Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Persians in Paris

After the first modern cat show at London's Crystal Palace in 1871, initiated by Harrison Weir, “catteries” began to spring up over Britain, and almost simultaneously in America. Middle-class women found cat breeding a lucrative cottage industry—breeding cats that had the illusion of aristocracy. The best cats, they told interested buyers, came from France. So I began looking for the beginning of the  “cat fancy” business in France, and to my surprise, it was hard to find. True, it was well documented that Angora and Persian cats were brought to France in the 1600s. But except for one account by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), a French biologist (see previous post), I could find little about the business of breeding these exotic cats in France during the 18th and 19th centuries. Not that they didn't buy and sell prize cats at cat shows; they just didn't like to advertise the crass commercial side of it. Aristocratic people owned beautiful cats and wrote emotionally about them.

One aristocratic cat lover of that time was the French writer Colette. Her quote, "There are no ordinary cats" is well known to most ailurophiles. In her little novella, The Cat, she writes of a husband buying a four-month-old Chartreuse (gray Persian) kitten at a cat show, which he names Saha. "But why didn't you buy an Angora?" the wife asked. (White Angoras were, on the whole, more valued and more rare). "It wasn't just a little cat I was carrying at that moment," Alain mused. "It was the incarnate nobility of the whole cat race, her limitless indifference, her tact, her bond of union with the human aristocrat." Colette uses little Saha as a metaphor of a crumbling marriage in her story. But she also shows the reader a great deal about how the French aristocrats viewed their cats. They were a pet suitable for "the human aristocrat." 
Lower class people had lower class cats that were sometimes loved, but more often mistreated. That was true in all of  Europe, but in England, Harrison Weir became the patron saint of the ordinary cat.

The first cat show in Paris was in 1896 at le Jardin d'aclimatation, a year after the first American cat show in Madison Square Garden. But where the English and American shows encouraged middle-class people to bring their cats, only the aristocrats themselves brought their cats to le Jardin. Well-known men, such as Emile Zola and Catulle Mendes, displayed their cats.

Balzac's Minette
French writers such as Theophile Gautier, Charles Pierre Baudelaire, Colette, and Emile Zola wrote often and quite effusively about their cats. The cat was also a metaphor of love, imbued with feminine characteristics. Honore de Balzac wrote a satire on the differences between French and English lovemaking, as told by the cat Minette, in The Love Affairs of an English Cat. White and beauteous, Minette is married off to an older, boring, black Angora. She eventually meets a young, penniless French tom named Brisquet who woos her with his flowery language. He is shot when the two cats attempt to elope.

Even after the French Revolution, class divisions and political turmoil prevailed, and it affected cats and other animals as well as humans. Wrote an American breeder: “It is well known that the Persians and Angoras are much esteemed in Paris and are, to some extent, bred for sale. In the provinces, French cats are usually low-bred animals, with plebeian heads and tails, the stringlike appearance of the latter not being improved by cropping” (a common practice of farmers).

And many Frenchmen were not averse to eating cats, she wrote. “Although not generally esteemed as an article of food in France, there are still many people scattered throughout the country who maintain that a civet de chat is as good, or better, than a civet de lièvre.” Even today, it is probably served in more than a few French restaurants, although none would publicly acknowledge it. And in Italy, too: not long ago, an Italian chef caught heat for posting online a recipe for cat.
How a society decides to eat one animal and humanize another defies logic and resists moral judgment. I'm not a vegetarian--all that meat in my own freezer comes from living animals with a face. But the cat has occupied a unique place in human society, serving as a symbol of man's progress into urban living. It came out of the wild to live with humans as we changed from hunter-gatherers to farmers, and evolved from being totally wild to becoming a semi-independent farm animal kept for rodent control. Finally,  it was transformed into a dependent pet, bred mainly for its looks. Genetically, there is little difference between the stray cat you feed outside the door and the purebred Persian you paid several hundred dollars for. But on a social level, there is a great deal of difference. The French seem to be  much more keenly aware of such differences than the English and Americans. 

The Great Cat Massacre
The Great Cat Massacre is a story of the French class war, where aristocratic cats lived on a level of luxury with their aristocratic owners, while lower class people and animals suffered together. It reads like a parable, but is supposedly true. American historian Robert Darnton related how, in Paris during the late 1730s, apprentice printers living and working on Rue Saint-Séverin were forced to sleep in cold, dirty attics and eat rotten scraps. The cats of the household were fed much better than these young men. The apprentices contrived a plan of revenge on the cats. Several men crawled onto the roof at night, and howled like cats in heat, keeping their master and mistress awake. Finally, the exasperated master told his apprentices to get rid of the cats. The apprentices rounded up every cat they could find, including the few prized cats of the household, tortured them and “tried” them for their crimes before hanging them. The mistress had begged the apprentices not to harm “la grise,” her prized Persian female cat. But la grise was one of the first to die.

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