The Baltic Notebooks of Anthony Blunt
The Cat is on the Table. A potential neologism
Page 6 of 8
NM: Koko understands English when she hears it and she also can speak with American Sign Language and Gorilla Sign Language. She learned to sign GSL from her trainers, not the Rosetta Stone. She asked for a cat, so they brought her a whole bunch and she chose a Manx. She named it “All Ball” and treated it like her own baby, but it died. Eventually, she picked two other Manx kittens – named them “Lipstick” and “Smokey”. I don’t know what those names look like in GSL, but in ASL, you sign the word “cat” by mocking whiskers coming out of your face. A table is signed with one hand and forearm above the other, in opposite directions, to mime a flat surface. Most people could mistake “cat” for moustache or “table” for something about I Dream of Genie, but the sign for “on” seems the most easily misunderstood because it looks like you’re either cradling a baby or asking what time it is, depending on who’s signing.
NM: It could be interesting to introduce “the cat is on the table” as a gestural idiom, but we’d have to be careful. Koko was charged with sexual harassment!
PB: What?
NM: “Nipples” and “people” sounded similar to her.
PB: Am I outing myself as a progeny of pudgy people when I point out that none of you – slimmer and more attractive as you are – have mentioned the primary use of the table?
CF: To eat?
JT: I asked Alex Cecchetti the other day and he thought “the cat is on the table” might have come from Italian people when they ate at a Chinese restaurant for the first time.
XW: They were probably in Guangdong Province.
PB: Here’s a better example: at the Savoy Hotel in London, a wooden cat, called “Kaspar”, is invited to dinner in order to round out unlucky parties of thirteen.
NM: A baker’s dozen, go on.
PB: Wooden or not, Kaspar could symbolize how the finickiness of a cat’s taste offers a model for a discerning, classy palate. My point is that cats at dinner are not necessarily a sign of surplus, but can also signal a lack. In 1996, during the economic crisis in Argentina, cat-eating was necessary due to famine. Don’t forget that to be “on the table” is a possibility – an offering. In some cultures in Cameroon and Peru, there are special ceremonies featuring cat-eating that are thought to bring good luck. In Korea, cat meat used to be boiled for medicinal tonics. Up until a recent law was enacted, cats were still eaten in some regions of southern China, so Alex may be right about the Italians at the Chinese restaurant.
CF: It’s an absent presence on the table, is that your point? Are you just hungry?
PB: Think about it, in Italy I know you ate both rabbit and horse, and each for the first
time, right? Throughout the ages in Europe, cats have often served as succulent substitutes for rabbit. Would you eat cat?
CF: I can’t even pet a cat.