#MuseumCats and Cat Symbolism in Poetry

The internet’s atwitter with images of cats in art, today’s trending hashtag on twitter being #museumcats. Powered by @CultureThemes and @CuratorialCats, two twitter feeds dedicated, as the names suggest, to thematic explorations and all things feline in collections, the month is going to be dedicated to cats and museums for summer fun. As such, the cat is cross-disciplinary and so all kinds of angles are coming into view and the hashtag has attracted tweets from a great range of museums.

For example, the Hello Kitty lunch box, from 1974, appeared in the feed of the Smithsonian Museum of American History, together with an article about its origins and significance and the interest in the lunchbox more generally as an indicator of social history. For its own part, the Wellcome Collection of the Wellcome Trust dedicated to medicine and its history, published a fantasmagoric blog post about the history of black cats and their connection with the black plague according to medieval European superstition. The national museums of various countries tweeted their 19th, or 15th, or 17th, or 20th century oil paintings, etchings and drawings depicting cats in art.

The look at cats in art through the centuries is like a mini-history of art: from the Hogarthian “mandatory” cat that we’re guaranteed to spot somewhere in every painting, in every drawing Hogarth did of human depravity in its many incarnations, via ancient Egyptian sculpture, the exoticizing depiction of lions and jaguars of the colonial era, to the oblong and bleary-eyed, phantomatic expressionist cats in black print, to Hello Kitty, Garfield and other comic characters and everything in between and beyond, we can see what a strong fascination cats really have to the human mind and eye. And we can see all the different styles of painting, sculpting and drawing as we go through the stream of illustrations on today’s twitter hashtag #museumcats!

As a literature person, I’ve taken this day as an excuse to get to the bottom of something I have wondered about for some years, Edgar Allan Poe’s influence on Baudelaire. Poe’s short story, “The Black Cat” tells the tale of an alcoholic murdering his wife, all entangled with deep symbolism and a lengthy preamble about cats and the main character’s relationship with them. The relationship with the domestic cat is used as a vehicle to illustrate how from loving and tender, the main character gradually turns into an unsavoury, brutish, and increasingly evil and sadistic character. The murder of the wife is told in only half a sentence, but the whole psychology of the violent alcoholic and wife-beating murderer is expressed through the medium of his relationship with the domestic cat. Because the cat – especially the black cat – carries a baggage of superstition, of equivocalness between wild and tame, captive and free, night and day, that so appeals to the human imagination.

Edgar Allan Poe’s is a short story of gin and alcoholism, of moral decay, of poverty and violence, all tied in with the semi-surreal and uncanny presence of symbolic cats with gallows tattoos, and the wreckage of reason; these themes are not difficult to trace also in the French poet Baudelaire, whose collection “The Flowers of Evil” was published in 1857, preceded by about a decade and a half by Poe’s “Black Cat” (1843). In his own country, E. A. Poe’s writings were not nearly as much appreciated as they came to be in France. Jonathan Culler in 1990 wrote an article on Poe and Baudelaire that summarized, compared and contrasted the critics‘ voices from the era in America, Britain and France, and also tracing how the works of E. A. Poe entered Baudelaire’s essayistic writing on literary criticism at the same time as they became an influence strongly felt in his poetry and poetic prose. The poem “Le vin de l’assassin” (“Assassin’s Wine”) is but one of many examples that pays homage to “The Black Cat” and, lastly, Baudelaire’s poem “Le Chat” (“Cats”) which I’ll reproduce here to honor today’s hashtag, amalgamates the imagery of the cat with that of erotic love much in the way that Poe’s short story used the cat to circumscribe the emotion felt for humans.

Poem and translation taken from baudelaire.org

Le Chat
Viens, mon beau chat, sur mon coeur amoureux;
Retiens les griffes de ta patte,
Et laisse-moi plonger dans tes beaux yeux,
Mêlés de métal et d’agate.
Lorsque mes doigts caressent à loisir
Ta tête et ton dos élastique,
Et que ma main s’enivre du plaisir
De palper ton corps électrique,
Je vois ma femme en esprit. Son regard,
Comme le tien, aimable bête
Profond et froid, coupe et fend comme un dard,
Et, des pieds jusques à la tête,
Un air subtil, un dangereux parfum
Nagent autour de son corps brun.
— Charles Baudelaire

The Cat
Come, superb cat, to my amorous heart;
Hold back the talons of your paws,
Let me gaze into your beautiful eyes
Of metal and agate.
When my fingers leisurely caress you,
Your head and your elastic back,
And when my hand tingles with the pleasure
Of feeling your electric body,
In spirit I see my woman. Her gaze
Like your own, amiable beast,
Profound and cold, cuts and cleaves like a dart,
And, from her head down to her feet,
A subtle air, a dangerous perfume
Floats about her dusky body.
William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

Further reading : BAUDELAIRE AND POE, JONATHAN CULLER, Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur, vol. 100, SPRACHWISSENSCHAFT · LITERATURWISSENSCHAFT · SEMIOTIK. Wechselwirkungen in Theorie und Praxis (1990), pp. 61-73.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Louvre Museum, Bastet Cats.