Curiosity – by Alastair Reid – What Does it All Mean?

Okay. Curiosity and Cats and Dogs. What Does it All Mean?

In the poem “Curiosity”, by Alastair Reid, the author uses not only opposites, but age-old enemies, as vehicles for his portrayal of two types of people – those who play it safe and don’t rock the boat, and those who take chances and rock the boat just to see how long it takes to sink. Just as the fur flies when cats and dogs get together, so it often happens with people who live their lives on two different planes of philosophical and emotional existence. The unpredictable cat lives mostly as he pleases, tempting fate rather than exist in a box of boring predictability. Even if death is the consequence of breaking out of this box, he will at least have satisfied his curiosity about death.

The dog, on the other hand, lives closely within his comfort zone, where family, good food, and order, keep his doggy life safe, secure, and predictable. Though he often looks content and happy with “much wagging of incurious heads and tails,” his lack of imagination and curiosity leaves little room for true, life-affirming adventure. And, as Bilbo Baggins observes in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, “Adventures make one late for dinner.”

As for people, Reid says, “Face it. Curiosity / will not cause us to die – /only lack of it will.” Never to want to see “what’s on the other side of the hill”, or to search for a legendary Shangri-la (which likely does not exist, but would be hell if it did) would “kill us all”. With nothing left to be curious about; with nothing left to taste, experience, and explore, the story of life grows stale – not worth the telling.

The final stanza and the second stanza, however, reveal why there can be no detente between the staid and stodgy dog people and the curious, envelope-pushing cat people. In the final stanza, dog people say their animosity toward cat people is because they “love too much, are irresponsible, /are changeable, marry too many wives, / desert their children, chill all at dinner tables / with tales of their nine lives”. The second stanza, however, foretells a deeper, darker truth: curiosity is dangerous to the status quo. Curious people “distrust what is always said”; they look beyond “what seems” to be, to what something actually is in reality; they “ask odd questions, interfere in dreams, leave home, smell rats, have hunches.”

In his final analysis, the author pleads his case to let the cat people be who they are. “Let them,” he says, “be nine-lived and contradictory, curious enough to change.” Why? Because the “cat person” is a “minority of one” who can be “counted on to tell the truth”. If he seems irresponsible, it is because he is willing to fail. He harvests truth by being willing to make mistakes, to fail and fail and fail again, to endure the pain, to live the death, and come back from hell over and over again.

The reader may conclude from this poem that the world’s “cat people” are the explorers and scientists and adventurers, writers and thinkers and statesmen, who have pushed the world’s boundaries and made them both bigger and smaller with the truths they have unearthed. They are the misfits. They put feet to their dreams and ideals, and do not count the cost. They are the ones who forsake the comfortable daydreams of Walter Mitty for Mother Theresa’s harsh reality.

“Dead dogs,” says the author, “do not know what it is to live, because dying is what the living do.” He seems to echo what the Bible said a long time ago: “Let the dead bury the dead.” (Matthew 8:22) “He that finds his life shall lose it, and he that loses his life, for my sake, shall find it,” (Matthew 10:39).

Just remember. The author uses extremes and extreme opposites to make his point. That means there is no room in the poem for those who are neither of the cat nor dog persuasion.

Also, sometimes the difference between being seen as irresponsible as opposed to responsible, is the outcome — whether you failed or succeeded.

Curiosity

may have killed the cat; more likely
the cat was just unlucky, or else curious
to see what death was like, having no cause
to go on licking paws, or fathering
litter on litter of kittens, predictably.

Nevertheless, to be curious
is dangerous enough. To distrust
what is always said, what seems,
to ask odd questions, interfere in dreams,
leave home, smell rats, have hunches
do not endear cats to those doggy circles
where well-smelt baskets, suitable wives, good lunches
are the order of things, and where prevails
much wagging of incurious heads and tails.
Face it. Curiosity
will not cause us to die–
only lack of it will.
Never to want to see
the other side of the hill
or that improbable country
where living is an idyll
(although a probable hell)
would kill us all.
Only the curious
have, if they live, a tale
worth telling at all.

Dogs say cats love too much, are irresponsible,
are changeable, marry too many wives,
desert their children, chill all dinner tables
with tales of their nine lives.
Well, they are lucky. Let them be
nine-lived and contradictory,
curious enough to change, prepared to pay
the cat price, which is to die
and die again and again,
each time with no less pain.
A cat minority of one
is all that can be counted on
to tell the truth. And what cats have to tell
on each return from hell
is this: that dying is what the living do,
that dying is what the loving do,
and that dead dogs are those who do not know
that dying is what, to live, each has to do.

* * * * * * * *

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