Le Chat Noir

The Romantic can be divided into three periods: the Gothic (late 18th to 19th Century, the Romantic (the bulk of the 19th Century), and the Decadent (the late 19th to early 20th Century).  The main hubs for the Romantics during each of these periods were the clubs in Britain and America and the Salons in France.

In Eighteenth century France, the salons were all the rage.  The word salon translates as parlour, or what we would today call the living room.  Notable hostesses, or occasionally a host, would entertain the great thinkers and artists of the day who would gather to “solve the worlds problems”.  As the centuries passed, the crowds moved from the salons to the caf├ęs and on to the pubs.

1881.  Poet and painter Rudolphe Salis invited a bunch of artists, musicians, performers, writers, satirist and intellectuals to his apartment in Montmartre, Paris. This became a weekly ritual with more and more people attending the party until it eventually spread next door. Of course funding such events got expensive, so Salis began selling drinks.  What began as a party became a business, what Salis called a cabaret -- a medieval word meaning wine cellar or tavern.

This was an energetic atmosphere of creativity, ideas, and debates involving the greatest minds in Paris at the time.  By 1882, they even began publishing their own magazine featuring the essays, poems, cartoons, and satires produced by the patrons.

In the late Nineteenth century, Salis’ cabaret was the artistic centre of Montmartre. Monmartre was the artistic centre of Paris. And Paris was the artistic centre of the world.  He called it Le Chat Noir, the Black Cat, and it is still remembered to this day thanks to the famous poster by Theophile Alexandre Steinlen.

The story goes that Salis found a black cat on the sidewalk during the cabaret’s construction, hence the name.  I doubt that is true given Le Chat Noir began as his apartment and therefore there was no construction.  I have a pet theory that may be equally untrue.  I like to think the inspiration came from the Edgar Allan Poe story The Black Cat.  The only evidence I have is the fact that the so-called Decadent Period of the Romantic Era is said to have begun when Charles Baudelaire published his translations of Edgar Allan Poe into French and Le Chat Noir opened at the height of the Decadent Period.  Salis’ inspiration for the name is really not important here.  What is important is the idea of the Black Cat.

In my article ‘Rise of the Cat People’, http://evildandy.blogspot.com/2007/12/rise-of-cat-people.html, I link our anthropomorphised ideas concerning the nature of cats to the Romantic.

The black cat in particular has an association with evil as do the Romantics.  Lord Byron for example was described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”.  Much of this comes from the Romantic's fierce and defiant independence.  One theory concerning the origin of the Romantic is that it began from a misreading of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Milton wanted to make the character of Satan as appealing as possible so that his audience could relate to Adam’s fall and not simply see him as a fool.  The consequence of this is many readers saw Satan as the hero.  He is the defiant individualists standing against an oppressive social order.  Thus did the Romantics come to be viewed as “evil” because they stood against the dominate social conditioning of their time.

The thing about cat's in general, and black cats in particular, is that they are often misunderstood.  During the Middle Ages they were seen as witch's helpers and servants of the devil and so were hunted down and killed.  One theory is that the depopulation of cats led to the abundance of rats -- plague rats.  The Black Death killed off a third of Europe.

Likewise, it has been argued by many historians that the Romantic values form the foundations of the modern era, but today many of those values are seen as "evil" and those historians who advocate the truth are criticised or worse because their findings contradict the politically correct narrative. 

Destroying the black cats will destroy Western Civilization once again.

On a political note, I am a libertarian, and as such consider myself a minarchist, which is an anarchist who believes in minimum rules and laws as necessary to protect Natural Rights.  A rarely used anarchist symbol is the black cat, though personally I tend to use the Jolly Roger, another rarely used anarchist symbol, primarily because of its more obvious Romantic connotations.  This is not to condone murder and thievery, but as governments become increasingly controlling, more and more people find themselves squeezed by the force of government through legislation into the role of the criminal against their wishes.

Symbols were once of great importance.  It is said that early Christian symbolism emerged as a secret code so that  Christians could identify each other and their safe houses to avoid arrests and persecution.  In illiterate societies the symbols could be deconstructed into complex philosophical concepts or narratives.  Unfortunately, today's Western societies uses symbolism for fashion rather than to convey meaning thus rendering them meaningless; people lack the drive to understand the deeper meanings of them; and they lack the cultural will to enforce these meanings.
“Cultural literacy is the ability to converse fluently in the idioms, allusions, and informal content that creates and constitutes a dominant culture. From being familiar with street signs to knowing historical references to understanding the most recent slang, literacy demands interaction with the culture and reflection of it. Knowledge of a canonical set of literature is not sufficient in and of itself when engaging with others in a society, as life is interwoven with art, expression, history, and experience. Cultural literacy requires familiarity with a broad range of trivia and implies the use of that trivia in the creation of a communal language and collective knowledge. Cultural literacy stresses the knowledge of those pieces of information that content creators will assume the audience already possesses.”

The thing is that cultural literacy can take a lifetime and no one can be expected to know everything.  However, once we have it we can see the meanings of things which makes life more rich.  I do not believe that Salis and Steinlen had intended their poster to have so much meaning, but it’s there.  This simple image of a sitting black cat conveys so much of what Romanticism is all about.