The ubiquitous clips of frolicking felines reveal much about our attitudes to beauty and the absurd. They should give us hope, writes Maria Bustillos.

The following is an essay called Hope Is the Thing with Fur by Maria Bustillos, from the book Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong:

I once dreamed I was a grey kitten of perhaps four months of age; in the best part, I jumped from a table onto the distant wooden floor. The soft pads of my paws cushioned my landing in a deeply pleasurable and unexpected manner, and I found myself sashaying around and swishing my tail in contentment. This dream (a favourite, and one I often relive in memory) demonstrated my long-held belief in the many superiorities of cats to humans. The bodies of cats are exquisitely mobile; they can leap huge distances relative to their size; they are fast and alert and elegant; they have long, sensitive whiskers and delicate ears that can focus in any direction they choose. They can purr, communicating a delight that reverberates through their whole bodies. They also sleep half the day! There’s so much to envy there. So much to admire.

Cat videos are the crystallisation of all that human beings love about cats

Before we enter into the question of cat videos, we must talk about cats themselves. Cat videos are the crystallisation of all that human beings love about cats, the crux of which is centred in the fact that cats are both beautiful and absurd. Their natural beauty and majesty are eternally just one tiny slip away from total humiliation, and this precarious condition fills us with a sympathetic panic and delight, for it exactly mirrors our own. The director of a cat video is thus typically motivated either by an unmixed appreciation and love for the excellence or cuteness of his subject or by a desire to capture a cat in a dignity-impaired moment. Those videos that succeed in communicating both admiration and ridicule are perhaps the best ones of all, producing the most loved characters in the genre (eg, Maru, Henri the Existential Cat, Surprised Kitty, and so on).

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In this way, cats exactly reflect our feelings about ourselves. To demonstrate, let us consider Hamlet’s complicatedly sarcastic views on the ridiculous and the sublime in man, with one small substitution:

“What a piece of work is Cat! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!”

Dogs are in general simpler and more trusting

But notice how it doesn’t work at all if you should substitute turtle or chicken or cow for cat, here. Even the estimable dog doesn’t quite work in the subject passage, for dogs, while they may from time to time be noble in reason and express and admirable in form and moving, are not quite infinite in faculty, nor godlike in apprehension; dogs are in general simpler and more trusting, and lack the extra dimension of mystery that belongs to cats, and to ourselves. Cats share something more with us than mere creatureliness: they share, somehow, our central predicament. Beauty and panic, laziness and the potential for real idiocy. A certain predisposition to cruelty and indifference, mixed indiscriminately with a certain unaccountable warmth and gentleness. Each one different, unpredictable, full of surprises. What we can but dimly apprehend of our own condition, we can readily see and identify in cats.

“He thinks he’s a person,” people will say, when what they really mean is that they think so.

Return with me, then, to the dawn of the internet, to those days of wonder and delight before any of us had heard of Twitter or Facebook; before Anonymous, before the revelations of Edward Snowden, before BuzzFeed, before even Google. Before all the terrible things Adrian Chen wrote about at Wired in October of 2014.

At the close of the 20th Century, the dissemination of cat videos was but a distant dream, owing to the minute amount of bandwidth that even the fanciest computer systems could provide to the early “web surfer.” On a 56k modem, it would have taken ages and ages to download a single one of the cat videos we can blithely knock back by the dozen today.

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But there was something coming, that much was clear from early portents. Something hilarious, something absurd, something infinitely compelling. The website hampsterdance.com went live in late 1997 or early 1998, and by the following year, a quarter of a million visitors were tuning in every day to hear a weirdly addictive audio loop consisting of twangy music and an infernal giggle, which accompanied the rudimentary animation of rows of dancing hamsters. Well, “dancing” is a bit much to say – it was more bopping, ambling, or quietly rotating. “Legions of dancing hamsters will drive you mad with their inane de-do-de-do he-he-he!” promised one viewer, accurately.

With each increase in bandwidth came a slightly more sophisticated video

The avalanche of interest in thoroughly idiotic videos of ridiculous animals was barely beginning. But with each increase in bandwidth came a slightly more sophisticated video, and another, until there were countless thousands. By 2002, Joel Veitch of rathergood.com had created his first primitive Kitten Band, soon to be joined by the irresistible Punk Kittens, Northern Kittens, Gay Bar Kittens, and Sweary Kittens. The apotheosis of Veitch’s cat video oeuvre would, however, not come until 2010, with The Internet Is Made of Cats, a work that joins a snappy, sing-alongable tune to internet cat scholarship of a very high order, observing, “The Internet Is Made of Cats: Cats! Cats! Cats! Cats Cats!” and telling the tale of the cat-god “powerful beyond imagination,” Maru, who would manipulate the cosmos in order to summon the savior of the Internet Cat Race.

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Maru (Japanese for “circle” or “round”), emperor of internet cats, requires a moment of reflection on his own. He is “a boy of Scottish Fold” and “a lazybone basically,” belonging to the Japanese YouTube user mugumogu, whose videos have racked up millions of views. Maru is so resplendently beautiful, so thickly furred and magnificent, and so utterly mellow that even watching mugumogu clean his ears with q-tips is an entirely relaxing and pleasurable experience. But Maru is also a kook, and it is this kookiness that is responsible for the love his legion of fans bears him. Maru is perfectly capable of making a fool of himself over a bit of string, and he can fall off a cat tree with the best of them – but it is his determination to inhabit every available box, no matter how small or inconveniently situated, that seals his greatness and ensures his immortality. He’s a master, the Michael Jackson of the cat video world, whose performances are as fresh and appealing today as they were six years ago when he made his debut in I am Maru, the video in which he first beguiled the world by lying on his back in a bathroom sink, swatting a ball on a string, and bounding across the floor and into his first box.

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No one will argue that there is much to regret about the evolution of the web since it took off in 1989. But against the swamps of Reddit, the deplorable authors of GamerGate, and all the horrific incursions of the Man, we may measure the lush, quiet satisfaction of watching Maru hurl himself into a box and then lie comfortably still, plump hind legs splayed, luxuriant tail swinging contentedly back and forth.

Such pleasures recall the words of Evelyn Waugh regarding PG Wodehouse, whose works similarly provide us with a balm against the sadness and grief of the world. Wodehouse, Waugh observed, had made for us an “idyllic world [that] can never stale.” His characters “exist in a world of pristine paradisal innocence. For Mr Wodehouse there has been no Fall of Man… His characters have never tasted the forbidden fruit. They are still in Eden.”

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So it is with the feline demigods who kindly soothe away our daily hurt by falling off a wall, sleeping with a pit bull, or purring in a box on the internet. Cat videos too “will continue to release future generations from a captivity that may be more irksome than our own.” They too are “a world for us to live in and delight in.” They are the internet’s crowning achievement, a realm of universal mirth and innocent fun.

[Cat videos] make every message to which they are appended feel softer, lighter, easier

The charm of cat videos crosses all boundaries of class, gender, and nationality. Of what other medium can this be said? Cat videos are the ice cream of moving imagery, a lingua franca rivaling or perhaps even surpassing that of Disney cartoons or action movies almost universally understood and adored. Those few impoverished souls who cannot yet find it in them to adore may seem to the rest to be suffering from an attack of biliousness from which one cannot help but hope they will soon recover.

Aside from their philosophical function, and their function as an international language of friendship and fun, cat videos serve a number of other valuable purposes worth mentioning. A cat video is ideal for use as an olive branch after a dispute; it’s the perfect undemanding and friendly hello to a distant friend, intimate without being intrusive. The cat video can lend a welcome note of silliness to lighten the tone of a flirtation, or to express a bit of mirth to a grouchy coworker. They make every message to which they are appended feel softer, lighter, easier.

Loving a cat is a way in which a person can feel and express goodness and happiness

As I write this, the sleek, ebony-black Sam is purring in my lap. How to describe our long companionship? In all the conventional ways, of course: “He’s a member of the family,” “He’s just a big old baby,” and “He’s a very good boy.” Sam showed up in our backyard 14 years ago, a tiny kitten in the company of his stray mama and siblings, all of whom were more conventionally attractive than he: there was a lovely tabby one and another like a puffy ball of gray smoke. I was able to find homes for them very easily. But it was Sam, with his great golden eyes and playful, even slightly rascally manner, whom my daughter begged us to keep. (We’ve never yet made a video of Sam, though he is by far the best laser-pointer hunter I’ve ever seen, and it would be fun to show off his prowess.) In any case, there’s nothing but goodness and love that has come of taking care of this little cat – even if he is making it harder to type, at present. Loving a cat is a way in which a person can feel and express goodness and happiness, and cats express these things back to us in return. The cat video documents it all, in a form we share all over the earth.

Most of us get to know only a few cats intimately in real life (though I’ve met heroic rescuers of hundreds or even thousands of them, like Ben Lehrer of Kitten Rescue, a favourite charity here in Los Angeles). But through cat videos, we admirers of cats can know any number of them intimately and recognise multitudes of others like ourselves in Japan and Russia and France and everywhere else. The internet is home to millions of records of people just quietly at their best, sharing love and humour with a pet. Here are serious philosophical implications that it would be foolish to discount.

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It’s all too easy to see how the sad idea of a vengeful God has taken hold throughout human history, our perilous situation and the mysteries of the cosmos being what they are. For if I were God, and I were to come back after a few millennia to see how the planet I had made was faring, and I found human beings had grown so senselessly cruel, so ignorant and destructive, and visited such ruin on their beautiful home, their fellow creatures, and on one another, I can well imagine wanting to smite them to pieces and send along a lot of frogs and locusts and boils and things to reckon with. Maybe even wipe them out completely for making such a godawful mess.

But – even then – if, before I smote, I were to chance on a video of a cat riding placidly around on a Roomba? Then I believe I would have to spare the human race, keep the jury out, give another chance: forced as I would be, in the face of this incontrovertible evidence, to conclude that there was something in us still worth saving.

Hope Is the Thing with Fur is reprinted by permission from Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong (Coffee House Press, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Maria Bustillos.

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