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.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Situations and relationships

On occasion, this blog will become ruminative, which is a slightly more winy (not whiny) version of reflective.
This rumination, with no literature to back it up, is occasioned by my realisation that, whereas hitherto I've had the situation of a new puppy in a new home, which lots of books had lots to say about, I now have on my hands a relationship, which is to say a highly individuated (I think the word is from Hopkins, or even Duns Scotus, otherwise it would sound insufferably psychobabble) puppy growing into a dog and needing to make it clear all the way to me. Situations are static, relationships are dynamic. We are beyond what the books can tell us; we are at the coalface of raw interaction. This, I imagine, is what parents feel when their kid moves off beyond the margins and boundaries of Dr Spock into the wild uncharted area of teenagehood. It's terra incognita, it's Where the Wild Things Are. The testing of the boundaries is, of course, tiresome, but then one realises that it's exactly proportionate to a growing sense of interdependence. In short, Simon is being bloody impossible because he's realising that  for better or for worse he's stuck with me for the time being (and alas for him, unlike most teenagers, for the rest of his or my natural life.)
Is this a lament? By no means. Of course the puppy stage, which mainly required cuddling, was wonderful. But who wouldn't rather have a relationship than a situation?

After that, the photos are bound to seem arbitrary. Photographically, my relationship so far has meant I take the photos and he poses for them.  A bit like Diane Arbus and Susan Sontag , if you really think about it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bunchie and Diogenes: How to Deal with Dogs in Books

Here's a literary quiz: in which two novels do Bunchie and Diogenes respectively appear?
Okay, you've peeked:

So which dog is in which novel?
Give up? Okay, here's Bunchie:

His face was turned towards the house, but his eyes were bent musingly on the lawn; so that he had been an object of observation to a person who had just made her appearance in the ample doorway for some moments before he perceived her. His attention was called to her by the conduct of his dog, who had suddenly darted forward with a little volley of shrill barks, in which the note of welcome, however, was more sensible than that of defiance. The person in question was a young lady, who seemed immediately to interpret the greeting of the small beast. He advanced with great rapidity and stood at her feet, looking up and barking hard; whereupon, without hesitation , she stooped and caught him in her hands, holding him face to face while he continued his quick chatter. His master now had had time to follow and to see that Bunchie's new friend was a tall girl in a black dress, who at first sight looked pretty. 
The girl spoke to Ralph, smiling, while she still held up the terrier. 'Is this your little dog, sir?'
'He was mine a moment ago; but you've suddenly acquired a remarkable air of property in him.'
'Couldn't we share him?' asked the girl. 'He's such a perfect little darling.'
Ralph looked at her a moment; she was unexpectedly pretty. 'You may have him altogether.'

I suppose we must forgive Ralph Touchett, who is one of James's most appealing characters, for giving away his dog to the first pretty girl who offers (although George Eliot would have visited the direst punishment upon his head for such superficiality). But I find it hard to forgive James for creating this 'perfect little darling', and then relegating him to the limbo of literary dogs that disappear. Bunchie just vanishes from the tale, and Isabel Archer, for all her air of property, doesn't seem to miss him. One can almost feel that she deserves Gilbert Osmond, who of course does not have a dog.
At which point, let me digress from my topic, to glance at a blackguard who does keep dogs  : the unspeakable Grandcourt in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. He is generally assumed to have been the model for James's Gilbert Osmond, and there certainly is a family resemblance. Grandcourt, however, does keep dogs. Here he is with his toady and sycophant, a man called Lush:
Mr Grandcourt had drawn his chair aside so as to face the lawn, and, with his left leg over another chair, and his right elbow on the table, was smoking a large cigar, while his companion was still eating. The dogs -- half-a-dozen of various kinds were moving lazily in and out, or taking attitudes of brief attention -- gave a vacillating preference first to one gentleman, then the other; being dogs in such good circumstances that they could play at hunger, and liked to be served with delicacies which they declined to put into their mouths; all except Fetch, the beautiful liver-coloured water-spaniel, which sat with its fore-paws  firmly planted and its expressive brown face turned upward, watching Grandcourt with unshaken constancy. He held in his lap a tiny Maltese dog with a tiny silver collar and bell, and when he had a hand unused by cigar or coffee-cup, it rested on this small parcel of animal warmth. I fear that Fetch was jealous, and wounded that her master gave her no word or look; at last it seemed that she could bear this neglect no longer, and she gently put her large silky paw on her master's leg. Grandcourt looked at her with unchanged face for half a minute, and then took the trouble to lay down his cigar while he lifted the unimpassioned Fluff close to his chin and gave it caressing pats, all the while gravely watching Fetch, who, poor thing, whimpered interruptedly, as if trying to repress that sign of discontent, and at last rested her head beside the appealing paw, looking up with piteous beseeching. [...]'Turn out that brute, will you?' said Grandcourt to Lush, without raising his voice or looking at him ...
Would you marry this man?Poor Gwendolen Harleth does. Read Daniel Deronda.

But that, as I said, was a digression. Diogenes, then, is a large, friendly dog who befriends little Paul Dombey at school. When Paul dies, Diogenes is given to Florence Dombey, his lonely sister. This is his arrival:
But though Diogenes was as ridiculous a dog as one would meet with on a summer's day; a blundering, ill-favoured, clumsy, bullet-headed dog, continually acting on a wrong idea that there was an enemy in the neighbourhood, whom it was meritorious to bark at; and though he was far from good-tempered, and certainly was not clever, and had hair all over his eyes, and a comic nose, and an inconsistent tail, and a gruff voice; he was dearer to Florence, in virtue of that parting remembrance of him [by her brother Paul on his deathbed] and that request that he might be taken care of, than the most valuable and beautiful of his kind.
Florence Dombey is clearly a less fickle type than Isabel Archer. And yet, when Dickens came to write his happy ending, HE FORGOT ALL ABOUT DIOGENES.  But fortunately he remembered in time (I think he was travelling  on the Continent at the time), when the novel was being serialised, and wrote to his publisher instructing him to include Diogenes in the curtain-call. So now Dombey and Son  ends like this (it's not quite the last paragraph, but close enough):
Autumn days are shining, and on the sea-beach there are often a young lady, and a white-haired gentleman. With them, or near them, are two children: boy and girl. And an old dog is generally in their company. 

My point is really only one that Dickens, the great crowd-pleaser,  instinctively realised: every dog-lover reading Dombey and Son will want to know what happened to Diogenes. James forgot that lesson, and The Portrait of a Lady is a flawed masterpiece as a result. It's called closure, and Dickens knew all about it. So did Mark Twain. Here is a funeral scene from Huckleberry Finn:
Then the Reverend Hobson opened up, slow and solemn, and begun to talk; and straight off the most outrageous row busted out in the cellar a body ever heard; it was only one dog, but he made a most powerful racket, and he kept it up right along; the parson he had to stand there, over the coffin, and wait -- you couldn't hear yourself think. It was right down awkward, and nobody didn't seem to know what to do. But pretty soon they see that long-legged undertaker make a sign to the preacher as much as to say, "Don't you worry -- just depend on me." Then he stooped down and begun to glide along the wall, just his shoulders showing over the people's heads. So he glided along, and the powwow and racket getting more and more outrageous all the time; and at last, when he had gone around two sides of the room, he disappears down cellar. Then in about two seconds we heard a whack, and the dog he finished up with a most amazing howl or two, and then everything was dead still, and the parson begun his solemn talk where he left off. In a minute or two here comes this undertaker's back and shoulders gliding along the wall again; and so he glided and glided around three sides of the room, and then rose up, and shaded his mouth with his hands, and stretched his neck out towards the preacher, over the people's heads, and says, in a kind of a coarse whisper, "He had a rat!" Then he drooped down and glided along the wall again to his place. You could see it was a great satisfaction to the people, because naturally they wanted to know. A little thing like that don't cost nothing, and it's just the little things that makes a man to be looked up to and liked. There warn't no more popular man in town than what that undertaker was.
As Huck says, it was a great satisfaction to the people, because naturally they wanted to know. And a little thing like that  don't cost nothing -- so tell us what happened to the dog.
Which is a good excuse to bring you up to date on Simon. He has, of course, been growing. He's got into the habit of raiding my wastepaper bin. I don't know if he just misjudged his angle, or whether his head had overnight grown by a crucial millimeter, but this is how he ended up yesterday:

And what happened to the dog? Well, Dickens's advice to story-tellers was: 'Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.' So watch this space.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

We All Lose Our Charms in the End

A good friend, a mature and sensible woman, writes to me that she is 'aghast' to see that Simon has lost his puppy cuteness and has become a long-legged teenager. 'Stop feeding him!' she entreats.

Well, yes, I can see that those legs have rather got ahead of the rest of the body. And already, when Simon goes to the park, he's getting fewer cuddles and coos. It would seem, according to Hal Herzog's invaluable Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, that this is normal -- sad, but normal. Someone with more research grants than they could sensibly spend did a test:
University of California  at Santa Barbara researchers were interested in changes in the attractiveness of a golden retriever puppy named Goldie as she matured. Over a five-month period, they took Goldie to a highly traveled spot on campus where she would sit for an hour with her 'owner' (actually an assistant in the study), while the researchers tallied the number of passersby who came over to pet or play with her. Goldie's ability to seduce strangers decreased precipitously  as she transitioned from puppy to adult. Her drop in popularity was especially steep among women. When Goldie was at her cutest, women were twice as likely as men to chat her up. But by the end of the study, the number of women who stopped to stroke her head and say hi had dropped 95%, and the sex difference had completely disappeared.
Alas, poor Goldie. And alas anybody (over, say twenty-four) who makes a habit of seducing strangers. Of course, the study only proved what we know, which is  that, well, in the words of the song, we all lose our charms in the end. Also, in the words of another song, la donna e mobile.
There's a poem by Robert Frost that is (tangentially) related to the topic. It's called
The Span of Life
The old dog barks backward without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
Of course, as always with Frost, it's the human perspective that interests him: the poem is not really about the dog's span of life, but about the speaker's -- or rather, it's about the interaction between the two spans. I can remember what the dog can't because I have a longer span -- but that doesn't mean that my span is unlimited. There's a theory that all sorrow is in effect a mourning for our own death, that we find tragedies sad because we see in them an image of all mortality, which is to say our own. It's beautifully expressed by G.M Hopkins in his poem
Spring and Fall
(To a young child) 
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! As the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh,
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had no nor mind expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Well, poor Margaret, having that lot dumped on her.  And poor readers of this blog, ending up with the gloomy topics again. The photographs will  have to make up for the verbal content. Here's Simon with Thomas (his junior by all of five days), a Belgian Shepherd who came to call. It's what Sylvia Plath called, admittedly thinking of a human baby, 'A common-sense/ Thumbs-down on the dodo's mode' ( a thumbs-down this blog is sorely in need of):

 And no, you needn't remind me of what happened to Sylvia Plath.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Importance of Being Cute

My title is taken from a chapter heading in Hal Herzog's book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. He argues, not surprisingly, that cuteness has real survival value for animals -- the difference between loving them and hating them or eating them may just be a matter of appearance. The Canadian government, according to Hertzog, in 1987 succumbed ('sort of') to public protests over the culling of baby seals: they banned the killing of seal pups under fourteen days old -- fourteen days being when the pups cease being so cute as to make bad copy on a poster. (This does, though, make me wonder: how come people eat sucking pig?)
Herzog argues, following Konrad Lorenz, that the 'cute response'  is triggered by the fact that humans are attracted to anything that looks like a human baby, and that 'young animals share features with human infants: large foreheads and craniums, big eyes, bulging cheeks and soft contours.'


Bulging cheeks? Large cranium?  I don't see it. (Need I spell it out that in my book the puppy is cuter than the baby?) I wonder if one could do a test: take a puppy to the park, as I've been doing every morning. Count the number of people who approach the puppy, stroke it, play with it, ask a question about it. I'd say it runs to about 90% of everybody in the park. Now take a baby to the park. This I haven't done (nobody wants to lend me their baby) , but I'm willing to wager that the cute response will be way down at 50% max. But I'm open to persuasion: anybody out there with a baby?  (Okay, my sample is pre-selected. The park is frequented by dog-lovers. Okay, then, take the baby to the mall.)

Here are my friends Hans and Andre interacting with Simon:

Now my question is this: are my friends responding to Simon's baby-like features? Or what? (The test would be to confront them with a live baby next time and see how they respond.)

Then there's another question: granted that cuteness has undoubted survival value, in that humans are attracted to animals in proportion to their cuteness --as Herzog says, 'This is bad news for the rare giant Chinese Salamander. It is the largest and possibly most repulsive amphibian on earth, a beady-eyed, six-foot-long mass of brown slime.' But then again, in China this may be the only way to escape being eaten --  granted, as I say, that we love animals because they're cute, what is that makes animals love us? Why would Simon give the time of day to two fully-grown unshaven human males? 

It's a mystery.