Hyperlove from hounds of heaven
Roger Clarke discovers that Americans, as well as Brits, often spell `God' backwards
Saturday 31 May 1997
A dewy-eyed dog expert once confided to Jeffrey Masson that "dogs never lie about love". This sentiment impressed him so greatly that he has written a book on the subject. Not since JR Ackerley wrote his notorious love letter to his Alsatian bitch Queenie in My Dog Tulip has there been such a paean to pet-love.
Dog lovers tend to love their pooches precisely because they don't lie, cheat or dissemble. Yet owners spout endless rubbish on the subject of their dogs: they imbue them with either incredible, Lassie-like altruism or simply repulsive forms of anthropomorphism (as if it isn't in fact the doggishness of the dog that they like). Their "love" can also encompass a kind of Swiftian disgust with humanity, of a type warned about by Konrad Lorenz. "The feeling world of dogs is suffused with innocence, purity and lack of self-deception," enthuses Masson with worrying ardour, as he regales us with countless anecdotes about the three bitches in his California home.
If you fancy a stroll along the island of the Houyhnhnms, this is the book for you, though personally I always was troubled when, in Gulliver's Travels, Swift's dyspeptic alter ego finally found a race that he could live with in "perfect amity". Dogs give Masson a good foil by which to judge us Yahoos. "No animals slaughter each other the way that people do," he observes sourly. No, dogs are different - better, even. "Dogs love us and are faithful and loyal to us," he insists. He loves how "directly and intensely they express their emotions", and how like four-footed seraphim they seek "after the invisible scent of another being's authentic love".
"Love is a term that is often used by children, and occasionally by adults, to describe their relationship with beloved pets," says Marjorie Garber, more ironic and urbane in her delivery, in Dog Love. She goes on to say that "when adults say they love their dogs ... an alarm bell can go off". Quite so. Though Masson had read these words when compiling his own book, he was not put off from straining his notion of love to its limits. Dogs don't just love; they are capable of "hyperlove". So remember that, next time a dachshund makes love to your leg.
Masson is a former director of the Freud Archives, whose books "against therapy" have been US best-sellers. Garber is chiefly known for her majestic work on bisexuality, which was published here last year. While Masson manages to complete a whole book on dogs without mentioning their sexuality (his greatest possible compliment is "dogs do not require psychoanalysis"), Garber has no such scruple. As a writer and thinker she has always proved herself to be radically all-inclusive on the subject of sexuality. Like Midas Dekkers, "the Dutch Desmond Morris", Garber is fascinated by the dangerous area of sexual bonds between dog and human. Masson's prim assertion that "a dog never lusts for us" (thereby demonstrating its purity) turns out to be a hopelessly inadequate description of the complexities involved.
Garber's willingness to see the darker side of things is evident in an anecdote also used by Masson, about a 10-year-old boy with Down's syndrome who was kept alive in some snowy woods for three days by a couple of stray dogs. Masson describes this charmingly - how the dogs cuddled up to the boy, tried to jump in the ambulance with him, and finally got adopted by the boy's grateful family. Garber adds a couple of key details to this Disney-like tale, which reveal the writer's different approaches. The detail about the dogs curling up round the boy turns out to have been speculation by the sheriff. In the Garber version, the parents are only "planning" to take in the dogs. Two months after the incident, the County Prosecutor hints that there "may have been criminal activity involved" in the boy's disappearance. As a final spoiler, Garber also notes the family have sold their story to Hollywood.
Masson's book is far more personal and dynamic than Garber's urbane ramble through the popular culture of a race's dog-fixation. Quirky, amusing and full of ephemera, Garber's approach has many things to recommend it. It is fascinating (especially after Labour's bulldog Fitz) to discover how Roosevelt and Nixon used their pet dogs to save their political skins, and to hear of the role of a dog in the OJ Simpson case, and the Geneti- pet DNA bank in Washington. Bow-wow is "ouah-ouah" in French, "wung-wung" in Chinese and "hav-hav" in Hebrew. I was moved by stories of Edinburgh's Greyfriars Bobby, the faithful hound that sat on his master's grave for 14 years, and of Emily Bronte's dog Keeper.
But Garber has no grand unifying theory of the dog/human bond, and is bogged down in excessive but insubstantial cultural linkages. Masson, for all his faults, does manage to be coherent about his ideas, in a slavering, staring-eyed sort of way. In the end the olfactory world of the dog is so staggeringly alien to us (a dog's sense of smell is one to 10 million times stronger than human) that we shall never understand it. Perhaps dog dreams, too, are olfactory rather than visual. And as to the vexed question, "do dogs ever lie about love?", the secondary question, touching on consciousness, must surely be: "do they have a choice?"
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