4. “The Cats of Ulthar”

In June 1920, some five months after writing “The Terrible Old Man,” Lovecraft wrote “The Cats of Ulthar” (DAG, 55-58), a short tale in the manner of Lord Dunsany and, as a biographical point worth mentioning in passing, a darkly playful bit of self-indulgence on the part of the author, who, as is well known, loved cats. “It is said that in Ulthar,” the story opens, “which lies beyond the river Skai, no man may kill a cat.” The narrator, before relating the events of the story, regards the cat “who sitteth purring before the fire” and muses that the cat is descended from ancient lines, kin to the Sphinx but older, and possessed of timeless secrets. In Ulthar, we are told, there once lived an old couple in a small cottage “darkly hidden under spreading oaks at the back of a neglected yard,” a couple who “delighted to trap and slay the cats of their neighbours” (55). A caravan of “dark wanderers” one day comes to the village, among them a little orphan boy with a cherished kitten. The pet disappears, and the boy directs prayers to the sky “in a tongue no villager could understand” (56), whereupon the clouds assume peculiar shapes.

After the gypsies leave, all the cats of Ulthar disappear, to reappear the next morning “sleek and fat” and uninterested in their breakfasts. After a week with no lights in the windows of the ill-reputed cotters, the burgomaster and his friends investigate the cottage, to find “two cleanly picked human skeletons” (58). Subsequently they pass the law to which the story’s opening and closing lines allude and which is discussed by traders and travelers to this day: “In Ulthar, no man may kill a cat” (58). The charm of this little story, though, lies not merely in its quaint and fairy tale–like surface narration, the appeal of which one would scarcely deny, but in its more subtle workings as well—in its refusal to be as simple as it seems, in its self-referential commentary upon its own linguistic workings, in its function as (to borrow a term from the late Paul de Man) an allegory of reading.

We may pause over the name of the village of Ulthar and reflect on its echoic suggestions. It reminds one of such derivative Latin forms as ultra and ultima, themselves descended from the Indo-European root al-, “beyond,” whence come also the Latin ille, “yonder,” and alter, “the other.” Alter connects with alternate and altercate, suggesting change, choice, plurality, and even tensions between options of reading. The same Indo-European root is responsible also for alias and alibi, suggesting displacement of identity, dissembling, discontinuity between seeming and being. In “Ulthar, which lies beyond the river Skai,” we may read an unwitting but playful hint of prevarication in lies. Ulthar—imbued also with a mythic remoteness by its kinship with ultra and ultima and by the omniscient narrator’s seeming to have witnessed all of the town’s history (“That night the wanderers left Ulthar, and were never seen again” [57, emphasis added]—becomes the scene of displaced signification, distancing, disseminated meaning, non-self-identity, non-self-presence. As we shall see, absence rather than presence tends to prevail in the text.

No time is lost in forging connections with language itself and laying groundwork for a textual scenario in which language and modes of reading are as nearly central as anything can be in a text that lacks, typically, any real center. By opening “It is said that,” the text begins with language that smacks of being performative: language that states that it states what it states. We may as well read the opening line as “It is said hereby that,” establishing a textual movement of comment upon the text’s language itself. Further, the first-person narrator quickly forges a symbolic link between language and the cats of the story when he describes the cat sitting purring before him: “The Sphinx is his cousin, and he speaks her language” (55). This language, of course, the language of the Sphinx, is the language of riddling, of mystery, and we come without delay to associate the cats with the ineffable workings of linguistic sign-play, with the free play of signifiers, with the antiquity of language, and with the ultimately (Ulth-imately) deferred nature of meaning. (The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti once referred to house cats as “the sphinxes that outlive revolutions.”)

The narrator continues, syntactically interweaving the cat with the Sphinx as a repository of unfathomable language: “But he is more ancient than the Sphinx, and remembers that which she hath forgotten” (55). Referring to the cat and the Sphinx, the narration lapses into affectedly antiquated verb forms—“him who sitteth purring before the fire,” “that which she hath forgotten.” The coalescence between cat and Sphinx, that is, between cats and the timeless intrigue of language, is furthered not only in the use per se of these forms but even by the fact that structures of language (in the varied use of verb forms), in speaking of a cat, urge the coalescence. One notes the similarity between the French chat and the English chat, chatter. There would seem to be an irrational but fetching substratum of cat-and-language association that proves pervasive.

At the point in the text at which the cats have returned, presumably from their vengeful feastings upon the cotters, we are told: “Very sleek and fat did the cats appear, and sonorous with purring content” (57). The word content here is a graft-point joining two notions in such a way as to corroborate the connection between cats and the mysteries of language and textuality. Although the apparently primary reading of the word would be conTENT—we linger over the similarity in Latin between felis, “cat,” and felix, “happy”—nevertheless one may also read CONtent, or that which is found contained within. Interestingly, the distinction resides in the question of stress or nonstress for the final syllable, the syllable called, in prosodic terms, the ultima: echoes from Ulthar. Aside from an oblique reference, by way of “purring CONtent” as a case of transferred epithet, to the fact that the probable source of the cats’ inclination to purr is the contents of their stomachs—the eaten cotters—the suggestion is that the cats come once again to be associated with language, which indeed would seem to “purr” with its polysemic contents, its dizzying chains of signifiers, its blissfully enigmatic and plural capacity for creative interpretation. But the text is subverted on this point. Content, whether one stresses the first or second syllable, derives from the Latin continere, whose various approaches to meaning can be seen to range over such ideas as “to restrain,” “to surround,” “to contain,” “to be contained,” “to be restricted.” These notions are antithetical to the idea of free wordplay, even though the text has created an association between the cats and the antics of language. Even this self-subversion is of course a celebration of the ludic quality of language, since it is through language that the self-subversion occurs. It is as if the language of the text jestingly threatens to delimit its own play, while showing, by the linguistic polysemy that makes the jest possible, the impossibility of such delimitation.

Through a happy accident of similarity, cat associates itself with numerous words in the prefix cata- or kata- (a veritable catalog, in fact, of such words), a prefix indicating reversal and carrying such significations as “down,” “against,” “off,” “away.” Cat is a word whose origins are appropriately mysterious any farther back than the Late Latin cattus and catta, but the similarity of form makes the association inevitably compelling. There is in any case an intriguing etymological possibility in the prefix kata- as “something thrown down” in the sense of offspring, as in the Latin derivative catulus, “puppy” or “young animal.” At least obliquely there may be a connection here with cats after all. Of words echoic of cats, there is plentiful supply in any case.

One thinks of such words as catenate, meaning “to link together as links of a chain”—like chains of signifiers—and catachresis, the strained use of a word, as for rhetorical effect. The latter term is from the Greek katakhresthai, meaning both “to misuse” and “to make full use of.” The binding together of these two disparate notions strongly suggests that linguistic mis-using (or misreading) is not so much a matter of committing reprehensible acts as a matter of getting the most out of language, a notion quite in keeping with post-structuralist critical attitudes. One thinks also of such words as catacombs—suggestive of the labyrinthine nature of signification, the sometimes wandering and bewildering dissemination of meaning along sprawling corridors of signifiers—and catawampus or cater-cornered or catty-cornered or kitty-cornered, words suggesting skewness, loss of presence, crookedness of orientation. One thinks of catalyst, a chemical substance that precipitates an event but is not itself otherwise involved. This suggests the self-avoiding nature of linguistic signifiers, in which meaning is not immediately present, signifiers that point to other signifiers, among which differential traces of meaning flicker and distribute themselves as semantic echoes: not of something in the signifiers but of something catalytically possible because of their interrelatedness. One thinks of caterpillar (literally “hairy cat”), imagery redolent of change, metamorphosis, difference. One thinks of the cat’s cradle, the game—with ludic associations again—in which complex loops of string are transferred from the hands of one player to another, suggesting semantic transferral, deferral, shifting, and absence. All these associations only argue more insistently for the connections between the textual cats and the Sphinx-like mysteries of language itself, language as viewed in deconstructive terms. The text, as we are in the process of discovering, comments upon the linguistic quantum-field from which its own textuality issues.

Yet when the cats symbolize the workings of language, they do so, as one must expect, only problematically. As a verb used in seafaring terminology, cat means to hoist an anchor to the beam that projects outward from the bow as a support, called the “cathead.” Thus in cat we find the notion of anchoring, which cuts both ways: anchors may be dropped to the bottom—suggesting the old logocentric notion of finding rock-bottom or identifying centers of stability and suggesting an arrest of free play, a holding-still of the floating signifier. Or anchors may be hoisted, weighed—suggesting, after all, resumption of free-floating signification, restoration of textuality to its accustomed openness. To weigh is also to ponder, which is what we do here. We, like the villagers, must ponder the role of the cat, the nature of the language of the text. It is only appropriate that the cats, associated with the movements of language, present such a choice of interpretation, a choice tending to favor the weighing or lifting of the anchor (and an invitation to many a way of reading), though always flavored also by an echo of the antithetical notion of dropping anchor and suspending play. Again the text feints and postures and sports with itself. It pretends to fear to lose its textuality in the very act of demonstrating the impossibility of such a loss.

If the cats coalesce with the textual freedom of linguistic play, then what of the cotters (catters)? A cotter, in another usage, is a bolt or pin used in machinery to prevent sliding or rotating—to secure immobility and to prevent, in the mechanical sense of the term, play. The cotters of the tale—of whom it is said, with an evasive obliqueness characterizing absence rather than presence, that “many hate the voice of the cat in the night, and take it ill that cats should run stealthily about yards and gardens at twilight” (55)—fill their role well in trapping and slaying cats, that is, in serving to halt the free indeterminacies and sign-play of language. The cotters are single-minded “readers” of the language of the text, readers determined to have the anchor down, to eschew slippage, to find univocality of reading. Yet in the unavoidable association of “cotters” with “catters,” they are the ones who “cat,” who lift the anchor for untethered sailing. Without them, the cats of the text would have no foil, no contrast, no source of threat. The cotters live, themselves, within the text’s language and are given being by the forces that they seek to destroy. They partake of irony and paradox—of linguistic undecidability—and on a below-the-surface level come to resemble the cats that are arrayed against them. They purport to kill language so that language may live on, sporting with them and with itself.

To the other villagers of Ulthar, the cats are a mystery. We are told that “the people of Ulthar were simple, and knew not whence it is all cats first came” (54). The text does not enlighten us on this point, because it cannot. The cats are coalesced with language itself—in particular, with the antiquity and the riddling nature of the language of the Sphinx. The language in which the text possesses its textuality is of necessity anterior to anything that the text can try to say. The villagers are benighted readers; they cannot “read” the cats, and they fare little better with the “strange wanderers.” We are told that the boy Menes, who has lost his kitten, prays “in a tongue no villager could understand” (56). Yet the villagers are embedded in the text too; they are the text, in part, feigning to decline to understand itself or declining in earnest to do so.

And what of the “strange wanderers”? They derive from the Indo-European wendh-, “to turn,” “wind,” “weave,” the root whence came also wand, suggestive of magic. This suggestion, together with the notions of winding and turning, paints the wanderers as related to the cats themselves, since the movements of sign-play in language partake of turning and weaving and wandering. The gypsies are represented in the boy Menes, whose name echoes meaning and who accordingly is imbued with the perpetual absence of meaning, since he laments the symbolic absence of his kitten and becomes absent himself—“That night the wanderers left Ulthar, and were never seen again” (57). The gypsies have a certain propinquity to and mutual sympathy with the cats and thus with a linguistic mysteriousness that does not stop at their using an unfamiliar language with which to pray, and to prey. We are told that their wagons are painted with “strange figures with human bodies and the heads of cats, hawks, rams, and lions” (56)—a configuration opposite to that of the Sphinx with which the cats associate themselves, yet one that paradoxically establishes a similarity and a link, then, with the Sphinx and the cats. We are also told that “the leader of the caravan wore a head-dress with two horns and a curious disc betwixt the horns” (56). Disc derives from the Indo-European deik-, “to pronounce,” whence comes the Latin dicere, “to say.” The same root produces an agential suffix -dik, whence derives the Latin index, “forefinger,” suggesting pointing, and pointing away (aweigh), as do linguistic signifiers, and whence derives also the Latin judex, “judge,” pronouncer of the law. Hence the wanderers come to have a peculiarly oblique connection with the language-alienated villagers, who textually are themselves (though in essential ignorance of cats) the makers of their law prohibiting the killing of cats. The wanderers, in a sense, are of course responsible for this law as well. They are the readers that the villagers are not, they are the villagers’ “other” come to offer a reading. In any case, the wanderers’ relation to the cats and to the villagers is problematic in much the way one would expect from their association with the unknowns of language.

“And in the end the burgesses passed that remarkable law which is told of by traders in Hatheg and discussed by travellers in Nir; namely, that in Ulthar, no man may kill a cat” (58). What, in terms of the association of the cats with language itself on the level of symbolism, do we make of this law? An obvious response is that such a law borders on being comic. The law, even on a surface reading, is close to being pointless, since only the evil old couple has ever been inclined to kill cats, and those two people are reduced to skeletons. Coming as a response to these events, the law has little effect other than to commemorate what has happened. But further, if the cats symbolize the free-flowing and uncontrollable workings of language, then the notion of a law prohibiting their slaying is not only pointless but antithetical. The uncontainable semantic effusions of language cannot be killed; one might as well pass a law to stop the wind from blowing. And the idea of a law smacks, of course, of a rigidity and a fixity contrary to the nature of what the law purports to protect. (“No man,” Latin nemo, echoes the law writer Nemo in Dickens’s Bleak House. If no man may kill a cat, then no man—Nemo the law writer—may meaningfully write such a law.)

Law derives from the Indo-European root legh-, “to lie,” “lay,” as that which is set down or made to lie. A similar root, leugh-, is responsible for lie in the sense of prevarication, and we observe a pun between lie (“recline”) and lie (“prevaricate”) even on the Indo-European level. The possibility of such a law may be a lie. Also a law that is set down may be set down as a regulation or may be set down in the sense of being discarded or put to rest. To “lay” may suggest either to cause to be set down as established or to lay in the sense of laying a ghost or a rumor. The status of the law is thus ambiguous from the outset, even though the prohibition that it (needlessly) postulates is self-enforcing. Indeed the law passed by the burgesses, to the extent that it symbolically protects the free wanderings of language, becomes its own undoing. Structures of rigidity ineluctably become dismantled amid the turbulence of language. Ulthar’s law, as described, sounds more like a descriptive than a prescriptive law: no man, to be sure, may kill what the cats represent. Yet the law, viewed as descriptive of the uncontainability of language, is also prescriptive: written before, posited anterior to, the workings of the text itself and anticipating the text’s writing of itself. The text has even described the law as “remarkable”: re-markable, rewritable, always already about to be self-rewritten.

The text has its being in distancings, spacings, absences, not the least of which is the paradoxical absence of possibility of a law’s rigidity, since by being rigidly enforced it succeeds in protecting that which makes such rigidity impossible. But there are more obvious textual absences. One notices that the evil cotters are never seen. Their cottage is “darkly hidden under spreading oaks” (56), and we do not see them abroad, nor do we see them kill any cats. One remarks that the cats, in order to function in the text, disappear, as does Menes’ kitten and as do Menes and his people themselves. Even the sordid reputation of the unseen couple in the hidden cottage is a matter of repute and distancing, for “many villagers fancied that the manner of slaying was exceedingly peculiar” (55, emphasis added). This manner of slaying is hidden from us, assuming the cotters did any slaying at all. That the cats, in turn, have vengefully slain the cotters is not only not seen but also is a notion due to what is not seen. We do not see the cats on the night following Menes’ kitten’s disappearance, and the villagers do not see lights in the cotters’ windows. The villagers themselves are “absent” with respect to understanding cats; they are left behind by the wayward swirl of cats and of language.

As we have noted, Ulthar’s cats in any event merge with linguistic patterns of absence, with the workings of signifiers, whose nature implies non-self-presence of meaning. The cats’ movement “slowly and solemnly in a circle around the cottage” is an ironic symbolic gesture (57). It pretends to make a textual center of the cotters, though language works to decenter texts. And of course what would be central, the ill-reputed couple, is marked by absence. The text’s movements are of the differential nature of shiftings of absences, rather than manipulations of presences. This is only predictable in a text having a grand concern with the undecidabilities of its own textual language, a text making haste to link its motif of cats with the riddling language of the Sphinx.

“The Cats of Ulthar” as a text is a dance of shadows, of empty spaces like the holes in a net—spaces without which there could be no net, no structure, at all. The text is a celebration of absence, of language, of its own textuality. As such, it places us on the brink of the abyss; any yearning for comprehension comes up against the age-old paradox that when a text says that it deals in indeterminacies and unreliabilities, its reliability in saying so cannot be determined. In this determination of indeterminacy, a determination itself undercut by the indeterminacy that it determines, we have aporia: oscillation, impasse. Though beginning and ending with allusion to (and illusion of) a law, the text’s workings are as lawless as a cat. And as all cat fanciers know, that is lawless indeed.

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