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The Company of Cats

When James O’Rourke died in the spring of 2011, I was asked to say a few words at his memorial service. With no idea what to say, I put off preparing something until the night before. Desperate for a framework that might add some objectivity, I settled on Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” based on a fragment from archaic Greek poet Archilochus: πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα (“a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing”). That binary view seemed the best way to discuss someone who defies easy explanation.

“I have known James O’Rourke for forty years. We were friends during part of that time.” That opening gambit drew a wave of knowing laughter from Jim’s friends and acquaintances in the Concordia Centrum. We’ve all be there one time or another: Those in agreement with James could do no wrong; those out of step with his agenda, on the other hand, were banished to the seventh level of invisibility. Redemption was possible, but an admission of wrongdoing was never his to make. In Berlin’s understanding of Archilochus’ two diametric types, Jim was a classic hedgehog. Without that hedgehog-ness, I should add, this community would be significantly less blessed with art.

Wikipedia’s entry for the hedgehog-fox phrase says this about Isaiah Berlin’s spin: “Berlin expands upon this idea to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea,… and foxes who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea.” If asked to define James T. O’Rourke succinctly, “…single defining idea..” would be my nomination; art in general and the gallery-museum in particular were the driving force of his life. Herein lies the reason for the occasional lapse in our friendship: as endearing as the hedgehog may be, I am a fox.

My ten or twelve minutes elicited a little more laughter and one incident of actual applause. Having, I thought, made my case for James’s hedgehog-ness — and acknowledging my unworthiness to be linked, even remotely, with Isaiah Berlin — I concluded with my own diametric duality: “Ultimately, I’m a dog person, while James preferred the company of cats.”

Given my circumstances of the last few weeks, culminating in the passing of our cat Bob this morning, I must re-evaluate that last statement.

bob cat

There have been two cats in my life, just two; both have been strays living in our backyard, and both of them moved in to what I had assumed was a “dog” household. I’m pleased to report that Miss Kit and Mr Bob have shaken my imagined canine commitment.


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