Stevie Smith and the Disappointing Lolcats

So Stevie Smith made a book of lolcats.

shocked-cat

That’s right. In 1959, she published Cats in Colour, a book of cat pictures. With captions.

Needless to say, I’m ecstatic. I spent a happy morning in the Bodleian this week, annoying readers around me by photographing pages.

I have to admit: cute cat pictures have come some way since 1959. The images are… a bit bland. What’s more, a caption this banal would be laughed off icanhas.cheezburger.com:

blue-eyes_caption_cropped

His eyes are blue, apparently.
[His eyes are blue, apparently – Ed.]
Cats in Colour is a peculiar animal. In her introduction, Smith warns that we shouldn’t anthropomorphise creatures:

It is mind that lights the human eyes, but what mind have animals? We do not know, and as we do not like to know, we make up stories about them, give our own feelings and thoughts to our poor pets, and then turn in disgust, if they catch, as they do sometimes, something of our own fevers and unquietness.

Turn to page 46, though, and Smith’s ‘making up stories’ with gusto – putting words into the cats’ mouths, in the best lolcat tradition.

'I think this tabby cat is a Perfectly Common Thing. So I shall shut my eyes. Do you like my white waistcoat? I give a good deal of thought to it.'
‘I think this tabby cat is a Perfectly Common Thing. So I shall shut my eyes. Do you like my white waistcoat? I give a good deal of thought to it.’

So there’s something incoherent about this book. And that incoherence lies at the heart of Smith’s work. It’s what makes her so interesting to me. Smith can’t sustain – or chooses not to sustain – the fantasies she starts:

insipid-cat_caption_cropped

insipid-cat
[Poor insipid cat – Ed.]
In my favourite caption, Smith undercuts fantasy with the most pragmatic, frank detail possible.

grey-persian_caption_cropped

[Thank you, Stevie Smith - Ed.]
[Ugh. Thank you, Stevie Smith – Ed.]
Anthropomorphic imaginings are projections. Smith knows that, and she keeps her fantasies in their place. She never lets us forget how meaningless the whole project is. In a couple of captions, you can see the exact moment where she signals her loss of interest in the whole enterprise.

'Someone has put us in a basket!' Yes, but you look quite pretty, you know. It's a shame? Very well, it's a shame.
‘Someone has put us in a basket!’ Yes, but you look quite pretty, you know. It’s a shame? Very well, it’s a shame.

In other words: fine. I’m not invested. It’s whatever you want it to be.

With these images, Smith hints, anything goes. They’re just pictures of cats. One way of looking is as arbitrary as another. And none of them matter. So this caption trails off, unfinished:

drunk-asleep_caption_cropped

drunk-asleep

To finish off – and to trail off, as Smith does – here’s my favourite cat picture. I’m not saying it’s better than Cats in Colour, but…you know. He’s on a glass table.

It’s like he has RETRACTABLE LEGS…

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