(Pyramus and) Thisbe and I

Mark Buchan |

What is it like to be a cat?

I once lived with a cat named Thisbe. A street cat at heart all her life, I met her early one January morning. I had been woken by the meowing of my partner’s cat, Edgar, who seemed fascinated by something at our back window, which opened onto the fire escape of our 3rd floor apartment. Through the storm window, Edgar was rubbing noses with a new arrival. Fleeing from a heavy overnight snow storm, a tiny brown, black and white tabby, skinny and obviously hungry, had managed to scale the fire escape stairs. While touring the back windows of the 5-story building, searching for food and shelter, she found love instead! Or so my story-telling, romantic side decided. Two nose-nuzzling lovers, separated only by the flimsiest of barriers? Without thinking too much, or perhaps going into classicist auto-pilot, I named her ‘Thisbe’. Beware, gentle reader, of naming a stranger. I should have realized, or perhaps I did, that this can be as much the beginning of inter-species love as nose-nuzzling can promote the intra-species variety. Thisbe stuck around for 15 years.

Throughout those 15 years, as friends, guests, and relatives got a glimpse of my forever-a-little-feral cat–Thisbe liked to sample her humans one at a time, and scampered under or behind furniture when she sensed more than one was around–I would watch their varying degrees of puzzlement when I told them her name. Some half-remembered a Shakespeare connection, and I would prompt them with A Misdummer Night’s Dream, or that the story served as inspiration for Romeo and Juliet. One knew of its retelling in the musical The Fantastics. But I didn’t keep anyone waiting too long before sharing how she got her name, and met her Pyramus on my fire escape. My standard practice was to begin with high romance: a love between cats that would overcome all barriers, fire escapes, snow storms, and storm windows! Then I would let the story take a bathetic turn: for as soon as the barrier between them was taken away, and Thisbe took her first tentative steps into the apartment, all fascination vanished. The two cats ended up not liking each other much, and found separate parts of the apartment to call their own. Barriers, I would usually offer in my melancholy conclusion, are not only an obstacle to desire, but cause it, and when removed, who knows if desire will remain? And so for 15 years I had an excuse to talk about Greek myth, Shakespeare, musicals, the nature of desire, and my cat. It’s as if I planned it! Thisbe gave me an excuse to be myself.


I also had 15 years to think about Ovid’s version of the story in Metamorphoses IV. I would re-read it every few months, and try to find some new interpretation, or lurking allegory that would help explain the ongoing intimacy between me and my feline Thisbe. Some parallels were obvious. Denied a normal courtship because of their fathers’ prohibitions, the human lovers are forced to communicate without language proper, with ‘nods and signs.’ (nutu signisque loquuntur, Met.4.64) Gaining a feral cat’s trust involves an endless effort to create non-threatening, non-verbal signals, even as you try to understand their signs and modify your behavior accordingly. The more it succeeds, the more it begins to feel like an intimate, secret language: ‘omnis conscius abest’, ‘no one else got close enough to know’ the lovers’ secret, (Met. 4.63) as Ovid puts it, and I can only think of the thousands of hours spent alone with my cat. No wonder we fall a little bit in love with them.

Pyramus and Thisbe upgrade their communication by finding a hole in the shared wall of their parents’ houses:

Id vitium nulli per saecula longa notatum
(quid non sentit amor?) primi vidistis amantes,
et vocis fecistis iter; tutaeque per illud
murmure blanditiae minimo transire solebant. (Met. 4.67-70)

That flaw, ignored through the long ages
(but what doesn’t love sense?) you lovers first saw,
And you made a journey of the voice; safely flatteries,
In the tiniest murmur, were accustomed to pass through it.

Love, Ovid tells us, found this flaw in the wall, as if love itself is the guiding force behind all efforts to reach out beyond ourselves. The lovers’ abnormal courtship turns into a romantic tale of the evolution of language. Why did we first try to speak? Perhaps prompted by love, in order to connect with another whom we care about, but cannot yet understand. But at this point in their love affair, the voice itself matters more than anything they actually say to each other. Their flattery, in whispers, pass through the hole in the wall as material things on a journey, much as they will soon feel, as much as hear, their mutual breathing and sighs. In other words, they ‘meow’ to each other! For a ‘meow’ is a kind of ‘journey of the voice’ that, scientists tell us, is only used by cats to attract the attention of humans. When cats ‘meow’, we feel they are talking to us alone. And we’re probably right.

But then the paths diverge. We cat lovers are left with a permanent species barrier firmly between us, and the puzzles of their ‘meows’ remain. For the human lovers, unhappy with what their truncated communication keeps from them, at first angrily blame the wall itself, but then dare to transcend the barrier: they agree to meet! But it’s not enough for them to leave the house; they choose to leave the city too (‘urbis quoque tecta relinquant’, Met.4.86), as if to leave behind all social constraints. This abandonment of civilization takes them into the wilds, where appropriately enough, they will encounter a properly feral lioness. Is this the point of the story? Does their romantic dream of togetherness (Pyramus and Thisbe against the world!) cause them to forget the comfort of civilization, and get fatally lost in the uncaring brutality of nature? It’s a story that Pyramus likely believes, right up to the moment of his death. But for us, it’s a narrative ruse, only there to set up the farcical, tragic-comic set of misunderstandings that will actually kill them both. So what goes wrong?

First, they leave the house at separate times, because Thisbe is more skilled in the art of escaping her family.

Callida per tenebras versato cardine Thisbe
egreditur fallitque suos, adopertaque vultum
pervenit ad tumulum (Met.4.93-5)

Skillfully, through the shadows, as she opened the door,
Thisbe escapes, and deceives her family, and, her face veiled,
Arrives at the tomb…

For the first time, we find out something about our heroine. She is skilled, cunning (callida), and capable of deceit. An Odysseus, perhaps. But this very quality opens up a gap between her and the laggard Pyramus. We’re even given a reason. Love made her bold, even as Pyramus timidly took his time–‘serius egressus’ (Met. 4.105), he got out ‘a bit late.’ There is no doubt who wears the proverbial pants in this couple! Ovid has turned the shared frustrations of a pair split by a wall into the asymmetrical lover’s game of fleeing and chasing. Thisbe sprints off, Pyramus has to catch up. The time her cunning buys her will cause their doom. The lioness, bloody from a recent feast of cattle, approaches her at their would-be mulberry rendez-vous, in search of some water from a fountain. Thisbe sees her and escapes, though dropping her veil, which the lioness will soon rip to shreds, leaving a bloody mess. But as she later reacts to her escape, we find out a second thing about her:

Ecce metu nondum posito, ne fallat amantem,
illa redit iuvenemque oculis animoque requirit,
quantaque vitarit narrare pericula gestit. (Met. 4.128.30)

Look! Though still afraid, and in order not to deceive her lover,
She comes back, and looks for her lover with her eyes, heart and soul,
And is desperate to tell of all the dangers she escaped.

If her cunning makes her an Odysseus, her desire to tell of her heroic deeds to her partner makes her an Achilles, eager to sing of heroic war stories with Patroclus. But Pyramus won’t be around long enough to find out these surprising character traits of his lover.

Instead, he spots the bloodied veil, presumes Thisbe is dead, and immediately blames himself: after all, he (as he imagines it) had told Thisbe to leave at night, and he had lingered. Had he come first, protected her, would she not be alive? In other words, he gets the real Thisbe entirely wrong, replacing her cunning and bravery with his own vision of a helpless damsel in distress. If he was once too slow, he now crudely over-reacts to his own heroic uselessness by engineering an equally useless heroic suicide. If his lack of cunning meant he couldn’t catch up to her, he now races by her, efforts at courage now replaced by what Socrates, in The Laches, would call an idiotic rashness, the result of bravery unrestrained by rational thought: he bypasses real courage, rushing from sloth to recklessness. His ending is as tragic as it is neat. She returns, sees him dying, and as she pronounces her own name, he awakens for a moment, opens his eyes, only to see her and slip into death, and, one presumes, reflect, mercifully briefly, on his own ignominious heroic career. As with Oedipus, his peripeteia, tragic downfall, coincides exactly with the moment of recognition: Thisbe is alive, and his suicide was pointless. Aristotle would have been proud! The world outside the city is where they find out they don’t understand each other at all.


It makes you wonder what they were actually talking about through the hole in the wall. Or perhaps they didn’t wonder enough, caught in the lover’s fantasy that they were already ‘one’, transparent to each other. Perhaps they didn’t only ‘meow’ at each other, but were all too sure they knew what the ‘meows’ meant. And so back to Thisbe the cat. In my experience, such presumptiveness never happens with a cat. You alternate between second-guessing yourself if you are making them happy, and being amazed at the suddenly obvious truth that there is some kind of communication affection at all. This is the thing about cats: though they wander around your apartment at seemingly total ease, you never quite share that ease, and so never take them for granted.

Fifty years ago, the philosopher Thomas Nagel asked, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ The thought-experiment was offered as evidence for the subjective nature of consciousness. Even if we slowly metamorphosed into a bat (which will happen to Ovid’s embedded story-teller of the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe!) we would only have access to the experiences of being a bat, not the consciousness of a bat; for our brains would not be hard-wired as bats from the start. Socrates might see, in Nagel’s argument, a fine case of a philosopher recognizing how little we know. We should be humble, and recognize the mystery in the consciousness of others. For far more humans, at least for the last 12,000 years of cat domestication, what it’s like to be a cat has been a more pressing question. And given the way domestication bonds us in complex ways, it’s also a trickier one. But the wonder of it, the sense of getting to the brink of understanding another sentient being, but never quite past that brink, is as thrilling as it is frustrating.

It would perhaps be a good thing if we spent more time in wonder at all that separates us from our friends and lovers. The tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe is not just of disaster when a barrier is removed, than the retroactive knowledge that the lovers failed to use it properly, to explore the mystery of each other when they had the chance. Cats remind us, in contrast, that sentient beings are strangers to each other, and yet the constant effort of trying to negotiate that barrier between us, rather than erasing it, that ongoing labor of love, can be worth as much as anything in our human lives. Domestic animals are both inscrutable to us, and yet still our buddies. And Thisbe, my buddy, your buddy misses you.


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Mark Buchan

Mark Buchan is the Editor of In Medias Res. He currently teaches in the Writing Program at Rutgers University.


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