“Animals abound in world literature, of course, but in the two thousand years prior to the Tale of Genji, they’re more often than not treated as automata, as devices fit for making larger points about the human condition, rather than as individuals themselves. Domesticated pets who are loved for their own personalities and idiosyncrasies are rare in world literature prior to the Middle Ages – instead, we usually get exemplars of one kind or other. Perhaps the two most famous in ancient Western literature are Odysseus’ dog, whose prompt expiration after waiting twenty years for his master to return is set up in grim contrast to all those loutish suitors lounging around the palace, and more to our point here today, Lesbia’s sparrow, whom Catullus envies for its freedom to nestle between her bosoms the way he’d like to do. The fact that the bird has had so much of the intimacy the poet craves is the only reason the animal rates a poem.”
The second part of Wakana gives us an animal-story that starts out as an exact parallel of that poor sparrow. In the previous chapter, the antics of a certain unfortunate Chinese cat had allowed Kashiwagi to get an unimpeded glimpse of Onna San no Miya, and the glimpse has only strengthened his hopeless fixation on the poor girl. To pursue that fixation – and because no other avenue seems open to him – he makes a fully Catullan identification of female and feline: he sets about to obtain that Chines cat.
Fortunately for his purposes (though perhaps not so for the welfare of the empire), the Heir Apparent is an ardent cat-lover and facilitates the exchange. Kashiwagi makes sure to act nonchalant about the whole business, even going so far as to make the preposterous assertion that some cats actually have “souls” (Tyler’s more spiritual rendering of Seidensticker’s equally-unlikely “beginnings of rational faculty”) – but then the classic Murasaki Shikibu touch happens: Kashiwagi and the cat come to like each other. The grand plot of the burgeoning love affair goes trundling forward, but now another relationship has developed off in one narrative pocket:
So he had the cat at last, and he got it to sleep with him at night. By day he caressed it and fussed over it. Soon it was no longer shy, and it curled up in his skirts or cuddled with him so nicely that he really did become very fond of it. He was lying against a pillar near the veranda, lost in thought, when it came to him going Meow! Meow! Ever so sweetly.
“My, we are eager, aren’t we!” He smiled and stroked it, then gazed into its eyes:
“You I make my pet, that in you I may have her, my unhappy love: what can you be telling me, when you come crying this way?”
This is destiny, too, I suppose.” It meowed more endearingly still, and he clasped it to him.
This is colored intriguingly differently in Seidensticker:
He kept it with him at night, and in the morning would see to its toilet and pet it and feed it. Once the initial shyness had passed it proved to be a most affectionate animal. He loved its way of sporting with the hem of his robe or entwining itself around a leg. Sometimes when he was sitting at the veranda lost in thought it would come up and speak to him.
“What an insistent little beast you are.” He smiled and stroked its back. “You are here to remind me of someone I long for, and what is it you long for yourself? We must have been together in an earlier life, you and I.”
And even more poetically in Arthur Waley (who enhances – or perhaps adds – the pointedly Catullan echo found in neither of the others):
The cat lay close by him all night, and the first thing he did in the morning was see to its wants, combing it and feeding it with his own hand. The most unsociable cat, when it finds itself wrapped up in some one’s coat and put to sleep upon his bed – stroked, fed, and tended with every imaginable care – soon ceases to stand upon its dignity; and when, a little later, Kashiwagi posted himself near the window, where he sat gazing vacantly before him, his new friend soon stole gently to his side and mewed several times as though in tenderest sympathy. Such advances on the part of a cat are rare indeed, and smiling he recited to the animal the following verse: “I love and am not loved. But you, who nestle daily in my dear one’s arms – what need have you to moan?” He gazed into the cat’s eyes as he spoke, and again it began mewing piteously, till he took it up into his lap …
Despite the odd fact that all this pet-fondling is happening to a cat and not a dog, it’s an undeniably charming interlude. And perhaps it’s just as well it’s not a dog – who can forget the harrowing incident related in the Pillow-Book of Sei Shonagon, when one of the court ladies, on a lark, sets the beloved dog Okinamaro to chase just such an excessively pampered feline? The cat shrieks and flees, but the dog, proud of his accomplishment, is promptly beaten for the commotion he caused – beaten so badly that his own ladies don’t at first recognize him when he comes creeping and cringing back to them the next day. Better to be an allegory, all things considered.
The woodblock painting is by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Isn’t it simply darling the way the cat in the picture is calico, alike Tempura?