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The Elf of Japan

There are things in this world of which I can say seriously that I love
them but I do not like them. The point is not merely verbal, but
psychologically quite valid. Cats are the first things that occur to me
as examples of the principle. Cats are so beautiful that a creature from
another star might fall in love with them, and so incalculable that he
might kill them. Some of my friends take quite a high moral line about
cats. Some, like Mr. Titterton, I think, admire a cat for its moral
independence and readiness to scratch anybody "if he does not behave
himself." Others, like Mr. Belloe, regard the cat as cruel and secret, a
fit friend for witches; one who will devour everything, except, indeed,
poisoned food, "so utterly lacking is it in Christian simplicity and
humility." For my part, I have neither of these feelings. I admire cats
as I admire catkins; those little fluffy things that hang on trees. They
are both pretty and both furry, and both declare the glory of God. And
this abstract exultation in all living things is truly to be called Love;
for it is a higher feeling than mere affectional convenience; it is a
vision. It is heroic, and even saintly, in this: that it asks for nothing
in return. I love all the eats in the street as St. Francis of Assisi
loved all the birds in the wood or all the fishes in the sea; not so much,
of course, but then I am not a saint. But he did not wish to bridle a
bird and ride on its back, as one bridles and rides on a horse. He did
not wish to put a collar round a fish's neck, marked with the name
"Francis," and the address "Assisi"--as one does with a dog. He did not
wish them to belong to him or himself to belong to them; in fact, it would
be a very awkward experience to belong to a lot of fishes. But a man does
belong to his dog, in another but an equally real sense with that in which
the dog belongs to him. The two bonds of obedience and responsibility
vary very much with the dogs and the men; but they are both bonds. In
other words, a man does not merely love a dog; as he might (in a mystical
moment) love any sparrow that perched on his windowsill or any rabbit that
ran across his path. A man likes a dog; and that is a serious matter.

To me, unfortunately perhaps (for I speak merely of individual taste), a
cat is a wild animal. A cat is Nature personified. Like Nature, it is so
mysterious that one cannot quite repose even in its beauty. But like
Nature again, it is so beautiful that one cannot believe that it is really
cruel. Perhaps it isn't; and there again it is like Nature. Men of old
time worshipped cats as they worshipped crocodiles; and those magnificent
old mystics knew what they were about. The moment in which one really
loves cats is the same as that in which one (moderately and within reason)
loves crocodiles. It is that divine instant when a man feels himself--no,
not absorbed into the unity of all things (a loathsome fancy)--but
delighting in the difference of all things. At the moment when a man
really knows he is a man he will feel, however faintly, a kind of
fairy-tale pleasure in the fact that a crocodile is a crocodile. All the
more will he exult in the things that are more evidently beautiful than
crocodiles, such as flowers and birds and eats--which are more beautiful
than either. But it does not follow that he will wish to pick all the
flowers or to cage all the birds or to own all the cats.

No one who still believes in democracy and the rights of man will admit
that any division between men and men can be anything but a fanciful
analogy to the division between men and animals. But in the sphere of
such fanciful analogy there are even human beings whom I feel to be like
eats in this respect: that I can love them without liking them. I feel it
about certain quaint and alien societies, especially about the Japanese.
The exquisite old Japanese draughtsmanship (of which we shall see no more,
now Japan has gone in for Progress and Imperialism) had a quality that was
infinitely attractive and intangible. Japanese pictures were really
rather like pictures made by cats. They were full of feathery softness
and of sudden and spirited scratches. If any one will wander in some
gallery fortunate enough to have a fine collection of those slight
water-colour sketches on rice paper which come from the remote East, he
will observe many elements in them which a fanciful person might consider
feline. There is, for instance, that odd enjoyment of the tops of trees;
those airy traceries of forks and fading twigs, up to which certainly no
artist, but only a cat could climb. There is that elvish love of the full
moon, as large and lucid as a Chinese lantern, hung in these tenuous
branches. That moon is so large and luminous that one can imagine a
hundred cats howling under it. Then there is the exhaustive treatment of
the anatomy of birds and fish; subjects in which cats are said to be
interested. Then there is the slanting cat-like eye of all these Eastern
gods and men--but this is getting altogether too coincident. We shall
have another racial theory in no time (beginning "Are the Japs Cats?"),
and though I shall not believe in my theory, somebody else might. There
are people among my esteemed correspondents who might believe anything.
It is enough for me to say here that in this small respect Japs affect me
like cats. I mean that I love them. I love their quaint and native
poetry, their instinct of easy civilisation, their unique unreplaceable
art, the testimony they bear to the bustling, irrepressible activities of
nature and man. If I were a real mystic looking down on them from a real
mountain, I am sure I should love them more even than the strong winged and
unwearied birds or the fruitful, ever multiplying fish. But, as for liking
them, as one likes a dog--that is quite another matter. That would mean
trusting them.

In the old English and Scotch ballads the fairies are regarded very much
in the way that I feel inclined to regard Japs and cats. They are not
specially spoken of as evil; they are enjoyed as witching and wonderful;
but they are not trusted as good. You do not say the wrong words or give
the wrong gifts to them; and there is a curious silence about what would
happen to you if you did. Now to me, Japan, the Japan of Art, was always
a fairyland. What trees as gay as flowers and peaks as white as wedding
cakes; what lanterns as large as houses and houses as frail as lanterns!
but... but... the missionary explained (I read in the paper) that the
assertion and denial about the Japanese use of torture was a mere matter
of verbal translation. "The Japanese would not call twisting the thumbs
back 'torture.'"

Gilbert Keith Chesterton


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