The Life and Intimate Memoirs of Baudelaire, Page 13|
by Théophile Gautier (1868), translated by Guy Thorne (1915).
Since we are recounting the individual likings and minor passions of the poet, let us say that he adored cats—like him, amorous of perfumes, and who are thrown into a sort of epileptical ecstasy by the scent of valerian. He loved these charming, tranquil, mysterious, gentle animals, with their electrical shudders, whose favourite attitude is the recumbent pose of the Sphinx, which seems to have passed on to them its secret. They ramble round the house with their velvet footfalls as the genius of the place—genius loci—or come and seat themselves on the table near the writer, keeping company with his thoughts and watching him from the depths of their sanded golden eyes with intelligent tenderness and magical penetration.
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It is said that cats divine the thoughts which the brain transmits to the pen, and that, stretching out their paws, they wish to seize the written passage. They are happy in silence, order, and quietude, and no place suits them better than the study of a literary man. They wait patiently until his task is done, all the time purring gently and rhythmically in a sort of sotto voce accompaniment. Sometimes they gloss over with their tongue some disordered fur; for they are clean, careful, coquettish, and will not allow of any irregularity in their toilet, but all is done quietly and discreetly as though they feared to distract or hinder. Their caresses are tender, delicate, silent, feminine, having nothing in common with the clamorous, clumsy petulance that is found in dogs, to whom all the sympathy of the vulgar is given.
All these merits were appreciated by Baudelaire, who has more than once addressed beautiful poems to cats—the "Flowers of Evil" contain three—where he celebrates their physical and moral virtues, and often he makes them pass through his compositions as a sort of additional characteristic. Cats abound in Baudelaire's verse, as dogs in the pictures of Paul Veronese, and form there a kind of signature.
It also must be added that in these sweet animals there is a nocturnal side, mysterious and cabalistic, which was very attractive to the poet. The cat, with his phosphoric eyes, which are like lanterns and stars to him, fearlessly haunts the darkness, where he meets wandering phantoms, sorcerers, alchemists, necromancers, resurrectionists, lovers, pickpockets, assassins, grey patrols, and all the obscene spectres of the night. He has the appearance of knowing the latest sabbatical chronicle, and he will willingly rub himself against the lame leg of Mephistopheles. His nocturnal serenades, his loves on the tiles, accompanied by cries like those of a child being murdered, give him a certain satanical air which justifies up to a certain point the repugnance of diurnal and practical minds, for whom the mysteries of Erebus have not the slightest attraction. But a doctor Faustus, in his cell littered with books and instruments of alchemy, would love always to have a cat for a companion.
Baudelaire himself was a voluptuous, cajoling cat, with just its velvety manners, alluring mysteries, instinct with power concealed in suppleness, fixing on things and men his penetrating look, disquieting, eccentric, difficult to withstand, but faithful and without perfidy.
Many woman pass through the poems of Baudelaire, some veiled, some half discernible, but to whom it is impossible to attribute names. They are rather types than individuals. They represent l'eternel féminin, and the love that the poet expresses for them is the love and not a love. We have seen that in his theories he did not admit of individual passion, finding it too masterful, too familiar and violent.
Among these women some symbolise unconscious and almost bestial prostitution, with plastered and painted masks, eyes brightened with kohl, mouths tinted with scarlet, seeming like open wounds, false hair and jewels; others, of a colder corruption, more clever and more perverse, like marchionesses of Marteuil of the nineteenth century, transpose the vice of the body to the soul. They are haughty, icy, bitter, finding pleasure only in wickedness; insatiable as sterility, mournful as ennui, having only hysterical and foolish fancies, and deprived, like the devil, of the power of love. Gifted with a dreadful beauty, almost spectral, that does not animate life, they march to their deaths, pale, insensible, superbly contemptuous, on the hearts they have crushed under their heels. From the departure of these amours, allied to hate, from pleasures more wounding than sorrow, the poet turns to his sad idol of exotic perfume, of savage attire, supple and wheedling as the black panther of Java, which remains always and compensates him for the spiteful Parisian cats with the pointed claws, playing with the heart of the poet as with a mouse. But it is to none of these creatures of plaster, marble, or ebony that he gives his soul. Above this black heap of leprous houses, this infectious labyrinth where the spectres of pleasure circle, this impure tingling of misery, of ugliness and perversity, far, far distant in the unalterable azure floats the adorable spirit of Beatrice, the ever-desired ideal, never attained; the supreme and divine beauty incarnated in the form of an ethereal woman, spiritualised, fashioned of light, fire, and perfume; a vapour, a dream, a reflection of the enchanted and seraphic world, like the Sigeias, the Morellas, the Unas, the Leonores of Edgar Poe, and the Seraphita-Seraphitus of Balzac, that marvellous creation.
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