A POTTED HISTORY OF CATS IN BOXES
In 1894, at the very dawn of cinema, Thomas Alva Edison produced a short film in which two cats fought a boxing match. Two felines in a miniature ring, with little boxing gloves on their front paws, having at each other as one Henry Welton—he of Prof. Welton’s Cat Circus—looks on. While over a century old, the film rings eerily familiar for anyone that’s stumbled into the three-fourths of the internet given over entirely to adorable cat videos; compounded by the fact that you’ll invariably be watching the thing on YouTube, this century-old clip strikes the modern viewer as uncannily prescient.
Filmed in his ‘Black Maria’ studio—a formidable outbuilding set on a rotating disc, pivoted to follow the natural light— Edison’s Victorian LOLcats brought to a shiny new medium a trend that was in fact already well-established in popular culture. Still photographers like Harry Pointer and Harry Whittier Frees, for example, plied their trades with pictures of kittens in bonnets, in rocking chairs, attending tiny kitten school, putting out a tiny flaming doll’s house etc. There’s even an authorless image, titled In the Rogue’s Gallery and dated from around 1898, which shows one mog photographer taking a picture of another as it poses in a wicker chair.
But Edison didn’t just make adorable videos with cats: he also publicly electrocuted them. During the so-called ‘War of Currents’, the showman inventor fêted his own direct current against the rival alternating current of George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla; to demonstrate the supposed relative danger of the latter, he ran AC through a variety of creatures before audiences—mostly stray cats and dogs, but also cows, horses, and Topsy, the Coney Island elephant.
In Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie The Prestige—adapted from Christopher Priest’s novel of the same name—we see another turn-of-last-century rivalry as a pair of stage magicians compete to master the greater trick and/or avenge their dear departed. It’s a film whose key points are told through boxes: trick cabinets, boxes in which one disappears or reappears, tanks of water from which one does or doesn’t escape. Boxes to conceal, to mystify. The greatest trick of the film is a mysterious chamber, an invention acquired courtesy of Nikola Tesla (played, naturally, by David Bowie), which is tested for effectiveness by demonstration upon a cat.
At about the same time Edison was staging feline fisticuffs, fellow American and influential early psychologist Edward Thorndike was experimenting on cats in order to advance an understanding of animal learning. His wooden ‘puzzle boxes’ were experimental cages, he wrote, “from which they could escape by some simple act, such as pulling a loop of cord, pressing a lever, or stepping on a platform.” With a hungry cat on the inside and a clearly-visible scrap of food on the outside, the time it took for the animal to escape lessened and lessened as “The cat that is clawing all over the box in her impulsive struggle will probably claw the string or loop or button so as to open the door. And gradually all the other non-successful impulses will be stamped out and the impulse leading to the successful act will be stamped in by the resulting pleasure”.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Ivan Pavlov was conditioning dogs to salivate on cue—an influence which psychologist and founder of behaviourism John B. Watson preferred over Thorndike’s work as he constituted his science of stimuli and response, the goal of which was “to control man’s reactions as physical scientists want to control and manipulate other natural phenomena… to be able to predict and to control human activity.” In Behaviourism, Watson sought to express a mind through its effects and environment, as the inside and the outside switch place.
A feline subject of scientific experimentation that fared both better and worse—and simultaneously, no less—than Thorndike’s kitties is Schrödinger’s cat. One of the select dealings of quantum physics that has made its way into popular parlance, this thought experiment devised by the Nobel prize-winning Ernst Schrödinger attempted to depict the outlandish implications of the prevailing ‘Copenhagen’ interpretation of quantum mechanics; trapped in a sealed box with a radioactive particle, which may or may not have decayed, Schrödinger’s cat remains simultaneously alive and dead until observed. Like the nineteenth-century toy and precursor to cinema, the thaumatrope—as Michael Caine’s character demonstrates in The Prestige, the device is quickly rotated to combine the two distinct sides of its spinning disc in one optical illusion—making flowers appear in a vase, or a bird in a cage.
Jump back a couple of hundred years and we find reference to a slightly less useful, but no less bizarre instance of cats in a box: the ‘cat organ’, or katzenklavier. First described by seventeenth-century Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, this (arguably mythic) instrument consisted of a row of cats in chambers, their tails connected to the organ’s keyboard. Upon pushing a key, the pressure exerted on the feline’s tail caused it to meow in pain; organised by the pitch of their wails, the device was purported to offer a melodic scale of animal cruelty.
Forward now to the late eighteenth century and another musical feline, Tipu’s Tiger. A mechanical automaton shaped as a tiger mauling a European man, this painted wooden device was originally constructed for a South Indian Sultan and can now be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Only here the cat is not inside the box, but is itself the box; the back of the tiger opens up to reveal a playable pipe organ housed inside. Rotating a handle, sending a wail through the machine, the victim’s arm moves up and down as the tiger hunches rigid atop his chest; in the beast’s side sits a keyboard—like an inverse katzenklavier—from which melodies can be played.
Just as the wildness of the animal is contained by the cage or box, so too can it be limited by its automation; as man celebrates his ability to recreate independence in the automaton, the operations of the creature are exposed, both physical and intellectual. As Gaby Wood writes, in her discussion of Enlightenment-era Living Dolls, philosopher Descartes “put forward a ‘beast-machine’ hypothesis, in which he argued that animals were machines, made up of mere matter, and that all of their faculties could be explained by mechanical means.” A mathematician, anatomist and enthusiast of automata, Descartes is also generally lauded as the ‘father of modern philosophy’.
Not radically dissimilar from the automaton is the puppet, and this too can be found in feline form. Like Salem Saberhagen, the talking cat in the nineties/noughties live action TV adaptation of Archie comic Sabrina the Teenage Witch— alternately depicted by a real cat, running across the floor, and a static animatronic puppet atop a surface, Salem the cat is a wisecracking ex-witch condemned to live as a house pet. Here the box sits beneath the cat, concealing its operation, in the form of table, chair, kitchen counter.
Cats and magic often walk hand in paw. In The Cat and the Human Imagination, Katharine M. Rogers outlines a history of cat myths and fables which routinely allocate to the creature a magical or satanic purpose. Among the beasts, she writes, cats “are more apt than others to be endowed with supernatural powers. If they are not demons themselves they are particularly competent at dealing with evil spirits… They have mysterious access to knowledge, which they communicate to each other in their own separate society, existing in secrecy in the midst of our own.” Aloof, mysterious and unreadable, cats make excellent creatures onto whom to project a wisdom and an esotericism tantamount to sorcery.
T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats extends this feline empowerment into an ensemble of curiously-named and troublesome characters. The basis for the musical Cats, the poems that form this collection have a high incidence of magic and mystery—from “Mr. Mistofelees/The Original Conjuring Cat” to more incidental usages peppered throughout. Just as the dichotomy of anthropomorphic personification lends the rhymes much of their charm, so magic can be found to operate upon duality too: there/not there, real/illusory, and caged/escaped—like Macavity the Mystery Cat, who “when a crime’s discovered, then Macavity’s not there”.
When discussing the cultural significance of cats, and cats and magic, we must at least touch upon the representation of women: whether to constrain or as an act of feminism, both cats and magic have found themselves inextricably bound to the notion of the female at numerous points throughout the centuries. The witch, for instance, is a typically female figure, and is often accompanied by a black cat. Whether reviled, or even hunted, as an instrument of the devil or empowered, freed, like the witches of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Master and Margarita, our triangle of representation—women, cats, magic—can be traced back at least as far as ancient Egypt and the goddess Bastet. A culture notoriously reverent of felines, cats were domesticated by and lived symbiotically alongside the people of the agricultural ancient Egypt, protecting their grain from vermin. Bastet—a goddess originally sporting the head of a lioness, and then that of a domesticated cat (and typically represented holding a box)—was at variant times the religious figurehead of protection, of home, of ointment jars, and of motherhood. As Katharine M. Rogers again notes, “in view of the cat’s noisy sexuality and devoted motherhood, Bastet presided over maternity, fertility and female allure.”
Rogers traces this intimate coupling of women and cats through numerous media across the years: from Medieval art to greetings cards, from psychology to semantics, the comparison is found again and again with varying degrees of cognisance and complicity. At its worst, Rogers demonstrates, “Cats conveniently represent what men have long and bitterly complained of in women: they do not obey and they do not love enough. Men who cannot control women as they would like to, associate them with animals that cannot be controlled.” As the caged beast offers the illusion or actuality of control over nature, over irrationality, so the felinized female is a form of boxing-in: reducing a woman to an animal’s position—as both less than man and as alien to the species—is another means of limitation, of de-clawing.
One of the presiding cultural depictions of women-as-cats is, of course, Catwoman. From the world of DC Comics’ Batman, the character mobilises many of the contradictions mentioned above—alluring yet lethal, good yet bad, villain and antiheroine, enemy and love interest. She also exemplifies some of the dualities of boxing-in: a cat burglar by trade, her character pivots centrally upon breaking in (to buildings, to safes) and escaping—often from tricky or impossible circumstances, as if by magic, disappearing into the night.
From the early ‘sexy cat’ days of the character to more recent, more estimable representations, Catwoman has led a double life, appearing both on paper and on screen. From the 1960s costume capers of Julie Newmar to Anne Hathaway’s depiction of the character in The Dark Knight Rises, Catwoman in television and in film has proceeded to oscillate between femme fatale and femme/fatale.
Now we’ve seen how the cat and the box are brought together in various incarnations to operate a duality—simultaneously alive and dead, wild and caged, independent and robotic. And while the spinning discs of the thaumatrope, the zoetrope, the film reel are replaced with the DVD, the Blu-Ray, the playlist, the screen yet persists as our first and final box. Sometimes we are aware of its falsity, of its mechanical nature beyond the illusion, but all too often its operation disappears and we adopt its borders as our own.
So next time you’re queuing adorable cat videos on YouTube, watching the ‘BEST FUNNY KITTEN COMPILATION’ of the year, take a moment to recall the long and tenuous history of cats in boxes; as that big-headed Persian is alarmed by its own reflection, or attempting to open the kitchen door, think about what might simultaneously be in operation: illusion, duality, and perhaps a bit of de-clawing.