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.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The world as udder

Yes, that's not a particularly attractive image, and in various ways inappropriate to a puppy. But here's the source, from that stern moralist, George Eliot, and her greatest novel (and one of the greatest novels ever written), Middlemarch:
We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves.
The implicit image, clearly, is that of a calf, and perhaps only George Eliot would think of a calf as in the first place morally stupid. (Okay, we none of us would cite calves as  exemplars of intellectual brilliance  -- but morally stupid?) The point is, I think, that what's charming in a young animal (and this is giving George the benefit of the doubt), is at best misleading, at worst reprehensible in human beings. Here is George Eliot again on the subject of young animals, this time from Adam Bede. She is describing Hetty, a pretty dairy maid -- or, in Eliot's term, 'that distracting kitten-like maiden':
Hetty's was a spring-tide beauty; it was the beauty of young frisking things, round-limbed , gambolling, circumventing you by a false air of innocence -- the innocence of a young star-browed calf, for example, that being inclined for a promenade out of bounds, leads you a severe steeple-chase over hedge and ditch, and only comes to a stand in the middle of a bog.
So spring-tide beauty leads straight into the the bog. (As Robert Frost more memorably put it in 'Nothing Gold Can Stay':   'Nature's first green is gold,/ Her hardest hue to hold./Her early leaf's a flower;/But only so an hour./Then leaf subsides to leaf./ So Eden sank to grief,/ So dawn goes down to day./Nothing gold can stay.')   The Eliotic view of innocence is severely moralistic: even a calf has a  'false air of innocence' -- and as for Hetty, readers of Adam Bede will know what a terrible fate Eliot is preparing for her --somewhat gloatingly, it is difficult not to feel.
The problem for Eliot is with 'our supreme selves', the tendency to see the world as conveniently created for our private purposes. The converse is to see the world as a place of restrictions and limitations. We've had these two world views in earlier blogs: on the one hand Larkin's lambs born in snow, not knowing that 'earth's immeasurable surprise' (Eliot's 'spring-tide beauty') is about to transfigure their experience; on the other hand the young steers who, exploring the limits of their world, come up against the muscle-shredding electric fence.
Well, an electric fence would have prevented Eliot's calf from straying 'out of bounds' into the bog; and a more rigid code of conduct would have spared poor Hetty the suffering that Eliot metes out to her.  But would we sacrifice 'earth's immeasurable surprise' for the sake of not suffering the  unpleasant surprise of the electric fence and the bog?

It has been interesting, watching Simon in his first week away from the udder, as it were, to note at what point  his assumption that the world is there for his free exploration has come up against the knowledge (if knowledge it can be called) that the world is also resistant matter, setting limits to his supreme self. The answer is that the knowledge comes almost immediately: by definition exploration will continue until it is checked. And it has been instructive witnessing Simon's outrage at the discovery, the righteous anger at a universe that does not arrange itself just as he might have preferred it. And before we know it, the will manifests itself, asserting itself against an intransigent reality.  Nothing gold can stay.


  1. There's something seriously wrong with this blog. After much thought, I've decided the problem is that it is too satisfying. The thoughts are interesting, beautifully expressed, the humour wry, the quotes brilliant, the photos charming. What to quarrel with? I can't wait for the next posting.
    What this blog needs is a good dose of non-sense, so we can chime in from the side lines with, 'What? Rubbish! What a weird notion!' Or, to use a Larkin sanctioned word, 'Crap!'
    I was moved to post a comment after the blog which suggested that mourning a pet was a first world indulgence. I expressed my opinion with some asperity, tried to post it... and failed. My daughter suggested that the lack of comments on this wonderful blog might have something to do with the lack of computer skills of its readers. Is this so?
    And yes, I agree that Middlemarch is one of the greatest novels ever written. But Fathers and Sons is better. (I ducked as I typed that.)

  2. I'll do my damndest to include some controversial and/or offensive material. And I'll take issue with Fathers and Sons when I've read it, which I'm ashamed to admit I haven't.

  3. Well I think it's quite refreshing to stumble onto a blog that lacks deliberately controversial material. Feels like one is in the company of grown-ups for a change.

    Anonymous, for controversy I'd recommend the rugby blog Plenty of adolescent mud-slinging going on there.

  4. I agree with you, Willie, though can you see why I deplore the lack of comment? The quote from Men of the South was really challenging. Do all Africans really feel no sadness at the death of their pets? Do they even have pets? The implication in the quote from Wanner's novel seemed to be that only spoilt, ex-pat NGO workers have pets in the first place. So are they merely an indulgence in a world of 'more pressing issues' than Michiel's puppy? And who decides the priority of these values? Given the implicit judgment, should I be ashamed that 'No animal was harmed' in the posting of this comment?

  5. Well, as someone who still chokes up remembering my dog, now 4 years dead, I'd like to think that the ability to love an animal is somewhere on the spectrum of the ability to love any living creature, with human beings somewhere in there too. Would the NGO worker have been in Africa at all if she had not been able to empathise with the sufferings of others, human or animal, though it does seem it was the order of preference that sank her (or was it her concerned friend?) in her co-workers eyes. Is George Eliot always so tough on the young and the innocent? Does she always suspect innocence of being quasi? She certainly doesn't do cute; I read Middlemarch a long time ago but I remember Rosamund Vince getting very short shrift.

  6. Oops. Vincy, not Vince. It was a long time ago.

  7. I'd certainly be hard pressed to think of a cute creature that gets George Eliot's approval. Even Totty, the toddler in Adam Bede, is likened, not affectionately, to a pig, if I remember correctly. I think that for Eliot cuteness is not enough: you need some sterner stuff as well. And cuteness militates against the sterner stuff, because you can rely on your cuteness to get you what you want. She does relent on Lucy, if that's the name, Maggie Tulliver's blonde-ringleted cousin in The Mill on the Floss, who is kind as well as cute. But Lucy's boy friend falls in love wit Maggie, so Lucy is,a s it were,redeemed by losing out. Now if she'd taken Maggie's boy friend ....