by Justin E. H. Smith

There is a cat that sits on the sidewalk in front of the bistro Chez Bébert near the Gare Montparnasse in Paris (I snapped his picture just yesterday). He does not greet visitors, but he does give them to know, in his silent occupation of that crucial space before the door, that this is his bistro, and that, whatever the surrounding humans may call him, he is Bébert. And anyone who has read Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s infamous 1957 novel, D’un château l’autre [From Castle to Castle] cannot help but wonder, upon encountering this Bébert, whether here is not in fact a concrete instance of the well-known feline power of reincarnation.

Céline had been an unrepentant Nazi-collaborationist, a traitor, a bloody anti-Semite, and an otherwise all-around awful person. As the war was drawing to a close, he got it into his head to flee Paris, through the ruins of Germany, to Denmark. He had intended to take only his wife, but his beloved cat, Bébert, imposed himself, refused to let them go alone. So Bébert was stuck in a sack and hauled through the craters and bombed-out castles, and would eventually prove to be the only remotely admirable character in the author’s subsquent fictional retelling of the odyssey. On arrival in Copenhagen, Céline was arrested (it is not at all clear why he thought the Danes would have wanted him), and Bébert seized. The cat had cancer, for which, rather remarkably under the circumstances, he was able to receive an operation. Eventually he was returned to France along with his owner, who died in 1961, after years, according to some sources, of eating nothing but noodles. Bébert himself is said to have lived only until 1952.

Yet it seems somehow vulgar to stamp Bébert with a date of demise, to give him a necrologue and be done with it. For in surviving the war, in becoming the only steady weight and the only bastion of serenity in the most terrible and blazing work of 20th-century literature, Bébert came to stand for survival itself, and demonstrated why in the popular imagination the feline is indestructible (we call it ‘reincarnation’ and we number the lives at nine, but what we really mean is that there is some indestructible cat essence that just keeps pushing through all the gross violent things men do to cats and around them).

Impressions such as these, no doubt, inspired George Steiner to write:

It is Bébert I want to write about–Bébert the arch-survivor and the incarnation of French cunning… Bébert would be a joy to report on. Céline is not.

Is the cat really the spirit-animal of the French? We know, particularly from Robert Darnton, that the cat was the animal most excessively abused around the period of Revolutionary fervor, bound together and thrown onto bonfires en masse, so that the rowdies, unhappy about their labor conditions or something, could delight in the cats’ screeches as a sort of next-best-thing to punitive justice. And we know of Chris Marker’s obsessive attempt to impose the figure of the cat heraldically in place of himself, to dissolve the human into the feline. Marker’s cat was a composite of the Japanese maneki-neko, Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire (another peculiar French obsession), and his own domestic animal, who was called Guillaume. Like Bébert, Guillaume had many lives, and does not always appear to have been hosted by one and the same physical cat. Yet he was always Guillaume.

And then there is Claude Lévi-Strauss, who realizes at the very end of Tristes Tropiques that he did not have to go all the way to the tropics to have a primordial encounter, as there was one waiting for him right there in his apartment:

Farewell to savages, then, farewell to journeying! And instead, during the brief intervals in which humanity can bear to interrupt its hive-like labours, let us grasp the essence of what our species has been and still is, beyond thought and beneath society: an essence that may be vouchsafed to is in a mineral more beautiful than any work of Man: in the scent, more subtly evolved than our books, that lingers  in the heart of a lily; or in the wink of an eye, heavy with patience, serenity, and mutual forgiveness, that sometimes, through an involuntary understanding, one can exchange with a cat.

I am not going to venture a theory of national character, or attempt to explain why it was left to a German to write Dog and Man (Konrad Lorenz, following Johan Huizinga, if I remember correctly, attempted to minimize the role of the cat in human society by arguing from medieval transfers of title to estates, which show that cats were always considered part of the property, like trees, while dogs always went with the previous owners; we know however that at least some cats will follow their owners through the apocalypse). But I do think Steiner is right about Bébert’s symbolic power as the embodiment of a commendable –because silent– will to survive, a symbolic power that makes sense only against the deep, deep background of folk beliefs about what cats are capable of. And I would add that if one is looking for national symbols, it is good that France has Bébert, and not only his human companion, who died most definitively in 1961, still a shit (a shit who’d just completed another, final masterpiece called Rigodon), still uninterested in serenity or forgiveness.

And I am convinced also that attention to the cat massacres of the 18th century; to Lévi-Strauss’s turn away from the savage toward the feline; to the Cheshire graffiti that still covers Paris in memory of Chris Marker; and to Céline’s misanthropic escape into cat-love, to the complimentarity of his anti-semitism and his philo-felinism: that all of this considered together (no doubt alongside other examples I haven’t recalled) could tell us a great deal about the cultural and intellectual history of modern France.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website