(ESSAY) Dogs in Fiction (Canine Crisis), by Maria Sledmere
In this essay, Maria Sledmere responds to ‘The Trouble with Dogs for Writers’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard in The New Yorker.
> It’s easy to get yourself familiar with the aesthetic and sensory tastes of Karl Ove Knausgaard. Read just one volume of his six-part series, My Struggle, and you’ll find out exactly how the Norwegian author likes to relish his cornflakes, observe the sky or hide at a party. The beauty in Knausgaard, I suppose, is how he makes of daily life a literary form of crack cocaine: this furiously addictive rush, without hits of which we would suffer immensely. The cognitive estrangement he casts by ‘slow’ forms of attention prompt various kinds of reawakening in the reader. Boiling things down to simplicity explodes in curiosity over component parts; I found myself extrapolating similar kinds of Knausgaardian introspection and reverie in the weeks after finishing A Death in the Family. Everything was a crumb that fell out of something; every action, event, thought or sense seemed to contain the kernel of a grander knowledge. But like crack cocaine (at least, er, as I imagine it), the after effects of this attentiveness, this intensity of suspended experience, are pretty nauseating.
> Therefore it’s with some relief that I stumble upon a short extract from Knausgaard’s book Summer, a collection of essays on everyday things and concepts, part of his Seasons quartet. The subject is a familiar one within the sphere of domesticity, but not often noticed within fiction: dogs. Sure, Virginia Woolf wrote that autobiography of Elizabeth-Barrett Browning’s dog, Flush, and maybe you read Jack London’s The Call of the Wild as a kid. The fictional dog I remember most is probably Garth Nix’s Disreputable Dog, the anthropomorphised, wise and wayfaring hound in Nix’s YA novel Lirael. It’s maybe easier to think of cartoon dogs, dogs in children’s books. Snoopy, The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Can we take dogs seriously in fiction, or must they remain peripheral, comic or secondary, often as placeholders for human affairs? Knausgaard, it seems, doesn’t hold much lingering affection for dogs. With all their insistent yacking, dogs carry the law of father: the barked impasse of communion between dog and human represents, for Knausgaard, ‘a kind of law, they marked a boundary I couldn’t cross, and it was the dog that enforced it’. He goes on to explain that this comes, partly, from a sense that dogs embody, in their pathetically loyal, pleading behaviour, his own weakness: he can hardly look at his family’s dog, ‘without a feeling of irritation or even rage rising in me, the way it often is when one recognises one’s own least attractive traits in others’.
> The identification is so strong that Knausgaard starts to view his dog as a shackle on his writing. Dogs demand routine, movement, companionship: they have to be ‘walked several times a day’, they have to be accompanied. In that sense they’re a practical impediment to the solitary requirements of the writer’s life, imagined as a kind of hermetic stasis. To write, for Knausgaard, is to be free of the ‘law of the dog’, a ‘a place where one can express oneself freely’. I’m struck by how this attitude differs to that of someone like Donna Haraway, canine enthusiast par theoretical excellance, or poet Eileen Myles, who recently published Afterglow: a dog memoir, about their pitbull Rosie. For Haraway and Myles, dogs are companions: a source of creativity, flourishing, of interspecies exchange and biosociality. Haraway, in her Companion Species Manifesto, even claims an ethics for the stories told ‘about dog-human worlds’. Playing with one’s canine, walking one’s dog, Haraway argues, helps us realise ‘that history matters in naturecultures’. Kinship reveals the contingency and enmeshment of our being. Dogs, as domestic animals, raise all sorts of interesting ecological questions about coexistence and hospitality, how ‘animal happiness’ might differ from that of humankind, as well as the ways in which our affective natures overlap. Is it a coincidence that Knausgaard’s title, ‘The Trouble With Dogs’ seems a provocative repartee to Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene? There seems an almost mythic divide between Knausgaard, giving up his irritating dog to a loving family, and Haraway’s ‘Positive Bondage’ of human-dog relations—a sense that one cannot write ‘objectively’, but rather in collaboration with the ‘objects’ (animal or otherwise) of a story?
> For all Knausgaard likes to linger on objects throughout his writing, there’s a remove here, perhaps. There’s still a very clear human orientation. A specific gaze that is the masculine anthropos in moments of strength or glimpsed vulnerability. The weirdly alluring thing about Knausgaard is his embodiment of that straw man of the vigorous novelist, fighting against himself as much as the world; the way he perceives dogs reflects the absurdity of that position, that absolute anxiety about the animal that impersonates one’s inner animal. Note the slippage: personify/impersonate, the animal/human, animism/humanism. The Animal, as Jacques Derrida put it, That Therefore I Am (More to Follow). And yes, Derrida, who questions whether there can be ‘animal narcissism’, who documents the eerie, arresting ‘animalséance’ that arises in ‘the single, incomparable and original experience of the impropriety that would come from appearing in truth naked, in front of the insistent gaze of the animal, a benevolent or pitiless gaze, surprised or cognizant’. Musing one’s nudity before the gaze of the radically animal other, we have to confront a special kind of meta-shame, a shame ‘for being ashamed’. Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that I think of cats when I think of poets: those slinky mercurial beings who owe loyalty to no-one but elicit your affection with every sideways smile of a tail-licked sentence. Who loiter and wallow in shame, their own or otherwise.
> But we are talking here of dogs, not cats. I write this in the living room of my flat, with my friend’s dog Maisie, a six-year-old black lab whining in the corner. She’s going through her first ‘season’, the time of her first period. She’s moody and languid and all the women in the room relate to her trouble. If Derrida sees the cat’s gaze as a threat to his phallus (and of course cats are often linked negatively to femininity, witchcraft and the like), then Knausgaard sees the dog as a pitiful embodiment of his failed masculinity at the point of manly assertion, the law of the father. Is it that dogs, like men, create the ties that bind them? Dogs cower, fight; dogs piss on lawns; dogs eat everything; dogs die outside the pack; dogs allow themselves to be domesticated, chained. In one sense, we might think of Knausgaard’s aversion to dogs as a reflection of that romanticised writerly introversion, the self-flagellating need to sacrifice social contact and give space to poetic ‘genius’, to mark territory. The parasitic psyche of a dog just can’t be a part of that; he requires a cleaving, whereas writing for the likes of Haraway and Myles seems to spring, often, from collaborative, interspecies storytelling. Much more can be explored here: the binaries of active/passive, physical/cerebral, man/woman, master/slave, culture/nature—to name but a few in our theoretical bestiary.
> The essay, in its single paragraph ramble, sort of resembles a dog walk. And of course at the end, we come to that phrase: ‘The Dog’, asserting its presence again. Knausgaard tries to walk away from dogs, explain their trouble, but he lands back at the dog, the law of the father. He admits of the dog a sort of haunting within his ipseity: ‘The Dog’, we discover, was actually the original title of Knausgaard’s ‘first autobiographical manuscript’. When I think about it, dead dogs, mutant dogs, haunting dogs are everywhere. The dog on the front lawn speared with a pitchfork, the central cipher in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The dog with a human heart in Mikhail Bulgakov’s political satire of the New Soviet man, Heart of a Dog. The dogs that refuse to breed in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, unlike the obnoxiously fertile cats, who Crusoe must kill, as Jane Goldman argues, to assert ‘his own sovereignty’. I’m reminded of brooding stoner bros on that Mac DeMarco album, This Old Dog, but also of Knausgaard’s canine self-loathing, when Goldman points out how Crusoe sometimes refers to himself as ‘Dog’, ‘in a sanguine, matter of fact way, when recalling the danger of losing his life, his own sovereignty: “I only said to my self often, that I was an unfortunate Dog, and born to be always miserable”’. Somewhat companionably, he later uses the term in reference to Friday, his human subject: ‘“You Dog, said I, is this your making us laugh?”’. Where is the line between companionship and subjugation, submission? Terror and humour, master and slave? How do we relate in writing to the objects and animals that make up our worlds, our stories, our selves? Where do we, as beautiful souls, come apart as fallacy? How can we unravel in words the sovereignty of the anthro: as species, experience, as being itself; is it time, even for the more dog phobic among us, to embrace or question or love the trouble, to unsettle its position within our lives, our bodies, our homes? Will we find ourselves tangled in our own leads, running away with multiplicity?
As for me, I’m gonna go buy a goth collar for the anthropocene.
Text: Maria Sledmere Image: Dallas Reedy