaps Gheeraerts did not, that if you grab a cat by one paw it will use the other three to tear you to ribbons. This monkey has secured all four.

I sincerely hope that no cats were harmed in the making of this picture!

i thought he was raping her too. Is that story why we call someone a 'cat's paw?'

It is a masterful painting all right. But not one I would want on my wall!

Yes, the expression comes from the story. It was popularized by (though not original to) La Fontaine.

fwiw I've dealt with sadists, with people who are happier when you're in pain, and know you best or can be intimate only in the moment when you're injured. submitted that I don't see why the generalization out of the comparison is necessary. not contesting what it is for you personally.

I'm not sure quite what you mean by "the generalization out of the comparison", but what I was getting at was that avoidable suffering caused by selfish indifference is no less real than that caused by active malice, and the evil we allow to be done in our name is no less evil because matters are so arranged as to allow us the luxury of "half-ignorance." We congratulate ourselves on not being sadists: but Landseer's monkey isn't a sadist either.

You say of the specific pleasure in the infliction of pain: "it's a common-or-garden cruelty"
Where I've found actual sadism quite rare, and terrifying.

You say of the use of others as objects: "That is the face of evil in our own times."

So it didn't seem to me that you were saying one was no less real, it seemed that the point was that the latter is more real. I don't see why there needs to be a comparison. They're both happening, and haven't they both happened all the time? Slavery's been with us since...we wanted a chestnut, and not to get burned. Sadism has happened for just as long a time. Each is a potential with the kind of brain we have.

The argument that sadism is better because it implicitly acknowledges one's humanity has been put about before (it's Foucault's argument about punishment and the state, I think). I'm never sure about the value of the comparisons.

Okay, I see what you're saying now. "Common-or-garden" was perhaps not the best choice of phrase. I meant that it was a very familiar kind, that may be rare in reality but is terribly common in cultural representations of evil. It calls for no particular comment, because we've seen it a hundred times before.

By "That is the face of evil in our own times" I didn't of course intend to imply that evil today takes no other form, but that evil of this indifferent, half-ignorant variety is a distinctive feature of the modern globalized, industrialized world. It wasn't invented by us, or Keats (channelling Boccaccio) wouldn't have been able to write about it - but we have put particular efforts into attenuating our awareness of what we are doing, through geographical distance, through the interposition of myriad steps in the chain between production and consumption, and through the production of absorbing distractions on an industrial scale.

I don't think I suggested that sadism was better. However, it can be less shocking, because we can identify sadism and deplore it, safe in the knowledge that we aren't sadists (or most of us can). By contrast, not many of us in the West can say that our behaviour has nothing in common with that of Landseer's monkey or Isabella's brothers.

Yes, I see your point, and I apologize for pedantry about it. I can fuss, but I'm participant in the crimes you're describing, the routine crimes of convenience.

No apology necessary: it's good for me to be made to tease out exactly what I'm trying to say!

How one can deduce any expression on such a crude drawing (that's a monkey? that's a cat???!) baffles me.

Even in the Landseer, I'd have no idea what was going on if nobody told me, and it looks as if the monkey's paw is as close to being burned as the cat's.

Well, as I say, it's hard to read a monkey's expression - and I may indeed be projecting an emotion onto that of Gheeraerts's. I'm more interested in the intense focus of Landseer's though, and its obliviousness of the cat and its experience, and was using the Gheeraerts primarily to draw attention to that.

If you look closely you'll see that the monkey's own paw is perfectly safe - though it's certainly having to concetrate to keep it so.

I looked up 'cat's paw' and it led me to more Landseer. His most well known work may be 'Monarch of the Glen.' Not to our tastes now, but a Victorian show-stopper.

But for me the most affecting is 'Man proposes, God disposes.'

Those are pretty wicked looking polar bears. I think this may have been meant to refer to the Franklin Expedition.

I would say Landseer did animals well, but some of then seem pretty malicious.

I would say Landseer did animals well, but some of then seem pretty malicious.

Yep, that's pretty much his USP! I think you're probably right about the Franklin expedition.

There's more on the cat's paw fable here.


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