Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Cat in an Empty Apartment (Wislawa Szymborska)

A Cat in an Empty Apartment
I wanted to post here when I read about her death, but couldn't figure out what I wanted to say. I still can't, really. Szymborska is one of the poets I discovered during my formative poetry-reading (and writing) years, one of the writers I admired most. Although I have only read her work in translation, it was always clear that she had an amazing grasp on the subtleties of language, a way of saying things simply and honestly and beautifully.

I love A Cat in an Empty Apartment because it gets at those ineffable somethings that make a person uniquely themselves. There is no one thing that defines us, but many things - the pattern of our footsteps, the way we turn on a lamp at a certain time of day. What it makes me think of is these scientific experiments I read about - I can't find a good reference so I'll just mangle through explaining it here - where the researchers asked people to define an object, like a chair. And then they'd present people with lots of different pictures of chairs, all shapes and sizes, some of which didn't quite meet all the criteria but which were still (debatably) chairs.

So basically, the conclusion was that there wasn't a straightforward definition of what makes a thing a chair - instead, there's this fuzzy cloud. Not everyone will agree on every point of a definition, and some people will say, "Yes, object 7 is a chair" while other people will say it isn't. And people can't necessarily put their finger on why they think something is or isn't a chair - they just know. But when you aggregate all the information from a bunch of different people, you can get a sense of what the word "chair" means.

Anyway, the point is, I feel like if you asked a bunch of people "who is John Smith?" then all of them would give different definitions. Even if you asked people to be as comprehensive as possible - to describe him physically and relationally and how his mind works and his history - even if you asked him to define himself. You'd still get this fuzzy set of descriptors, a lot of which apply to other people, and some of which are mutually exclusive, and this fuzzy set is what makes John Smith who he is. And somewhere in that set would be things like how he smells to his cat and when he turns the lamps on.

(One last reason to love this poem: "Caress against the furniture." Is there a more perfect way to describe cat movement than this? No, there is not.)

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