Day 155: (lights for cats!)

I encountered it five pages into Roland Barthes’ essay, “The Grain of the Voice,” which is in the collection Image, Music, Text. I was reading the version translated by Stephen Heath—it’s the most common edition, I think; the paperback has a pale yellow cover. “The Grain of the Voice” is about the distinction between two modes of singing. The first is an expressive, emotive mode (the pheno-song), which trains the listener’s attention on the meaning and emotional content of the words being sung; in the second mode (the geno-song), by contrast, the voice resonates at once abstractly and materially, focusing the listener’s attention on the singer’s enunciation of the sounds, not what they mean. Barthes bemoans the prominence of the former mode, which privileges the breath, identified with soul or pneuma, while mourning the dwindling prestige of the geno-song, which privileges the “grain of the voice,” as opposed to the “myth of respiration.”

It’s while reading a paragraph in which Barthes is criticizing the pheno-song, the style of singing that privileges the breath, that I encounter it:

“The lung, a stupid organ (lights for cats!), swells but gets no erection; it is in the throat, place where the phonic metal hardens and is segmented, in the mask that significance explodes, bringing not the soul but jouissance.”

I am used to reading literary theory. I am used to it being abstruse and opaque. But this was different. In the subsequent several hours that I puzzled over the phrase “lights for cats!” I passed through several distinct interpretative moods.

  1. Exuberance

Given that the essay celebrates the “voluptuousness” of language separate from its communicative function, my first thought was that “lights for cats!” might be a Gertrude Stein style linguistic experiment embodying language’s phonic qualities. It doesn’t mean anything, silly!

  1. Paranoia (phase 1)

Because the phrase “lights for cats!” read to me like a non-sequitur, but also has a slogan-like quality like “votes for women!” the thought fleetingly but undeniably crossed my mind that this was a cry for help from Barthes’ cat. But cats can see in the dark, I reasoned. Why does Barthes’ cat need lights?

  1. Resignation

Rest assured that I quickly rejected both of these explanations and turned to Google, certain that this passage must have attracted considerable attention. I found that, indeed, these lines are frequently quoted, but that there was an odd quality to all these citations:

“Barthes dismisses the merely technical function of the lungs, ‘a stupid organ (lights for cats!)’ that ‘swells but gets no erection’” (John Potter, Vocal Authority: Singing Style and Ideology, 172).

“For instance, Barthes writes provoctively of the lungs as ‘a stupid organ (lights for cats!), swells but gets no erection,” which, in its dismissal both of the lungs as healthy and functioning, and worthy of dismissal, does present and confirm Tobin Siebers’s ideology of ability” (George McKay, Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability, 56).

“‘The lung, a stupid organ (lights for cats!), swells but gets no erection.’ In good Freudian tradition, however, let’s take this etymological play on words seriously. [Aha! At last!, I thought. But no.] Apart from the implicit reference to Barthes’s illness, which, because it affected his breathing, forced him to give up his singing lessons with Panzera, what we have here is the binary balance in the form of an association between breath and meaning: meaning given through the abstract soul in its opposition to the concrete body” (Diana Knight, Critical Essays on Roland Barthes, 256).

What all these commentaries have in common is that they conspicuously ignore the lights for cats.

This led to stages four and five in quick succession:

  1. Shock with shades of self-congratulation 

No-one knows what this means. I have stumbled across a profound mystery. I am the first with the courage to admit it.

  1. Paranoia (phase 2)

Everyone knows what this means: it is self-evident and therefore unworthy of commentary.

  1. Admits Need for Help

This is when I texted EHA. In an extraordinarily generative and rapid-fire text exchange, and drawing on our combined powers of free-associating, Googling, and native wit, we came up with an ingenious, utterly convincing, and, as it turns out, completely wrong interpretation of the significance of “lights for cats!” one I was fully persuaded by for about two hours.


With the phrase “lights for cats!” we decided, Barthes underscores his contempt for the pheno-song by comparing it to the appeal of a moving point of light (like a sunbeam or a laser pointer) to a cat. He’s already said that the lung is a stupid organ, and he is personifying this stupidity in the image of a cat chasing light. There were, admittedly, a few problems with this interpretation. Was he saying that “lung” was to human as “lights” is to “cats”? But wouldn’t it more rightly be “sounds emanating from the lungs” rather than “lung” for that analogy to work?

  1. Niggling Seed of Doubt Remains

Even though I was now 99% totally sure that Barthes was saying that that the pheno-song is to humans as laser pointers are to cats, I decide that after all perhaps I should consult the original French just to be sure. (Note that reading something in another language is something of a last resort for me.) This is when I discover that the phrase in the original is not “les lumières des chats!” as I was expecting. Instead it is “le mou des chats”.

Le mou? What is this le mou? I look it up and “mou” means something like soft or limp. What??? Is this to do with lungs swelling but getting “no erection”? Is “mou de chat” French for “flaccid penis?” It has to be an idiomatic phrase, but when I look it up in Larousse, I get nothing. EHA asks her French friend who confirms that mou suggests softness not light.

  1. Paranoia (phase 3)

This is the only remaining explanation: the translation is wrong! I email a colleague who works on French theory to see if she can shed any light on either the original or the translation. In the meantime I give up on my quest and compulsively refresh the Guardian homepage for the rest of the night in order to see the British General Election results come in.

  1. Grudging admiration

Earlier in the afternoon I have casually mentioned to PBJ that I am struggling with this phrase. PBJ is on call tonight because he is an actual doctor. Somehow, in between dealing with psychiatric emergencies, he figures out both the meaning of “mou des chats” and why it is indeed correctly translated as “lights for cats!”

He texts me, “Le mou des chats is the lungs of an animal that a butcher will give to a client to take home and feed their cat.”

A minute later he texts me a definition of “lights”: “the lungs of sheep or pigs used as food, especially for pets.”

I look up “lights” in the OED and it’s even more definitive; it defines “lights” as meaning lungs as food “chiefly for cats and dogs.” [1]

And in French lungs as food seem especially identified with cats. The colleague I emailed had never heard of the phrase, but when I pass on the news she finds an entry from a French dictionary of proverbs from 1749:

“On dit encore que le mou est pour les chats; parce qu’on les nourrit avec du mou, qui est le poumon du boeuf.” [It is also said that ‘le mou’ is for cats; because one feeds them with it, that is with beef lungs.]

  1. Humility

I was so sure that I was dealing with an analogy: that Barthes was saying lungs are to humans as lights are to cats. So it is kind of a shock to discover that lights literally means lungs; in fact, “light” and “lung” share the same etymology, lungs being so named for their lightness, i.e. their airiness. So it’s not a non-sequitur at all. It’s entirely in keeping with the language of breath and pneuma. It’s not surreal. It’s not a leap from one plane of meaning to another. No, it’s my brain that’s been leaping, chasing an ignis fatuus when there’s nothing really there. [2]

Stupid organ (lights for cats!).




[1] I discover from this definition that the phrase “living daylights” is a corruption of “liver and lights”

[2] Ignis fatuus, n. A phosphorescent light seen hovering or flitting over marshy ground, and supposed to be due to the spontaneous combustion of an inflammable gas (phosphuretted hydrogen) derived from decaying organic matter; popularly called Will-o’-the-wispJack-a-lantern, etc. It seems to have been formerly a common phenomenon; but is now exceedingly rare.

When approached, the ignis fatuus appeared to recede, and finally to vanish, sometimes reappearing in another direction. This led to the notion that it was the work of a mischievous sprite, intentionally leading benighted travellers astray. Hence the term is commonly used allusively or fig. for any delusive guiding principle, hope, aim, etc. (OED)



Day 124: my emotional support kit

Tuesday morning.

D-R: I’m gonna look at a 2-bedroom apartment today. But it doesn’t allow pets so I don’t think it will work out.

Dr. F: But you don’t have a pet.

D-R: I know but I promised the children we are getting a cat and I can’t go back on it.


Dr. F: Do you know what an emotional support animal is? I could write you a letter for the landlord if you move somewhere that doesn’t allow pets….

D-R: [delighted] really?! You can do that? You would write me a letter! That would be amazing! I mean, because, obviously, I don’t need an emotional support animal [it is possible that I actually rolled my eyes while uttering the words “emotional support animal,”] but I did promise the children and I think it would be really good for them, so in a way it would be therapeutic, for them, and also I did promise them and so otherwise it rules out anywhere that doesn’t allow pets …

Dr. F [gently] actually ….. I think a cat could be really good for you.

D-R [genuinely surprised] for me?

Dr. F: yeah … to stroke, to cuddle … something warm and soft. I think it could really help you.

D-R: [pondering, suddenly distracted] huh. yeah, yeah it might be.

As someone who grew up with cats—I mean, not raised in the wild by cats, I mean we had pet cats throughout my childhood—I find the concept of an “emotional support cat” to be something of an oxymoron. That view doubtless reflects the fact that I was born into a household already occupied by a cat, Musty, who made no secret of the fact that he found the mere fact of my existence a complete and utter abomination.

Readers: that cat offered me zero emotional support. He did a nice line in withering disdain but that’s really not the same. And anyone who is familiar with cats knows that this is by no means anomalous cat behavior: they are, generally speaking, supercilious fuckers. Right? That is the very essence of catness is it not? “Cat” is merely another word for a feline shaped superego that sits all day on your sofa assessing you and finding you wanting. Don’t get me wrong, I feel honored to be the pitiful object of their feline contempt. But isn’t depending on a cat for emotional support like depending on a sloth for personal training?

ANYWAY. Dr. F. tells me to Google “emotional support animal” after our session, so I do, and immediately fall into a  duck-rabbit-hole-of-emotional-animal-support arcana.

There, I discover many interesting things.

An emotional support animal is a form of assistance animal. What is an assistance animal? Let me tell you! Here I cite from the Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Notice “FHEO-2013-01”: “An assistance animal is not a pet. It is an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.”

Now, an assistance animal is legally distinct from a service animal. Fascinatingly to me, service animals are always dogs with one AMAZING exception.

Allow me to quote, again from FHEO-2013-01: “Thus, trained dogs are the only species of animal that may qualify as service animals under the ADA (there is a separate provision regarding trained miniature horses).”


I was so intrigued by this I actually looked it up in the code of federal regulations cryptically footnoted in Notice FHEO-2013-01. FYI it’s 28 CFR Section 36.302.

The thing that’s so brilliant about this particular regulation is the slow build up. Under the heading “Service Animals,” there are 9 items. The first 8 of these are very boring, viz.,

  1. General
  2. Exceptions
  3. If an animal is properly excluded
  4. Animal under handler’s control
  5. Care or supervision
  6. Inquiries
  7. Access to areas of a public accommodation
  8. Surcharges

And then there’s #9

9. Miniature horses!!!!!!!!!! (exclamation points, mine).

Now I understand that there is probably a particular important service that miniature horses perform that I’m simply not aware of; I’m not, to be clear, mocking the idea that miniature horses might legitimately be service animals. I just love that while the CFR somewhat unnecessarily provides an example of how a dog might be used as a service animal (“e.g., the dog is observed guiding an individual who is blind or has low vision,”) nowhere is it explained in what capacity the trained miniature horse might be of service. To wit:

9. Miniature horses.

(i) A public accommodation shall make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a miniature horse by an individual with a disability if the miniature horse has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks (my emphasis) for the benefit of the individual with a disability.

(ii) Assessment factors. In determining whether reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures can be made to allow a miniature horse into a specific facility, a public accommodation shall consider—

(A) The type, size, and weight of the miniature horse and whether the facility can accommodate these features;

(B) Whether the handler (my emphasis) has sufficient control of the miniature horse;

(C) Whether the miniature horse is housebroken; and

(D) Whether the miniature horse’s presence in a specific facility compromises legitimate safety requirements that are necessary for safe operation.

(iii) Other requirements. Sections 36.302(c)(3) through (c)(8), which apply to service animals, shall also apply to miniature horses.

But enough of the finer details, let me get right to the point.

I want a legally binding letter informing any and all future landlords and ladies that they must grant me an exception to any policies prohibiting pets so that I may have, not only the miniature horse I so obviously deserve, but also, and just as importantly, the miniature horse handler. Now obviously there is room for confusion here, so I want to be (or rather, I want Dr. F’s letter to be), explicit on this point: what we are requesting is a FULL-SIZED, nay, fairly strapping handler to handle the miniature horse. He should also be male, and of age, obvs. Swarthiness a plus. This is what we (I) have in mind, handler-wise; obviously the horse itself would be much smaller:


Bret McKenzie as Martin, the hot stable-boy, in Austenland

In the event that Dr. F finds herself unable to write such a letter for me, I suppose I will reluctantly settle for a cat.

What should its name be?

Emoticat, perhaps, just so it gets the idea? Emo for short?


Day 104: or maybe I just need a cat

Can you chase loneliness away? Is it wrong to try? If I’m at home in the evening, whether by myself or with the children, I usually cry for some portion of the evening. I feel less sad if I’m out of the house. I told Dr. F recently that I felt fine as long as I didn’t go home. She gave me a long searching look when I said that.

I understood why; therapists want you to feel your feelings, not run away from them. But what if it’s not a feeling, per se; what if it is simply a condition? I was lonely when I was married and now I’m lonely living alone; maybe I was mistaken that my loneliness was situational; maybe I’m just a lonely creature; perhaps we all are.

I was reminded tonight, of a text exchange with a man I went out with, just once, not so long ago. He was a kind, gentle person. He also had two children. He was also separated from his former partner. We liked each other well enough but perhaps not quite well enough. A few days after our date I texted him to ask how his weekend had been; he answered lightly (seeing Star Wars, of course!) and enquired politely in return how mine was. For some reason I admitted that I’d spent most of it alone, and that I was lonely. What do you say when a relative stranger confesses that? I thought he’d say something banal like, “it gets better with time.” Instead what he texted back to me was, “I understand the loneliness. It never really seems to leave.”

Both his candor and his phrasing moved me. People leave; and people are left; but loneliness “never really seems to leave.” Do we, the lonely, take strange comfort in that? Is that, in fact, why it sticks around? Like a vampire, once you’ve invited it in, does loneliness stay for good? Or, no, this is a much better comparison, does loneliness stay for good like bleeding Samuel Taylor Coleridge? That rascal, he wrote in April 1816 that he was going to pass “a month at Highgate” at James Gillman’s house in order to convalesce from his laudanum addiction. And then he stayed for eighteen bloody years! Just lolling around on the sofa and dictating the Table Talk to his bleeding amanuensis! Eighteen bloody years. Until he died. He was just the worst.

All right, now I don’t remember where I was going with that, but I feel much better.


Day 95: My life in aerobics

1985 was an important year in the duck-rabbit’s aerobics education. It was the first year of secondary school, and our curriculum included dance class once a week. Our teacher, Ms Cheeseman, was Australian, deeply tanned, with blond streaked hair. Her daily attire always included hole-ridden footless tights and a oversized T-shirt, often that one from Cats with the two green eyes on a black background, a T-shirt which I immediately coveted.

I knew immediately that Ms Cheeseman and I were kin because we both considered jazz shoes appropriate everyday footwear.

That first day in the hall where lunch would later be served (meaning there was always a strong possibility of feeling the squish of a stray chip or mushy pea underfoot) my excitement was palpable, particularly by contrast to the extraordinary listlessness displayed by my classmates at the prospect of having to dance. I had on a new pink and black striped leotard and black footless tights. It’s a distinct possibility that I had my hair in a side ponytail. I was ready to shine.

Ms Cheeseman led us in a simple routine to Harold Faltmeyer’s Axel F (i.e. the theme from Beverly Hills Cop). Go on, listen to it. You won’t be sorry.

It was awesome. Or, rather, as I would have said at the time, it was brill.

Just a couple of months later, we visited my cousins in Delhi, where I vividly remember, Mahin, joining your mum as she did Jane Fonda’s Workout video, the one where the cover to the VHS tape has Jane on her back supported on one elbow, her leg-warmer clad legs scissoring upwards, toes pointed. If you’ve never done that video, I’ll just say that Jane Fonda is not kidding when she says it’s a workout. I remember being really sore for days afterwards.

The next significant episode in my aerobics education was not until grad school. [1] There were the aerobics classes led by perky undergrads at the MAC, the main gym. Often Laura and I would go together, sometimes having an enormous post-aerobics breakfast at Johnny’s diner on Mass Ave. But the classes I attended most avidly during grad school were Andy’s cardio kickboxing classes at the Boston Sports Club in Central Square. I became a regular, which meant that he was always pulling me from the back of the class into a prominent front row position, which I accepted, as it was intended, as a mark of favor; it also meant that I had a nickname, which was “London.”

I thanked Andy in the Acknowledgements to my dissertation. I am not kidding.

Although in the intervening years since grad school I’ve taken a bunch of different sorts of exercise and dance classes, I’ve not done anything until recently that embodies both the spirit and form of aerobics.

But then I discovered Zumba.

I’ll be honest, I never would have gone if KJ Rabbit, a zumba veteran, hadn’t been visiting, even though Dr. F had months earlier given me the name of this very same “cardio dance” studio, and urged me to go; she wanted me to try it not so much because she thought I needed the exercise, but because she thought it would make me happy – and she was right! (Note to self: always listen to psychiatrist.) [2]

I had never tried Zumba because … I dunno, I didn’t really get what it was. If only someone had told me earlier it is just gussied up aerobics! Do you do grapevines in zumba, you may ask? Do you ever!

I had forgotten how fun it is to be dripping with sweat doing completely ridiculous dance moves with a bunch of other women (and a couple of men) to early noughties raunchy pop music (today’s top tune: “Yeah!” by Usher) on a Sunday morning.

After class today I took the elevator down from the studio with a very tall, svelte blond woman who had been in the class with me. She asked me if I’d taken the class before and if I liked the teacher. I told her that, yes, I’d taken it before, and that I liked the teacher.

“He’s really … ” I paused, searching for the right word, “committed.”

She nodded, “yeah, it’s really authentic zumba,” she observed.

This somewhat floored me, so I just nodded and smiled while thinking, “what the fuck is authentic zumba? Is that not a contradiction in terms?” [3]

My point about the teacher being “committed” had nothing to do with authenticity. This teacher has the same quality that Andy my cardio-kick-boxing teacher had of performing each movement with vigor and precision and panache. Even in a made-up ridiculous genre of pseudo-dance like zumba or cardio-kick-boxing, it’s a joy to see someone move their body with such grace and deliberation.

I am hoping to coast on my zumba high for the rest of the week. I might need to buy myself some new jazz shoes. And a “Cats” T-shirt.


[1] Here it is important to note that I am only including classes in this history that I believe can properly be classified as aerobics, My evaluation criteria here are both thematic and formal. In terms of theme, just as Mikhail Bakhtin argues that there is a spirit of the novel that transcends different literary forms so too I would argue there is a “spirit” of aerobics that manifests itself in different shapes. So, yes, Ms Cheeseman’s class was technically a dance class but one that fully embodied the spirit of aerobics. More formally, I’d argue that if any exercise class requires that you perform a grapevine, or any variation thereof, it is ipso facto an aerobics class.

[2] Note that the studio calls itself a “cardio dance” studio. That is basically what aerobics is: cardio dance. But, clearly, in avoiding that word the studio is attempting to shed the Jane-Fonda-spandex-clad associations that I find so endearing but which, clearly, others do not.

[3] I decided that it was like saying that a pizza from California Pizza Kitchen was an authentic BBQ chicken pizza, a statement in which the word “authentic” comes simply to mean “consistent with the concept foisted upon us by an international multi-million dollar franchise.”