Sunday, November 28, 2004

In Praise of Darwin's Cat (I Was Going to Call My Blog "I Am the Beautiful Stranger," But the FAA, the FDA and the FFA Complained)

Perhaps the best way to deal with this announcement is through Q & A.

Q: Exactly what was wrong with Us Tarzan, Them Jane, which was the title of this blog for less than a week?

A: First, let me thank you for taking time away from your small but key role in the James Bond movies to be with us today. Now, to your question. That's what I asked my wife when UTTJ was greeted with lack of enthusiasm and some downright hostility. She said it was the fact that if readers took the name at its word, it seemed to say this was a blog about the emotional gulf between men and women, a gulf that resulted from men's baser, or at least less refined, nature. It also suggested this was a "manly" blog, i.e,. a blog aimed at male readers.

Q: And neither of these things is true?

A: Neither of these things is true. My choice of that name suggests the dangers of casual irony. You say or write something because you assume your listener or reader understands how that comment is contrary to what you're about and thus the listener or reader has the insider's pleasure of understanding that what is said is not meant literally, that, in fact, it's meant contrarily. It's even more opaque than that. It's like little suburban kids in baggy pants, pretending they are hip-hop ghetto warriors. There's a "Yes, I am, No, I'm not, but it's your fault if you are not able to tell the difference" quality to this kind of wordplay. There's a smirking quality in this kind of irony. It's characterisic of so much modern conversation. (Pause) The name didn't work. The fun -- if fun there was -- did not compensate for the confusion.

Q: And you think Darwin's Cat is less confusing?

A: Does it confuse you?

Q: Hmmmm. Darwin's Cat is familiar, tantalizingly so. I'm pretty sure I've heard it before, but I can't place the source, and that embarrasses me a little. It could be the name of some kind of some famous thought experiment, like Schrodinger's Cat, or it could be a British children's game or a famous brainteaser or a poem by Ogden Nash or -- and this is probably it -- the name of a science fiction novel or, more likely, a book of elegant but accessible science writing by someone like the late Stephen Jay Gould...

A: Like Gould's "The Panda's Thumb" or Carl Sagan's "Bocca's Brain." Yeah. That's why I picked it. It sounds as if it has more historical or philosophical resonance than it actually does. If you Google it, you will find pictures of a number of cats named Darwin and what is supposed to be a three-handkerchief book called "A Cat Named Darwin." You will find a passing reference in a vitamin ad to the fact Darwin apparently noted deafness in white cats. That's all you'll find. Darwin's Cat is apparently a unique name for a blog. Which is more than I can say for "A Blog to be Named Later" or "Blog is My Co-Pilot," both of which I liked. I don't think anyone else is using Darwin's Cat.

Q: Well, if it has no philosophical or historical resonance....

A: I did not say that. I think putting Darwin in the name of my blog positions me culturally just as putting a Darwin fish on my car bumper would. I hope it does, anyway. Darwin rules and superstition drools, etc. Now, the cat part is something else again. If referring to Darwin is a kind of specialized, though not an esoteric, reference, my mentioning kitties is an effort to drag in millions and millions and millions of like-minded blog readers. Personally, if you put the word "cat" in a blog title, I am likely to take a look, hoping there are some lovely kitty pictures. It's interesting how "Friday cat blogging" became popular on some liberal political sites in the last year or two, and that suggests a connection between proud independent animals and proud independent political thought. Or maybe it doesn't. Maybe it just suggests cat lovers see the world as a kind of big Star Trek convention, metaphorically speaking, and always want to break out their Spock ears, also metaphorically speaking. I know I have sometimes gone to a blog with the word "cat" in the title just to reassure myself cats are treated with respect on that blog. To love is to dwell in madness. I speak here as a cat person.

Q: (Long silence) There's no verb in your new blog name. Headlines should have actions verbs.

A: A blog title is not a headline, which is a title that tells us something about a particular piece of writing. A blog title is a label -- one of my old editors used to tell me to beware of "label" heads but this is not a head -- that may or may not tell you something interesting about the ambition and intentions of the blog. I am thinking the name of a blog functions like the name of a rock band. Most of the time the name doesn't really matter. It's the music that matters. Most of the time the name is secondary. I understand there are exceptions, like The Dead Kennedys. I could have named this blog The Dead Reagans, but that would not only be impudent and imprudent, it would also suggest a political agenda or emphasis this blog doesn't have. Actually, using the word Darwin does suggest a political inclination -- a kind of background radiation, as it were -- but I'm thinking that any damage that the word "Darwin" does to this blog by warning away readers, the word "cat" will more than make up for it.

Q: Did you seriously consider other names?

A: Yes. Some of them are listed in the comments after Renaming Controversy Rages, Threatens to Divert Attention From Bush's Fascist Coup. But the one I was most seriously considering, which I have not mentioned elsewhere, was Last Exit to Oakland, which is obviously a play on "Last Exit to Brooklyn" by Hubert Selby. It was one of those books I read in the Sixties that had an impact on my thinking in the sense that it encouraged me to think. That is, it was so terrible and dark and bleak and unforgiving, it was a useful corrective to my way of thinking at the time. "Miss Lonelyhearts" by Nathaniel West had a similar effect, though many critics apparently consider "Miss Lonelyhearts" a comedy, though I wasn't laughing. I had had such a sheltered upbringing, religiously narrow but also culturally narrow in every way, I "learned about life" more through books than through, well, Life! It seems accurate and no exaggeration to sat that some books pulverized my view of things. I would read them, but I wouldn't really think about what I read at the time of reading, if that makes sense. Then, gradually I would unclench and let myself think about what I had read and how it had affected me emotionally. The emotional effect had already happened, but only later would I actually think about what I had read, as the dust of the destruction of my preconceptions settled. To call this blog Last Exit to Oakland would have been a kind of self-referential homage. But, oh, is it a bleak book. Thinking about it 40 years later is still disturbing. Hey, I'm still in denial. And if anyone actually got the reference and recalled the book, it would have suggested a very negative image of Oakland. I decided to go with "Darwin's Cat" and to hell with it. When it comes to blog names, first do no harm, right?

A: What if your several of readers don't like this name?

Q: I will be flattered by their concern. But as the poet said, "A blog by any other name would smell as sweet -- as long as the name is not unduly ironic."


G Pabst said...

I recall Richard Pryor, appearing on the Dick Cavett Show, once rambled into the territory of interracial dating (and, more), and stated flatly (something like), "everybody gets worked up when a white woman lives with a spade cat."

Cavett, in mock shock worthy of Louis Renault himself , replied "Oh dear! My aged aunt lives with a spayed cat!"


See my earlier comment re: "spinach."

Anonymous said...

Another reason why I don't keep a gun in the house

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.

--Billy Collins

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