An article over on the Evangelical section of Patheos today discusses Samuel Johnson’s cat. For many readers in the last half century, this tomcat is an iconic figure chiefly because of his appearance in the epigraph to Nabokov’s great novel Pale Fire, which was, coincidentally, published exactly 50 years ago. (If there has been a better novel since then, in English or any other language, it doesn’t spring readily to mind. You can buy Pale Fire here or, for an additional $8, you can get the Library of America volume that also includes Lolita and Pnin — masterpieces both.) From Boswell’s Life of Johnson:
This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young Gentleman of good family. “Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.” And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, “But Hodge shan’t be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.”
The author of the Patheos piece expresses, quite modestly, an inability to understand what point Nabokov was making by quoting this at the beginning of his heartbreaking novel. I will be somewhat less modest, because I have a strong view on this issue, influenced chiefly by the prominent Nabokov scholar Brian Boyd: Nabokov was pointing out that compassion is the only thing that makes life bearable. The universe is full of cruelty: of exile, loneliness, and despair, which bring the human person to the brink of madness, and, in the case of the main character of Pale Fire, well beyond that brink. The novel begins with a long poem about an American poet’s suicidal daughter; the rest of it is a commentary on the poem by a mentally ill exile from behind the Iron Curtain. (That Nabokov can take a book with that plot summary and turn it into a laugh-out-loud comedy staggers the imagination, even now.) Dr. Johnson offers a symbol of that universe we know so well: It’s an insane young toff who runs around shooting cats. But Johnson then issues his declaration, “Hodge shall not be shot” — as if to say, we can’t deny what the world is like, there’s simply too much evidence for it, but we can carve out islands of compassion and safety within it.
This compassion is the essential distinction of humanity. The way I like to put it is, Man is the only creature who can say “No.” The rest of the universe does what it does simply because that is what it has always done and that is what it always will do. To the extent that human beings are part of nature, they behave that way too: Why not crush and kill and grab, when we are stronger? But to the extent that man is different, and sees himself as — in the traditional phrase —- “made in the image” of something that is different, man can declare that he has values, and knows truths, that are higher than these “natural laws.”
Dr. Johnson, then, is declaring his humanity, in an outburst of compassion. Some nut is shooting cats; Johnson is saying, in a limited but real and forceful way, “No: This cat will be protected.” Now, the concept of “compassion” has had a rough time of it with certain ideologists in recent years; if I had a dime for every phony-tough intellectual (I’m counting here both real ones and pseudos) who has quoted Walker Percy’s line about tenderness leading to the gas chamber, I could run my own super PAC. But Percy was not issuing a license for thuggishness; he was himself, in both his fiction and his essays, a tireless advocate for the weakest and most defenseless among us. He was pointing out that evils are sometimes done under the cloak of compassion — so we need to be watchful. (“I did it for the children”; “I did it to protect innocents” — always statements that need to be explored, and compared with the actual truth. An assertion of compassion is not necessarily an act of compassion.)
Those of us who follow a certain theological tradition believe that there is a being beyond the visible universe who has boundless compassion, and that somehow this being will eventually put right the cruelties and other wrongs that so characterize life as we know it. That entity is greater than man, and can love all; we can do that in principle, but in practice, we do best to carve off parts of reality and say, “I can realistically try to protect this.” Even in that effort we can and do often fail. But in trying, we are imitating something that is both our source and our goal. People who disagree with my theology (and people who disagree with all theology) do this, too; they do it because that’s the way they were made.
Dr. Johnson was being true to his human calling: to imitate a being Who loves.
(Many thanks to Gina Dalfonzo for pointing me in the direction of that Patheos article.)