Everybody Wants To Be A Cat (Or Maybe Not…)

When I first read the title of one of this week’s readings, I first gasped in horror then covered little Robert’s eyes as best I could. The Great Cat Massacre: now that sounds like something Robert and I both would enjoy (hmm… not so much). Needless to say, I wasn’t too terribly excited to begin this particular reading but I quickly found myself enjoying it. Despite the less than desirable descriptions of cats being maimed and killed, I was still able to appreciate the argument put forth by Richard Darnton: “By seeing the way a joke worked in the horseplay of a printing shop two centuries ago, we may be able to recapture that missing element — laughter, sheer laughter, the thigh-slapping, rib-cracking Rabelaisian kind, rather than the Voltarian smirk with which we are familiar (15). Thus, by exploring one particular instance within 18th century France, Darnton is attempting to connect with individuals of the past and discover precisely what could have been funny about a massacre of seemingly innocent cats. Overall, I feel Darnton does an excellent  job transporting his readers back to the 18th century, when a great strain existed between the bourgeois and the working-class and when there were particular ideas about cats, most of them less than desirable. Thus, I began to see precisely why a massacre of cats would be the norm and believed Darnton’s argument wholeheartedly. Even if I cringed when Darnton explained, “The torture of animals, especially cats, was a popular amusement throughout early modern Europe” (11) and drew a sad face next to that admission.

And yet, there is something still inherently problematic about Darnton’s study. Indeed, as argued by Roger Chartier in his review of The Great Cat Massacre entitled, “Text, Symbols, and Frenchness,” one issue with the retelling of the cat massacre is the fact that it is based on a single source. Chartier writes,

“Metaphorical use of terms like ‘text’ or ‘reading’ is always risky, and it is even more so when the only access to the object under anthropological investigation is a written text. Not only does it obliterate the ways of speaking or acting that gave the tale or the rite as much significance as its literal meaning (or even more); above all, a real text with a status of its own stands between the observer and this oral or festive supposed ‘text.’ In this sense, the massacre of cats is not the cockfight: in relating it and interpreting it the historian is dependent on a report that has already been made of it and a text that is already in existence, invested with its own specific ends. The text exhibits the event, but it also constitutes the event as the result of the act of writing” (685).

Thus, Chartier finds it problematic that Darnton relies so heavily on one, single source. And I have to agree with him, one source is problematic. Reading The Great Massacre as a historian, I was screaming for more substantial proof and more evidence to back up the story at hand. In another sense, however, I also read this piece as an anthropologist and found myself appreciating the glimpse into a past time, culture, and way of life, despite the number of sources. I found myself captivated by the cultural history at hand and I realized that I had nearly forgotten how much I missed cultural history. Indeed, the continued anthropological theme from last week has continued to inspire me and I am thrilled we have been able to study the intersections of anthropology and history in this class. However, I am having a difficult time reconciling my feelings as a historian with my feelings as an anthropologist. I will be interested to hear what my colleagues thoughts are on The Great Cat Massacre and if they had a similar reaction.