The spirit and the flesh. The ego and the id. The harp-bearing angel in a white dress lecturing the spandex-clad, tomato red devil.
In 1998, a new image joined this gallery of philosophical signs, supplanting the yin and yang symbol as the preferred picture of dualism for a generation of Nicktoon-loving ‘90s kid—a two-story house improbably erected of fish and bone.
That house was home to CatDog, a tubular feline-canine hybrid conjoined by a surprisingly stretchy midsection, whose coloring bore more than a passing resemblance to the melted cheese on a Domino’s pizza. Each of these characters’ personalities are heavily drawn from our archetypal understandings of what it means to be a “cat” and what it means to be a “dog.”
Dogs and Cats Living Together, Mass Hysteria
Cat is intelligent—frequently shown with his head in a book, half-moon spectacles hanging from his oval nose—and often uses that intelligence to morally dubious ends. In one episode, the pointy-eared half of our hero convinces a tribe of jungle animals to worship him and Dog—dubbed “The Great Meow Woof”—as a god. In another, Cat drives Dog into the woods outside their home in Nearburg to hunt down a giant flying fish, then sells the creature off to the highest bidder, Rancid Rabbit, who chains the creature up, King Kong-style, at a local theater. But Cat’s coolheaded pursuit of power and money is often met with an equal and opposite force from the other end of his body.
Dog is instinctual. Much of the time, the canine side is convinced to go along with Cat’s plans, but those plans are dashed when a scent wafts by Dog’s purple schnoz, a tennis ball bounces past his asymmetrical eyes, or the creaking sound of a garbage truck perks up his floppy beagle ears. In an instant, Dog is rocketing along the road as Cat’s head bounced unceremoniously along the pavement.
CatDog is Just Another Way of Spelling EgoId
And as I watch Dog’s potent desire forcefully overpower Cat’s will, I can’t help but think of the way Sigmund Freud described the relationship between the id and the ego. The ego, he said, was “like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse.” With that quote in mind, it’s easy to begin reinterpreting CatDog. Bingeing through the show’s four seasons, one quickly finds that Cat and Dog are not just familiar animal archetypes, but cartoon stand-ins for the warring opponents in a millennia-old, intrapersonal battle theorized in philosophy, theology and psychology. In CatDog, we have an effective representation of the duality of human nature.
Dualism isn’t limited to one school of thought, or to one theater of philosophy. In the West, many Greek philosophers understood the human person to be comprised of mind—which was good—and body—which was bad. For Plato, all the world was comprised of idealized, immaterial Forms and their imperfect physical copies.
Centuries later, the French philosopher Rene Descartes—of “I think; therefore I am” fame—would pick up where the Greeks left off, popularizing “mind-body” or “Cartesian” Dualism. And in the East, roughly around the same time that Plato, Aristotle, and the gang were engaging in Socratic dialogues in the Athenian square, Tsou Yen and the Yinyang school of philosophers and cosmologists were positing that the world was divided into opposites—male and female, hot and cold, darkness and light.
The Christian New Testament also reinforces a similar, but distinct, kind of dualism in the writings of the apostles Paul and James. Paul writes in Galatians, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
Most modern Christian theologians understand Paul’s use of the word flesh to mean something along the lines of “sinful nature,” as opposed to the human person’s actual, bodily flesh. Along these lines, James—using a metaphor that is given vivid life in CatDog—says that “each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.”
Cat is frequently, literally dragged away by Dog. But, to identify Cat as purely good and Dog as purely evil would be inaccurate—in fact, if anything, there’s a more compelling argument for the opposite. Instead, Freud’s model is best. Dog, the horse, and Cat, the rider keeping the horse in check—positioning Cat and Dog as characters that are both primarily concerned with their own pleasure.
But, Cat and Dog do often end up doing the right thing—this is a kids’ show after all—and when they do, it is often at the behest of the other. Cat and Dog function as each other’s superego, serving as a reminder of the moral, culturally normative thing to do. When Cat helps Rancid Rabbit capture Fred the Flying Fish, Dog guilts him into rescuing Fred from the theater where he’s chained. Cat’s desire for money and power is deeply ingrained—Dog doesn’t share this particular desire.
Cat and Dog represent a dualism, not of good versus evil, or mind versus body, or light versus darkness. Rather, their dualism pits desire against desire. Neither is better than the other, but their cross-purposes keep each other in check.
Maybe, as Freud might suggest, that’s what “good” amounts to, anyway.