Christopher Smart’s Cat by Igor Webb is not really about Christopher Smart, his cat, or the famous poem addressed to his cat. Christopher Smart’s Cat is a memoir, although I tend to believe that a single formal designation diminishes the power of this book. Of course, it is a memoir, but it is also literary history and a philosophical discussion of the nature of memory, truth, and narrative. Christopher Smart’s Cat is also the story of those people who saw the nightmares of the rise of the Nazis first-hand as children and went on to be the people who shaped the second half of the twentieth century. Igor Webb was one of those people and his vantage point from history gives us a stunning insight into how those horrors shaped a generation. Bringing things back to Christopher Smart, Webb’s book finally leads us to reflections on the nature of language and story that have the potential to reach beyond the strictly human. It is fashionable these days, after the years of deconstruction and radical materialism, to look at the metaphysical with a cynical eye. While Webb never explicitly makes the case for a return to the metaphysics, I could not help but find some thoughts that point in that direction.
The life and work of Smart figure in the narrative in ways that are fully grounded in Webb’s life but nevertheless open a space for something that reaches beyond personal reflection. Webb tells us of finding a collection entitled The Religious Poetry of Christopher Smart in a pile of old books for sale at a bookstore in Long Island. The book sat on his bedside along with several other things he meant to read until one day he decided to read this book at the same time he began reading the English language version of Klima’s My Crazy Century and Mark Thompson’s Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kis. Thus, the music of chance (to paraphrase Paul Auster) set in motion this book and the vast tapestry of connections that make up the book. These connections are quite real; they are the facts that make up the history of much of Webb’s life. Yet, it is the life and work of Smart that somehow pulls some of the main threads of Webb’s story into a realm of thought that goes beyond a simple statement of the facts and speculations on the problems of narrative truth. It was with the confluence of these disparate but somehow related books and writers that Webb makes a point of connection which is central to his memoir. Webb explains, “I don’t know what to make of the twenty-first century. I know better what to make of the twentieth, because I have lived a typical twentieth century life” (12). This perspective is one he shares with Klima and Kis. He shares this perspective with his entire generation, although not everyone saw the nightmares of the rise of the Nazis firsthand as Webb did. But this recognition of his place in history leads him to be “able to at last, both to understand, and, like Christopher Smart, to rejoice” (12). We will return to this line of thought.
In one of many recollections from his life, Webb describes traveling to his homeland of Malacky, in what was once Slovenia. It is during this episode that he recounts spending time with his Aunt Reza. Webb describes a moment of sitting in a train station in Malacky. This is still in the time of the Soviet Block with the uniform gray drab we came to associate with the oppression of Soviet Communism. Webb explains that this particular station has nothing remarkable about it. There is not even a sign to tell you that it is a train station. It is simply a plain building like every other at the time. It is precisely the unremarkable nature of the place that strikes such a profound moment of reflection for Webb. He explains, “There is not even a sign or symbol to tell you what goes on there. The trains for the concentration camps must have left from here. The families “selected” must have passed through this door, this one, this very door” (56). It is precisely the banality of the place and the moment that brings to the fore what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil: that it is common and does not have the face of the devil, but the face of a neighbor and the façade of a common, unremarkable train station in the middle of nowhere. The gravity of the event rises out of the utter ordinary-ness of the place.
It is during this section of the book that Webb reveals much of what his memoir is about: the impossibility of properly recounting the past, what is gone is gone forever, and all our attempts at reconstructing, or more impossible, reliving, the past are futile. In this moment Webb is struck by his own folly: “I felt ashamed and foolish. I had come to Malacky out of some half-baked sentimental impulse. Abruptly it all seemed grimly arbitrary, a life of chance.” With this he introduces another aspect of memoir and a deeply philosophical idea which is the nature of chance in the course of one’s life. Chance versus fate. One of the things that makes it difficult to describe Webb’s book is that it shares the same quality as other books of its caliber in that any topic I light upon ends up feeling impoverished by not taking on every other topic that is connected to the first. Everything he does in this book sweeps everything else into its narrative.
More than just memoir, much of Christopher Smart’s Cat is an interrogation of memoir itself. Throughout the book Webb puts pressure on the possibility of really telling the tale. He explains that “memory is a useless or at least piss poor historian,” and to rely on memory as a medium by which one can legitimately transmit the past with a reliable sense of the truth is not possible. What we require, what we will inevitably bring to bear on memory, is imagination: “the retrieval of the past can’t be left to the frailty of recollection but has to be helped by imagination.” The telling of the tale, no matter how true the tale may be to the speaker, is always run through the active faculties of the imagination. Webb everywhere makes clear that real events, from the events of his childhood involving the unimaginable horror of witnessing Nazi slaughter to the simplest of reveries, take on life as the writer adds words to the facts. This is never to deny the materiality and veracity of real events, but to recognize that the precise facts of events, the ways those events have been remembered again and again throughout a lifetime become coated with experiences and imagination. Memories and real events shift as memories go through the years of becoming memories of memories.
The business of adding imagination to the reality of events leads Webb to one of the many literary references that are woven throughout. It is another memoir from Joyce Carol Oates that offers the insight Webb needs for the process by which some people seem to just live events and others, for whatever reason, need to add something to the events in the form of telling the tale. Webb cites Oates as she makes the distinction between those “who can live life without the slightest glimmer of a need to add anything to it” and are others “for whom the activities of their brains and imaginations are paramount” (23). Webb clearly belongs to the latter category, even though he tells us that he “is not confident in his membership in this group.” Nevertheless, he knows that for him, like Oates, “things do not become real, or perhaps are not fully felt—even the most intimate things—until the have been put into words” (23). This tension, perhaps we can call it a paradox, that real events do not take on their full measure of reality until they have been wrapped in words and re-imagined in the form of a narrative is the heart of the book . For Webb, the fullness of lived experience grows in telling the tale.
Webb, and so many others who turn up in the book, were children who witnessed the most terrifying events of the twentieth century. Saved by hiding, by being on the move, through exile to South America and finally to New York City, Webb’s earliest years are marked by forms of loss and grief that are beyond anyone’s ability to comprehend. Yet, much of his story is that of a typical American boy coming of age in New York City and the 50s and 60s, and it is also a story of the great themes of the twentieth century. He explains: “Survival and exile may be the default truths of the twentieth century, the great age of displacement, dispossession, and homelessness” (134-135). These are themes that press down on any memory and any event that Webb situates in his imagination and his words.
Toward the end of Christopher Smart’s Cat we find out that there is a substantial body of scholarship that suggests that, in addition to his ecstatic devotion to Christianity, Smart was something of a Kabbalist. With the work of a scholar named Rogi Siev we discover that Smart studied Judaism, that by the time Smart was locked up in St. Luke’s Hospital for his strange behavior and ecstatic visions, he had assimilated at least some Kabbalistic formulas into the theological teachings of Pico della Mirandola and Jacob Boehme. Without taking a long digression on this topic (you will have to read Webb’s book to understand the entire picture), it is enough to explain that Webb finds in this chance meeting of Judaism, Christian theology, and what we have generally taken to be the words of a madman, a point of convergence for the written word and the complicated process of telling a story that is about much more than one’s personal memories.
Once he was cut off from the world, Smart was free to compose “a kind of epic of infatuated delight with being” that remains, for Webb, “the most astonishing of any time” (149). Even though Webb states explicitly that “the non-mystics, like me, had better step warily into the writing of the mystics,” he leaves this issue open by revealing that Smart, “and later Borges and Danilo Kis,” were thoroughly immersed in the writings of the mystics and became mystics themselves in their own way. With the emphasis Webb places on the addition of imagination to memory and the unfathomable role of chance in the linkages of events, we finally come to “the image of a rabbi bent over his holy page.” And Webb asks us, “what happens when Word becomes material and settles in these curious symbols, these humble letters, on a flimsy page?” (152-153). I think one answer to this question is we get a memoir that reveals itself through chance, accident, family history, literary history, and an account of the twentieth century. Maybe Christopher Smart’s Cat is not the mystical text such as we find in Smart’s poetry or the magical stories of Borges, but taken in its entirety, there are enough narrative movements from personal reflection to the art of articulating an event, from the influence of great literature to the roads one takes chasing the idealistic dreams of youth—there are sufficient connections that defy simple cause and effect in Webb’s memoir to evoke something of the mystical in my reading.
Webb is never self-indulgent. Everything in this book is there for specific reasons, and all tracings of one moment to the next, no matter how many digressions the book may take, serve to weave the story of Webb’s life; at least as much of his life as he wished to tell us. After living the realities of exile and displacement, Webb grounds the story of his life in the act of giving life to words—his own and those of the great writers and thinkers that matter to him. He breathes life into words and words into life. That appears rather mystical to me.”
I am one who straddles the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I am old enough to be counted as a baby boomer, but young enough to have my life at least partially defined by the accelerated transition into the age of the internet. Maybe this in-between status disposes me to see the mystical in a book that ties so many things together so beautifully. When I was busy studying the work of Derrida, Foucault, and the other French thinkers we now lump into the category of post-structuralists, I had a professor who warned me, “Be careful, mysticism sneaks up on you.” I also fell off the deep end for Milan Kundera and Jorge Luis Borges around the same time and this ties me to so much of Webb’s book, at least from a considerable distance. Maybe others will not find Christopher Smart’s Cat quite as mystical as I, but I am certain anyone will be riveted by the writing of Igor Webb. This is a book that takes you places in ways I cannot describe any better than Igor Webb.
Author: Michael Templeton
I completed my Ph.D. in literature at Miami University. My area of interest was the British Romantic poets. I have a fondness for William Blake. After spending some years as an adjunct professor teaching at area universities, I decided to strike out on my own as a freelance writer and independent scholar. In addition to writing blogs, I have written several essays which have appeared in The Culture Crush, Culture Matters, and Aurore Press. I am fond of the literary fragment in both poetry and prose, and I have begun experimenting with this form in my own work. I have also read my own poems at Cincinnati Word of Mouth. In addition to writing I am a professional musician, cook, and barista. More accidental jack-of-all-trades than renaissance man, I have learned to do many things over the years. My involvement Dos Madres Press began when I hosted readings while I was a barista at the Bonbonerie Café. Working with Robert on these projects has led to writing these blogs. I live in downtown Cincinnati with my wife who is a talented photographer. We spend our time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while I always seem to be staring at the ground.