The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

August 30, 2013

August 30, 1811

Theophile Gautier (August 30, 1811 to October 23, 1872) was a 19th century French author. He was famous in his time, and is still famous among the literati. And famous among cat lovers for the prominence of cats in his writing and his devotion to the feline in his life. These quotes are widely repeated:

The cat is a diletttante in fur. The label dilettante at the time was more praise for one who is versed in various fields, rather than a slight on the basis of the depth of one's knowledge. And ailurophiles will not argue when Gautier writes of the cat:

Sometimes he sits at your feet looking into your face with an expression so gentle and caressing that the depth of the gaze startles you. Who can believe that there is no soul behind those luminous eyes.

A fresh approach to Gautier is taken here by recalling some of his forgotten writing. Stronger than Death, or Spirit, is the English title (1890) given by the translator Arthur D. Hall. Hall actually translated Spirit as Spirite, but that sounds like an editor's mistake anyway. Spirite is the French title of this late work by Gautier, first published in 1866. Our initial selection is the verbal picture of an aristocratic library of the idle but sensitive rich.

[To set up the scene, we meet the young and rich hero, Guy de Malivert, in an after dinner reverie, which is] that sort of physical beatitude which is the result of the perfect accord of all the different members of the body. He was happy, although there was no particular reason for his being so.

Close beside him, a lamp, hung in a crescent of old sea-green crackel-ware, diffused a soft, whitish radiance from its opaque globe, like that of a moon partially veiled by a slight mist. The light fell upon a volume which he held carelessly in his hand, and which was no other than a copy of Longfellow's

Guy certainly admired the work of the greatest poet which the young country of America has yet produced, but he was in that lazy state of mind when the absence of all thought is preferable to the most beautiful of ideas expressed in the most sublime of phrases. He read a few lines, and then letting the book fall into his lap, he rested his head on the soft, fluffy covering of the arm-chair, and abandoned himself to the enjoyment of a complete inertia of mind and body. The warm air of the room seemed to gently caress him, and all his surroundings whispered of rest, comfort, silence, and peace. The only sounds that broke the stillness were the hissing of a gas-jet which had been turned up a trifle too high, and the ticking of the clock whose pendulum marked the flight of time with low, rhythmical voice.

It was the depth of winter; the snow, which had recently fallen, deadened the rumble of the few carriages which rolled [by outside] ... ....[T]the lazy fellow congratulated himself that he was not arrayed in a dress-coat and a white cravat, leaning against the wall of the ball-room at some embassy, and gazing, perforce, at the scrawny shoulder-blades of some old dowager disporting herself in a gown cut altogether too low. Although there reigned in the room the carefully regulated temperature of a conservatory, one realized that it was cold outside, were it only from the briskness with which the fire burned and the profound silence of the streets. The superb Angora, Malivert's companion on this evening devoted to dolce far niente, had drawn near the hearth to bask in the flames, which threw a red glow upon its white, silky fur, and the gilded fender alone prevented it from stretching itself out at full length amidst the ashes.

The room in which Guy de Malivert was tasting these peaceful, domestic delights was a combination of library and studio. It was a spacious, lofty apartment in the highest story of the pavilion which Guy inhabited, and which was situated between a broad court-yard and a garden planted with superb old trees, worthy of a royal forest, and found only in the aristocratic Fauborg; for to produce such trees time is an imperative necessity, and parvenus can not improvise them to give shade to their mansions built in a hurry, lest their newly filled purses may be depleted before they can take possession.

The walls of the room were hung with duncolored leather, and the ceiling was composed of Norwegian fir, with heavy cross-beams of old oak. These dark, sober colors displayed to admirable advantage the paintings, watercolors, and etchings suspended on the walls of this species of museum where Malivert had arranged his collection of curious and fantastic objects of art. Oaken book-cases, low enough not to interfere with the pictures, lined all sides of the room, forming a sort of wainscoting, which was broken by only one door. The books with which the shelves were filled would have surprised anyone who examined them, on account of the wide divergence of their character; one would have said that the library of an artist and that of a savant had been mingled together. Side by side with the classic poets of all ages and all countries—Homer, Hesiod, Virgil, Dante, Ariosto, Ronsard, Shakspere, Milton, Goethe, Schiller, Byron, Victor Hugo, Sainte-Beuve, Alfred de Musset, Edgar Poe— reposed the Symbolique of Creuzer, the Mecanique Celeste of Laplace, Arago's Astronomy, Burdach's Physiology, Humboldt's Cosmos, the works of Claude Bernard and of Berthelot, and other volumes treating of pure science. Guy de Malivert was, however, no savant. He had been anything but a hard student at college; but after his graduation, and when his education was supposed to be finished, it seemed to him a shame to be ignorant of all the splendid discoveries which form the glory of our century. He applied himself, therefore, to the enrichment of his mind, and was eventually quite capable of discoursing intelligently upon almost any subject—astronomy, cosmogony, electricity, steam, photography, chemistry, micrography, or spontaneous generation. He listened with due appreciation of what was said, and he not infrequently astonished the person with whom he happened to be discussing any of these subjects, by the cleverness and originality of his remarks.

It is interesting that the phrase "absence of all thought" is used, when what is clearly meant is an absence of concentration. I am not certain that is not the translator's confusion. The last selection involves the Spirite of the title, and the setup is a note Malivert has written -- a note intended as composition of polite excuses but which when he reread his writing, turned out contain the literal, and unacceptable truth [about how boring he finds his hostess]:
Malivert read these words over twice, and then, bringing his hand down heavily on the table, he exclaimed: "Am I mad or dreaming? That is a strange letter to have written! ....

He took up the note and examined it attentively, it seemed to him that the character of the handwriting was far from being the same that it was his habit to employ.

"That is a writing," he thought, "which would most certainly be contested by experts if my epistolary efforts were worth that trouble. How under the sun has this strange transformation been accomplished? I have smoked no opium, eaten no hasheesh, and the two or three glasses of Burgundy I drank at dinner can not have affected my head. My brain is too strong for that. What will become of me if the truth continues to flow from my pen, without my will or consciousness? It was fortunate for me that I was not very sure of my orthography this evening, and so read over my note. What an effect those pleasant and altogether too truthful lines would have produced, and how indignant and amazed Madame d'Ymbercourt would have been at reading them! Perhaps it would have been the best thing that could happen if the letter had gone just as it is; I should have been branded as a monster, a tattooed savage, unfit ever to wear a dress-coat and a white cravat; but, at all events, this wearisome bondage would have been broken forever. If I were in the slightest degree superstitious, I should see in this extraordinary letter a warning from Heaven instead of a peculiar state of abstraction on my part." After a moment's further reflection, Guy ...prepared to depart; but, as he was about to open the door, he thought he heard a sigh—a sigh so soft, so light, so ethereal, that only in the profound silence of the night could the ear have caught it.

Malivert paused upon the threshold of the study. The sigh impressed him with that indefinable feeling of awe that the supernatural always causes in the bravest hearts. There was nothing terrifying in that vague, inarticulate, plaintive note, and yet Guy felt more troubled than he would have cared to confess, even to himself.

"Bah! it was the cat breathing heavily in her sleep," he said, half aloud; and, taking from the hands of his valet a heavy fur coat, he enveloped himself in it ...

These are the words of the man who put the feel in ailurofeel and feeline.  You can finish reading  the book at or Google Books.

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