Another Insane Devotion


Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons. (Da Capo Press, November 2012)

“I’ll bet you a giant toy mouse that you will adore this book . . . . Trachtenberg is an extraordinarily perceptive observer of cats and persons, but to observe, after all, is never to truly know. To his great credit, he embraces this, and his uncertainty brings the profoundest rewards. Not many things are better than a kitten, but a book like this comes close.” The New York Times Book Review

From “a genuine American Dostoevsky” (The Washington Post) comes a dazzling, funny, bittersweet exploration of the mysteries of relationship, both human and animal.

When his favorite cat Biscuit goes missing, Peter Trachtenberg sets out to find her. The journey takes him 700 miles and many years into his past– into the history of his relationships with cats and the history of his relationship with his wife F., who may herself be on the verge of disappearing. What ensues is a work that recalls travel narratives from The Incredible Journey to W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Trachtenberg ponders the mysteries of feline intelligence (why do cats score worse on some tests than pigeons?), the origins of their domestication, and why they are harder to write about than dogs. He also looks at what loving a cat can teach us about loving a human being, another insane devotion that takes us farther than we ever dreamed of going.

“This is Peter’s best book and if you don’t know what that means just imagine your sweetest, most perverse storytelling friend asks to meet because he has a confession to make. When you arrive he informs you that he loves his cat more than life itself, or exactly that much and then he opens his shirt and shows you the cat tattoo and then he begins to tell you of his love and in a puff hours vanish and it’s absolutely riveting.
— Eileen Myles, author of Inferno and Cool for You


We think of love, at least love in its ideal form, as a reciprocal condition, like a current that requires two poles to make one’s hair rise; without two poles, you can’t even speak of a current. Unreciprocated love may not be love at all, but a delusion, maybe a pathetic delusion, maybe a creepy one. Stalkers, too, think they’re in love. Well, if someone says, “I love you,” it’s nice to be able to say, “I love you,” back. This is more difficult than it sounds. In James Salter’s Light Years, a little girl is writing a picture story: Margot loved Juan very much, and Juan was mad about her. But Margot is an elephant, and Juan is a snail. In the classical myths, humans and gods love one-sidedly, a predicament the gods usually solve by means of rape. The poor humans just pine. Tristan and Iseult may be the poster children for requited love, but even they needed a love potion, and it’s significant, I think, that the love they came to embody, courtly love, has conditions so extreme as to be essentially unrealizable. It must be adulterous; it must be pure. The lovers must love equally. We have to speak of such love the way we speak of black holes. Who knows what happens to someone who enters a black hole? Is he crushed by its gravity, which is massive enough to crush stars? Do its attractive forces wrench him in two or draw him into a wire of infinite length and infinitesimal thinness and stretch him across all space and time? What message does that wire transmit, and who hears it? There was a moment when F. and I loved each other equally, when we looked at each other with eyes whose pupils were similarly dilated. F.’s pupils were easier to see because her eyes are blue. Mine are dark, and this makes the state of the pupils more elusive.

There are nights when I wake beside my wife as if beside a stranger. Her body is familiar to me; I know it almost as well as my own. Maybe I know it better, having looked at it and touched it with greater attention than I ever gave myself, because I wanted to know it. There’ve been few things in my life I’ve wanted to know so badly. But something’s gone wrong. Two years ago, she asked for a separation. A while later she changed her mind. I couldn’t tell you why. Or rather, I could tell you: Because of the children we didn’t have or the child we borrowed. Because of the kitten we rescued and then lost. Because of money, because of sex. Because I didn’t pay enough attention to her, because I paid too much. Because she got bored, and then got interested again. But any of those explanations would be wrong.

Now it’s my turn. I don’t know what to do with F. I look at her the way you look at a house you are thinking of moving out of. It’s gotten too small for you. It needs a new furnace; the floor slants. Why do you stay? But how can you ever leave?

I gaze down at my wife in the dark but see only the dim curve of her body lying on its side like a letter C, a face shuttered in sleep. I go into the bathroom and turn on the light above the sink. My face in the mirror is the face of a tramp rousted from a ditch. I lean closer and try to make out the size of my pupils, but of course the sudden brightness has made them pin. In mechanical terms, there’s something they don’t want to see. Is it that I don’t know F. any more or that I don’t know myself? Maybe it’s love that has become strange to me. I can’t recognize it in another person. I can’t find it in myself. It has become my lack. But this seems to be true of many people: of all the seekers who crawl and flounder after this one thing, turning over wives, husbands, lovers, mistresses, like rocks in a garden, under one of which, long ago, they buried a treasure. Or maybe just a dream of treasure.

What is this treasure?

It took me about twenty-two hours to travel the 1,400 miles from the town where I was teaching to the mid–Hudson Valley and back. That’s one of the drawbacks of flying on a discount carrier. To Biscuit, the distance would be as incomprehensible as that between Earth and the sun, whose warmth she loved to bask in when it poured through the living room window on winter afternoons. Though, come to think of it, you hear stories of cats traveling long distances all the time. Usually, they’re trying to return to a former home or be reunited with a missing owner. To me, why Biscuit wandered off and where she went are, if not incomprehensible, unknowable. Still, I can recount just about every step of my search for her and many of the key incidents of our relationship before then. This is more than I can do for my relationship with F., which at the time Biscuit disappeared was beginning to change and, maybe, to draw to an end; it’s still too early to say. I recall that relationship at least as vividly as I do the one with Biscuit, if not more vividly, but, as Freud showed us, there is such a thing as an excess of vividness. The most vivid memories, the ones most populous with detail and saturated with color, may be the least reliable. And my relationship with F. may also be too complex to be easily narrated. Both of us can talk, and that means we can contradict each other. (A cat can defy you, but it can’t contradict you, its powers being confined to the realm of action as opposed to the realm of descriptions of action, which belongs to humans.) I feel no pressing obligation to relate F.’s version of the events I lay out here. Still, when her version contradicts mine, I feel haunted. My past seems to belong to someone else, a self I am only impersonating. Did I really do the things I remember doing, say what I remember saying? And whom did I say them to?

About my cat and the self I am with her, I have fewer doubts.

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