This is a blog inspired by the acquisition of a new puppy (Simon, a Dobermann, born 15/11/2010). However, since even I don't really believe the emotional life of a puppy can sustain a blog indefinitely, I'm combining such reflections as Simon's progress gives rise to with my other indulgence, books. So this will be about books and dogs, in particular books about dogs, and dogs in books. There'll also be plenty of photos of Simon.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Isn't it where there are cows?

A regular feature, or sometimes background aspect, of this blog has been The Park. This is where Simon was first taken to socialise with other dogs and with human beings of all types and temperaments, and where he met his friend Charlie (see an earlier blog, 'He came to stay'). This is also where he could chase balls and generally run free, along with hundreds of other dogs similarly unfettered. He's been going there every day, often twice a day, for more than two years. There was an occasional squabble, and sometimes, usually on a Sunday, a once-a-week visitor who objected to dogs running free, and tried to remonstrate with the off-leash owners, of course without making any impression whatsoever. But in general the atmosphere was easy-going, sociable, tolerant. 

That is Simon's backside that is being sniffed by a passerby, and that is Charlie, approaching to sniff the passer-by's backside. 

And one of the joys of the park, from a dog's point of view, is that there's a river -- more negotiable for a retriever like Charlie than a Dobermann like Simon:

Now, possibly at the behest of the Sunday killjoys, the municipality has erected a spanking new sign spelling out, or depicting, the do's and (mainly) don'ts of using the park. 

Most of the regulations are sensible, in that their transgression clearly constitutes a nuisance or danger to other users (although the ban on organised ball games on a sports field seems inexplicable). But that dejected-looking dog on a leash? Do the authorities really expect the couple of hundred dogs that visit the park daily to be trundled along on leashes? WHY?

Now I accept that there are reasons to leash dogs: for their own protection in traffic, for the protection of others if the dog has an uncertain temperament. Simon, after all, is walked all the way to the park on a leash, as witness his array of collars: 

So there may be a reason for a leash under certain circumstances -- which does not, however, constitute an imperative for a leash under all circumstances. In fuming about this trite enough point, I found myself recalling Robert Frost's famous poem. 'Mending Wall'. It's too long to quote here in toto, and, as I say, it's pretty well-known anyway, but here's the most relevant bit.The speaker is trying to get his neighbour to see the pointlessness of the wall they exhaust themselves in mending every year.  For 'wall' read 'leash' or any other restriction:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbours.'
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.'
But here there are no cows: that sums up the park, as far as I'm concerned. And I'm happy to report that the good citizens of Somerset West have proved as indifferent to  official decree as the stray dogs of Istanbul (see previous blog).

But since I'm on a Frost outing here, and on the subject of freedom and confinement, here's his wonderful sonnet 'The Silken Tent', which explores and indeed exemplifies the equilibrium-in-tension between freedom and constraint:
She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when a sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys in gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware. 
 Without the bondage, of course, the tent would collapse: the ropes are what enable the tent gently to sway at ease. 'Strictly held by none' and yet 'loosely bound' : that's why Simon has a collar, with a leash to attach to it where there are cows (or cars). Admittedly, it's pushing things to think of his leash as a 'silken tie of love and thought'; and 'going slightly taut' is a severe under-description of what happens to the leash when Simon's 'capriciousness' takes charge -- but hey, who said a dog was a silken  tent  anyway?

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The dogs of Istanbul: 'these mad, lost creatures'?

In his melancholy (you'll be hearing that word a lot in this posting) memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City (2005), Orhan Pamuk turns his melancholy gaze upon that perennial problem, the city's stray dogs:

They all look alike, their coats all the same colour for which no one has a name-- a colour somewhere between grey and charcoal, that is no colour at all. They are the bane of the city council: when the army stages a coup, it is only a matter of time before a general mentions the dog menace; the state and the school system have launched campaign after campaign to drive dogs from the streets, but still they roam free. Fearsome as they are, united as they have been in their defiance of the state, I can't help pitying these mad, lost creatures still clinging to their old turf. 
Pamuk, then, sees dogs as an emanation of that quintessential Istanbul mode,  huzun, (the word needs two umlauts, but my blogger doesn't seem to supply them),
which denotes a melancholy that is communal rather than private. Offering no clarity; veiling reality instead, huzun brings us comfort, softening the view like the condensation on a window when a tea kettle has been spouting steam on a winter's day.  .. Now we begin to understand huzun as, not the melancholy of a solitary person, but the black mood shared by millions of people together. What I am trying to explain is the huzun of an entire city, of Istanbul. 
Admittedly the dogs, as described here, hardly seem to be a source of comfort.   But, like the black mood called huzun, the dogs are 'shared by millions of people together.' And the fact that they have survived any number of attempts to eradicate them, may suggest that they are at any rate not universally detested. Even Pamuk, as we have seen, expresses pity for them -- and surely there is some admiration, too, in seeing them as 'united ... in their defiance of the state'? And in 'still they roam free'?

I spent just over a week in Istanbul last September, and I can by no means claim to have come to know a city  as huge, complex and unknowable as Istanbul in that time. But from a necessarily superficial tourist perspective: well, yes, one cannot but notice the dogs. They are everywhere.

But do they seem like 'mad, lost creatures'? Not to the tourist eye; but then, these are dogs that have adapted to the tourist spots, where the pickings are probably richer than in the backstreets of Istanbul. (That lady in the white sneakers will surely slip that dog a crust of bread?) As a friend of mine commented, the stray dogs of Istanbul seem in pretty good nick. In fact, many of the stray dogs have plastic tags attached to their ears; it was explained to me that this meant that they'd been captured, neutered and vaccinated, and returned to the streets. More humane and probably more realistic than trying to eradicate them.

Istanbul, of course, is a Muslim city, and by and large Muslims are, for religious reasons, not dog-friendly. It's not the least surprising aspect of this unpredictable city that its inhabitants seem nevertheless to have developed a live-and-let-live relationship with 'their' dogs. This was brought home to me with particular vividness one hot afternoon in one of Istanbul's most frantic thoroughfares, on the main tram route. A young dog was moseying about in the street, more or less minding its own business. A passing truck stopped, I think for a traffic light, and the driver tried to attract the dog's attention,  heaven knows why: perhaps the driver was just bored, or he wanted to take the dog home for his kids. The dog was not particularly interested. (The dogs of Istanbul seem to tolerate humans with about the same benign indifference as humans extend to them.) The driver produced a plastic carrier bag to attract the dog's attention, and then, as the traffic started to move, dropped the bag and drove off. The young dog was now interested in the bag, and started playing with it in the middle of the road, right on a tram track .

I was aghast, expecting a tram to come hurtling around the corner at any moment. I tried to call the dog, but how do you call a Turkish dog? This one seemed oblivious to my efforts.   I was  somewhat heartened to find that my concern was shared by any number of passers-by, notably a group of kids, who did all they could to get the dog off the tracks: 

With some success:

But Istanbul dogs are independent creatures, and this one soon left his saviours behind and returned to the street: 

 In case you were wondering, the dog sensibly got off the tracks after this and disappeared down a side street.

When I told an Istanbullu  this story, she said, 'Oh, you needn't have worried. The tram would have stopped for the dog.' (I must add that the same person said to me, 'We don't read Pamuk in Istanbul. He's too depressing.')

Perhaps huzun, which after all sounds like a muscular kind of sentimentality, makes allowances for trams and stray dogs alike.  In a way, this seems more natural than the dog-loving capitals of the world, where dogs are coddled and cossetted but not allowed anywhere off lead . More on this topic soon.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

The thinking man's dog -- or the thinking dog's man?

Philosopher's can't seem to let go of the question whether or not dogs can think. I have had occasion on this blog to refer to Philosopher or Dog? and The Philospher's Dog, both books in their different ways dealing with this central problem. But there are plenty of other such books out there. So, in 2004 there was How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind by Stanley Coren, and in 2005 If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind by Raymon Coppinger.  I have not read either of these books, but they were lucidly reviewed  by Bruce Blumberg and Raymond Coppinger in Natural History of February 2005, under a title that  pretty much pre-empts the review itself: 'Can dogs think? Maybe yes, and maybe no. What dogs do quite well, though, is make people think that dogs can think.' Talk of covering your bets.  So if I think that my dog can think, that is because I've been conned by my dog into thinking that dogs can think. But doesn't that require the dog to think at quite an advanced level of cerebration? I mean, duplicity is one step up from mere thinking, no?  Blumberg and Coppinger warn against this kind of thinking:
If dogs could write books, a good topic would be the following brain-twister: "How should dogs behave in order to get people to think that dogs are thinking like people do, so that people will behave as dogs want them to?" But even to imagine this possibility is to fall, however briefly, into the anthropomorphic trap that lies in wait for all who study dogs.
Anthropomorphism, of course, is the cardinal sin in thinking about animals: in appropriating them to human patterns of thought, it denies them their animalness. And yet, of course, human patterns of thought are all we have in trying to understand animals.  So round and round we go.
If I can be crashingly obvious, surely the answer to the question Can Dogs Think? is It Depends on what you Mean by Thinking. And what  so exercises the philosophers is not a deep interest in dogs but an advanced and often abstruse interest in the nature of thought. For the purposes of most dog owners, it suffices to accept that dogs can think about things that concern them: not the origin of the universe, but the source of their dog biscuit; not the meaning of life, but the meaning of 'walkies!' And they can link cause and effect, if they are interested enough in the effect.
Simon, for instance, has thought long and hard about his throw toy, and how to get most mileage out of it.  

 His quandary, if I may so anthropomorphise that expression on his face, is how to get me once again to throw the toy for him to retrieve. His mental processes are quite up to making the connection between the toy and me:
He then makes a further connection: the pool:

He also knows that I retrieve objects that fall into the pool. So, by a further association of ideas:

So guess who gets to retrieve the toy.

 Poets, unlike philosophers, have never really had the problem of ascribing cerebration to dogs. Used to finding likeness in unlikeness, they anthropomorphise beautifully. Here is Billy Collins's 'Two Creatures' (thank you, Lou-Marie, for sending it to me):

The last time I looked, the dog was lying
on the freshly cut grass
but now she has moved under the picnic table.

I wonder what causes her to shift
from one place to another,
to get up for no apparent reason from her spot

by the stove, scratch one ear,
then relocate, slumping down
on the other side of the room by the big window,

or I will see her hop onto the couch to nap
then later find her down
on the Turkish carpet, her nose in the fringe.

The moon rolls across the night sky
and stops to peer down on the earth,
and the dog rolls through these rooms

and onto the lawn, pausing here and there
to sleep or to stare up at me, head in her paws,
to consider the scentless pen in my h

or the open book on my lap.
And because her eyes always follow me,
she must wonder, too, why

I shift from place to place,
from the couch to the sink
or the pencil sharpener on the wall –

two creatures bound by the wonderment
though unlike her, I have never once worried
after letting her out the back door

that she would take off in the car
and leave me to die
behind the solid locked doors of this house.

So Collins's  'I wonder' moves naturally  to the speculation 'she must wonder, too'.  Cogito ergo cogitat: I think therefore she thinks. I can see the logical problems here, but I can't see any other basis for such a close relationship:  'two creatures bound by the wonderment'.  The distance of incomprehension between us is what binds us: I can live with that.

More frankly anthropomorphic is Thom Gunn's 'Yoko':

All today I lie in the bottom of the wardrobe
feeling low but sometimes getting up
to moodily lumber across rooms
and lap from the toilet bowl, it is so sultry
and then I hear the noise of firecrackers again
all New York is jaggedy with firecrackers today
and I go back to the wardrobe gloomy
trying to void my mind of them.
I am confused, I feel loose and unfitted.

At last deep in the stairwell I hear a tread,

it is him, my leader, my love.
I run to the door and listen to his approach.
Now I can smell him, what a good man he is,
I love it when he has the sweat of work on him,
as he enters I yodel with happiness,
I throw my body up against his,
I try to lick his lips,
I care about him more than anything.

After we eat we go for a walk to the piers.

I leap into the standing warmth, I plunge into
the combination of old and new smells.
Here on a garbage can at the bottom, so interesting,
what sister or brother I wonder left this message I sniff.
I too piss there, and go on.
Here a hydrant there a pole
here's a smell I left yesterday, well that's disappointing
but I piss there anyway, and go on.

I investigate so much that in the end

it is for form's sake only, only a drop comes out.

I investigate tar and rotten sandwiches, everything, and go on.

And here a dried old turd, so interesting

so old, so dry, yet so subtle and mellow.
I can place it finely, I really appreciate it,
a gold distant smell like packed autumn leaves in winter
reminding me how what is rich and fierce when excreted
becomes weathered and mild
but always interesting
and reminding me of what I have to do.

My leader looks on and expresses his approval.

I sniff it well and later I sniff the air well

a wind is meeting us after the close July day
rain is getting near too but first the wind.
Joy, joy,
being outside with you, active, investigating it all,
with bowels emptied, feeling your approval
and then running on, the big fleet Yoko,
my body in its excellent black coat never lets me down,
returning to you (as I always will, you know that)
and now
filling myself out with myself, no longer confused,
my panting pushing apart my black lips, but unmoving,
I stand with you braced against the wind. 

Yes, of course, the worst kind of anthropomorphism, that ascribes not only thought to the dog, but a kind of slave-like adoration. But then, who, in the end, really belongs to whom? Ask Simon.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Ball Drive

I was told recently, as a compliment, that Simon has 'good ball drive'. This, it seems, is not to be confused with ball sense (which I have always regretted not having more of: it seems to yield such disproportionate rewards to its possessors): it is not really a skill at all, just a maniacal determination to chase any ball in sight or smell. This is what it looks like in action:

The other two ball-driven dogs, by the way, are Balu the Vislu and Dusty the Weimaraner, park acquaintances of Simon's, and they're all waiting for Andy, Balu and Dusty's owner, to let fly with the ball. As he duly did:

The ball is in there somewhere (remember those spot-the-ball competitions in newspapers?), but Simon is not really chasing the ball as much as the other dog. So perhaps he isn't really ball-driven?
Perhaps. But then there is the Yellow Ball, which in fact made its first appearance on this blog some time ago, as one of the items in Simon's cornucopia of toys. It is, alas, one of the few surviving  items, the others having been systematically chewed to pieces; but even it has not escaped intact. The original concept  behind the Yellow Ball (who thinks up dog toys anyway?) was thoughtful: the ball had a little adjustable hatch through which one could fill the ball with pellets or other treats; by regulating the aperture one could then control the release of pebbles; the dog, the theory ran, would discover that by rolling the ball he could release pebbles, and would thus remain happily occupied for hours while you got on with writing your novel or baking your cake. In practice, the dog, or Simon in this instance, got impatient with the gradual-release principle and chewed off the little hatch, thus releasing all the pebbles at once and rendering the ball useless for its intended purpose. But this was just the start of the fun for Simon. The gaping hole where the hatch used to be now provides him with a handy grip on the otherwise somewhat rebarbative ball:

Actually, it would seem from this picture that Simon no longer needs the gaping hole (the flat bit on the right), and has mastered the art of gripping the ball by the spikes. This may all be part of Ball Drive. But the really charming thing about the yellow ball, as far as Simon is concerned, is that he can ram it into my back while I'm crouching at my computer, the handy spikes driven into my flesh then serving to goad me into throwing the ball  as far away as I can -- at times, in desperation, into the pool. The point about Ball Drive is that it is not a Directionless Drive; it must drive something or someone somewhere, if only to distraction. It's an overrated accomplishment, I'd say, but then, I don't have it; I'm just the one driven.
As far as I know, there isn't much in literature about Ball Drive (although I haven't read Victor Matfield's recently-appeared memoir; it may be all about Ball Drive). Well, there is, of course, John Berryman's

The Ball Poem

What is the boy now, who has lost his ball,
What, what is he to do? I saw it go
Merrily bouncing, down the street, and then
Merrily over--there it is in the water!
No use to say 'O there are other balls':
An ultimate shaking grief fixes the boy
As he stands rigid, trembling, staring down
All his young days into the harbour where
His ball went. I would not intrude on him,
A dime, another ball, is worthless. Now
He senses first responsibility
In a world of possessions. People will take balls,
Balls will be lost always, little boy,
And no one buys a ball back. Money is external.
He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes,
The epistemology of loss, how to stand up
Knowing what every man must one day know
And most know many days, how to stand up
And gradually light returns to the street
A whistle blows, the ball is out of sight,
Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour . . I am everywhere,
I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move
With all that move me, under the water
Or whistling, I am not a little boy.

I would not want to trivialise the poem by finding parallels between the grief-shaken boy and Simon, but 'as he stands, rigid, trembling' certainly admirably describes Simon's waiting for  the throw of the ball -- not, though, the 'epistemology of loss'  as much as the anticipation of -- what? What is it that drives ball drive? What does Simon expect at the end of the chase?
So, unexpectedly, we end up in the realm of philosophy again. Because who is it that Simon reminds us of in his tireless chasing after a ball that is repeatedly flung out of his reach for him to pursue all over again? Why, Sisyphus of course, rolling his rock uphill eternally, only to have it roll back down again.  And now we see what Camus meant, in The Myth of Sisyphus, when he said 'We must imagine Sisyphus happy': Sisyphus had ball drive.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Discipline and Punish

I used that heading really only to smuggle a book title into this blog, since I don't think there'll be many other books  mentioned this time round. But since I mentioned it, here it is, being perused, or at any rate sniffed,  by Simon.
I  can't claim to have done much more than sniff at Foucault in a long career of literary study, much of it coinciding with a veritable explosion of interest in Foucault. One of the minor joys of retirement is that I no longer feel I have to have read Foucault (as for wanting to read Foucault, I don't think even Foucault can imagine that), along with Lacan, Derrida, and all the French genuises. (Who was it who said that when the emperor needs new clothes he shops in Paris?)
So this blog is not about Foucault. It is about discipline, though not about punish.
As a responsible dog owner, I know that a trained dog is a happy dog, and, slightly more convincingly, that a trained dog alienates fewer people than an untrained dog (there are of course people who are alienated by dogs, whether trained or not, but they deserve neither our concern nor our even our time). I decided to invest in a trainer, not because I think a trainer knows magic tricks I can't pick up from books, but as a discipline (that word again) for myself. I know I am unlikely to keep up a training routine unless I have a structure in place to do so, and twice a week seemed like a manageable structure.
Somebody recommended Ivan (not his real name), so I phoned Ivan. He explained that he came to your house, and didn't use 'bribes', only plenty of praise. This seemed good, and I enrolled Simon for the obligatory 3-month course (at R900 a month, not a snip). Ivan sounded mildly surprised when I said I wanted to be part of the training; I suspect that since his Unique Selling Point is that he does home visits, he attracts clients who are only too happy to have their dogs trained for them while they do something more constructive like watching telly. I can't quite see the point of having a dog that's been trained to obey a stranger, but there's a lot of dog training I don't see the point of.
Ivan duly arrived in his Toyota bakkie. Ensconced (the OED tells me a sconce is a 'small fortification', which is accurate enough, except I'm talking BIG fortification) in the passenger seat was Ivan's daughter Ivana (not her real name), who filled so much of the cab that I wondered how Ivan could get to to the controls. She remained in position for the whole of the first lesson, chewing gum and fiddling with her mobile. In the back of the bakkie was Xolani (not his real name), who emerged only when called upon to do so, about which more later. In later classes, Ivana emerged from time to time to take Ivan's place; Simon seemed if not fascinated then at least interested; in all his months of socialisation he had never come across a human being occupying quite so much open space. 
Ivan elected to have the training sessions on the plot of open ground in front of my house. This was probably a good idea, since that is more like Real Life than my lawn, and Real Life is what Simon has to learn to deal with. Real Life and Discipline.
Since I have now dug up my old copy of Discipline and Punish, I checked what Foucault has to say on the subject of discipline. Of course, he has in mind soldiers and prisoners rather than dogs (imagine Foucault as a dog trainer: the Barbara Woodhouse of Social Science), but discipline is discipline, and, according to Michel, 'In the first instance, discipline proceeds from the distribution of individuals in space.' 
So Ivan and I set about distributing Simon in space. Mainly we tried to distribute him in a sitting position, and get him to remain in that position when told to do so. But from the start Ivan and Simon did not click, as we say. (Clicker training is a whole different ball game, as it were, heavily dependent on 'bribes', or treats as they are called by proponents of the method.) When told to sit, Simon would consider his options, scan the surrounding territory, and if nothing presented itself to his indifferent gaze, would sit down in a kind of limp slump, for which I would be told to praise him lavishly. He seemed not particularly gratified at my praise. When told to 'stay' (I am here  telescoping various classes into one), he would stay only if there was absolutely nothing else to do; more often, he would start digging a hole or peeing against a tree. As for the 'recall': this involves first getting your dog to stay, then calling him to you excitedly while gesturing frantically (Foucault talks of the correlation of the body and the gesture, in this instance Simon's body with my gesture.) The theory is that the dog, having been straining at the invisible leash of your 'stay' command, will now joyfully run towards you, ready to perform your every wish. In practice, Simon either lay down and went to sleep, or turned around and trotted off to look for a pine cone.
In short, Simon was as bored with the classes as I was, only not  as good as I at hiding his boredom. I could see that Ivan was getting rather short of patience with both of us, and he started almost wistfully telling me about his days of training Dobermanns for the police, the unspoken subtext being that there were alternative methods of training which might not come amiss in stubborn cases. As Foucault says: 'In discipline, punishment is only one element of a double system: gratification-punishment. And it is this system that operates in the  process of training and correction.' And though Ivan wasn't exactly saying it, I could see that he felt we'd had enough of gratification; had he but known it, he was right in there with Foucault. When Simon wouldn't 'down' when told to do so, Ivan instructed me to step on his lead and force him down, which produced an undignified wrestling match, with Simon eventually rolling over on his back and biting the lead.
One of Ivan's party tricks was Food Refusal. For this we needed Xolani; indeed Food Refusal was Xolani's raison d'etre. He'd clamber out from the back of the bakkie armed with a little packet of meat. Ivan would arm himself with a two-litre Coke bottle filled with pebbles. The trick was for Xolani to offer Simon some meat; if Simon made to accept it, Ivan would throw the Coke bottle at him with an almighty clatter of pebbles. This scared the hell out of Simon, but he managed to swallow the meat anyway, until he became so terrified of the Coke bottle that he ran away as soon as Xolani appeared. This, of course, is known as Aversion Therapy, and I'm afraid that what it taught Simon an aversion to was not the meat. Ivan, though, seemed to find the outcome satisfactory. Xolani remained completely impassive, as he was through every meeting; I preferred not to wonder what he was thinking.
The crunch came one day with the Choke Collar. Now, I'd told Ivan from the start that I wouldn't use a choke collar. Years ago, in the dark days of dog training. I'd taken my first dog, Henry, rest his saintly soul, to what then passed for obedience training: now known as the Yank and Stomp Method, usually executed by formidable British women in sensible shoes and no-nonsense manners, Barbara Woodhouse clones one and all. The basic move in Yank and Stomp is .. well, yank and stomp. You yell 'HEEL!" and yank the choke chain so hard that the dog leaps to attention or is jerekd into an upright position, you then stomp off, and if the dog is sufficiently intimidated he'll follow, fearing another yank. I stopped going to these classes when Henry, who was the soul of gentleness, growled at me, as he had every right to do.
Anyway. So I said to Ivan that I had trouble getting Simon to walk on lead. Aha, he said, and called Xolani forth from the back of the bakkie with a collar. This I immediately assumed to be a choke chain, and I said I didn't want to use it. Ivan explained that it wasn't actually a choke chain. I said then why use it, since Simon is wearing a perfectly good collar, and I want to know how to walk him with that. I can see that I must have struck Ivan as obstinate, and he had probably had enough of both me and Simon by then. 'Well, then,' he said, 'train your own bloody dog.' And he left, with Ivana impassively chewing gum in the passenger seat and Xolani glumly peering out of the back of the bakkie, and Simon and I ran home as if released from prison.
And now? I'm taking Simon to a group class on a beautiful farm near here, run by a wonderful trainer called Amanda (her real name), who thinks Simon is wonderful. Here he is bribed into more or less doing my bidding; the point, though, is that the atmosphere is such that it doesn't seem to matter over-much one way or the other, in spite of which Simon does seem to be learning something.  This is his 'Sit-stay':

And that collar? I have a suspicion it's indistinguishable from the one that Ivan produced. But if that was what it took to liberate me and Simon from that depressing bakkie-load, I don't care too much. Must be one of the few times that a collar actually served as an instrument of liberation. I wonder what Foucault would have made of that.

Monday, July 25, 2011

He came to stay

As I write, and if airlines perform according to schedule, Charlie's owners are arriving at Cape Town International after a holiday of slightly more than five weeks -- during which Charlie has been keeping Simon company and me occupied. I may have mentioned before that Charlie and Simon struck up a friendship in the park -- if  charging up and down trying to up-end each other can be called a friendship (as I suppose it can: after all, some rugby players are friends -- or are they? I don't know enough rugby players).

I was not quite sure whether a meeting in the park  constituted grounds for cohabitation, but on balance thought that canine incompatibility manifested itself more promptly and unmistakably than the human equivalent -- in short, if dogs are  going to have a dogfight, they have it when they meet rather than after a year of marriage. So Charlie came to stay.
The stay has been, I suppose, harmonious -- and if I hesitate over that word, it's not because there was discord, but because harmonious may suggest something easier on the ear than Charlie and Simon's accord. In short, it's been noisy, muddy, bumptious and generally untranquil -- but hey, tranquility is for pensioners, not young dogs. Besides, they did have their tranquil moments.

In short, the visit has been a success -- unlike the one I stole the title of this posting from, the one Simone de Beauvoir drew on for her revenge novel called She Came to Stay. I must confess that I haven't read the book -- I have an aversion to de Beauvoir and Sartre both, on account of their shabby treatment of Camus, who has been my intellectual hero ever since he was everybody's intellectual hero (except Simone and Jean-Paul's, of course).
This is the Googlebooks synopsis:
Set in Paris on the eve of World War II and sizzling with love, anger, and revenge, She Came to Stay explores the changes wrought in the soul of a woman and a city soon to fall. Although Françoise considers her relationship with Pierre an open one, she falls prey to jealousy when the gamine Xavière catches his attention. The moody young woman from the countryside pries her way between Françoise and Pierre, playing up to each one and deviously pulling them apart, until the only way out of the triangle is destruction. "Behind the sympathy there is curiosity. . . . A writer whose tears for her characters freeze as they drop." -- Sunday London Times
What the synopsis does not tell us is that the novel is based on the real life menage a trois that de Beauvoir and Sartre attempted with a real-life gamine -- or really a menage a quatre, since Xaviere seems to be a composite of the sisters Olga and Wanda Kosakiewicz. Be that as it may, She Came to Stay was de Beauvoir's act of revenge, and in it she deals with Xaviere as no doubt she wished she could deal with Olga.. So much for The Consolations of Philosophy.
This is a far cry from Charlie and Simon, who have no philosophy and no notion of revenge. As Raymond Gaita says in The Philosopher's Dog,

about his dog Gypsy, 'I am ...certain that when she lies on her mat or sits at the front door gazing out to sea, she is not thinking of her sins or the problems of philosophy.'
The one thing that the philosopher can be sure of, in other words, is that his dog is not a philosopher. But philosophy being philosophy, not all philosophers share this certainty.:

In this novel, the uncertainty arises because a philosopher called Quincas Borba has a dog called Quincas Borba. This predictably leads to some heavy ontological speculation -- culminating in this one, at book's end, when both philosopher and dog are dead, the dog dying after the philosopher:
 ...seeing that the dog's death is recounted in a special chapter, you will probably ask me whether it is he or his late namesake who gives this book its title, and why one rather than another -- a question pregnant with questions that would take us far.
A question pregnant with questions ... there is, of course, the famous Chinese philosopher who dreamt he was a butterfly, and was never certain ever after that he was not a butterfly dreaming he was a philosopher. Perhaps Gypsy is a philosopher with a dog called Raymond?
But for everyday purposes, I am tolerably sure that Simon is not a philosopher (though I wouldn't vouch for Charlie: that dark-brown gaze of his is either profoundly meditative or extremely dim). One thing I am sure of, and that will have to be the moral of this blog: If you're going to have a menage a trois, do it with a couple of dogs rather than a couple of philosophers.   Ask Xaviere.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Simon in Disgraceland

The invitation, as I mentioned in my last blog, said 'Dogs welcome.' The occasion was a J.M. Coetzee Festival in Richmond in the Great Karoo. Suppressing a slight scepticism as to the potential festiveness of an occasion dedicated to J.M. Coetzee, I accepted the invitation, packed my case and all Simon's paraphernalia (which took up most of the space in the car), and collected my friend Andre, who had kindly agreed to come along to help manage Simon. Not that Simon required much managing, at least at first. He lay in the back of the car very contentedly for the  duration of the seven hours plus that the trip took, with occasional pit stops. So everything was fine -- until we got to the guest house. The landlady had been warned of Simon's imminent arrival, and seemed grimly reconciled to his presence. Simon, however, took some persuading to get into the room; it is possible that it was the particular shade of pink that the room was draped in that scared him (I don't as a rule have much pink about at home), or perhaps the plethora of artificial flowers; either way, he balked, and had to be more or less dragged into the room. Once there, he made his dissatisfaction very clear:
(The tin, by the way, contained Simon's food). Despite Andre's valiant efforts to subdue Simon, we decided that, in the light of his destructive abilities as demonstrated in the previous blog, we should lock all pillows in the cupboard and all blankets in the bathroom. Even then, we felt that that it was unsafe to leave him unattended in this particular room, so he went with us for lunch at Die Vet Muis -- a restaurant I can recommend to anyone stopping over in Richmond, by the way: avoid the Wimpy on the N1, take the turnoff into Richmond itself, and there you'll find Die Vet Muis, serving excellent venison pie with pumpkin fritters for R55. Another plus from our point of view, was that they had tables on the stoep, so there was no problem with the fact that we had a largish Dobermann with us.
I had naively assumed that we'd be able to leave Simon in the room while we attended the Coetzee sessions, but for reasons sketched above we decided against this. So for the first afternoon, I attended the sessions, while Andre baby-sat Simon. It was clear, though, that this would not really be practicable for the all-day sessions on Saturday  -- even if Simon could tolerate being cooped up in a guest house bedroom for a whole day, Andre couldn't.  So we decided that Simon would go along to Disgraceland, as the festival was called:
Yes, I know, it looks like the town jail, with J.M. Coetzee as the Wanted man. The venue was in fact a bit more benign than this looks. Here's another shot:

And this was where we spent Saturday, listening to papers on Coetzee. I can't claim that Simon was an attentive audience, but I will say that he was very well-behaved, sitting quite still in the front row, only occasionally gnawing at his chew-bone rather audibly. I thought it only appropriate that a Coetzee festival should contain at least one live dog, as an implicit corrective to the Disgraceland perspective. This would have been a better story if Simon had more dramatically manifested  his resistance to that perspective, but I was only too grateful for his docility. I'll do it again, but next time check out the guest house colour scheme in advance.