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My Cat, Marcel Proust

J. M.   T Y R E E

My green spray-on cast was made out of some miracle material developed for battlefield casualties. My left leg broken in two places by a single wrong step in the ice, I found myself confined to the couch for most of the Spring 2021 Academic Semester. Our cat, Cordelia, curled in a spiral at my knees, seeking warmth, or expressing pity. My classes had been online all year, due to pandemic conditions. My students tried their very best to pay attention to my laptop lectures on film history, appearing in their little boxes on video. They remained eager to learn but they were understandably falling to pieces. One student’s uncle died from COVID, another beamed in from their parents’ garage. Others shut off their cameras, out of embarrassment at their lack of privacy at home, or from the horror of others examining their faces close-up, or because they feared they would fail the course if I found out they were tuning in from work at Home Depot.


Well-wishers flooded my Inbox with distractions for our shared situation as the deaths mounted that winter. A poet in California brought to my attention the online project WindowSwap. Users could submit videos of the view outside their own window and browse those of others across the world. Maggie’s Window showed the traffic in Copenhagen, it was raining in Mumbai at Bidisha’s, and Andreas had a clear view of the lake and the receding mountains in Lucerne. I clicked until I found my favorite things: Cats, tower blocks, canals, electrical wires, buses, storms, bridges, and, above all, rivers. The Hudson, the Thames, the Rhine, the Nile, the Ganges, the Amazon, the Yangtze, and the Mississippi. These postcards conjured the spiritualist notion of remote viewing, clairvoyant access points to an interconnected set of eyes and merged dreaming. In reality all this was just another form of pandemic cartography, the wish-you-were-here-ness of absence and longing sorrow for touch of water on skin, or skin on skin.


My phone’s Photos app got into the act by notifying me, with ruthless precision, exactly where I’d been ‘On This Day’ in previous years. Someone at corporate HQ in sunny California had determined that, without such boosts and reminders, the will to continue working at home through a screen all day probably would collapse.


Now, the phone called you. The app fed you to yourself, image by image, with a spoon.


It broke my heart a little bit to see my old pictures of a solitary moorhen astride its throne of trash in the canalway of the New River in North London, or to imagine the sound of the rain on the tin roof of the RNLI charity bookshop on the Isle of Mull near the ferry to Iona, in Scotland, at the ‘thin place’ between realms where the clouds at dusk lit up above the sea with otherworldly intimations.


I felt like a Blade Runner AI being conditioned to become more human through transplanted memories. I could have toggled a switch and dammed up these memories but they held an addictive and troubling solace.

All that happened was that I broke my leg walking in the National Park after the ice-storms of February, 2021. January had been the worst month of the pandemic, with thousands dying every day and my city waiting for the other shoe to drop, after the far-right stabbings on the National Mall and the storming of the Capitol.


On a very simple level, I wondered if everyone had simply gone crazy under quarantine. None of this could have happened. It needed to have not happened. Reality required annulment or repeal. Millions had died across the world. The survivors had no vaccines at that time.


I often felt like a sufferer from seasickness who feels the current waves of panicked disorientation overlapping with confused layers of time. I find it’s difficult to speak about the simplest things that happened to me then, or to account for the contents of my head during that time. I woke up in the abandoned hospital, a nightmare brought on by months of isolation.


Remembering what haunts me from those years is like the process of décollage, in which images from various times interact with one another as they are gradually revealed by a process of becoming unglued, in which the most critical operation is not merely deciding where to start and stop but allowing serendipity to guide what is removed.


If I looked closer or dug deeper into these layers, I didn’t find what I was looking for, least of all an image of myself. Somewhere in my archives I found an anonymous picture of a stranger’s lips - on a poster in London from one of my night-walks, I think. The image contained fractal-selves beyond a mirror that revealed something other than my own face. These lips speak in the permeable spots between places and years, retelling versions of the old stories. Just listen. They are calling out for impossible rescues. They are ministering a strange balm derived from a plant found only in the underworld.


Stuck at home forever, our cat, Cordelia, monitored entry points to other universes from her fur-graced regal perch atop a soft Ikea chair. She was a green-eyed tortoiseshell whose previous owner, a neighbor in our apartment building, had died at home. The family didn’t want her, so she came to us. Cordelia was twelve years old, fussy, and missing teeth, a problem that caused her to spread food across the floor when she ate because she couldn’t chew normally.


She affixed herself to my wife Emily as her familiar and generally considered me Emily’s adjutant or underling, to be considered for more attention mainly when Emily was out, or sleeping. Perhaps this was Tortie temperament expressing itself, or maybe it was down to the months living with a dying person, her previous keeper, but Cordelia wanted us out of our beds every morning at 6:30am sharp. She would stand on Emily’s chest and cry until we both woke up.


Was she lonely, bored, hungry, cruelly sociopathic, or maybe just worried that we’d died in our sleep? A lifetime late riser, I was surprised to discover that I didn’t mind being woken from my nightmares by a tiny needy shrieking staring maniac with a tail and whiskers who simmered down when she got the underside of her chin rubbed. Basically, she was saying: I’m hungry, please don’t leave, buck up, you, don’t walk into the river with stones in your pockets, dumbfuck, who will feed me if you aren’t around?


Plague dreams: During a vast war in which gas-masks were required during muddy trench-battles, I was ordered to torture a tentacled and anguished sea-creature with many eyes until it divulged secret information about the enemy’s fleet; I stumbled on the remains of an abandoned shopping mall replete with coughing refugees in a post-apocalyptic rhododendron and magnolia forest; I glimpsed the malevolent presence of another person attempting to emerge from behind my face in the mirror. Cordelia helped me remember my dreams by breaking into their flow, rescuing me from these nightmares being shared by dreamers across the world in time zones that receded ever westward.


The whole drama of everything was here at home in Cordelia’s world. Like her, I no longer needed to travel anywhere ever again. Everywhere was accessible to me in the sensory deprivation tank of the eternally quarantined brain of an indoor cat. She had never gone anywhere fun, just to the vet and back, kidnapped in a car-carrier with breathing holes for the short drive, for needles and claw-clipping, not exactly peak experiences. Cordelia remained optimistic, somehow, a model prisoner, like a mystic medieval anchorite, able to access visions or ‘shewings’ of other planes of existence, like Julian of Norwich, who lived permanently confined in 14th century East Anglia. When Emily and I visited Julian’s chapel, the summer before the pandemic, this place, dedicated to one of the English language’s first great writers, was empty but for the polite junkies in the garden adjacent, who waited for us to exit before they ascended into the realms of the divine. Julian’s literary method, of projecting her shewings in Technicolor details blending inner and outer worlds, was my kind of cinema. She knew how to transport herself without leaving her room.


Cordelia entered a confined space for the thousandth time and found it interesting, remarkable, even. She glanced up at the ceiling, scanning for signals from above or simply confirming that no owls or condors were swooping down on her neck. She seemed to find wormholes and tunnels in space and time that the rest of us could not detect, scratching at a couch-pillow as if she were burrowing into an alternate plane next to our own, a set of interconnected parallel universes that shifted shape like the threads of a cat’s cradle. She nudged certain haunted spots on the walls to keep ghosts at bay and stood watch intensely at a doorway where nothing much that we could see was happening. She uploaded my memory-banks to the cloud on her home planet in the form of extraterrestrial blueprints and invited me along on voyages to other places and times, remembered and invented, where the real and the fictional merged into Proustian shell-shaped cakes dosed with psychoactive edibles that permitted trips unfolding across the galaxy while remaining in bed.

Cordelia was a Proustian cat who liked nothing better than to spend a snowy afternoon napping under the duvet. She felt, intuitively, what it had taken Marcel Proust decades of living and three thousand pages of rambles and journeys to discover, in Time Regained (1931):


Experience had taught me only too well the impossibility of attaining in the real world to what lay deep within myself; I knew that Lost Time was not to be found again on the piazza of St Mark’s any more that I had found it again on my second visit to Balbec … Travel, which merely dangled once more before me the illusion that these vanished impressions existed outside myself, could not be the means which I sought.


Sheltering or shielding, this was work for hunger artists and maladaptive depressives, this crazy-making isolation meant joining the ranks of those who metamorphose, at the hour of the wolf, into strange critters or cat-people. Like Cordelia, Proust knew how to go to bed early.

Cordelia surmised in a fanged yawn that almost all stories were drawn from the same ancient myth - the descent of a poet into the underworld to rescue their beloved or rescue something of themselves - and then she proceeded to rip up the living room carpet again. The pattern was undone, the threads lay in tatters, links broken, lives separate once more.


But Cordelia herself had probably gone insane, long before we met her, from her own years of isolation and solitude, pacing the same four or five rooms for hours on end, looking for wormholes or listening for some inaudible sound from the tuning fork of the past or the future.


Our cat knew what to do with the edges of a smartphone or a laptop. She rubbed her head against the sides, trying to dislodge these devices from our hands by using them as rubbing posts for her teeth and whiskers.


She knew that art kills, and tried her best to stop us from typing.


Cordelia, we’d learned from the vet, had a heart murmur and kidney disease. She might not be with us for the long haul. I imagined sometimes that I could hear a glitch in her purring. The cat’s ticking clock whirred underneath the contented time lazing at my feet while I attempted levitation, then flight, through the hand-held window of the Glow, where apparitions of faraway places appeared inches from my scarred eyes, at the behest of an algorithm that compelled me to keep scrolling.

J. M. Tyree is Associate Professor in the Cinema Program at VCUarts and is a Contributing Editor at Film Quarterly and New England Review. He is the coauthor of Our Secret Life in the Movies (with Michael McGriff, A Strange Object/Deep Vellum, an NPR Best Books selection) and BFI Film Classics: The Big Lebowski (with Ben Walters, British Film Institute/Bloomsbury), and he is the author of BFI Film Classics: Salesman. His uncanny novella, The Haunted Screen, is forthcoming from A Strange Object/Deep Vellum.

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