April 11, 2013 by Reader's Connection
Peter Trachtenberg’s book Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons is divided more or less equally between those two loves, and the reader is always asking two questions:
Will Peter find his lost cat, Biscuit?
Will Peter’s marriage hold together?
There’s actually a third question: What does Peter’s wife think of the way he has turned their marital problems into a book? But I stopped asking that one after a while, consumed as I was with the other two.
Peter and F. (which is what he calls his wife, whether or not that’s really her initial) are away from upstate New York, he in North Carolina and she in Italy, when Biscuit disappears. Byron, the young man who was supposed to be watching the cats, lets two and a half days go by before he lets anyone know that she’s missing. Peter can hardly control his anger while on the phone.
I told him to go out and call her. “It’s best if you say her name three times.” I showed him how F. and I did it; I used a falsetto. It’s true that this was the voice she most responded to, but I suspect I was also taking some mean pleasure in the thought of this big, preening kid being made to squawk, “Bisquit, Bisquit, Bisquit!” in a mortified falsetto on the back porch of our house, within earshot of a women’s college dorm.
The book’s title is borrowed from a poem by Gerald Stern, and it’s easy to see why. Both works have to do with a man’s feelings for a cat and a woman, and about how a life adds up to something. (The poem appears in Stern’s collection, Lovesick, and in later selections of his poems, Leaving Another Kingdom and This Time.) It’s amazing how cat love and human love are woven together by Trachtenberg.
Most definitions of love, following Aristotle, incorporate the notion that its objects are ends in themselves rather than means to other ends. You can’t love somebody because she’s great in bed or looks terrific in an Alexander McQueen or makes a perfect ragú Bolognese. Or, rather, you can, but what you feel then isn’t love. The preposition “because” indicates that the object is only an intermediate point in your pursuit of sex or beauty or good food, and as soon as her enthusiasm starts to flag or her arms get too hammocky for a strapless, you’ll start charting out a different route. But the true beloved always occupies a terminal position. She’s the last point on the map.
And what was the inspiration for this passage? Why, naturally, it was the way Biscuit leaves a dead chipmunk for Peter to enjoy, and Peter’s speculations as to why the cat leaves it for him. I can imagine your embarrassment about having failed to guess that.
And so I imagine a state of affairs in which Biscuit had no interest in chipmunks, was utterly indifferent to them, but on seeing one, had the thought, This is something he will like or use, and acted accordingly. That would be love.
This may not be your idea of a cat book. It may jump around in time too much, or you might find F. and Peter exasperating. But when I finished it, I was glowing. I knew that Peter had left me this chipmunk because . . . yes, I suppose he wanted to make some money, and attain some level of fame, but really, he knew this was something I would like and use.