The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

I finished reading this The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje yesterday and was struck by a few things.

On page 59 he has a beautiful thought:

But he had a serenity that came with the choice of the life he wanted to live. And this serenity and certainty I have seen only among those who have the armour of books close by.

I recognized the character Miss Lasqueti as having the name of one of the Gulf Islands in British Columbia. It brings some mystery and self-reliance to the character just to know that. I am always chuffed when I get the joke.

This bit from Ondaatje reminded me so much of a thought from Kenneth Clark that I am quoting them both.

That was a small lesson I learned on the journey. What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric.

And way back in 2003 I was struck by this similar bit in Civilisation, Episode 7: Kenneth Clark is discussing the Baroque and exploitation by the chosen few, relatives of the popes, clothed in nepotism and housed in palaces of greed. He ends by saying this as the camera pans out and shows him walking down an enormous arched corridor that is thick with ornamentation and carving, and a sense of huge, whistling coldness and emptiness that goes on and on.

I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit, has ever been conceived or written in an enormous room.

 

It’s a haunting statement, not a question.

I have never read Marcel Proust, but Michael Ondaatje uses a remark by Proust in a letter to René Blum from 1911 that struck me as one of those solid, human truths:

We think we no longer love our dead, but . . . suddenly we catch sight again of an old glove and burst into tears.

René Blum helped Proust get the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past published and they were friends. I like this snippet from a review by the California Literary Review of a book about Blum called René Blum and the Ballets Russes: In Search of a Lost Life.

Cul­tural his­tory, like polit­ical his­tory, may place its impres­arios and empire-builders at the centre stage. But it is the quiet her­oes like René Blum, work­ing to pre­serve the clas­sics and to encour­age a rising gen­er­a­tion of artists, who often make a more last­ing contribution.

Yes, the quiet heroes in small rooms, writing, creating. . .

This passage from The Cat’s Table parallels something I discovered myself when discussing Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the Tarot of the Saints, so I shall quote Ondaatje’s paragraph and then my own thoughts from that study.

At the Cat’s Table they were discussing Italian art. Miss Lasqueti, who had lived in Italy for a few years, was speaking. “The thing with Madonnas is, they have that look on their faces—because they know He is going to die when young . . . in spite of all the hovering angels surrounding the child with the little spurt of bloodlike flame coming from their heads. Somewhere in the Madonna’s given wisdom, she can see the finished map, the end of His life. No matter that the local girl the artist is using cannot attempt that knowledgeable look. Perhaps even the artist cannot portray it. So it is only we, the spectators, who can read that face as someone who knows the future. For what will become of her son is provided by history. The recognition of that woe comes from the viewer.”

Here is my take on it, written in 2005, a response to someone on a forum who complained that Robert Place had depicted Mary on The Moon in the Tarot of the Saints.

There is a darker side to being the mother of a saviour to the world, the fear and worry which this highlights. Mothers are often given credit for intuition and “knowing” when their children are in trouble or something’s not right. She knew of Jesus’ inevitable death and the danger to her other children from political and religious factions. Deep, mysterious motherhood and the mental and emotional umbilical cord it carries, is much like the Moon archetype. The ghostly sadness of clouds drifting across the Moon, the deep paths of the soul who bears that knowing sadness all her life, howling into the night.

Judith A. Johnston

It is often the small snippets, the tender shoots among paragraphs, that grab me with an excellent writer. Michael Ondaatje is like that with words, grabbing your attention so that you remember his writing as a lyrical refrain, a drift of a song that you can’t stop playing in your mind.

 

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