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Sharon Kivland. Reading to Celeste

Sharon Kivland—artist, curator, writer, and participant in The Fabric of Felicity—spends a significant part of her year at a small commune Plouër-sur-Rance on the northwestern coast of France. Besides Sharon and her partner, the sculptor Ron Haselden, the atmospheric house, surrounded by the garden, is inhabited by a group of adopted animals. During self-isolation, the artist found herself busy with a new pastime, regular garden readings to her cat Celeste. Sharon Kivland shared with us a special essay on her experience.


We have always had cats in our house in France. The first returned with me from Rome many years ago. Alexandre grew into a magnificent cat, noble and clever. He had an incurable illness and died too young. He was joined by Bella, a large tabby who turned up one night. She was never quite comfortable with us, and sometimes when being stroked, she would suddenly bite or claw, as though she had realized we were not those she had lost. The third, Cosima, was found as a tiny kitten in the flooded cellar of a Cistercian monastery on the Czech border; she was smuggled over the borders between there and France in a watering can. She remained tiny, determined, spirited. Later I found Zéphir, also noble, a characteristic of ginger cats, who had been abandoned in the road behind the house. One summer, we were joined by four farm cats, all of whom had kittens one summer (twenty-four, all rehomed, including Pilou, about whom I will say more below). Two, Limpet and her daughter Smudgelina, moved in with us. Limpet was calico, with great strength of character. Smudgelina was the shadow of her mother, a dilute calicos, semi-feral and discreet. The other two, Minouche and Chat Poule, slept in my neighbor’s outbuilding and were fed by us all. Minouche chose this, though she would come inside from time to time, but Chat Poule was too wild, too scared of our dogs and all the other cats until my neighbor’s daughter, inheriting her mother’s house several years ago, adopted her and she ended her life sleeping between the bed and a sofa until this year. As a kitten, she lived with my hens, from where her name came, until her father, a wild cat we called Grey Boy, brought her down to where we had made a shelter and left food for some other feral cats, who disappeared—as eventually did Grey Boy, though once I saw him in a field a few kilometers away, and stopped my car to call to him. He looked at me with what I thought to be recognition but kept his distance. My companion came back from the airport one evening with our friends who he had gone to collect, but also with a small ginger kitten, Bevis. He is still with us, rather demanding. I found Fidèle, another ginger, but pale, fragile, in the garden of the mairie. She was extremely thin, very young, full of parasites, but with a gaiety and courage that has lasted. In the order of appearance of our cats, my memory is hazy, but I think then Jean-Balthazar moved in, a cat who was my passion. We thought he was Pilou, who, after the death of the neighbor who adopted him and his sister Grisette, was left outside her empty house by her heirs, and would only come to be fed, resisting touch. His sister disappeared and as she was tame, I hope she was found and adopted. Jean-Balthazar had an infected paw, which had to be amputated, and so he stayed until his premature death. In my brief absence, we think he was run over by a car, then went to ground for several days, making his way home to me to die in my arms. Pilou was persuaded to move in, as we could see his health was declining—this took many weeks, months even, until he had the courage to enter. He slept on the bed until his death. Minouche, too, moved in, or rather, I brought her in after I found her supine in the rain from what I thought was a stroke, but now know was the first sign of the brain tumor that eventually killed her. Luna was found in a box in the car park of the supermarket by the pharmacist, who brought her to me. She had severe ringworm and great charm. She is still charming, though she has a vexing tendency to disappear. Aristide has been with us for nearly three years, a black and white cat of immense proportions. We thought he belonged to the farm but then was reported to be living in a drain on the route to the château. He sauntered in one day (he has great confidence) and lay on the sofa, where largely, he has remained since. Orphée, our youngest cat, a sleek black fellow, was a present from friends who were staying with us. At this point, my companion said no more cats. He has said this before.


Reading to Celeste, 2020
Photo: Ron Haselden
© Sharon Kivland

However: last September, our friends Simon and Valérie brought us Celeste, a small young calico cat who had been visiting them in the garden of their summer house. They fed her, but could not keep her, as they were returning to England. She is a complicated little cat, still wild, and had somehow survived in a small town for a year. She had had kittens, but they had died. When she arrived, she was crying for them; she still had milk and could not rest. The vet told me it was unlikely that she would ever settle in a house. This winter, we made progress. She found a place on one of the sofas in the kitchen that she claimed for her own, defended her territory for food, allowed herself to be stroked, though she would never sit on a lap or knee. She started to come into one of the bedrooms upstairs, then found a chair she liked in the library. She particularly liked the upstairs bathroom and would sit in a companionable manner while I had a bath.

Suddenly this has changed. We do not know why. We cannot trace this to any event. It is during the confinement, but there seems to be no relation. She does not want to come into the house unless it is empty. She is frightened of the dogs, of the other cats. Sometimes she returns at night or when I call her to eat, but she is reluctant to stay. Yet, when I go into the garden, she calls for me, demanding my attention. She follows me, mewing. If I sit, she climbs on me at once, purring, circling, then stares into my face. Under confinement and in the fine spell of weather, I have taken to sitting with her every afternoon. I do not have much time for leisure, to spend a few hours doing nothing—though I suppose that I am comforting and taming a little wild creature, and that is something—so I read with her, persuading myself that I am spending time usefully. The weather changed yesterday, but in the warm sun, here are some of the things I have read with Celeste.


Aristide at the front door, 2020
Photo: Sharon Kivland
© Sharon Kivland

Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, because he comes or surrenders to the animal, to the animal in itself, and the animal in him and the animal at unease with itself. In an endnote, he writes of the cats that have been given to him since the conference at Cerisy, literary creatures from Baudelaire, Rilke,  Buber…  Lewis  Carroll (of course), though Derrida’s real cat, with its unsubstitutable singularity, is not Alice’s little cat, a kitten who purrs, and it is impossible to tell if it means yes or no. I read aloud some quotations from Heidegger. Celeste, on my lap, her paws kneading me, closes her eyes. It is not a matter of simply giving speech back to the animal.


Bevis in the flowerpot, 2020
Photo: Sharon Kivland
© Sharon Kivland

Barbara Pym, An Unsuitable Attachment, because it is comic and tragic and everyday, though not of today. Perhaps it was also not of the time it was written. Sophia, the wife of the vicar, has a cat she adores, Faustina. Faustina remains indifferent, and Sophia says she cannot reach her as she has reached other cats, and that somehow,    it is the same with Mark, her husband. Mark, sent to buy a fish supper for his wife and cat, wonders what would tempt Faustina’s delicate appetite. On holiday in Rome, Sophia lies on her bed and tries to picture what Faustina might be doing. Little scenes come to mind: vigorously chewing a piece of meat, sitting upright and thumping her tail, demanding for the door to be opened, reposing on a bed, curled up in a circle; sharpening her claws on the leg of an armchair, and Sophia can almost smell Faustina’s fresh furry smell and her warm sweet breath.


Celeste at the window, 2020
Photo: Sharon Kivland
© Sharon Kivland

Colette, The Cat, because, well, because of course, for no-one writes about animals like Colette, though I wonder if anyone reads her anymore. Saha, a Russian Blue, a silver shadow, will not give up her owner, Alain, to Camille, his fiancée. The cat is his little bear, his blue pigeon, his pearl-colored demon. While he thinks that in a week he will begin a new life with an amorous and untamed young woman, the cat gives him a cat’s kiss, swift, immaterial, seldom accorded. But her eyes are hard. Camille is not very fond of Saha. At the end of the book, Alain leaves Camille. He leaves her for Saha. Camille cannot believe he is leaving her for an animal, and he says while he admits Saha is an animal, what is there higher than this animal?


Celeste in the flowerpot, 2020
Photo: Sharon Kivland
© Sharon Kivland

Joanna Bourke, What it means to be Human. Reflections from 1791 to the Present, because it starts with a satirical letter published in 1872, in which “An Earnest Englishwoman” asks “Are Women Animals?” for women have fewer rights in law than animals. She cries for women to become-animal to benefit from what they are denied. Later, Bourke quotes Rosi Braidotti, concerning the dependence of animal rights advocacy on liberal ideals that are damaging, for the becoming-human of animals cannot “be generated by or at the center, or in a dominant position.” Bourke suggests we might think in terms of what she calls a “negative zoology”, God-excised, to think about the radical making of worlds. To this, she adds the Möbius strip and radical alterity, as ways of thinking with different worlds.


Fidèle in the bowl, 2020
Photo: Sharon Kivland
© Sharon Kivland

Anne Tyler, Ladder of Years, because it is the story of a woman who walks away from her family on a beach and just keeps on going until she gets to a new town to make a new life. She leaves one cat behind, Vernon, and on the point of making a new life, acquires another, a kitten, George, when she is determined that she will no longer care for anything. His fur is startling soft. It reminds her of milkweed. When she lies on her bed in her lodgings, she feels the denting of the mattress. The kitten passes behind her, brushes the back of her body as if by chance, but it is not. She feels they are performing a dance, courtly, dignified, elaborate. It is a delicate novel of negotiated relationships.


Fidèle on the table, 2020
Photo: Sharon Kivland
© Sharon Kivland

Mel Chen, Animacies, because I started it several years ago, but did not finish it. My eyes skimmed the pages in the too-strong sunlight, again failing to take in the animation of the insensate, deathly, and immobile, as though I had become a stone, with a smaller, softer, warmer, calico stone on my lap, whose color is believed to bring good luck. Chen warns against conflating human ideas about the animal with the animal itself; we must, she writes, ask after a broadly construed register of sentience. Thinking and feeling through sentience may revise dominant animacy hierarchies by admitting a range of interanimation and unrecognized recognition. This is not without its problems, she thinks.


Jean-Balthazar, 2020
Photo: Sharon Kivland
© Sharon Kivland

Oxana Timofeeva, The History of Animals. A Philosophy, because I continued to find Chen’s book too dense for reading in the hot sun in a canvas deck chair, with the warm weight of Celeste’s body on me, my eyes closing, drifting into a half-sleep. She argues I think, for a history of animals, a historical materiality, however spectral. There are animals before the law, and then they are excluded from it, to become things once again. I read aloud to Celeste, reminding her that since animals do not really own their death, they cannot really possess their life, and so they cannot be a subject of law. I reminded her, as she shuffled, extended and unrolled her paws, purred, that she sounds of her own accord, vibrating inwardly and causing the air to vibrate; that her being is manifested, but nothing is said.


Luna in the apple tree, 2020
Photo: Sharon Kivland
© Sharon Kivland

Élisabeth de Fontenay, Le Silence des bêtes : la philosophie à l’épreuve de l’animalité, because it is the book to which I return when I am thinking about animals, and also thinking about returning and death. Animals make themselves heard even if they are denied the two types of logos, reason and words, though Porphyry, unlike the Stoics, believes them to have prophorikos. No-one has taught us how to translate what they say. Their language does not speak to us. What is the right of the one who does not speak to be there in the world, in the same way, and in the same world as the one who reasons in the clear language of the mind? What is the right of the one who cannot commit himself to any duty? We name them, and they know we have named them. Cats know their names, but sometimes, often in fact, they cannot be bothered to respond. De Fontenay cites Montaigne, that we live beneath the same roof and breathe the same air, that between us, there is a perpetual resemblance.


Luna on the table, 2020
Photo: Sharon Kivland
© Sharon Kivland

Georges Perec, Life. A User’s Manual, because in re-reading it in confinement, after many years, I found myself collecting the cats in the book. These are: Lady Piccolo,    a grey she-cat who belongs to a woman who does not live in this building but in the building next door, though Lady Piccolo spends hours on the staircase; Pip and La Minouche, belonging to Madame Moreau, who sleep on the carpet, paws stretched out and relaxed, in the position known as paradoxical sleep, thought to correspond to the state of dreaming; Petit Pouce, belonging to the Marquiseaux, who first appears as a young cat, black with bronze flecks and a white spot under his neck, wearing a plaited leather collar; Poker Dice, a fat alley cat belonging to Gilbert Berger, who sleeps on a fluffy sky-blue bedspread; and two unnamed kittens, belonging to Madame de Beaumont.

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