William Carlos Williams, “Complete Destruction”

Of this, I can never be quite sure. A gorgeous Persian cat, straight from Blofeld’s lap, initially gave me an attitude when I was a guest at a friend’s residence. At that time, the friend also had an old dog in enormous pain. That dog was completely deaf, walked funny, smelled funny, always seemed like it was straining. It couldn’t accept affection, though it was far from aggressive. I was as nice as I could be to that dog, finding where the treats were hidden, and giving those treats, pets, attention, and water to the dog when I could. The dog couldn’t reciprocate at all; it took what I gave and limped away. The cat noticed. It became a lot friendlier, looking for my affection all the time. I really started to like that cat; I played with the idea that it was deeply sympathetic to the dog and its condition.

All this is to say what we already know. The loss of a beloved animal has a specific gravity. The stories spun around it have the most powerful certainty, unchallenged in our own minds. We love every iota of its physical being, almost unconditionally. It was an icy day: there are not many days more chilling than those which involve laying an animal to rest. With no formal ritual for this, one has to deal with one’s own memories as they present themselves, the bluntness of dominion:

Complete Destruction (from poets.org)
William Carlos Williams

It was an icy day.
We buried the cat,
then took her box
and set fire to it

in the back yard.
Those fleas that escaped
earth and fire
died by the cold.

The bluntness of dominion — We buried the cat, then took her box and set fire to it in the back yard. I read “dominion” as a suggestion from the curious splitting of backyard. If indeed we have been appointed stewards over nature, then our earth is designated by us (“yard”) relative to our purposes (“back”).

However, a split compound is not necessary to understand that those who loved the cat are completely in charge of her body and possessions. They bury her, returning like to like. They set fire to her box in order to kill the fleas. This is not ritual. They are caretakers, playing God, and two themes leap out at me. First, I wonder how caretaking reconciles with the violence, the gruesome nature, of burying the cat and setting fire to everything hers. I know the practical explanation: to have a household entails protecting that home, not simply growing and maintaining it. Simply knowing, though, does not entail understanding how things relate. The poem testifies to our ignorance in knowledge. We knew the cat as part of our family; her burdens were our burdens. But what did we truly know and love? All that’s left of her are fleas which must be killed.

The fleas, what’s left of the cat, remind me that our detritus and pains are in large part how we are conceived by others. What’s left of us harms, unless rid. Those fleas that escaped earth and fire died by the cold — this leads to another consideration. The cold takes over, does what human agency cannot do. In a way, impersonal, awful forces use us for their purposes. Our end of protecting ourselves fits into a ruthless universal logic, where the elements which constitute life return to themselves. When I first wrote on this poem, I spoke of Plato’s Protagoras and residency. Residency: we have our household, the cat has her box, and each has laws and possessions particular to it. The funny thing is that the laws of one domain can call for the complete destruction of the other, without regard for its value. There is at least one higher domain than human life, the cosmos itself. This leads to the problem mirrored in the Protagoras. The human beings of this poem carry out a fatal, terrible mission. What they do has to be done. In the dialogue, there’s a famous discussion about courage between Socrates and Protagoras. The question comes up whether people who dive into wells to retrieve pots dropped deep inside are really courageous or merely crazy. In order to answer the question, it is provisionally resolved that one needs to talk about courage as being governed by reason. While the nature of courage is certainly not in play here, it does look like Williams might have another suggestion for such a discussion. Maybe certain actions must be taken in a less than conscious manner. Sometimes, what matters most is that we are effective, that we get things done, but there is a price to be paid.

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