Mog the Cat, and the Mysteries of Animal Subjectivity
“Once there was a cat called Mog. She lived with a family called Thomas. Mog was nice but not very clever. She didn’t understand a lot of things. A lot of other things she forgot. She was a very forgetful cat.” So begins Judith Kerr’s picture book “Mog the Forgetful Cat,” published in England in 1970. Though this was only the first of Kerr’s “Mog” volumes—which ended up numbering more than a dozen by the time the last of the bunch, “Goodbye Mog,” came out, in 2002—these opening lines establish the series’ rhythm and sensibility. Kerr, who died in May, at the age of ninety-five, having published more than thirty much-beloved books in the course of her career, once said that she tried to never use more than two hundred and fifty words in any of her books, so that young children could follow along. But it was, perhaps, exactly this limitation that heightened her ability to pinpoint, with a beautiful specificity, the character of her feline protagonist. Just like Mog—a stout, friendly tabby with a round face, a white bib, and white paws, who gets into a variety of small domestic scrapes because of her limited grasp of the world around her—Kerr’s language is simple and a little plodding. The sentences are short and of consistent length—not unlike the padded footfalls of a rotund cat—and, in their occasional repetitiveness, mimic a feline’s clumsy thinking.
Mog could be considered a descendent of A. A. Milne’s Pooh, that portly “Bear of very Little Brain” who says, “Long words bother me.” But Pooh, though self-professedly dense, is still able to participate in adventures that require elaborate, if often misguided, planning, and is aware, besides, of his own intellectual limitations. Mog is an even simpler creature. Her needs, like a real-life cat’s, are basic—eating, sleeping, snuggling, defecating—and Kerr’s books ventriloquize these imperatives in a manner that both admits their humble nature and respects it, portraying an animal subjectivity that for all its plainness is no less particular in its quirks, and no less worthy of our recognition, than that of a more complex creature.
As any feline lover knows, all happy cats are alike, but each unhappy cat is unhappy in its own way; and a certain want of satisfaction is what sets up Mog’s narrative in “Mog the Forgetful Cat.” One morning at the Thomas household—composed of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas and their young children, Debbie and Nicky—Mog wakes up in a foul mood. Nicky picks her up against her will (“Mog said nothing, but she wasn’t happy”); she climbs on the breakfast table and tries to eat an egg (“Mog forgot that cats have milk for breakfast”), arousing Mr. Thomas’s annoyance (“Bother that cat!”); going outside, she is chased by a dog and, forgetting how to use her cat flap to make it safely back into the house, meows loudly at the kitchen window and scares Mrs. Thomas (“Bother that cat!”); she falls asleep on Mrs. Thomas’s hat, crushing it; she hangs her tail over the TV when Mr. Thomas wants to watch it; and, in licking the sleeping Debbie, she makes her have a bad dream (“The tiger wanted to eat Debbie. . . . Debbie shouted. Mog jumped.”). Confronted with the family’s ire (“Bother, bother, BOTHER that cat!”), Mog escapes to the garden, where she broods: “She was very sad. The garden was dark. The house was dark too. Mog sat in the dark and thought dark thoughts.”
When I read this line for the first time, to my daughter, it seemed to capture an entirely recognizable mood, both internal and environmental. It was just as pointed, and as poignant, as, “I wear black on the outside / ’Cause black is how I feel on the inside,” a lyric written a decade and a half later by the Smiths. Kerr also illustrated the books, and her pictures, like her language, are more expressive for their simplicity. After leaving the house, the broad-faced cat sits among naïvely figured grass and leaves—there is, perhaps, a hint of a Henri Rousseau-like jungle here, with Mog as the domesticated tiger—her perfectly round eyes shining beseechingly, like two yellow and black marbles. A sense of a vivid life, yearning to be understood, is present in every line. “Nobody likes me,” she thinks. “They’ve all gone to bed. There’s no one to let me in. And they haven’t even given me my supper.” Mog, of course, must have gotten her supper—she is, as we know, forgetful—but this bit of greedy-pet comedy doesn’t detract from the moment’s pathos.
The book is not the first of Kerr’s to consider the essential failure of communication between man and beast. In Kerr’s first and perhaps most famous picture book, “The Tiger Who Came to Tea,” published in 1968, a young girl named Sophie and her mother welcome a bright-orange, friendly but voracious tiger into their flat. The visit is figured as rompish rather than traumatic (and the characters’ swinging-sixties outfits—from a purple frock to slim checked pants—add a colorful riotousness to the pages), but there is nonetheless a certain troubling incompatibility between the humans and the tiger. Bounding about from cupboard to fridge, the animal commences to eat all the food in the house and to quaff all the milk from the milk jug, the tea from the teapot, and the water from the tap. But, as soon as the food is gone, he leaves, disappearing into the night. If only the tiger could speak, Sophie and her mummy would know where he came from and where he was going, but the animal reveals nothing. In an effort to secure his return, the family, we are told at the end of the book, buys “a very big tin of tiger food” at the grocery store to feed the beast “in case [he] should come to tea again.” “But,” as the slightly melancholy final line notes, “he never did.”
If in “Tiger” Kerr describes miscommunication from the human perspective, the “Mog” books examine it from that of the animal. For Kerr, the chief problem with being a cat is that your needs often come up against those of an uncomprehending or unwilling world. Often, however, the books rely on such misapprehension not just for their animating conflict but also for their resolution. When a burglar steals into the house in “Mog the Forgetful Cat,” Mog, still sitting in the garden, meows “her biggest meow, very sudden and very, very loud,” hoping that the burglar will let her in through the kitchen window, as the family sometimes does. (“Perhaps he will give me my supper.”) The burglar, alarmed, drops his bag, waking the Thomases, who call the police. After the robber is caught, Mog, no longer a bothersome cat, is called “remarkable” by a policeman, awarded a medal, and given an egg for breakfast.
Other “Mog” books proceed in a similar fashion. In “Mog and the Baby,” a very reluctant Mog is charged with amusing a friend’s grabby tot (“Mog loves babies,” Mrs. Thomas confidently promises, a statement undermined by Mog’s disapproving moue). When the baby, referred to as “it” throughout, stumbles out into the street, Mog saves him from a moving car, entirely by chance, and ends up receiving a large fish as a reward. (“She is the bravest cat in the world,” Nicky says.) In “Mog’s Bad Thing,” after a tent is erected in the backyard to hold the neighborhood cat show, obscuring the tree where Mog usually goes to the “lavatory,” she does “a bad thing” on Mr. Thomas’s green chair. She redeems herself, later, when she accidentally falls out of the attic window and into the tent while wrapped in a curtain and manages to win first prize in the contest for her originality (“And in a little dress!”). And so it goes: there is connection and affection, but there will never be full, mutual comprehension.
Anyone who has pets will likely recognize the human impulse to imbue them with thoughts and feelings that they most likely don’t have. It’s a pathetic fallacy I partake in every day, taking on a sing-song voice to ask my cats why they “look a little sad today,” and wondering if “watching ‘the Real Housewives’ with me might help take their minds off things.” Kerr beautifully teases out this tendency: while Mog does have thoughts and feelings, they are rarely the ones that the humans around her think that she does. From this proceeds the broader question of whether, if we can’t understand our fellow-cat, we can understand our fellow-man. In “Mog the Forgetful Cat,” when Debbie awakes, shouting, from her nightmare, her parents rush to her side, but she remains inconsolable and wordless: “Debbie said nothing. She was still crying because of the bad dream.” Her parents can comfort her, but they can’t know her thoughts, just as they can’t know Mog’s. For better or worse, there is an unbridgeable divide between all of us. The “Mog” books allow us the momentary pleasure of glimpsing beyond it, but they also remind us that, in the end, we’re alone.