Venus in Fur

Adapted from Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons by Peter Trachtenberg '74


On those mornings when I came into the bathroom naked and Biscuit looked up at me from the radiator, where she’d settled sometime after slipping off the bed during the night, I don’t think that what I felt was shame. I don’t think I was even especially conscious of being naked. I might become conscious of it on those occasions when I petted my cat, which she seemed to have invited me to do by rolling over and stretching, displaying her luxuriously soft (and, because of where she’d been lying, luxuriously warm) stomach, and she seized my hand and began to lick it while lightly raking it with her extended claws. (I’m pretty sure she wasn’t doing this to hurt me but to keep my hand from getting away.) At that moment I’d be suddenly aware of the temptation my genitals might present to a creature programmed by instinct to strike at dangling objects, and I’d retract my groin as far as I could while letting her go on grooming my unresisting hand. To me, this is not shame; it’s awareness of my vulnerability, though maybe what I’m really talking about is fear. Maybe when Derrida speaks of shame he really means fear. Maybe he was ashamed to admit he was afraid of his cat.

What might Biscuit have made of my nakedness? She must have recognized it as being different from the state in which she usually saw me, covered in soft, warm fabrics that were so pleasant to sit on—she especially sought out my lap when I was wearing my flannel bathrobe—and that bore my scent along with the odors of coffee, garlic and olive oil, tea tree oil chewing sticks, motor oil and grass cuttings, laundry detergent, and household cleaners. She knew most of those smells from the house and its environs, and when she detected them on me, she must have had an idea of where I’d been and what I’d been doing: preparing the bitter black water I drank every morning, with a shameful waste of the rich, sweet milk that ought to go in her dish; pushing the growling thing that chewed up the grass in strips; going out to fetch the paper bags from which I took the things F. and I ate and then left out for her to climb into so that no one could see her. Sometimes I’d come into the house smelling of things that had no counterpart in her experience: the subway, on days I’d been working in the city. What would she make of that, a canned stew of humans shrieking through the darkness beneath the earth? Some other cat might think it was a kind of pound, a pound for humans. But Biscuit had never been in a pound.

And what went on in her mind when she watched me undress, before I took a shower, for instance? To undress is to cross the threshold from clothed to naked, and judging by the intentness with which she studied me, the procedure interested her. Did she see my discarded clothing as a foreign layer that I’d managed to slough off, as she might manage to disentangle herself from one of the shopping bags she nested in? Or did she see it as part of me, like a skin or, really, like fur, which was part of her but could also be shed: if only it weren’t shed so easily! Sometimes when we kept Biscuit from going out, she’d get so frustrated she’d sit by the door and pull out her fur in mouthfuls, seizing up thatch after thatch of it with irate twists of her head. It looked agonizing. Coming back home was like walking into a barbershop, all this tawny hair strewn on the floor where she’d been sitting, like the pattern of iron filings that shows where a magnet was.

I understand that I’m ascribing to my cat the most human of human behaviors, the ascription of meaning. I’m imagining that the tilt of her head, the fixity of her gaze when she looked at me, signaled curiosity, or a particular disinterested variety of curiosity that might be called speculation. But can a cat speculate? Nobody questions that they’re curious, but most evidence suggests that this curiosity is basically utilitarian, that when a cat stares at something, or sniffs it, or nudges it with a paw, climbs onto it or inside it, it’s trying to fit the object of its curiosity into one of a limited number of conceptual slots, like the slots in an accordion file. Is this thing dangerous? That is, does it belong to the category of threats that may include other animals and, for some cats, human beings except for their owners (sometimes the owners too), along with moving cars, lawn mowers, and vacuum cleaners?
Is this something I can eat? Is it something I can stalk and kill? Is it a female I can mount? (This asked by males.) Can I play with it? Is it something I can climb or hide in? The previously mentioned study of Kaspar Hauser cats indicates that some of these slots are present at birth, waiting to be filled by things their isolate, light-deprived owners may not even guess at.

Humans, too, have mental slots in which they file experience, and some humans have very few of them. We’ve all known people who view phenomena solely in terms of whether they can be eaten, screwed, or watched on a screen. But humans also possess another kind of curiosity for which the filing metaphor is inadequate, unless you picture an accordion file that contains an infinite number of slots, some of which are bottomless. And it’s with this kind of curiosity that I imagine Biscuit watching me in the bathroom, wondering why I pull off my pelt and why that pelt changes from day to day, from rough to smooth or from slick to hairy, why sometimes it has a row of small hard nipples protruding from it, from which no milk comes, and why at other times the nipples are replaced by a sort of seam or scar that comes open with a soft, purring rasp.

But who am I kidding? When she looked at me, Biscuit probably saw the same thing the cat in the famous Kliban cartoon sees when it looks at a wall, as indicated by the thought bubble above its head: a wall.

In her case, it was a wall that moved and gave her food and love, though she might not know what love is. And I doubt it entered her mind that the wall told itself she loved it, too, educing as evidence the way she licked its hand in the morning and greeted it with an almost birdlike chirp when it came home from wherever it is a wall goes.

thinks that love is a specifically human emotion. She doesn’t mean that only humans are capable of love but that only humans are really suited for it, and that when a domestic animal—a dog or a cat or one of the intelligent talking birds—learns to love, as it may from prolonged contact with a human being, it is almost always to its detriment. Sometimes that love is fatal to it. Not long after we became involved, I had to go away to Southeast Asia for several weeks. The whole time I was gone, I missed F. as if she were the one who’d left and I were moping in the same dingy coffee shops I’d been moping in before I met her, for years. Nothing I saw overseas was exotic to me, not the rice paddies or the Buddhist temples shaped like enormous bells with young monks sitting on their steps in their orange robes, not the markets selling jackfruit big as fourth graders, not the crumpled shell of an American helicopter or the range where you could fire M-16s and AK-47s, depending on which set of combatants you felt like role-playing. It was just a landscape of subtraction. I came back diminished by a tropical infestation that wrung my guts like a washcloth. F. met me in my loft. She said I looked thin. We spent the day and evening in bed. Later we went to dinner. Because I was too weak to walk far, we chose a restaurant only a few blocks away. I don’t know if it was sickness or love that made it so hard for me to eat. I’d raise my fork and watch it idle before my mouth. What was a fork for? This question wouldn’t have occurred to a cat.

F. too appeared to be in rapture. She smiled across the table with shining eyes. But as I watched, a change came over her face; it seemed to melt and then re-form. Her smile became a smile of hatred, as cruel as that of an empress sitting in an arena and gazing down at men who were about to be slaughtered for her.

“Why are you looking at me that way?” I tried to keep the fear out of my voice, but a moment later I heard myself plead, “Don’t look at me that way. I don’t like it.” I’m no longer sure of how she answered me. Maybe she said, “I wonder if you’re really what you seem,” or “I hope you don’t turn out to be weak.” She may have said, “I can’t help myself. When I feel this way too long, I just want to bite.” One thing I’m sure of is that she didn’t pretend not to know what I was talking about. Between us lay the reality of that condemning smile. Both of us acknowledged it, though she may not have known the reason for it any more than I did.

At the time, I thought the smile meant she’d fallen out of love with me and hated me for it. I understood that feeling. The night D. proclaimed she loved me more than air, I cringed inwardly the way some people cringe from a street beggar, and a while later I was angry at her, the way people are at beggars. Why doesn’t somebody do something about them? Years before, I’d felt the same anger at my girlfriend T., watching the meek curve of her shoulders as she sat before the TV in the apartment we shared in penury. I’m not sure if I was angry at her for tricking me into loving her or for letting me see her as she was, a bright, modestly pretty woman content with the modest pleasure of watching TV on a weeknight in
a shitty apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen and burlap stapled to its rotten plaster walls. Falling out of love was so terrible that it had to be somebody else’s fault. Why should F. be any different?

The Spanish verb querer means both “to love” and “to want.” Yo quiero may be the beginning of a cry of sexual longing or of an order at the butcher counter. The same duality occurs in other languages, just not as blatantly. It defines love as a condition of insufficiency, a lack that can be cured only by the recovery of a missing object. Love is lovesickness. The lover is an open wound calling to the knife. In the Symposium, Plato has Aristophanes speak of that primeval race of compound beings—barrel shaped, eight limbed, with a face on either side of their spherical heads—whom the gods split in two “like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair,” so that forever after their cloven descendants wander the earth like ghosts, mourning what was taken from them: “Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man,” Plato writes. What a terrible phrase that is, “the indenture of a man,” a man bitten down to a stub. How can you not hate someone who reminds you of your indenturedness, especially when he is sitting across from you, close enough for you to see the tooth marks? Who made those marks?

Peter Trachtenberg ’74 is the author of two highly acclaimed works of nonfiction, The Book of Calamities and 7 Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh. He’s also written for The New Yorker, Harper’s, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Tricycle. He lives in Pittsburgh, where he is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh