Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
- Melancholia’s Dog by Alice Kuzniar
Chicago, 215 pp, £16.50, October 2006, ISBN 0 226 46578 0
The dog/human bond, for all its importance, is one of the least examined relationships in Western culture. To some, a dog is merely an object, there to perform a function such as pulling a sled or guarding a property, to be discarded when no longer useful. To others, a dog is a stand-in, for a child to cherish or an enemy to abuse. To still others, a dog is like a body part – scarcely deemed to have a separate identity, and essential to normal existence. In such cases, the loss of the dog is like the loss of a hand, for which there would be no funeral. The sole mourner must deal as efficiently as possible with a loss that is permanent and irreparable. But no matter what the relationship may be, it has so little social recognition that a person with ‘only’ a dog for company is considered to be ‘alone’.
Dogs have never been considered an appropriate subject for serious scholarship, certainly not in the humanities. Alice Kuzniar tells us that when her colleagues learned of her project they assumed that her discussion of the dog/human relationship would be sentimental and anthropomorphic, qualities she felt they ‘despised’. Her lay acquaintances, meanwhile, could not imagine the discussion in any terms other than the sentimental and anthropomorphic. ‘Both parties,’ Kuzniar writes, ‘shared the inability to envisage the representation of the dog outside the confines of the lowbrow, popular media and arts.’ While it’s true that much has been written about dogs that isn’t lowbrow (but not much that isn’t popular), the stigma clearly exists, at least in academic circles.
Melancholia’s Dog should go a long way towards erasing it. Kuzniar decided to ‘inquire into how the literary and visual arts explore shifting, unsure divisions and alliances between man and beast and how they do so based on the uniqueness of each animal life’. The approach is as rare as it is reasonable. We tend to believe that science is the only possible forum for a serious inquiry into animals, but who better than artists to interpret emotional divisions and alliances? Emotion, after all, does not lend itself to science, because it can’t easily be measured or quantified. But the artists whose work Kuzniar considers aren’t interested in measurement. They know only how dogs make them feel, and they express these feelings. Dogs are their companions, or their scapegoats, or vehicles for their fantasies, or translators of their experiences.
Kuzniar came up with four subjects of discussion that can hardly be called sentimental, to each of which she devotes a section of the book. These are muteness, shame, intimacy and mourning. She begins with Freud’s contention that muteness is a multifaceted symptom of melancholia. Freud points out that if we experience an important loss, we may slip into depression without being able to understand or articulate what is wrong: the missing element renders us mute. Kuzniar suggests that dogs can personify the missing element. Her title derives from an engraving by Dürer, Melencholia [sic] 1, depicting a deeply preoccupied, winged woman and an elderly, skeletal dog which appears to be starving and lies tightly curled at her feet. The dog is very much with the woman, yet the two are isolates. ‘If Melencolia [sic] and her dog are indeed double, mirror portraits of each other,’ Kuzniar asks, ‘what would it mean to coalesce human and animal into the same being?’ Kafka experimented with a similar notion in ‘Metamorphosis’. Kuzniar recalls Kafka as she connects the hunger of the skeletal dog to the grim silence of the winged woman. Both hunger for something, and both are silent. The connection is the basis of this book.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.