The Black-Cat Analogy

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“The Black Cat” by Aubrey Beardsley, 1894-1895. Illustrations of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A distinction between figurative and literal analogies is sometimes made by teachers of rhetoric, but we are better served to think of analogy as an intersection of the figurative and literal from which a healing insight might emerge.  The telling of a fanciful story can help to refigure a perilous reality to which we have become inured.  Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” is just such a story when it is read as a figurative analogy to a troubled actuality.

Metaphor-Analogy-Myth

Giambattista Vico (1668-1774), an Italian rhetorician and political philosopher of the Enlightenment, was especially attuned to the interrelationship of metaphor, analogy, and myth in public communication and culture.  He resisted the reduction of the civic sphere—the realm of practical wisdom and persuasion—to Cartesian rationalism.

In defining metaphor—which he deemed the principal trope of all the tropes by far, the most frequent and luminous of tropes—Vico made the connection to analogy, saying metaphor is “a brief similitude constricted into one word.”  It is the trope “by which a word is transferred from its proper signification to another by means of a similitude . . . . The greater the similitude the more commanding the metaphor.”[i]

Analogy, of course, is argument by similitude, expanding on the metaphorical comparison of one thing to another, thinking and reasoning about the one in terms of the other.  Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, in their major work on rhetoric and argumentation, recognize the importance of analogy to the operation of the intellect, both in imaginative thinking and in reasoning.  As a mode of proof in argumentation, analogy articulates a deeper resemblance of relationship or structure (not just a banal and partial identity) between two or more different things.[ii]

For instance, an analogy borrowed by Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca from the Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus reveals a structure in one sphere that is applied to a different sphere:  just as a child who sticks his hand through the narrow neck of a jar to grab a handful of treats must let a few treats go in order to get his hand back out of the jar, adults must wish for a small number of things in order to obtain them.  Here is a structure taken from the domain of senses and applied to the moral domain.[iii]

Given the close connection between metaphor and analogy, we can see that the distinction between literal and figurative analogies (the former comparing things largely similar, the latter showing a relationship between things mostly different) is suspect if pushed too hard.  All analogies are false in a conventional sense because they compare things dissimilar in one degree or another (whether the comparison is between you and me, past and present, personal and public, or apples and oranges).  Differences are always present.  Calling attention to a similarity among differences offers up a fresh perspective, a new way of seeing a familiar subject.

Similitude is a gateway to the poetic logic by which the commonsense world of civic life might be reconstituted.  In Vico’s terms, metaphor is myth in miniature, which extends in principle to analogy and argument by similitude.  As Richard Weaver explains, those who think metaphorically and argue analogically are invoking key correspondences to suggest an underlying unity or oneness in a world of differences.[iv]

Poe

Edgar Allan Poe, steel engraving by Thomas B. Welch and Adam B. Walter, circa 1840s. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Poe’s Black Cat

First published in the Saturday Evening Post (August 19, 1843), Poe’s mythic tale of the black cat is a moral study of inexorable guilt.  It could well serve as an analogue for today’s malevolent politics, should we choose to read it that way.  By means of this literary vehicle, a democratic public might glimpse the guilty entailments of a compromised political soul.

Poe spins dark and gruesome tales but not without moral relevance.  “The Black Cat,” one of his most disturbing short stories, is no exception.  It is similar to his well-known “The Tell-Tale Heart” in its murderous narrative and supernatural occurrences but differs in its treatment of agency:  the crime is committed impulsively rather than by design and revealed inadvertently.  The murderer trips over his own curbed guilt.

The murderer tells his tortured story from his prison cell, unburdening himself the day before he is to hang.  From childhood to early adulthood, he was a tender-hearted person, noted for the docility and humanity of his disposition—a lover of animals as well.  He married early a woman of similar disposition.  Among their many domestic pets, he especially prized a large black cat named Pluto (the ancient Greek god of the underworld) that his superstitious wife identified as a witch in disguise.

After several years, the man’s close friendship with the big black cat deteriorated when, due to chronic bouts of drinking, his temperament was radically altered.  He became moody, irritable, and neglectful, even abusive toward his wife and pets.  The aging Pluto was eventually singled out for ill treatment.  In a fit of intoxication, possessed by a demon, the man cut out one of the cat’s eyes.  He was horrified and remorseful the next morning when he sobered up, but this feeling of guilt was feeble and equivocal.  His “soul remained untouched,” and his memory of the evil deed was soon drowned in wine.

The cat’s subsequent fear of the man irritated his tormenter, pushing the latter to the point of sheer perverseness, “one of the primitive impulses of the human heart,” a spirit that brought the man to his final overthrow, to do violence against his own nature—wrong for wrong’s sake.  In cold blood, he hung the cat by the neck from the limb of a tree, with full knowledge he was committing a deadly sin against a cat that had given him no reason of offense.  That night, the man’s house mysteriously burned to the ground, all but one wall on which the image of a hanged cat appeared, an apparition that caused the man both wonder and terror he could not completely rationalize away.

Months later, another large black cat with only one eye followed the drunken man home from a bar.  This cat, closely resembling Pluto in all other particulars, had a patch of white on its breast.  It became an immediate favorite of the man’s wife but soon an object of dislike to the man himself, a dislike that grew into sheer loathing.  To the man’s horror, the cat’s white breast began to take on the distinct shape of a gallows.  The feeble remnant of good within the man succumbed “to the darkest and most evil of thoughts” until one day, when the cat followed him into the cellar of the house, the man raised an axe, aiming a blow at the cat, only to be restrained by the hand of his wife, on whom he immediately turned in “a rage more than demoniacal,” burying the axe in her brain.

To hide her body, the man created an opening in the cellar wall by removing some bricks, inserted the corpse in an upright position, and carefully plastered over the new brickwork so that it did not look disturbed.  After searching for the cat—the beast to which he attributed the cause of his wretchedness—the man satisfied himself that it had run away, which brought him a “blissful sense of relief.”  With the tormenter cat forever gone, the man was little disturbed by the guilt of his dark deed and, indeed, full of supreme happiness.  Inquiries about his missing wife were easily answered and nothing was discovered by an initial police search.

But the police returned unexpectedly to execute a second, more rigorous search of the house, ultimately descending into the cellar.  The man’s heartbeat remained as quiet “as that of one who slumbers in innocence.”  As the police prepared to depart, however, the glee in his heart “was too strong to be restrained.”

“This is a very well-constructed house,” the man blurted out, with “solidly put together” walls; and then, “through the mere frenzy of bravado,” he “rapped heavily with a cane…upon the very portion of the brickwork behind which stood the corpse of [his] wife.”

Instantly, a hellish cry emerged from within the tomb.  The police dismantled the wall to find the black cat perched on the head of the corpse, the very same “hideous beast” that had “seduced” the man into murder.

Drawing an Analogy

Poe, himself, observed in “The Purloined Letter” that metaphor, as a mode of similitude, can strengthen an argument even as it embellishes a description.  He uses metaphor and analogy explicitly as a source of insight to solve a mystery.

What analogy might be drawn here?  How might Poe’s mythic tale of homicidal guilt speak to a people vexed by inequality, militarism, global warming, and declining stature?  What correspondences could the story suggest, what resemblance of relationship, what underlying reality?  Perhaps some initial suggestion will prompt further reflection on the similitude to be found.

To this end, note that Poe’s homicidal narrator slumbers in innocence even as he does violence to his own better nature.  Consider, too, the futility of pointing the finger of blame at a convenient scapegoat, of blaming the victim of one’s own violence.  Have we as a people become so intoxicated by wasteful materialism, unfettered capitalism, and extravagant militarism that our democratic temperament has been radically altered and our memory of harmful deeds suppressed?  Are we undeterred by omens of impending disaster, indeed, even spurred on by them in our iniquity?  Are our transgressions against others and nature itself committed impulsively more than by design?  Will our guilty conscience catch up to us too late to take corrective action and forestall final disaster?  One’s crime will not stay hidden forever.

RLI

9/10/19

[i] Giambattista Vico, The Art of Rhetoric (Institutiones Oratoriae, 1711-1741), ed. and trans., Giorgio A. Pinton and Arthur W. Shippee (Amsterdam:  Rodopi, 1996), 139.

[ii] Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric:  A Treatise on Argumentation, trans. John Wilkinson and Purcell Weaver (Notre Dame, Indiana:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1969), 371-373.

[iii] Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, 381.

[iv] I amplify these points in Robert L. Ivie, “Argument from Similitude in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Deliberative Dissent from War,” Argumentation (2019), forthcoming.

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