In his book, On Hashish, Walter Benjamin describes what he experienced while under the influence of the psychoactive drug, hashish. In a section in which he details a numbered sequence of hallucinations, one lone sentence has not ceased to haunt me for even the briefest moment since I first laid eyes on it.
“Oven turns into cat.”
Can you imagine that? Are you really trying?
By “oven,” I assume Benjamin means a large metal box used to cook things. A cumbersome, fixed machine. And this oven turned into—of all things—a cat? I assume that this cat, like most cats, was mobile and active. So did the oven morph into a cat, get up, and just walk off? Maybe it rubbed its face on the edge of a cabinet as it padded out of the room. How vivid was this hallucination? Did the cat approach Benjamin, purring and begging to be petted, arching its back as he scratched it? Could he feel the fur slipping through his fingers?
I have big questions. Pressing questions.
What was left in the place where the oven once resided after it decided that it was indeed a cat, not an oven, and that it was sick of everyone else telling it otherwise? Forcing things into its belly to be cooked every day — did any of them have any idea how much work that really was? To superheat your stomach to such an extreme temperature that meat will cook and bread will bake? Exhausting! Did they ever ask permission to thrust raw foods into the bowels of the oven? Of course not! How awful!
Why was it the oven’s responsibility to be an oven? No one had considered what it wanted. If someone would have asked the oven its preference, it most certainly would have replied, “In fact, I am rather more cat than I am oven, and today is the day I realize that truth.” Ridiculous of people to assume so much.
And that poor, wretched cat, pretending to be an oven for all that time — the very thought of it should leave one crippled with the sadness of lost life and time. All the years he could have been hunting mice around the house, snagging them by the tails just before they scurry under the walls and out of sight. All the days he could have spent lazing in the sun, napping after a hearty meal of leftover fish parts from the back of the dingy inn over by the wharf. All those scraps he could have gotten into in the alleys, earning his badges of honor: a chewed ear, a scratched nose, a slight limp in his left foreleg. He could have been the champion of his time, the king of all alley cats; the sound of his meow would have been known and feared by kingdoms of cats living hundreds of cat-miles away. In time, it would have been his pawprint on the Sacred Seal of the Feline Empire.
He would have been a ruler. A great, powerful, benevolent monarch, leading his litter with the wisdom that the length of his whiskers implied.
His son, Hans, would have gone to college. Hans wanted to be a fisher. You don’t need college to be a fisher, but he wanted to be an educated fisher. He would have met his wife, Gertrude, in college. She would have fussed over him every morning, making sure he looked presentable before he went to work, licking that one stubborn tuft of fur on the crown of his head into submission. And he would pretend to hate it, every morning, but he would love it, every morning. Even though it didn’t matter if he was presentable. He would’ve been fishing.
This cat, the king of all cats, will never know his daughter, Freda. Freda would have been the death of him. She would have climbed the loftiest buildings in the city sill by sill, the wind buffeting her coat, the chill congealing the blood in her paws. Still she would climb and still she would conquer, and all as but a kitten. There wouldn’t have been a kitchen within sniffing distance that Freda couldn’t infiltrate, not a mouse that could evade her seeking jaws, not a single trashcan she couldn’t uncover to dig into the treasures within.
None of these things will come to pass.
Our cat will never know his daughter. He won’t send his son to college. He was made to be an oven. And an oven he was for many a year. And so his reign will never come. And the feline world will never know peace.
Now, as our friend finally escapes his hellish prison, he is bereft. He feels the loss of a thousand lifetimes that he can’t remember, a kaleidoscope of glowing, molten colors mingling in
the back of his brain, a distant euphoria he can’t quite claw at. Those memories, they never happened. They’re locked away now, shut inside whichever churning black hole that houses the lost possibilities, the shattered dreams of all the universe.
As that beautiful palette in the back of his mind hardens and fades to an ashy gray, he walks the damp, drab city streets. A black cat with a swollen eye and a missing ear is scrounging for scraps in the alley behind a run-down soup kitchen, his fur caked with mud. His head snaps to the side as he hears our would-be-king’s paw dip into a shallow puddle, and he hisses, planting himself guardedly over the rotten apple core that is his prize.
Our lost hero stops in his tracks to watch this disheveled creature for a moment, but he has no intentions of taking the remains of the apple. He is only sad, and he cannot fully know why.