Eva’s Ribs

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.

Dogs’ lack of language may be considered a form of muteness. But against the philosophical position that if the expression is absent, the concept is absent too – that if you can’t express an emotion such as, say, empathy or remorse, you can’t feel it – Kuzniar argues that far from indicating the absence of an emotion, muteness may flag its presence. She cites Emmanuel Levinas’s description of a dog who used to wander into the Nazi labour camp where he was imprisoned. The dog was always glad to see the prisoners, and thus was ‘the sole creature to treat them as humans’. Perhaps the dog’s empathy was not expressed, or not through language, but he knew perfectly well that his imprisoned friends were sentient beings and he treated them as such, while their own conspecifics, the Nazi prison guards, did not.

The complexity of Kuzniar’s analysis is perhaps best reflected in the section on shame, in which she shows how it has been thought of as unique to human beings, and as signifying our humanity. She returns to Freud, who claims that if we feel ambivalent towards dogs, it is because the dog has certain human virtues but is also ‘repugnant to man because of its lack of shame’, as if the dog’s carefree attitude towards ‘excrement and sexual functions’ confirms its subhuman status. Kuzniar cites Kafka’s story ‘Researches of a Dog’, in which the narrator is a dog who watches circus dogs dancing on their hind legs, exposing their nakedness and also their incompetence, since they are not as adept as their masters at hind-leg walking. The circus dogs can’t sustain the position and briefly fall back on all fours; the dog-narrator empathises with their lapse, and whines. The circus dogs’ ‘eyes seem to ask for forgiveness as if nature had made a mistake in reverting them to their normal posture’. They are ashamed of failing to do something shameful, and their witness, the canine narrator, cringes on their behalf.

‘Is to experience shame, then,’ Kuzniar asks, ‘to feel improper or unnatural at doing something natural?’ Often enough, the answer is yes, and our relationship to dogs can confirm it. ‘If to sense shame, according to Freud and Lacan, is to be human, is Kafka’s narrator paradoxically more humanlike than the dogs mimicking humans?’ Furthermore, ‘observing the disgrace of another can cause shame in oneself: hence the narrator’s bodily affect of shame when confronted with the dancing dogs is to make himself smaller and to whine.’

Derrida, in his essay ‘L’Animal que donc je suis’, admits to a flash of shame because his cat saw him naked. The cat stared ‘with the gaze of a seer, visionary or extra-lucid blind person’. His strange reaction embarrasses him, which Kuzniar finds significant. We stare at animals in zoos and at pet shows, yet we are shamed when animals glimpse us in compromised situations. The animals are close enough to us to be present when other people would be excluded, yet separate enough to cause embarrassment when they see us exposed. Kuzniar quotes Sartre. ‘I recognise that I am as the other sees me.’

Sartre might have found confirmation in the paintings of Paula Rego. Rego paints women in snarling dog postures to symbolise, among other things, their readiness to break free from the shame of subservience. Women viewers can identify with these d0g-women, Kuzniar says, ‘which is to say can identify with dogs’. Two of the paintings are illustrated in her book. One shows a rather burly woman crouched on all fours, head low but looking up, eyeing the viewer and snarling. The other shows a serious woman squatting down to subdue a dog who is on his back. In the foreground is a large dead cockroach, also on its back. One thinks again of Kafka. The woman has metamorphosed into a powerful, dog-like being in an undignified dog-like position doing an undignified dog-like thing but with confidence, force and serenity. The women in these paintings are lowly and perhaps even disgraced. Shame is written all over them, but the viewer barely notices, as it is impossible not to admire these women.

Early on, Kuzniar’s readers will realise that they are in for quite a ride; some may wish to escape. There are multiple references here to the humiliation and murder of dogs. Consider, for instance, the degrees of shame disclosed by Thomas Mann’s relationship with dogs. ‘Excruciating shame can lead to its denial through displacement on the abject dog,’ Kuzniar writes, a thesis perfectly illustrated in Mann’s ‘Tobias Mindernickel’, in which an insecure, often humiliated, somewhat masochistic protagonist acquires a ‘delicate young hound’. The protagonist dresses in his best and goes walking to show off the dog, but the dog escapes and runs away. The villagers laugh at his confusion, and when the dog comes back the protagonist takes him indoors and, in private, beats him as if to obliterate his humiliation. Mann’s account of his own dog, ‘Herr und Hund’, is even worse, because the dog starts to cry when he sees Mann take out the whip. In Mann’s opinion, to cry in anticipation of a whipping is shameful, as it reveals that the dog has ‘no honour and no self-discipline’. By this point, I was cringing at the images and feeling ashamed myself, unable to rescue the dog or punch Mann.

A climax of dog-inspired shame is to be found in a documentary by Ulrich Seidel who, in the style of reality TV, filmed ‘lower-class specimens’ of Austrian humanity who have ‘no shame or self-consciousness’. The suggestion is that these Austrians resemble their overweight dogs: they kiss and fondle them, and also act in ways that Freud might call doggish – they masturbate and relieve themselves shamelessly in front of the camera and fornicate on hands and knees. These people have not displaced their shame onto their dogs: they have assumed the status of dogs and, as if they were dogs, have subordinated themselves to Seidel, who, in the ever unfolding layers of shame, ‘disassociates himself from the objects of his investigation and disavows his own wanton shamelessness in intruding into the privacy of their homes. He avoids shame by making the others look bad.’ Seidel is as shameless as his Austrian subjects, who are as shameless as their dogs. If shame is an indication of humanity, not even the artist is anthropomorphic in this situation.

Kuzniar’s unblinking stare can be disquieting. One could wish, for instance, that she had condemned Mann for beating his dog, or at least done more to distance herself (and the reader) from German Pflicht and Mann’s personality. One could wish that she hadn’t even mentioned Seidel. But she has set herself the task of looking without flinching, and if this is what she sees, it’s because it’s there, and she hasn’t turned away from it. If nothing else, it ought to show her colleagues that she is not dispensing popular cuteness or despicable sentimentality.

Melancholia’s Dog contains some remarkable, haunting illustrations, none more so than a photograph by Pentti Sammallahti of a middle-sized dog and a huge, discarded tyre on the tundra of sub-Arctic Karelia, an image in which ‘the human order, still in sight, is nevertheless no longer central and is slipping away.’ The photo is described as showing ‘a vastness of the world of the dog’ that the dog ‘can never capture’. The photo also conveys the lonely vastness of our own world, which we, too, can never understand. In the section on intimacy, a photo from a series taken in 1912 by E.J. Bellocq of Louisiana prostitutes with and without their pets shows a serenely composed woman wearing a mobcap, chemise and bloomers, and holding her little dog. The woman’s facial expression is soft, perhaps a bit sad, but is half hidden by the dog, who is pressed close against her and ‘seems to gain courage from his position on her lap’. In other photos from the series, which are not in the book, this woman and the other prostitutes expose themselves erotically. In these photos, Kuzniar writes, the women have become remote, and are stiffly resisting ‘the prying gaze that would demand intimate revelation from them, using their very bodies as shields from their inner nakedness’.

The women in some of Bellocq’s erotic photos may radiate a chill of self-protection, but the woman photographed with her dog radiates a silent comfort, despite her lacy bloomers. Her profession means nothing to her dog, whose body partly shields her face from view. What means something to the dog is the photographer, who is pointing a camera at him and his owner. The dog eyes the camera with suspicion. It is the dog, not the woman, who deals with the world in this photograph. As with the Dürer engraving that gives the book its title, the woman and the dog are merged.

In Kuzniar’s section on mourning there are some photographs by Sally Mann. Sometime after the death of her beloved greyhound, Eva, Mann mounted an exhibition that included a photo of a piece of Eva’s skin with ribs and other bones lined up on it. In the catalogue, Mann explains that she exhumed the dog ‘as an archaeologist might’. She doesn’t say why and doesn’t need to. The photo is entitled ‘What Remains, 2003’ and the image and the action that produced it resonate so strongly that those who have mourned for a dog will remember them for years to come.

‘Although Sally Mann might be accused of uncovering and publicly displaying what is intensely personal, namely the remains of a loved one,’ Kuzniar writes, ‘by representing finitude and loss she militates against how grief over a pet is socially foreclosed.’ One thinks of the fact that dogs don’t speak, that our communication with them is often silent, that the importance of our relationship is unrecognised in any formal manner, and that, often enough, their loss is irreplaceable.

Melancholia’s Dog is not without difficulties. The prose is dense and weighty. Only a committed academic would write: ‘Such questions probe the ontological certainty of the divisions between mankind and the so-called brute.’ No inner ear warns the author against contorted phrases such as ‘surfeit of dearth’ or over-correct words such as ‘interspecial’. Not every fact is perfectly straight – the author identifies Kafka as Czech, for instance, but although he had Czechoslovak citizenship, he was German – and Kuzniar is not above an occasional show of intellectual snobbery. The word ‘popular’ is used pejoratively, and is often coupled with ‘sentimental’, ‘lowbrow’ and ‘trivial’, making one wonder who was supposed to read Melancholia’s Dog. The highbrows are warned and the lowbrows are snubbed.

However, this is probably the first time that a scholar of Kuzniar’s ability has shown the courage to tackle the deeper aspects of our relationship with dogs. I once wrote an introduction to J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, and purposely left out the author’s spiritual difficulties because to discuss them seemed trendy, and I wanted to honour Ackerley’s choice of subject-matter, which was Tulip. But if Melancholia’s Dog had been available to me, I would have included Ackerley’s sufferings because I would have seen that they were relevant. Even though Ackerley didn’t mention them, they would have helped to explain why Tulip was so much a part of him. Our dogs are metaphors for ourselves, something that many of us may have long suspected, but because the idea had never been articulated, or not fully, perhaps we did not appreciate the fact. Or perhaps we didn’t want to face it. Thanks to Alice Kuzniar, we know it now.