Adultery and the Mind: On Baudelaire’s "The Cat"

The Cat
Charles Baudelaire (translation Joshua Rocks, with help in key places from Stephanie Perrais)

Come, my dear cat, upon my loving chest;
Hold in the claws of your paws,
and allow me to dive into your beautiful eyes,
a mixture of metal and agate.

In which time my fingers caress in leisure
Your head and your back elastic,
And that hand is intoxicated with the pleasure
Of touching the body electric,

I see my wife in mind. Her watching
How like yours, lovable beast,
Deep and cold, [it] cuts and carves like a dart,

And, from the feet until the head,
An air subtle, a dangerous perfume
Floats around her brown body.

Commentary:

From Dr. Perrais comes the observation that pronouns like “my” and “yours” drop out after the first two stanzas and are replaced with “her” ( the word is “son:” it could even mean “him,” too).

I think in this age of open relationships and friends with benefits and divorces galore we need to rethink what adultery is.

It would seem our speaker is possessed by the erotic. But notice his language: he’s always pleading, and it is the cat which has to “hold in” its ability to cause pain. Furthermore, his watching, most unlike hers or the cat’s, is not effective but rather oriented towards what was.

It isn’t clear to me that the speaker is purely sensual, despite the overt sexuality of this poem. In fact, what is clear to me is that to be truly “possessed by the erotic” is to want to control, and what our speaker takes pleasure in is the quiet sensuality of the moment. The back may be elastic, the body may be electric, but that’s her and the cat. For him, the key words are “in leisure.”

I don’t think we can afford to forget that it is possible to be erotic for the exactly right reasons, that the reason why love breaking apart stinks is because there’s so much we can do for each other that creates sexuality. Ultimately, what evokes the speaker’s memory of his wife isn’t his how his cat feels in his hands, but the cat’s eyes. We spend the first and third stanzas talking about sight, and devote a stanza each to touch and smell respectively (see “Correspondences” for more on Baudelaire and the intellection of the sensual).

All our speaker has left of his wife is the memory of her sensuality, which was lovely when he knew her soul, and is awful now that her soul is gone.

What is truly erotic is when we are beautiful to each other. The danger of beauty is something only “realized” when love is gone: the danger of beauty stems from what beauty is a shadow of, the time one was loved and was in love.

To that end, I think you see exactly where I’m going with the “adultery” theme I first brought up. If the soul generates the heart, and that in turn informs what is most beautiful, and all other beauty is a falling away from that, then adultery is capriciousness pure and simple. For to not have a heart is to deny that anyone has any feeling other than what one inspires through one’s external being, not realizing that people fall in love for a myriad of reasons, all of which are oriented ultimately to sharing one’s internal being.

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