“I’ll bet you a giant toy mouse that you will adore this book outright for its scrutiny of the domestic cat in all its cuddlesome glory. (Trachtenberg’s hilarious descriptions of catty antics are like viral videos transposed into print.) . . .You may still adore this book for everything else it offers: a suspense story, a love story, a falling-out-of-love story, sex and yearning, literary gossip, economic hardship, conspicuous references to the Western canon, meditations on Being, picturesque Italian getaways, medieval torturers, death. . . . 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
“Trachtenberg juxtaposes the narratives of his twin loves, but, somehow, the analogy rarely seems contrived. He spells out the connections between his love for his cat and for his wife, his inability finally to understand why either of them left, but the book is just as much an exploration of the crucial difference between the two relationships . . . . ‘Another Insane Devotion’ is more than a literary memoir. . . .His crisscrossing passions are too busy and engaging to succumb to the genre’s tendency to drearily impart life lessons. “The nature of love” is an excuse for him to riff across centuries, from cat burial in ancient Cyprus to the lyrics of Sappho to marriage in the Torah to John Ruskin’s unhappy wedding night to the novels of James Salter. And this is surely the best book written about what it means to love cats, and to wonder if they love you, since Carl Van Vechten’s ‘The Tiger in the House.'” — Michael Robbins, Chicago Tribune
“Another Insane Devotion is a book about divorce, marriage, loss, and insecurity, as well as the unpleasantness of foster children — and, yes, it’s about cats too. Trachtenberg deftly maneuvers between the personal, the historical, and the philosophical, so it’s not unusual for his narrative to jump from depictions of cats in the Middle Ages to a consideration of 19th-century Continental dowries. And for the most part Trachtenberg makes it work. His intelligence and wit as a writer carry the book . . . .At the heart of the text is a complex and emotional mind working out some of the deeper questions of love, attachment, and loneliness.” –Los Angeles Review of Books
“A book about a missing cat might seem like a slim premise, not to mention a warning sign of treacly sentimentality. But Trachtenberg . . . is up to something unexpected. . . . He writes eloquently, insightfully and often humorously.” –Tampa Bay Times
“A hallmark of brainy discursiveness.” — The New York Times Style Magazine
“Trachtenberg attempts to broach the impossible—longing, the existence of reciprocal love, the defining and ending of a marriage—with the narrative frame of Biscuit’s disappearance . . . . This isn’t just a book about cats or about a divorce, however. These are the handles that Trachtenberg offers us as we ride through territory that it took Proust volumes to explore, and Sappho a lifetime of poems. Trachtenberg posits beautifully the idea that the things and people we love are sometimes as puzzling as the emotion itself. We feel longing and devotion for a creature that might not be able to comprehend human love. When our love affairs with humans end, that love goes… well, some place. Our memory is the only proof that it ever happened. And what a thing is memory?” — Corinne Manning, Ploughshares Blog
“History proves paramount in this exploration, and not just the personal. Through short sections of intelligent,often humorous prose, former and potential girlfriends and past pets are conjured in hopes of understanding how people can fall in and out of love . . . . Even if the book ends with questions left unanswered . . ., Trachtenberg’s journey proves entertaining and enlightening.” — Publishers Weekly
“With a fluid sense of time, the author traverses the stories of [his] two primary loves. . . He ties these reminiscences together with far-ranging analogies from Proust, the history of the Dominican order, the physics of Schroedinger’s cat, and the The Odyssey, never leaving behind the two mysteries that weave through the text: Will he find Biscuit? And will he and his wife stay together? Trachtenberg’s lyric writing keeps the reader interested in the answers to these two questions, making for a memoir that reads like a compelling work of fiction.” — Booklist
“Spiked with intellectual digressions and unlikely graphics (Masaccio, Rembrandt, a Victorian “mourning photo”), Trachtenberg’s eccentric meditation on loss and transition is not your everyday cat book. The author of The Book of Calamities and 7 Tattoos uses language as a flensing tool, peeling back layers to glimpse deeper truths.” — Chronogram
“Searching and often searing…humane and, at the same time,…unsentimental…a work of real moral intricacy…a beautiful and unsettling book.”– Louis Bayard, Salon
“Frank and urgent . . . . Trachtenberg . . . . rais[es] complex questions about justice, malice, compassion, blame, self-pity, personal responsibility, faith, and doubt. . . . He harvest[s] wisdom from the likes of Primo Levi, Siddhartha, and Simone Weil, from Aeschylus’s Oresteia and the book of Job.”–Cathleen Medwick, O: The Oprah Magazine
“This book is ‘a layman’s response’ to unimaginable anguish, a collection of powerful stories rather than a philosophical treatise. Writing movingly about victims and survivors of natural disasters, war, genocide, domestic violence, addiction, illness, suicide and injustice, he deftly intermingles their stories with observations from religion, philosophy and literature. . . . Trachtenberg offers no easy solutions. His book, however, like Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, succeeds because it asks the right questions, calls on the experience of articulate witnesses, and—through skillful narrative and trenchant observation—beguiles the reader into facing heartbreaking reality.” — Publishers Weekly [Starred review]
“Oddly thrilling. By gathering quotes, theories, and literary references. . ., Trachtenberg presents suffering as an otherworldly experience, both wretched and sublime. Like death, it is neither understood nor acknowledged by those who have not witnessed it themselves.. . . . The Book of Calamities’s power lies in its subtle repetitions: the vast array of stories sufferers tell themselves, the meticulous ways they sort out their pain.”
“Captivating . . . . Trachtenberg approaches his subject with keen perception and measured passion. Measured, because he consciously struggles to make personal sense of suffering even as he explains it to others. . . . His hard work culminates in a brilliant study – lyrical and poignant, penetrating and challenging.” — Charlotte Observer
<p >“In his enthralling book, Trachtenberg’s five questions on suffering move from ‘Why me?’ to ‘What do I owe those who suffer?’ . . . Beautifully written, intricately woven . . . . The Book of Calamities is a subtle mixture of reporting, history and philosophy.” — Newark Star-Ledger
“Terrifying and wondrous . . . . [a] remarkable achievement: To the shock of suffering, Trachtenberg responds with a masterful collage of personal narrative, journalism, biblical criticism, and layman’s philosophy that gently and subtly guides the reader past both unbelief and certainty. . . . [He] never makes suffering beautiful, but his prose is often lovely. . . When he thinks we can bear it, the book is even funny . . . . He writes most vividly not of horror but of the delight he takes in the people he comes to care for . . . . He sees not just their suffering, but also their brilliance, and it’s that reflected light that makes this darkest of studies itself a kind of witness, a profound book of heart-stopping stories and even more powerful questions. This is a rare and invaluable kind of writing, almost scriptural in its scope and its openness to pain.” – Jeff Sharlet, Search Magazine
“A pastiche of story, philosophy, and spiritual investigation that’s utterly refreshing for its brio, smarts and compassion about suffering of every kind . . . . The book is an incredibly moving account of how people manage pain — how they endure, surmount, or succumb — that ends up being less about tragedy than about our humanity and how to preserve it.”— Fiona Maazel, Louisville Courier-Journal
“Written with wit, humility, passion, and a razor-sharp perspicacity. . . . You feel he must be writing for his life.” – Madison Smartt Bell, Spin
“The artistry and humor of his writing, the pain of his mercilessly self-punishing insights, the relentlessness of his guilty misanthropy . . . . all give Trachtenberg a solid claim to being a genuine American Dostoevsky.” – The Washington Post
“This book seized my attention in a hammerlock and wouldn’t let go . . . . Trachtenberg is a splendid writer: brutally direct, whimsically funny, always enlightening. Read him.” — Mademoiselle
“Trachtenberg’s tattoos memorialize the people, places, and states of mind of this whip-smart writer with dizzying intensity . . . . 7 Tattoos is meaty stuff, and Trachtenberg’s use of tattoos as episodic flashcards is marvelously evocative. A-.” – Entertainment Weekly
“A fiercely beautiful, heartbreaking, funny, incandescent memoir . . . . Trachtenberg writes like a cross between a maverick anthropologist and an existential adventurer.” – Publishers Weekly
“[An] almost unbearably entertaining book, the kind that makes one laugh out loud and weep….Seven Tattoos is what the much-commented-on fad for memoirs is all about, or should be….courage is evident on every page of this luminous book.” – LS Quarterly
“Trachtenberg is a splendid, if curious, raconteur….painfully exact and shriekingly funny….his beautiful timing and assured storyteller’s architectural sense… are so pleasurable that they never obscure or trivialize his prickly, sometimes carbolic subjects. There are some books that aren’t like any other books, the ones you remember most fondly while scratching your head and wondering how they did it. Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’ or John Collier’s ‘His Monkey Wife’ or Camilo Jose Cela’s ‘Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son” or Hazlitt’s ‘Liber Amoris’ or Supervielle’s ‘Voleur des Enfants’ or Sacheverell Sitwell’s ‘Splendours and Miseries’ or, most recently, Geoffrey O’Brien’s ‘The Phantom Empire’ come to mind. ‘Seven Tattoos’ is another one.’” – New Orleans Times-Picayune
“Seven Tattoos is like a Lou Reed record: off-key and on the mark at the same time…. A reminder that the memoir, when it’s revealing and reflective, can go where the best literature has always sought to go—straight to the human heart.”
“[A] keen awareness of irony characterizes the whole of Trachtenberg’s immensely readable account….a voice reminiscent of the early Philip Roth, with a tinge of Woody Allen—a voice both pained and comic, and influenced, as well, by an American sense that if you want people to hear your story you’d better be prepared to entertain them.” – Toronto Star
I got my first job in 1968, at a bookstore on the Upper West Side. It was small, but known for its brawny sections of Liberation Studies and Beat Lit. In an earlier life, Pete, the owner, had been a partner in a legendary San Francisco bookstore where Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg had read to yipping audiences, but there’d been a rupture so bitter that new employees were warned never even to allude to it. Once, Ginsberg dropped by the store and asked Pete if he’d heard from his ex-partner lately. Pete chased him out into the street, swinging one of the iron bars we used to weigh down the newspapers on the racks out front.
I was fifteen and liked reading and getting high, so I fit in with most of the staff. Everyone who worked there had something wrong with him. Pete and his wife were drunks. He was a florid, irascible drunk, and she was a vague, dithering drunk, and they spent the day drinking in the bar around the corner and wandering in and out of the store to look for each other. A clerk named Al entertained at lunch by popping his glass eye from its socket and setting it down beside his plate. Don, the tightly wound, middle-aged manager, brushed his hair to one side like Hitler and suspected everybody of stealing. Hour after hour, he’d glower out from beneath his Hitler quiff, his jaws champing wrathfully. “Watch the hands!” he’d bark, and two or three customers would look up in bewilderment. “Yeah, that’s right. You.”
I started working on Saturday nights, assembling copies of the Sunday Times, but this was a bad job for someone who to this day can barely gift-wrap a book. Instead of firing me, Pete promoted me to the front counter. My drug was speed, which made me talkative, and I think he mistook this for personality. Also, speed gave me the virtue of what in any other setting would have been paranoia but compared with Don’s habitual state was mere alertness. Along with the papers, we kept a lot of expensive foreign magazines out front, but nobody was going to steal any of them on my watch.
One night, some customers and I got into a conversation about whether dopers could be considered a vanguard class, in the Marxist sense. It was June, hot and very humid. Between the drugs I was on and the drugs the customers were on, we barely registered the mutter of thunder. It was only when somebody stepped outside and leaped back in, shaking himself like a dog, that I realized it was raining: pouring. It took me another moment to remember the French Vogue, L’Uomo, Der Spiegel, Private Eye. When I rushed outside, my clothes were instantly plastered to my skin. Between the rain and the hair in my eyes, I couldn’t see. When I tried pulling a magazine from the rack, it disintegrated, and, with a moan, I scooped up the rest in my arms and carried them back into the store the way you’d carry a drowned baby you knew it was too late to save. It took two more trips to get them all.
By the time I returned with my last load, Don was standing by the counter. The veins in his forehead were pulsing in a complicated way. His pupils were so dilated that he looked like Astro Boy. Between one thumb and forefinger he was holding a limp Cahiers du Cinéma. “Do you know how much this costs?” His voice was thick with strained civility.
“Uh, five bucks?”
“Very good,” he said. “And this?” He picked up a T.L.S., then let it drop to the floor, where it left a puddle. “That’s hundreds of dollars you’ve cost us. Hundreds.”
“Maybe you could take it out of my salary?”
“Your salary!” In an instant, his face turned red and he came at me. “You think you’re going to keep working here?” he screamed. “You were supposed to keep an eye out!” He began to choke me, which was alarming but not as alarming as the fact that he was crying. “I thought you cared about this business!”
All I could say was “I’m sorry, Don. I’m helpless.”
He relaxed his grip and studied me, breathing hard. “You look like a cockroach.” He started laughing. He laughed so hard he had to rest his head on my shoulder, and I found myself patting him. “I swear,” he gasped. “You’re the funniest boy in the world.” Sighing, he brushed the hair from his face. “You’re fired.”
But I continued to hang out at the store for years afterward, the way some people keep hanging out at their old college after graduating. I was careful to stay out of Don’s way, but Pete, when he saw me, was perfectly friendly. “I got to hand it to you,” he told me once. “Nobody else we had working here ever made Don cry.” ♦
–Originally published in The New Yorker, April 21, 2003
In the morning I feed the cats, make a pot of coffee, and sit down on the sofa and open a volume of Remembrance of Things Past. This is considered a faulty rendering of Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, literally “In Search of Lost Time,” but I’m reading the English translation by C. K. Scott Montcrieff, updated by Terence Kilmartin, and Montcrieff calls it the Remembrance of Things Past. At the moment, I’m on The Guermantes Way, just after Marcel unexpectedly succeeds in kissing Albertine; he reflects on how inadequate the lips are for kissing. This is the farthest I’ve ever gotten in Proust’s world-book. For years I told people that I’d read the whole thing, when in reality I’d gotten no farther than Swann’s Way. I’d feel really terrible about this if so many other people hadn’t told me they’d done exactly the same.
I read for an hour, almost as slowly as if I were reading in French. Sometimes I feel like I am reading in French. To navigate the topiary maze of Proust’s sentences, which can twine and undulate for an entire page, often requires reading out loud. The challenge is not just to follow those sentences’ syntax but also their turns of mood:
On certain days, thin, with a gray complexion, a sullen air, a violet transparency slanting across her eyes such as we notice sometimes on the sea, she seemed to be feeling the sorrows of exile. On other days her face, smoother and glossier, drew one’s desires on to its varnished surface and prevented them from going further; unless I caught a sudden glimpse of her from the side, for her matt cheeks, like white wax on the surface, were visibly pink beneath, which was what made one so long to kiss them, to reach that different tint which was so elusive. At other times, happiness bathed her cheeks with a clarity so mobile that the skin, grown fluid and vague, gave passage to a sort of subcutaneous gaze, which made it appear to be of another colour but not of another substance than her eyes; sometimes, without thinking, when one looked at her face punctuated with tiny brown marks among which floated what were simply two larger, bluer stains, it was as though one were looking at a goldfinch’s egg, or perhaps at an opalescent agate cut and polished in two places only, where, at the heart of the brown stone, there shone like the transparent wings of a skyblue butterfly, her eyes, those features in which the flesh becomes a mirror and gives us the illusion that it allows us, more than through other parts of the body, to approach the soul. (1009)
As much pleasure as my morning reading gives me, it’s also a struggle. This isn’t because of the difficulties of Proust’s style, which, to be honest, is part of the pleasure of reading him—how often do you get to experience a sense of accomplishment while sitting on your ass in your bathrobe? It’s because I came into the kitchen with my Blackberry. If describing a Blackberry for a visitor from the last century—say for Proust, had he somehow been plucked off the Boulevard Hausmann in 1916 and deposited, gasping and palpitating, in my living room in the eastern U.S. in 2010—I’d say it was about the size of a small cigarette box. That might connote the device’s addictive properties.
But, truthfully, a Blackberry is more like a black hole, a phenomenon that no one even imagined until decades after Proust’s death in 1922, a black hole that sucks up not matter but attention. Who knows what happens to the matter that vanishes into a black hole? Who knows what happens to the attention that vanishes into a Blackberry? I can’t go ten minutes without looking at it. If no new e-mail shows up in my message box—announced by a tiny red and white explosion that might be made by a tiny bomb—I use the Web browser to read the Times. Often I become so engrossed in an article—or, more often, in the clever or boneheaded but usually vituperative reader comments about an article—that fifteen minutes race by before I think of horny, hyperaesthetic Marcel and his circle, and when I return, the spell they cast on me is broken. I open the book and it’s just words, lots of them.
Is the competition between Proust and the Blackberry a competition between literature and news? I don’t think so. If it were an actual newspaper on the sofa beside me, a paper paper, I wouldn’t bother looking at it until I’d read at least ten pages of the Recherche. The competition is one between reading and something that resembles reading but is really a hybrid mode in which the familiar work of decoding clusters of tiny strokes and squiggles and extracting a world from them is a front for the hypnotic activity of pushing buttons and staring at a light-filled screen. The Blackberry allows its users to think of themselves as human while doing what lab rats do, except lab rats get rewarded with pellets of food. The reward of the Blackberry is the buttons and the screen.
Originally published on The Language & Thinking blog, November 29, 2010
I came to Sri Lanka some two months after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, to volunteer in the recovery efforts and research a book. What struck me immediately was how beautiful the country is. But my attitude toward that beauty was conflicted. After a day of interviewing orphaned children in villages on the Galle coast, I recall taking a walk on a stretch of beach that the tsunami had passed by, even as it ploughed great swaths out of the ones on either side. The air was soft, the underbellies of the cresting waves glinted silver, pale green and lilac, and up ahead a group of girls were splashing in the shallows, their saris molded to their legs. For a moment I could actually feel my pupils dilating with pleasure. Then I remembered where I was. I remembered the little boy I’d visited that morning, whose father had been drowned in the marketplace while buying sweets for the child’s birthday. And I averted my gaze and walked on. I suppose my response had something priggish in it, but my feeling was that you don’t go looking for beauty in a disaster zone. In the event you find some, it’s unseemly to enjoy it too much.
A few weeks later I was at Vishva Niketan, the peace and meditation center of Sarvodaya Shramadanna Sangama, a Sri Lankan NGO that combines Buddhist and Gandhian principles with grass-roots social activism. It stands on one and a half acres of swampland in Moratuwa, an industrial suburb 20 kilometers south of Colombo; at the time of its purchase, there were only two trees growing on the entire property. But thanks to reclamation and artful landscaping, Vishva Niketan is now a still, green refuge from the surrounding dust and concrete. It’s beautiful. You can practice vipassana in an open-sided pavilion whose terra cotta floor tiles remain cool even in the wilting midday heat. A bracelet of stepping stones bisects a pond. Curving footpaths shaded by bamboo and tamarind lead to a clearing where a gleaming statue of the Buddha sits beneath a bodhi tree that’s said to be a cutting of the one at Bodhgaya where the Gautama received enlightenment. The landscaping is as packed with theological meaning as the architecture of a Gothic cathedral. The stepping stones in the pond are called “the Bridge of Mindfulness,” and past the Buddha statue the curving paths become as straight as bowling alleys to symbolize the clarity of a life that has found its spiritual axis.
While most Sri Lankan meditation centers are Buddhist, Vishva Niketan—whose name is Sanskrit for “universal abode”—is open to guests of every faith. For that reason its meditation workshops are taught by lay instructors rather than monks. A member of the center’s board told me about a Muslim visitor who, while meditating with a group of vegetarian Buddhists and Hindus, began to calculate his meat intake and realized that he typically ate his way through one cow a year. Soon afterward, he became a vegetarian. Vishva Niketan hosts special meditation workshops for expecting couples, businessmen, and, most dramatically, guards and inmates at Colombo’s Dickensian Welikada prison. The latter are held at the facility, for obvious security reasons, and I am told that they end with the jailers and the jailed embracing and thanking each other for the opportunity to sit together; then the jailed file back to their cells and dutifully lock themselves inside.
One day, I sat in on a meditation for a different demographic, some fifty children who’d lost parents in the tsunami. They came from all parts of Sri Lanka and represented all its religions and ethnic groups. The disaster had claimed Sinhalese Buddhists in Ambalangoda and Tamil Hindus in Mulaittivu and Vavunya in the northeast. It had killed Christians and Muslims. Some of the children were still fragile. One older girl started shaking every time she closed her eyes: I was told she had seen her mother carried away in the floodwaters. She was obviously traumatized, and so, I imagine, were several of the other children. As they entered the pavilion, their eyes tracked too quickly, as if attuned to movements much faster than the ones most of us are used to, things that rear up suddenly from a periphery that a moment before was empty.
The greatest obstacle to meditation—the one I’ve been foundering on for more than twenty years—is the mind’s insistence on staying busy. Thoughts and feelings file through it relentlessly like widgets on a conveyor belt. Most of the widgets are of doubtful usefulness, but the factory has to justify its existence and so it keeps making them. And this is the normal mind, the one we think of as healthy. The traumatized mind is a factory operating at double-time. Its productions are raw, unfinished, malformed. Thoughts don’t just file past, they race. Flattened affect alternates with panic and rage. Sleep is ruptured by nightmares of the traumatic event, which recur in waking time as flashbacks. How does one even try to quiet a mind in that condition, especially when that mind is the mind of a child?
The meditation instructor, a soft-spoken young man named Jagath, began with a lesson in elementary Buddhist and Hindu psychology. Speaking in Sinhalese, with an assistant translating into Tamil, he told the children to explore the center’s grounds and bring back objects they found pleasing. The children dispersed, moving about with the solemnity of religious celebrants. Some twenty minutes later, they returned with their prizes. They had orchid blossoms, palm fronds, shiny pebbles. It was like Show-and-Tell. The older kids may have found it boring, but Sri Lankan children are more polite than their American counterparts. Nobody fidgeted. “Who makes these things beautiful?” Jagath asked them. He answered his own question. “We make them beautiful.” That is, he explained, our minds do. It’s the mind that takes pleasure in the shape of a palm frond, the pink of an orchid, the wet sheen of a stone fished out of a pond. He rephrased the question. “Who makes the world beautiful?” A child raised her hand. “We make it beautiful.” Jagath beamed.
The implication, of course, is that we also make the world ugly, even horrible. Or our minds do. Some apprehension of this would be essential for the children to withstand the thoughts and images that assailed them during meditation. On one level, I buy this: During PTSD flashbacks, grown men have been known to destroy their own homes or assault loved ones whom they mistook for enemies, unable to distinguish the mental residue of the traumatic event from the event itself. But on another level I recoil. A few days before, I’d been in Mulaittivu, where the sea had piled up into a mountain and the mountain had fallen on the town and smashed much of it to a morrain of unrecognizable rubble, houses, trees, pavement, household belongings ground almost to the fineness of sand. Was that the mind? Were the bloated bodies that kept washing up on shore mind? Was the girl who couldn’t close her eyes without shaking, shaking because of mind? Before leaving the U.S., I’d had an interview with the Sri Lankan elder of the largest Theravadan temple in New York. When I’d asked him what he made of the disaster that had visited his country, he said, “All that has washed in has washed out.” He said it with an imperial calm that, when I recalled it later, seemed inhuman.
The children formed a loose circle. They sat cross-legged, with their eyes closed or lowered, but otherwise there was nothing uniform about their postures. Some were upright, some slouched like the teenagers they would soon be. Some kept their hands on their knees, others in their laps. I saw one little boy unselfconsciously pick his nose. Jagath had told them that they were going to do a metta meditation. The Pali word ‘metta’ is sometimes translated as ‘friendliness’; I believe that that’s how it was translated for me that day. But it also means ‘loving-kindness,’ a boundless warm-hearted feeling that spills over the limits of self and loved ones to take in concentric circles of objects until in time it takes in the entire living universe. “’May I be safe and protected’,” Jagath prompted the children. He gave them time to repeat it silently to themselves. “May I be peaceful and happy,” he went on, and, after another interval, “May I be healthy and strong.” I couldn’t tell if the children believed any of these affirmations, but this is the problem that confronts anybody who wants to know another person’s mental state, especially if the other person is sitting silently with his gaze withdrawn. “May I have ease of well-being and accept all the conditions of the world.”
All trauma originates with the experience of un-safety, a primordial threat that triggers an overwhelming visceral reaction. The brain and central nervous system are flooded with neurohormones and neurotransmitters, cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, vasopressin, oxytocin, endogenous opioids. These mobilize the body to fight or fly from danger. The heart accelerates, the blood-flow decreases, motor neurons fire, muscles tense and engorge. This response may be what keeps some people alive while the people near them—people who may be objectively stronger or faster—die. A soldier shoots his way out of the ambush that wiped out the rest of his squad, barely noticing that he himself has been badly wounded; a child clambers up a palm tree while her mother drowns below. Sometimes, the organism keeps on responding this way long after the initial threat has passed. This is when trauma becomes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The psychiatrist Jonathan Shay defines PTSD as the “persistence of valid adaptations to danger into a time of safety afterward.”
The children sat quietly, breathing with ease. I could see their chests moving. After about five minutes, Jagath instructed them to form a picture of someone they loved and then silently repeat the affirmations: May they be safe and protected. May they be peaceful and happy. May they be healthy and strong. May they have ease of well-being and accept all the conditions of the world. I watched the kids’ faces. Which of their thoughts had turned automatically to a loved one who was no longer living? And which of them, on seeing where her thoughts had gone, had had the spell of loving-kindness broken? They cannot be safe. They cannot be protected. They will never be peaceful or happy.
As some of its scholars have noted, trauma may be the archetypal post-modern disorder, the wound inflicted by a long century of unending violence perpetrated against ordinary people by state and non-state actors, not just armies, but terrorists, militias, death squads, suicide bombers, and unmanned drones that might be incarnations of the goddess Nemesis. Of course, atrocities committed against noncombatants are nothing new; neither are earthquakes or tidal waves. But trauma is also post-modern in the way it breaches the divide between Mind and Body and, in so doing, throws both of those categories, forged during the Enlightenment, into question. Trauma begins as a real event (“the event par excellence,” Shoshana Felman calls it, “the event as unintelligible, as the pure impact of sheer happening”) that produces real effects in the human body. Yet these effects may in turn produce, or be accompanied by, effects in the human mind. These are sometimes so radical and debilitating that one might as well speak of that mind’s mutilation or destruction.
The traumatic event passes. In time it may be forgotten. But like some radioactive substance, it has a half-life that ticks on in both the mind and body of the traumatized person. In response to certain triggers, his brain once more decants its cocktail of neurotransmitters; his heartbeat speeds; his eyes track too rapidly. He starts at loud noises. He can’t sleep. A casual slight catapults him into rage. Sometimes he relives the event helplessly, again and again. The unfunny joke about people with trauma used to be that they “had gone psycho.” That is, they had a mental illness. And in much of the world they are treated, if they are treated as all, as psychiatric patients, with the corresponding methodologies: talk therapy, hypnosis, EMDR, and psychiatric meds, meds most of all. Psychopharmaceuticals also breach the divide between mind and body, but they do so by reducing the mind to a province of the body, a defective organ that just requires some chemical tweaking to function properly. I knew a former combat vet who had been taking different medications for PTSD for decades. Every time he had a relapse—a panic attack, an inappropriate outburst, a crack binge—it was because his dosage needed to be adjusted. At least that’s what he used to tell me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what his doctors were telling him.
Jagath instructed the children, “Now think of the birds and the animals, the cows and the water buffalo, the dogs in the road. Think of the fish. Think of the ants. May they be safe and protected. May they be peaceful and happy. May they be healthy and strong. May they have ease of well-being and accept all the conditions of the world.”
Meditation, too, involves both mind and the body. Unlike Zoloft or Paxil, the medications most commonly prescribed for PTSD, it is expressly a mental technology. Indeed, some types of meditation treat the body as if it didn’t exist. But decades of clinical studies have recorded meditation’s real and verifiable physiological effects, from lowered blood pressure to a boost in the immune systems of patients with some kinds of HIV. It seemed appropriate that a practice that ignores the traditional distinctions between mind and body would be used to treat a condition that confounds those distinctions.
I thought back to Jagath’s questions, the one he had asked and the one he had left unspoken. Who makes the world beautiful? Who makes it horrible? I know that there are religions—or say, there are religious people—who use their beliefs to recast every catastrophe as a blessing. There are Christians who rejoice in cancer because it brings them closer to God, and I would hear about Buddhists in Sri Lanka who viewed the tsunami as karma, the natural consequence attending prideful behavior or the taking of life (among the stricter Buddhists, even fishing was murder). This was what I’d thought the abbot had been saying when he told me, “All that has washed in has washed out.” But Jagath had said nothing of the kind. He hadn’t told the kids what certain Buddhist killjoys would have told them: that the blossoms and stones they’d singled out did not, in fact exist, were crummy illusions. He’d simply pointed out that beauty was a mental phenomenon, the mind’s way of characterizing a small portion of the fecund, multifarious physical world.
And so, of course, was horror. The shaking girl hadn’t imagined the wave that swept her mother away. It was real, and her mother was gone. A lifetime of meditation wouldn’t change that. It might, however, enable her to sit still without being assaulted by images of her mother’s death. Maybe one day it would let her call up other images of her mother and contemplate them with loving-kindness. If you believe in reincarnation, as most Buddhists do, there’s no reason that feeling shouldn’t go out to beings who have passed on to other realms.
In the silent pavilion, I heard the song of distant birds, the soft plash of frogs in the pond. All told, the children probably sat for half an hour. I would later attend a meditation at Welikada that lasted an entire day, but then the prisoners had nowhere to go and the children, because they were children, had their whole lives stretching before them. Really, they could go anywhere.
Cat as Metaphor: PW Talks with Peter Trachtenberg: Pets & Animals 2012 By Lucinda Dyer Sep 14, 2012
Peter Trachtenberg isn’t exactly drawn to warm and fuzzy topics. His books include The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning (Little, Brown, 2008), which earned a starred review in PW and explored anguish, and 7 Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh (Crown, 1997), which drew a psychological map by connecting the dots of the author’s skin art. In November, Da Capo will publish his latest, Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons, in which Trachtenberg intertwines the story of a cat named Biscuit who goes missing and his relationship with his wife, who may also disappear.
How do you see Another Insane Devotion relating to your earlier books? Is there a thematic link?
I think my last two books revisit the old, big questions that preoccupied our ancestors. Only lately have we stopped asking them, believing them settled. The Book of Calamities asked, why do people suffer? why do they think they suffer? Another Insane Devotion explores the questions, what is love? Why does one love a particular human as opposed to other humans, and what might loving an animal, a cat, have in common with loving a member of one’s own species? How far are we prepared to go for the beings we love, human or animal? What sacrifices are we prepared to make? When we decide we love another being, what obligations are we taking on, whether we know it or not?
You could say there’s something ridiculous about asking those questions in relation to a cat, but in a way the absurdity is the point. Nobody asks those questions about humans any more, not after Freud and Oprah and the discovery of serotonin. We think we know. And the fact is we know nothing, and everybody who loves anyone or anything succumbs to a mystery in whose presence he remains stupid and baffled.
I’d add that The Book of Calamities was an intensely painful book to write, for reasons that seem pretty obvious. It took me far longer to write than I’d originally supposed it would. It used up all my resources. It broke me, and it left me broke. In contrast to that, writing Another Insane Devotion was pure pleasure. It was Puccini and gelato and the Rolling Stones. Its challenge was the challenge of doing justice to beings I had loved, of doing justice to what I felt for them. Sometimes I told myself that all I had to do was write about a cat half as well as some other writers have written about dogs.
Do you think there is something about cats (as opposed to dogs and other animals) that makes them particularly apt vehicles for metaphor?
The thing about cats is that they’re veiled. Or, rather, they seem veiled, to a degree that dogs don’t. Dogs look at you with eyes brimming with meaning, and the wonderful thing about that meaning is you don’t have to interpret it; it’s obvious. They bark. They put a paw on your knee. They bring you the Frisbee they want you to throw to them. I imagine that’s because dogs and humans spent thousands of years hunting together, and that required a certain transparency of communication. Cats hunt on their own. And although our cats are constantly communicating with us, they do so on their own terms and often without making a sound; their messages have to be interpreted.
Most people who’ve spent time with cats have noticed that they blink, but not everybody understands that the blinking is a message. They’re telling you they have no hostile intentions toward you, they’re not planning to attack you. Check it out sometime. Blink slowly at a cat two or three times, it will slowly blink back. Compare that to a dog jumping up on you and licking your face. You write a metaphor on a blank sheet of paper, or on paper that you at least think is blank. Not on paper that has WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF! scrawled on it from top to bottom.
What’s the most important thing you’ve ever learned from a cat?
Cats taught me to pay attention. To even begin to understand them—to even entertain the fantasy that I understood them—meant that I had to spend a lot of time watching them. The way they walked across a room. The place one chose to sit. Whether their ears were tilted forward or back. Of course I understand that all the conclusions I was drawing about them may have been wrong. What mattered was that I was paying attention, a concentrated, mostly silent attention that I had never given another human being, and that, over time, I came to believe was the prerequisite of any kind of love. It was Proust who wrote that love begins with looking. My cats taught me to look.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing what began as a work of nonfiction about the business failures of Ulysses S. Grant. Before he became the supreme commander of the Union armies, he failed at almost everything he undertook, running businesses into the ground, getting fleeced by his partners. And at the end of his life, after winning the Civil War and serving two terms as president, he was driven to the brink of bankruptcy by his crooked business partner, Ferdinand Ward, “the young Napoleon of Wall Street.” It was this reversal that drove him to write what may be the definitive American memoir. He finished the book a day before he died. The first royalty check—paid to Grant’s widow by the publisher, Mark Twain—was equivalent to $4.8 million in today’s money. My intention was to make Grant’s story a lens into American attitudes toward wealth and failure. I wanted to write about the 19th century while making it clear that I was also writing about the 21st.
This summer, during a residency at the Bellagio Center, I shared a portion of the book with some other residents—(the Chilean novelist Carlos Franz, the Bolivian Juan Lechin, Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis, and the French filmmaker Anne Aghion—and they persuaded me to try writing the story as fiction, and that seems to be how it wants to be told. Grant was a little guy who rose as high as it’s possible for a little guy to rise, but at the end of his life he remained a little guy, dependent on the kindness and largesse of richer men. This book may be my way of asking why America is so tough on little guys.
If you love cats and books with a literary bent, read on…
On Dec. 30, 2012, a glowing, full-page review in the New York Times Book Review sparked my interest. It was a cat memoir so of course I had to read it, and did, twice.
Another Insane Devotion:On The Love Of Cats And Persons by Peter Trachtenberg at first glance appears to be a memoir about his cat named Biscuit who goes missing while his marriage to a well-known author unravels, but this is no feline Marly And Me. Instead of terminal cuteness, Trachtenberg serves up his cat-loving heart on a platter, raw.
In this moving insightful meditation on love, loss and obligation, the worlds of cats and humans blur into an intellectual landscape peppered with asides from Plato to Proust. It’s a hell of a ride and dare I say, the best cat memoir I’ve read in recent memory. The richly layered writing, at once lyrical and lush evokes the figure-eights a cat ankleweaves when they want to leave their mark, and this does.
Trachtenberg kindly took the time to dish via email from which I gleaned this:
LMW: Why to you think cats are culturally hot?
PT: We’re living in a time of reduced expectations and simmering anxiety, anxiety about the economy, about politics, about the state of the earth. People don’t have money. They huddle at home, watching the news pulse on their smart phones and distracting themselves with cute animal videos. Cats are very suited to that kind of emotional climate, unlike dogs, the exuberant, leaping totems of more optimistic times. Cats don’t greet the stranger at the door. They peer down at him from the top of the bookcase. Yet what’s more calming than a cat curled in your lap? Cats teach us how to survive. Even a house cat can get by in the wild; it knows how to hunt. But a dog will just beg or starve.
LMW: How many cats share your life currently?
PT: I have three.
LMW: Tell us a little about the cats not mentioned in the book.
PT: Rhubarb’s about 4 and Maeve is about a year; I adopted her as a 10-month old in August. I got Rhubarb while I was in N. Carolina. I used to volunteer at the local animal shelter once a week, and a few weeks before I was due to leave this Maine Coon cat was brought in, who from the moment I came to feed her was frantic for attention. She meowed and meowed until I picked her up and then immediately started purring. The last thing I needed was to haul a new cat up to New York with me, but her sheet was marked “R”, meaning “ready” [to be euthanized]. So I took her north with me.
LMW: What is the biggest lesson Biscuit taught you?
PT: Biscuit, and the cats who shared my home before her, taught me about the relation between watching and love. Certainly I loved other beings before I had cats. I’d loved my parents and girlfriends. But that love was founded on need, and maybe occluded by it, and it shames me to admit that on some level I didn’t pay that much attention to its objects unless I wanted something from them or they wanted something from me. Which leads me to wonder whether I really did love them. There was nothing I needed from Biscuit. She didn’t rub my back or cook me meals or fetch me the paper. She did grab my hand between her paws and lick it; she was so determined about it that if I tried lifting my hand she’d push it down and scrub it with greater vigor. But her main gift to me was letting me see her in the fullness of her being. And that to me is the basis for all love. Something or someone lets you see them, and you have the curiosity and patience to watch, to watch for the sake of watching. And love springs up.
LMW: Sartre was inspired by his cats. Do you believe cats are existentialists?
PT: It’s more like they’re Zen Buddhists with bad posture. The hours of silent sitting and the sudden wild unforeseeable act.
LMW: You believe in allowing cats to exercise their true nature by going outdoors. Do you still ascribe to that belief despite the risks described in the book?
PT: I’m torn about this. I believe cats are wild in a way dogs aren’t. I’m told that a puppy born and brought up in the wild will still approach a human being, but a feral kitten will run. And the cats I’ve owned seemed happiest when they could go in and out as they pleased. But I lost more than one cat that way, and now that I live in a city, on the corner of a very busy street, letting my cats out is out of the question. Sometimes, when I leave for the day, I look back and see them lolling in the living room, and they look bored and sullen, like teenagers. But this is the first time in all the time I’ve lived with cats that some part of me isn’t anxious about where they are and what may have happened to them while I was gone.
LMW: Could you fall in love with a woman who didn’t love cats?
PT: At the very least, she’d have to like them a whole lot. Because otherwise– face it– she’d get bored very quickly hanging out with a man whose main comment of the evening might be, “Oh look what Rhubarb’s doing now! That’s hilarious!”
“On Cats and Love: An Interview with Peter Trachtenberg”
“By Corinne Manning”
“March 20, 2013”
“thenervousbreakdown.com/cmanning/2013/03/on-cats-and-love-an-interview-with-peter-trachtenberg/[5/2/13 11:47:59 PM]”
Peter Trachtenberg, author of Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons (DaCapo Press) explores love, marriage, death and longing through his relationships with both cats and people. The narrative begins when his cat Biscuit, the golden kitty, goes missing while his wife is abroad and he is teaching in North Carolina. While Trachtenberg deliberates whether to travel the 1400 miles round-trip to search for her (spoiler alert—he does) he begins to unravel the beginning of the end of his marriage.
Somehow he does this in a way that’s more than memoir—rather, it’s an exploration of what memories actually capture (or fail to capture). If we are meant to love something that is useful to us, but we don’t have mice, does it mean that cats are useless? And if a contract of marriage is ultimately a matter of successfully playing out the roles of husband or wife—but unfortunately not of a lover—what does it mean then for love? Trachtenberg posits that we can’t help but love what doesn’t serve us to love. Even cats, in their relationships with us, may have ulterior motives, but isn’t that also true with our human love objects?
I had the opportunity to study with Peter while he was in North Carolina, and the honor of reading the first small essay about Biscuit’s disappearance that later became Another Insane Devotion. We’ve kept up a correspondence over the years, and we had the pleasure of Skyping recently, each with a cat nearby.
CM: So, to start off—can you tell me about Paul Leyhausen’s theory of the “deputy kitten?”
PT: Well, among cat specialists there’s a debate as to why cats bring you mice and other things that they’ve killed and deposit them in the house or on the porch. And there’s one school of thought that they bring it as tribute to a social superior, and Leyhausen’s idea is that they are treating the human as a deputy kitten. That is, as a helpless creature that doesn’t know how to fend for itself and needs to be brought food
and shown eventually how to hunt. And I buy the second because who do cats treat as a social superior? They’re not like dogs.
Your three cats now, you feel they treat you like a deputy kitten?
To a certain extent. Or like a mom or dad. They certainly want affection. I have a routine in the morning where I either meditate for an hour or read—I read Proust for an hour. The moment I sit down at least one cat gets in my lap, often two. Which can be distracting but it’s also very comforting.
And that feels more like they are mothering you or you are mothering them?
No, I’m mothering them. I’m the source of comfort. If I stop petting them I hear about it, or I get a signal.
I thought about this deputy kitten thing when I was at a friend’s house with a cat with whom I have a nice relationship, and the cat started grooming me.
[The owner of] the cat said that she had only ever seen the cat do that with her husband, who also possibly has this, like, helplessness about him. But I really enjoyed the idea of being her deputy kitten.
Well, research shows that the cat that does the most grooming in any sort of multi-cat household is the dominant cat. It’s also the cat the beats up the others the most. It’s not like people.
[Have] any of your cats in past relationships not been interested in you?
I would say that F.’s [F. is the character of Trachtenberg’s ex. wife] cat Tina, whom I call by name in the book, the timid orange tabby, was afraid of me until quite late into our relationship. And F. had to go away for awhile. This is when I still had [a cat] who Tina was terrified of and rightly so. And I would just take turns sleeping in different bedrooms so that the cats would always have company and I think she got that my intentions
toward her were benign, and she would sleep with me and let me pet her. But this was about three years into our relationship and otherwise, you know, she was really not that into me and it was clear. Biscuit was pretty indiscriminate. Biscuit would take love wherever she got it.
Did you feel longing for Tina?
No, I can’t say I ever did. I felt protective of her. She wasn’t my cat. In a way it’s like people. Did I love her or did I like her? I certainly felt responsible to her or for her and there were certain traits about her that I did love, the way you do about a person, but I wasn’t bonded to her the way I was to Biscuit. If I had heard that Tina had gone missing I don’t know if I would have traveled 1400 miles to find her.
It’s interesting because with my cat Madeline I definitely feel longing. While reading your book I realized that whether or not I believe cats teach me about love, I definitely felt like they teach me about longing. They are that perfect example of Proust’s idea of love that you quote in the book , where our own love charms us and returns to us. It’s something that I don’t want to believe about humans but with cats its fair game to say that.
Why don’t you want to believe that about humans?
I don’t even know if it’s that I don’t want to believe; it’s just that I think there’s part of me that feels ashamed of it. With a cat, with Madeline especially, the longing I feel for her is very deep, but I can also feel that the way that I love her just charms me. In Another Insane Devotion, another cat who was lost earlier in the marriage, Gattino, changes that in a way.
I will say that losing Gattino was devastating. It was devastating to both of us. It was more devastating to F. [ex wife]. And looking at it objectively I can’t say how much of what I felt was devastation at his disappearance and what I saw [F.] going through. Because I saw her in a continuous state of grief, and you can say it’s silly and it’s inflated and I certainly write about that. You can say that all grief is really inflated. But it’s real and you can’t reason it away. You love what you love, and you grieve what you grieve. There are plenty of people whom I don’t think are worth loving. For the Victorians, who made a
cult of feeling, the death of a child had less impact and gravity then the death of a husband in a society where men were the sole breadwinners. So, you can say there are pragmatic reasons why we love what we love. The thing that’s miraculous about love is the way it defies what’s reasonable. That you may love somebody whom it doesn’t serve you to love, that you derive no benefit from. At one point in the book I talk about Aristotle and [his idea] that love—in order to be love—has to be an end to itself rather than a means
to something else.
The thing about a cat is that if you don’t have mice it’s a useless thing. There are all
sorts of pressures, both economic and social, and logical, that make it difficult for us to love. That make all love, in a way, at least for people like myself and F., impractical.
There’s something that you refer to [often] in the book as the practicality of marriage. In the book you mention that you had your composition students write papers about what makes a good boyfriend or girlfriend and those arguments have almost nothing to do with what makes a good husband or wife. So does a husband or wife, in that practical relationship, experience longing? Is that a fair emotion to apply to that structure?
One doesn’t [experience longing] until one’s separated, maybe. Isn’t longing contingent partially on the not-thereness of the object? I think it’s interesting. I mean, F. was somebody who was probably not fully there, so I didn’t experience it as longing all of the time. It was longing with different degrees of keenness. Sometimes it was a very long needle that pierced all the way to the heart and sometimes it was like somebody jabbing me gently in the stomach with a finger, and I don’t know if she had the same feeling.
And was the source of that, at that point, the possibility of loss, or what wasn’t accessible?
It was partly [the possibility] and partly something that was inaccessible, withheld and hidden. If you really look at any person or any being, there’s always some part that’s inaccessible to you. Do you have a sense, if you really look, at that other person’s secret life? Which coexists with—I don’t know if it’s beneath the life that is visible, or if it is somehow braided with it. It’s mysterious and I don’t know if it’s all of what you love, but it’s part of it. I mean, longing is more the state of being a lover. I don’t think it completely disappears, but it’s subsumed by other states of being, the ones I characterize as delight and obligation. That’s what I think. And I think, you know, I would never presume to say what a healthy love is or a healthy relationship is, but I will say that it’s very healthy, and very satisfying when all three states exist, can exist in one relationship. And they sometimes do.
What are the three states?
Longing, delight and obligation. And obligation feels like a dirty word. We don’t like it. The way America works now is [that we] promote the fiction [that] nobody is obligated to anyone or anything. But sometimes somebody goes missing and you have to look for them and you can’t rest until you find them. Or somebody needs to be taken to the hospital when you want to sleep, or needs to talk late at night when you want to sleep but they’re really upset. And it’s not convenient—you have to work tomorrow [or]maybe you have a job interview and you may not constantly be moved by this great swell of love for the other person. But you know you have to. And that sense of necessity is in response to another person, but
the other person may not be asking for it. The other person may understand that you want to roll over and go back to sleep. I mean, Biscuit has no sense, I doubt she has any sense of what I had to go through to look for her. It’s inconceivable to her.
As I read your book I was thinking about this idea of the obligation, that contract of marriage, and I couldn’t help but wonder how my own marriage, a queer marriage, applies to this. In my situation, does husbandry happen from both parties? I’ve been wondering how much gets sequestered into our gender roles. Is it specific to marriage itself or is it specific to gender roles?
It’s hard to say. I think it probably has something to do with gender roles. Also, you could say in a queer relationship, it’s like—do you really say that one person is the husband and one person is the wife? Does that really apply?
No, I think it’s similar to the roles of the cats; it’s something that’s always shifting.
Well, that’s maybe the great thing that queer relationships have to teach straight people. I think that does occur somewhat in straight marriages. Researchers found that traditionally what happens is men who are dominant, very dominant and confident and dealt with the world in their thirties and forties, in their fifties often undergo a change and become needier: more inwardly focused, more concerned with relationships. At the same time their wives are often becoming more ambitious and less interested in their families and more concerned with the outer world. There’s a shift in roles that goes on.
I wonder how much of that plays a part with the roles we want to be playing. For [my partner] andI, sometimes it feels like the tension will come out through playing the role we don’t want to play. So in moments when I’m being much more of a husband, I realize I do prefer the role of the young beloved. So the tension comes from either pushing each other into the roles we don’t want to be in or want to be in, but at the wrong times. I wonder if that’s kind of the case with estranged marriages, a term that you mention in the book which is useful, but has gone out of use?
I think that’s one of the challenges in a long, intimate relationship; you see the other and you see yourself in an unflattering light. You know, it’s the way Adam and Eve saw each other after the fall. That is like the pain of marriage. Of course, the challenge of marriage is to see yourself and the other, and forgive that which is not made to excite desire and to love it anyway, and then to see the part of yourself that’s like that and love that anyway, and accept it. I mean I’m articulating things right now that were not quite on the level of consciousness when I was writing the book. I could only think metaphorically.
Have you heard of this term “Bonnarding?”
No, what is that?
It’s related to the impressionist Bonnard, and how he used to keep brushes and paints in his pockets so that he could fix his paintings and sometimes that meant he would be fixing his paintings that were on the gallery walls or in his friend’s home. So Bonnarding is a term that means endlessly adjusting a creation even once it’s been deemed complete. I was thinking about that term while I was reading and thinking about memory because there are these moments when it seems like—and correct me if I’m wrong—it seems like there’s an attempt to revise: “If only we had looked in the oven.” And moments where you try to make sense of what went wrong: “It may be because I ran out of money.” Do you think that term relates? Do you think we refine these memories forever? Do you think we are Bonnarding these memories?
Oh yes, completely. That’s what regret is. It’s also age. It’s time. Someone was telling me this theory the other day that when we remember things we’re not pulling them up from a filing cabinet. It’s your neurons firing the way they fired then. So you’re reenacting with changes, because they can’t fire in the same way. Now, I don’t know if that’s really the case, it’s persuasive in some ways. In the book there are the two moments where the narrator, the ‘I’, proposes to F. with different outcomes. I would say in a way they represent different states, or different rememberings of the incident, and I would say that in a weird way the memory is more intense than the actual moment may have been partly because it is heightened by the fact that we are no longer together. That I’m not or may not be as happy as I was in those moments. Or feel as vulnerable. So they are heightened by the retrospective quality.
Was it a matter of memory or artistry to include the double proposal?
It was a choice. It was partly, the art was to represent those states of memory. I probably had that oscillation for ten years, of not being able to quite remember what her response had been, but I made the conscious choice to represent both states. Just like I made the choice elsewhere in the book to revisit certain exchanges or certain incidents or to introduce another detail and that reintroduction recreates how you come back to something.
That whole process seems familiar, like how Proust goes on at length to make sure that a detail or a moment is rendered correctly. But rather than it being all in one go, it’s like you did that throughout the text.
The book… what’s that word… the past tense… the noun would be accretion. It’s a book that accrued in some way. It begins in the present tense. It begins chronologically where it’s ending, essentially. What changes is the accrual of memory and the accrual of detail. The narrative that moves forward in time is really the narrator’s search, or my search, for Biscuit.
How do you feel now that the book is in the world? Do you want to be carrying a pencil in your pocket and endlessly revising it or do you feel like it captured what you intended for it to capture?
I feel like I could endlessly revise it but I feel that it has got to rest and be what it is and stand as it is. Part of the pleasure of writing it was the pleasure of finding stuff out. It was a very pleasurable book to write as opposed to the Book of Calamities (Little Brown & Company, 2008) so in a way I’d love to stay in it. I’m always thinking of certain things that I’ve missed and would have liked to see in it. But I think it just has to stand. In whatever way it turns out to be inadequate or misshapen let it stand that way.
I guess that’s the pleasure and difficulty in encountering the questions of love, and memory, and devotion, and cats. You’re approaching topics to which you’re continually changing your answer.
Yeah, because I hope to experience them all until I croak.
 “When we are in love, our love is too big a thing for us to be able altogether to contain it within ourselves. It radiates towards the loved one, finds there a surface which arrests it, forcing it to return to its starting-point, and it is this repercussion of our own feeling which we call the other’s feelings and which charms us more then than in its outward journey because we do not recognize it as having originated in ourselves.”
–Proust, Within a Budding Grove, p. 528
Episode 3 Bonus | Peter Trachtenberg on the love of cats and persons
For writer Peter Trachtenberg it all began with the sudden disappearance of his beloved cat, Biscuit. The journey to find her became a quest to understand love and loss, both animal and human. He talks to Peter Brown about the resulting memoir, Another Insane Devotion, the limits of cat love and why he sometimes can’t stop himself from one particular expression of his devotion to his cats.
Aug 14 2013
Peter Trachtenberg’s Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons is the memoir of a cat owner impelled almost against his will (and certainly against his better judgment) to fly from North Carolina to New York in search of his missing cat. It is also an account of a dissolving marriage, and a far-flung and highly erudite meditation on the nature of love.
Trachtenberg is no stranger to asking big-picture questions through seemingly small subjects. His memoir, Seven Tattoos, moved effortlessly from the death rites of the Ngaju of Borneo to the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, becoming more of an exploration of one man’s relationship to the divine than a story of addiction, recovery, and body ink. His follow-up, The Book of Calamities: Five Questions about Suffering and its Meaning saw him travel the globe, going to Sri Lanka after the tsunami and Rwanda after the genocide in order to explore the ways in which people make (or fail to make) sense of their pain.
Despite their disparate topics, all these books have similar qualities, namably Trachtenberg’s searching mind, his eye for absurdity (particularly his own), his compassion, and his willingness to ask the big questions in ways that make them seem like gossip: Where is God? Why do we suffer? What is love?
Bookforum: What was the genesis of Another Insane Devotion?
Trachtenberg: Basically, I wrote Another Insane Devotion because somebody I practiced yoga with told me I had to write it. This was after I’d come back to North Carolina after looking for my cat Biscuit, and I told her the story the way I told everybody the story back then—I couldn’t not tell it. This yogini wasn’t what you’d call a literary person. She was somebody who had, or believed she had, certain psychic abilities. (Ordinarily, this isn’t a claim I take at face-value.) When I was finished talking, she said, You have to write this story. And—I don’t know—I started writing. Either I was more suggestible than usual or she had intuited that this was the thing I really wanted to do. I wrote a short essay about looking for Biscuit and it quickly became apparent that I was also writing about my love for my wife, and my fears about my marriage, which hadn’t collapsed but had cracks spreading across its surface. I didn’t want to write about the marriage directly—I wanted to treat it obliquely. And I didn’t want the essay to be strictly autobiographical. To put it another way, I wanted it to be about something more than my own immediate circumstances, which were limited and subject to change. In a sense, what the essay was really about was the feeling of being in danger of losing the thing you loved. This is something everybody feels from time to time. Babies feel it.
People liked the essay, but I didn’t know then that it would become a book. I just kept writing until I gradually worked out what it was about. Luckily, my agent loved it, and she sent out a couple of chapters with a proposal. Everywhere it was turned down. Yet at the same time, we were getting letters from editors who’d passed on it saying the book was beautiful but they didn’t know what it was supposed to be. Was it about a lost cat? A failing marriage? If so, why wasn’t there more about the marriage? Why are you calling your wife by an initial?
For a while I thought it might not ever get published, but I kept working on it anyway. It was the only thing I wanted to write. And the experience of writing it without having a destination for it paradoxically restored my joy in writing, which had been severely eroded by my last book, The Book of Calamities.
Bookforum: Why did Calamities have that effect on you?
Trachtenberg: Calamities was a very difficult book to write. The whole time I worked on it, I was terrified that I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew nothing about breast cancer, I knew nothing about the Rwandan genocide, I hadn’t read any philosophy since my freshman year of college. I thought I was going to fail the people whose stories I was trying to tell and be exposed as a callow moron. By the end, I was a year and a half over deadline. I’d gone into debt, and the book didn’t sell well. I hadn’t counted on it to sell well, but I thought it would get reviews. The ones it got were pretty good, but there weren’t a lot of them, and. as babyish as it sounds, that was crushing to me.
Bookforum: How do you feel about Devotion?
Trachtenberg: Aesthetically, I think it’s okay. I can read from it before an audience without embarrassment. I sometimes worry that it’s an ethically problematic work. I took a period of my life that I shared with another person, and although I experimented with saying as little as I could about the marriage, ultimately I had to say something, and I know I breached certain intimacies. They weren’t scandalous intimacies, but they were things that may not have been mine alone to tell.
Bookforum: You strike a tricky balance between telling the story of Biscuit the cat and talking about your fraying marriage to F.
Trachtenberg: I was influenced by the lyric essay, in particular, the way the lyric essay utilizes a tension between the surface and latent content of the piece, moving between them the way a poem does. In Devotion, the cat is the surface content, the marriage is the latent content, and I play a kind of shell game with them, directing the reader’s attention to one and then the other, and then back again. But it wouldn’t be right to call the story about the cat a metaphor for the marriage—in other words, to place the surface content in a subordinate or symbolic relationship to the latent content. Yes, the cat is a stand-in for the marriage, but the marriage is also a stand-in for the cat, and both are stand-ins for this other elusive, ineffable thing we refer to as love.
Bookforum: At key moments in the narrative you quote Proust’s writings on love.
Trachtenberg: For many years I routinely lied and told people that I’d read all of In Search of Lost Time, but in fact I’d only read the first book, Swann’s Way. It was only while I was writing Devotion that I finally decided to read the whole big motherfucker, to just strap myself in and submit to it. I’d read for an hour each morning. It was almost a form of meditation.
Proust’s view of love is that it’s an illusion, a form of projection. It’s a desire to recapture a feeling that seems to emanate from the loved one but actually comes from within oneself. It’s narcissistic, obsessive, and destructive. Marcel makes a physical prisoner of Albertine, the woman he loves, or thinks he loves, and she makes a prisoner of him in other ways, and in the end her only solution is to run away. Shortly afterward, she’s thrown off a horse and killed. That’s what Proust calls love.
Devotion, on the other hand, is more about seeing the other being, contemplating its beingness, the weight of its presence in the world, without necessarily wanting anything from him or her or it. This can only be done by maintaining a certain psychic distance. When you hold someone too close you’re physically unable to look at her.
Simone Weil says somewhere that the great problem of human life is the inability to distinguish looking from eating. “It may be that vice, depravity, and crime are nearly always … in their essence, attempts to eat beauty, to eat what we should only look at.” I kept that statement in the back of my mind while writing.
The last episode of the book has me looking at my cat, which is looking at two rabbits in the grass outside our house in upstate New York. Within a few months of that sighting, I knew it would become the end of the book, It was such a perfect moment of seeing. And that’s the whole book right there. Earlier there’s a long passage about walking through the countryside with F. and wanting to know what she saw when she looked out at the landscape. If you love somebody, you want to see what they see, and you want them to see what you see.
Bookforum: So is that your definition of love?
Trachtenberg: I don’t want to say what love is. Certainly a kind of selfless delight in the other is an aspect of love. But so much goes into love, including all the sewage of the psyche. We’re cruel, we’re narcissistic, we’re creatures of ruthless appetite, but sometimes we can take simple, open-eyed delight in the presence of another being.
Bookforum: The way you talk about these questions echoes the great pleasure of reading the book. Devotion is a memoir, but it’s written like an essay.
Trachtenberg: I always thought of it as an extended personal essay. What I’m most interested in is the movement of thought, which is what I believe distinguishes the essay from the memoir, which is supposed to be about action. In terms of a story, Devotion isn’t about much, after all: a guy whose marriage is falling apart goes looking for his lost cat. It’s the thinking that matters.
Bookforum: So how do you capture the movement of thought?
Trachtenberg: The writing process involved allowing myself the freedom to include absolutely everything in the beginning, while knowing that I might cut back later. There was plenty that I took out in later drafts, but there were also unexpected things that I let stay: For instance, at one critical juncture I recalled the first dirty joke I’d ever heard. It just came bubbling up from my unconscious, and was almost as shocking as it was when I was six or seven. I asked myself, do I really want to put this in, a dirty joke about John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe? After some consideration, I decided that, yeah, I did.
One other important change: In the first draft, the search for Biscuit was concentrated in the last few chapters, and as a result the book felt inert. But when I placed her disappearance at the beginning it produced an interesting dual movement: you move forward in time searching for Biscuit, and you move backward in time to understand the narrator’s relations with her and other cats and the origins of the marriage and how it may have gone wrong.
Bookforum: How do you approach the tension between fact and fiction?
Trachtenberg: My hope is to take a more nuanced approach to that question than it often gets. When I teach a survey of nonfiction, for example, I usually start with Herodotus’s Histories, in which he matter-of-factly says that there’s a race of people in Central Asia who have their faces on their stomachs. Herodotus lived in a less documented world, where there was more room for the interplay of fact and imagination. It’s only now, with our increasingly elaborate and sophisticated fact gathering and fact-checking apparatuses, that we are becoming more rigid about the dividing line between fiction and nonfiction.
In my own work, I’m interested in the interplay between fact, imagination and memory. There’s a difference between what I know to be true, for example, and what I remember. That’s why I talk about thin facts—i.e. things that I or other folks remember—and thick facts that can be externally verified, like dates, times, locations, emails. But my memories sometimes contradict each other. Where they do, I’m willing to give the reader alternate versions, because I’m simply not sure which actually happened.
Bookforum: Could you talk about your current project? You mentioned that it’s a novel.
Trachtenberg: It’s the story of the late-life bankruptcy and death of Ulysses S. Grant, who was cheated by his business partner, Ferdinand Ward, “The Young Napoleon of Wall Street,” and left virtually destitute and dying of throat cancer. Grant wrote his extraordinary memoirs in order to pay off his debts and leave something for his widow.
The book began as a nonfiction project, but I couldn’t figure out how to write a work of that kind that was set entirely in the 19th century but that would clearly be about our own time. I gave a presentation at a residency last summer and a group of writers there encouraged me to try writing first person in Grant’s voice. So I tried and it came very naturally. I’d spent months immersed in his memoirs and papers and knew his voice pretty well. Of course, this is something I couldn’t do in nonfiction—unless I was Edmund Morris. Nor could I engineer a scene in which the dying Grant, who may be hallucinating or experiencing a dying man’s prophetic insight, glides through New York in the fall of 2008.
Bookforum: What drew you to Grant?
Trachtenberg: I find him a terrifically moving figure: an alcoholic (though one who, by all reports, stayed heroically dry through most of the Civil War), a repeated business failure—he seems to have had a compulsion to find people who’d cheat him—and the worst president to ever set foot in the White House until George W. Bush. Grant was a fuckup in every area of his life except two: he could win wars and he could write.