James Harriet calls cats the “connoisseurs of comfort,” which is perhaps why so many academics are cat-lovers. Like having Of Grammatology on your nightstand, having a cat close at hand reminds you what it would be like to move through the world expressing yourself utterly as you see fit.
There is an inverse relationship between the size and comfort of one’s desk and the size of one’s research topic. When learning about, say, the entire political spectrum of Western Europe, you sit in a lecture hall in a tiny, left-handed desk at the end of the row, with schoolbag and jacket mashed underfoot, drinking scalding Starbucks from a paper cup clutched between your knees, which is surely leaving red marks on the insides of your thighs. The desk space is more suitable as an elbow rest. The chair seems to have been designed for torture. Even the professor looks uncomfortable, hiding up there behind the lectern. So, as the history of radical political change sweeps by you on power point slides, and the impossibility of note-taking becomes more and more apparent, you are likely to sigh and hope the information will be made available online. This is the plight of the undergrad. To be cramped, to be physically uncomfortable, to be held in check by what Althusser would recognize as the regulatory organization of classroom chairs which all face forward so that we must rub up against our peers but never look at them.
On the other hand, grad students—individuals whose educational spectrum has narrowed over the course of many years to a pinpoint (pinnacle?) of specific research interests—do not fit in tiny desks. We think tiny desks are bullshit. Grad students tackle the necessity of study-surfaces in one of two ways: either we dispense with desks altogether, bringing our MacBooks to coffee shops, where, for the price of a caramel macchiato we spend the afternoon balancing our research on our thighs; or, we take over large surfaces like kitchen tables and those long study-benches in the library, of which we require at least two-people’s-worth of length. In order to craft our tiny, complex arguments about the relationship of enthusiasm to the impotence of language in Hölderlin’s Hyperion (oh, wait, that’s just me), we require at least six books of literary criticism to be spread about us. We need our binders of photocopied articles close at hand. It is absolutely necessary that the fridge/our book bags be filled with snacks, and that the coffee maker be either warming up, actively brewing coffee, or keeping fresh coffee warm and at the ready. We require, in other words, all our creature comforts to be on hand.
Yet comfort is a fickle, tricksy feline. As soon as you think you’ve got her figured out, that little, Puritanical voice inside your head (the one that is terrified that you will never finish your dissertation, never get a job, never really be a success as an academic) notices how cozy you are and admonishes you, reminds you not to get too comfortable.
“Don’t get too comfortable!” With a self-indulgent little chortle, those exact words slid through my consciousness this morning. But what does that even mean, I asked myself. Is that some kind of a threat? Is my comfort impinging on anyone else’s comfort? Is there a limited amount of comfort in the world? Is there not enough to go around? DOES COMFORT NEED A BAIL OUT? Probably. Unlike money, however, I don’t believe comfort can be created out of thin air. Mein Gott! A small tangent, forgive me. What I was meaning to say is that even though I do everything in my power to create a life of ease and aesthetically pleasing coziness, I have this deep-rooted suspicion of comfort. Perhaps it’s too petite bourgeois, a bit too middle class. An aristocrat takes comfort for granted and seeks instead passion, adventure, intensity; he goes hunting for lions and some such, while the rest of us seek apartments with good central heating and a bowl of gourmet mac and cheese (gouda). Mostly, however, my suspicion of comfort arises from the fact that I make a direct correlation between comfort and productivity, which is to say that I fear that if I get too comfortable I will cease to produce scholarly work. This is why I need TAships and a (couple of) part-time job(s): just to keep me running around enough to make true comfort impossible.
Cats are comfortable because they refuse to be otherwise. But then again, they are also cats, and as Christopher Hitchens so aptly notes,
“Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods.”
Finally, from this I take comfort. Comfort in the fact that I am neither a hopelessly naïve pup nor a sociopathic kitten, and will undeniably and reliably always return to the research at hand.