French poet and fiction writer Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) truly loved cats.
A prominent figure in the 19th century Art for Art’s Sake movement, Gautier believed that art should be free from any didactic, political, or moral purpose. He thus created a literary technique, transposition d’art (“transposing art”), that highlighted that art is valuable for its own sake.
Gautier was a prolific writer and a critic, and as he stayed up late writing essays, poems, plays, and short stories, he was accompanied by his furry friends.
Gautier adored cats so much that he penned a book entitled Ménagerie intime (1869), My Private Menagerie, where he meditated on the cats
he’d owned –excuse me, that owned him– through his life.
My Private Menagerie opens with the following lines:
On a souvent fait notre caricature: habillé à la turque, accroupi sur des coussins, entouré de chats dont la familiarité ne craint pas de nous monter sur les épaules et même sur la tête. La caricature n’est que l’exagération de la vérité; et nous devons avouer que nous avons eu de tout temps pour les chats en particulier, et pour les animaux en général, une tendresse de brahmane ou de vieille fille.
I have often been caricatured in Turkish dress seated upon cushions, and surrounded by cats so familiar that they did not hesitate to climb upon my shoulders and even upon my head. The caricature is truth slightly exaggerated, and I must own that all my life I have been as fond of animals in general and of cats in particular as any brahmin or old maid.Trans. F. C. de Sumichrast, 2009
As he continues, we get detailed descriptions of his cats, from blue-eyed Madame Theophile and affectionate Angora cat Don Pierrot of Navarre to handsome fluffy Enjolras.
Gautier tells us why he likes cats; their sedentary and philosophical nature fascinates him. That they are “fonder of the fireplace” helps too.
It is no easy matter to win a cat’s love, for cats are philosophical, sedate, quiet animals, fond of their own way, liking cleanliness and order, and not apt to bestow their affection hastily. They are quite willing to be friends, if you prove worthy of their friendship, but they decline to be slaves.
Remembering all the cats that honored his life, he goes on to explain:
They are affectionate, but they exercise free will, and will not do for you what they consider to be unreasonable. Once, however, they have bestowed their friendship, their trust is absolute, and their affection most faithful. They become one’s companions in hours of solitude, sadness, and labour. A cat will stay on your knees a whole evening, purring away, happy in your company and careless of that of its own species.
In vain do mewings sound on the roofs, inviting it to one of the cat parties where red herring brine takes the place of tea; it is not to be tempted and spends the evening with you. If you put it down, it is back in a jiffy with a kind of cooing that sounds like a gentle reproach. Sometimes, sitting up in front of you, it looks at you so softly, so tenderly, so caressingly, and in so human a way that it is almost terrifying, for it is impossible to believe that there is no mind back of those eyes.”
Gautier’s meditation on cats’ endearing nature is heart-warming and illuminating. I wanted to share his wise, wise words with all the cat lovers out there.
I also wanted to write this post as an ode to my majestic cat Venus who has been sick, waiting for a diagnosis at the vet clinic for five days.
It is fascinating how strongly a bond is formed between you and a cat–if, as Gautier emphasizes, they choose you. Perhaps, that’s one of their magical powers. Only one of them.