gall and gumption

Friday, September 03, 2010

Inside of a Dog It's Too Dark to Read

This non-review review by Alex Beam of the new movie of J. R. Ackerley's My Dog Tulip has been irritating me. He describes the book as "preeminently disgusting."

And furthermore:

The first half is filled with graphic descriptions of the German shepherd’s bathroom habits. “Meaningless filth about dogs,’’ Dame Edith Sitwell wrote in 1956. The second half of the book is devoted to Tulip’s sexual encounters, in which Ackerley — a middle-age Brit bachelor then working for the BBC in London — enthusiastically participates.


Maybe he thinks you will take his word for the "preeminently disgusting," and that you therefore won't check up on what he says here. If you read the book for yourself and are capable of making judgments instead of taking them from critics unquestioning, you will see that it's really a stretch to suggest, as Beam does, that "the second half of the book is devoted to Tulip's sexual encounters...in which Ackerley...enthusiastically participates." It's either a deliberate misrepresentation or it is thoughtless, stupid carelessness about the obvious inference that the reader will have to deal with. And does anybody even read Edith Sitwell any more?

The fact that Queenie/Tulip was a shepherd is significant, because German shepherds are not quite like other dogs. A German shepherd forms an intense, single-minded bond with one person, and it's like a marriage, like Plato's idea of marriage where the two people are just each a half of a person until they meet and become complete. That's how it is for the German shepherd at any rate: two become one. This passionate devotion is the basis for the next nutty thing about German shepherds, their need to have a job, to show that they know the rules and obey them. In the absence of clear guidance on this they get even more nutty, because they will make up rules and make up jobs that involve the enforcement of rules and the relationship structures that give them their identity and their sanity.

One of the challenges of living with Misha, who is probably about 75 percent shepherd, is the need to continually disrupt the patterns that she is always looking for or trying to establish. My feeling about it is that we will have rules, all right, but they will be my rules, not hers.

All this is in context of intense connection; whatever she wants, she wants it with you. It's all about relationship with them.

My Dad has been away on another one of his long trips overseas, hopping around Europe with his new girlfriend. (Why are you looking at me like that? What? Well I am sure if I felt like making more of an effort I might--just shut up OK? Thank you.)

The dogs are consequently back to the routine of very long days at home without the walk in the middle of the day that they get when he's here. For Sweetie this means she can't spend the entire day perfecting her earthworks in the flowerbeds in front of the apartment. And Misha makes it through the day about 50 percent of the time. I keep plastic sheeting on the floor of my room because somehow it has become the emergency dog bathroom. Sweetie used to use my Dad's room as her emergency dog bathroom--I think you can see the symmetry of the thing--and then, because she is fastidious and dainty, would cover her poop up with any items of laundry such as socks that my Dad might have conveniently left on the floor. What Misha lacks in discretion she makes up in volume. I came home to a major cleanup project Friday, the second day in a row. And then we went out for a walk and there was still more poop, and I looked at her while she was getting into position (which always involves a fair amount of drama) and in my mind's eye for a minute she was just an overweight, furry, excitable, incontinent, tightly packed tube of poop with pointy ears and a nose at one end and a tail at the other.

I have started taking them out in Nature again, on hiking trails near here, hitting a new one each weekend. But they're both older and they have gotten very accustomed to their urban life, which they rather like. As dogs get older they get a greater and greater appreciation for routine. So on these excursions everyone is a bit jittery at things like, for instance, dragonflies and frogs. Also they think I am going to get them lost. It is nearly impossible to get lost because 1) Misha always knows where the car is and 2) after half an hour she is campaigning madly to get us all back to it. Nevertheless, let them come across a dead mouse, an owl pellet or other unusual animal droppings, and this gleam comes into their eyes, and the next thing you know they're rolling in it. They will eat disgusting things if you don't watch them; the only reason I can figure why some parts of our neighborhood appeal to them is that they are still thinking about discarded chicken bones even though they know there's hell to pay if they pick one up.

Did you know that dogs have these scent glands under their tails (well basically on either side of where the poop comes out) that make this fearful fug? It's what they are sniffing at when they sniff each other's butts. The amount of smell these glands normally produce is not really noticeable to humans but I took the late lamented Linus to the vet once and the vet wanted to check them to see if they were infected, and suggested I might like to leave the room. I got just outside the door when there was a single outraged yelp from Linus, and I almost fainted from the smell. The examination of the glands involved squeezing them to get them to express some of the liquid they produce.

Last year at a party I met a woman, probably not 10 years older than I am, who told me that she wipes her Jack Russell Terrier's bottom every time the dog poops. And she won't take it to the dog park because she doesn't know where all those other dogs' noses have been.

This is what happens when you have an open and honest face. You learn things.

I loathe most books about dogs--that is, most fiction and most memoirs about dogs. First off, I can't bear any depiction of the suffering of animals in any form, and the least intimation of it causes me distress that I don't really know how to deal with. And there's a certain kind of sentimentality about animals that I dislike intensely, especially now that I have a crazy dog to manage. Like all sentimentality it's self-serving. And in those sorts of books the dog always dies so the kid can Learn a Lesson About Life which lesson I guess is learn to be a heartless bastard early and get it over with.

I never seem to have the kind of dog that wants to learn tricks, though Misha, when she's feeling good, will sometimes show me that she can sit up on her hind legs. It moves me almost to tears, as it's a little offering from her memories of happier days before her trust was broken. Both dogs, if they have any other tricks, have come up with them on their own, behind my back, like sneaking onto my bed or discreetly picking up a chicken bone on the sidewalk and sort of oh I dunno just what with one thing and another, absentmindedly dropping back behind me on our walk and then, busted anyhow, pretending the whole thing was a joke. It's clear to me that their intelligence in these and other mischief that they get up to is just as real as it would be if I taught them--or got some trainer to teach them--to walk on their hind legs or fetch a ball. I am content to see the way they employ their intelligence to make themselves happy. I feel guilt towards them anyway because their life with me is constrained. I realize, though, that dogs get in their own way quite as persistently as people do. Misha can't enjoy herself at the dog park because she thinks it's a gulag. And Sweetie--well, her moods in relation to other dogs are a complete mystery, totally unpredictable. You never know if she's going to have a nice game of tag, decide to power-hump a cocker spaniel, huddle nervously next to my leg, or take exception to some big dog, steal his toy and then go all ghetto when he tries to get it back.

I also dislike the kind of story where the dog is a sort of agent of disruption and subversion--his lack of inhibition standing in for the owner's social courage.

My favorite dog book, and the only one I like, is My Dog Tulip. Queenie/Tulip is not one of these fictional dogs. She is a dog seen through the unillusioned eyes of love. Ackerley appreciated her great love for him and saw love as the only just return. And then, too, she was so beautiful and spirited, bathroom habits and all. If you live with a dog you have to recognize that for dogs, life with humans means forgoing some important dog experiences. Free access to sex, for instance; roaming and hunting in packs for another. Even though our two species have lived together for so long, we are different. And the burden of adaptation falls more heavily on the dog, who can't satisfy all its social needs and its instincts, and who can't talk itself out of them the way humans can.

So when Queenie comes into heat, she's frantically horny and he does what he can to relieve her. He gives her what help he can with his hands, and at last arranges for her to get laid. The partner of (Queenie's) choice is not an expensive stud (note that arranging sexual intercourse between dogs is perfectly unobjectionable when money, in the form of stud fees, is involved), but a disreputable-looking mutt who knocks her up for free. Ackerley is relieved, because he has been experiencing her distress. She has one litter of puppies, and once they grow up she's mainly rather bored with them. This is what Beam calls "enthusiastic participation."

Ackerley's last book, My Father and Myself, was published posthumously, for reasons that are clear from the the first page. It is a beautiful book, containing many startling disclosures. To write about such things he had to be free from worry about how the book would affect people's opinions of him. At the time of writing it, he was a well-known public figure. He was arts editor of The Listener, the BBC's radio programming guide. This might not seem like a big deal, but to get some idea of what this meant in England at that time you have to listen to someone like my stepfather, who grew up on the BBC's arts programming during the same period, and who still regards it as one of the great achievements of British culture. It was the medium through which countless people (including my stepfather, who is a chartered accountant and didn't get any postsecondary schooling in the liberal arts) got his education.

Ackerley, who died in 1967, was also openly, unambiguously, and promiscuously gay. He was a man of real, original moral courage and truthful self-awareness. One of the reasons why a lot of his love life was conducted in what I suppose then was called "rough trade" was because he was so smart. He had this fearsome lucidity, which made him totally unsusceptible to false feeling. And of course the terrible truth is that a lot of relationships are a sort of traffic in false feeling, in little agreements and conspiracies and temporary allegiances, an acting out of feeling that we think we ought to have and hope and believe we do have.

"My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, 'Sir, I am your most humble servant.' You are not his most humble servant. You may say, 'These are sad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.' You don't mind the times. You tell a man, 'I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.' You don't care sixpence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society: but don't think foolishly." [Samuel Johnson to Boswell, in the Life of Johnson


Ackerley is remarkable for a mind that was almost completely clear of cant. Whatever he may have hidden from other people, he never hid it from himself. And this made it almost impossible for him to have any kind of lasting romantic relationship. He couldn't lie to himself about it, and eventually--as happens so often in relationships--the rivets would start wiggling loose. Knowing himself, he accepted his limitations. There is not a trace of self-pity in his work. The only intense, committed love bond he had was with the dog, and he describes that successful relationship with the same sparkling clarity with which, in My Father and Myself, he treats the failures of his other relationships.

But it was real love. I have to say that the mind of the reviewer who could read this book and not see that, could look at the scrupulous truthfulness of this book about a dog and feel disgust because it happens to mention dog poop , is really just unknown country to me. Beam writes as if the book is something that happened to him: "I opened the book and it was full of poop!" And the nasty suggestion that Ackerley was a dogfucker. There was something to get here that was infinitely better than that cheap laugh.