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Trope of the Purring Cat:
A Parody of Dialogue and Un-Dialogue with Paul De Man
Written by Elizabeth Brunner, 1996,  for Literary Theory class at Cal Poly under Professor Larry Inchausti


I invented it all, in the hope it would console me, help me to get on, allow me to think of myself as somewhere on a road, moving, between a beginning and an end, gaining ground, losing ground, getting lost, but somehow in the long run making headway.  -- Samuel Beckett

      After my beloved cat died suddenly and tragically, I adopted a feral cat through the Cal Poly Feline Adoption Program. I named her Wild Cat, appropriately, for her domestic etiquette most certainly approached the non-domestic. Three weeks later, I foolishly allowed the enthusiastic volunteers -- Cat Women, I call them -- to convince me that Wild Cat had a brother who also most desperately needed a home. I baptized the second cat "Shakespeare," in the hope that literary dignity would make an impact. To give the Cat Women credit for honesty, they warned me that both these animals had been repeatedly rejected as unmanageable from other foster homes. The third cat, a neighborhood stray with the most delicious orange tabby fur, invested so much energy urinating all over my porch that I finally gave up and invited him in as well. Regrettably, I've always been a soft touch, but these cats strain the limits of my love for animals. 
      As my charming little home transformed into a giant scratching post, I optimistically sought the assistance of a trained animal behavior specialist. And here's where I made my mistake: I must have dialed one wrong digit because I'm quite convinced at this point that the San Luis Veterinary Clinic never received my call. A strange muffled voice answered, "Hello and Goodbye." 
        Ignoring such rudeness, I persisted. "I need help coping with the behavior problems of my cats."
       "Ah," said the disengaged voice, "Do you mean behavior or un-behavior?"
       "Yes, precisely," I laughed. "You've pinpointed the issue; these cats refuse to behave in any acceptable manner. Can you help me train them?" 
      The male voice paused long enough for me to feel uncomfortable, then mumbled: "Train, untrain, retrain, anti-train, ur-train, choo-choo train."
      I'm baffled but desperate. After some circumvention and circumambulation and circumlocution, he introduces himself as Dr. Paul Na Med. In retrospect, of course, I should have been suspicious of that paranoia about the deconstructionists going underground after the academic backlash and reversing the letters in his last name to prevent graduate students from retaliating. Before I could voice my concern, Wild Cat bit through the phone cord and the line went dead.
      Hours passed before the most peculiar scholar showed up at my door. He held a cardboard sign with crooked black letters spelling V-E-T and then crossed out by a vehement red pen. I looked once at him and then back to the cats now dangling by extended claws from my linen curtains. 
     The deconstructionist spoke: "Those cats are simultaneously somewhere and everywhere and nowhere." 
      Pointing at the latest disaster, I asked, "Any suggestions on handling these feral cats?"
     "If feral implies outdoors, but the cats are indoors now, then un-feral. And wild, certainly wild, yet not of the wilderness, so un-wild. The polarities of inside and outside have been reversed but they are still the same polarities..."  I started to ask for clarification, but the mad rampage of three fur-balls flashed past us, knocking over a stereo speaker and a pile of books. He continued, "Conspicuous, complex, and enigmatic."  
      I raised an eyebrow and explained: "They fight constantly, groom erratically, shed continuously, meow indefinitely, poop indiscriminately, and eat insatiably. Wild Cat even sits heavily on my bosom and tries to extract little pieces of lunch that might be stuck between my teeth. And Shakespeare has the worst case of gas that I've ever witnessed in a non-human." 
      His response: "Metaphors are much more tenacious than facts." 
      I tried again. "Wild Cat is a demon. Shakespeare destroys like an earthquake. And the long-haired stray bites as hard as satire." 
      His sadistic smile grew enormous at the prospects of binary opposition. "Reverse the hierarchies!"  he yelled. "Expose the contradictions! The demon leaves out the angel. The earthquake biases natural forces. The bite betrays the non-bite. You list the things but not the no-things."  
      I glared at the doctor, the useless doctor, the undoctor. I spoke this simple question slowly to veil my frustration: "Can you help?" 
      He answered with a non-answer: "What is the use of asking, I ask, when we cannot even authoritatively decide whether a question asks or doesn't ask?" My hostility becomes undeniable even to a theorist who relishes the denying. The anti-veterinarian fumbled, "How (cat)astrophic. I suggest the intervention of an extra-textual intention. Consider the trope."  
     "Trope?" I repeated, "Is that an animal sedative?" 
      The cat wails subsided as Dr. Na Med/De Man pled suspended ignorance. Wild Cat pranced out of the bedroom, aimed directly for the scholar, rubbed  against his wrinkled pant legs, and purred like a machine gun. 
      I beamed with maternal pride. "Good kitty." 
      The feline rhetorician grimaced and sneezed convulsively. "No, no! Don't bias the purr as a positive; consider the negative. Even cat language is unreliable, undecidable, and only definable by the absence of essential meaning. The sign of the purr signifies that the purr-er in the intertext of purring really doesn't want to purr at all but intends to counter-purr. Don't be deluded that a low vibratory noise from the heart of a cat means pleasure --  this kitty utterance shows hostility as the unspoken intent. The cat purrs as a seductive trick to escape from captivity. Or, at best, the purr is something which means nothing, absolutely no-thing." In his excitement, the scholar foamed at the mouth like a dog with rabies.
      Thankfully, a once unknown -- but now known -- allergy to cat fur drove the deconstructionist from my home. He scampered away, threatening bombastically to place me "under erasure." Relieved, I curled on the sofa surrounded by one - two - three purring cats. And from somewhere deep within my soul of meanings and metaphors and faith and fiction, I purred back. 

 
Author: Elizabeth Howell Brunner
Email: liz@grantproposal.com
Main Web Site: www.calpoly.edu/~ebrunner