Over 4000 years ago the Ancient Egyptians domesticated and revered cats for their expert hunting skills and their practical ability to keep rats and other nuisance animals at bay. Of course, some people, such as George F. Will, declare: “The phrase ‘domestic cat’ is an oxymoron.” For, who can really own (or truly know) a cat? T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Naming of Cats” reminds us the cat has three names—the “sensible” name he is called by familiars, the knowable yet unique name that “never belong[s] to more than one cat,” and “The name that no human research can discover— / But the cat himself knows, and will never confess.” While the Ancient Egyptians worshiped these mysterious creatures as gods and goddesses, we worship them as entertainers. The musical Cats, inspired by Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, premiered on Broadway in 1982 and drew audiences for nearly twenty years. Today, the Internet abounds with cat videos gone viral. This genre has even demanded recognition through the establishment of the Internet Cat Video Festival. Perhaps our contemporary fascination with these carnivorous, agile felines springs from our untamable desire to know more about our own domesticity, to know our own unnameable Name.
The Naming of Cats
by T.S. Eliot
The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo, or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey —
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter —
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkstrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum —
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover —
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.