Sunday, June 26, 2011

`Her Way Is Mine'

I like other people’s dogs, as I like most animals except deer ticks and Chihuahuas. I had a dog when I was kid, though it felt like part of my self-conscious striving to be an All-American Boy. Cats are my pet of choice, so babysitting my brother-in-law’s yellow Lab is an exercise in charity and patience. As I write, the dog lies on my feet under the desk, farting and snuffling, and the cat sleeps on the leather chair behind me, silent and self-contained – a ready-made illustration of my preference. I admire diffidence and dignity. Dogs are needy, cats don’t care. David Slavitt seems to agree in “Walking the Dog” (Rounding the Horn, 1978; collected in Change of Address: Poems New and Selected, 2005):

“A dog will sniff at bushes, newel posts,
a familiar ivy bed, track his own scent,
and lift his leg wherever it seems right
to sign his claim. In pride of place he boasts,
`My territory!’ And we pay our rent
and use the pot (until then, it’s not quite
home). I walk the dog at night and think
of spots he’s liked, his map of the good places.
He minds his cues and pees. `Good dog!’ I praise,
Uncomfortable. For us, smell turns to stink;
we are unhappy with our bodies’ traces.
He does his business. I avert my gaze,
who can’t return to my good places, shun
reminders that indict me, cannot say—
as I take him to be saying--`Life is fine!
I like it here.’ A cat, when she is done,
will cover it over and then go on her way,
fastidious, ashamed. Her way is mine.”

Mine, too. It’s the fawning of dogs I can’t take, the abject eagerness to please. It’s the same with people. “Don’t perform,” I want to say. “Forget about me. Be yourself.” It’s especially true of writers. When they work hard to ingratiate themselves, they become as repellent as those who work hard to offend. Both are dogs. Cats don’t care.


The Sanity Inspector said...

Yeah, but dogs aren't scared of the vacuum cleaner.

William A. Sigler said...

You bring up an interesting point about dog writers and cat writers. A by-no-means exhaustive list of writers who have sung the praises of one animal over the other (and I don't include here bi-pet-ual authors like Mark Twain, Alexandre Dumas and P.G. Wodehouse) does seem to suggest that dog writers are more of an upbeat, social and pleasing bent, while the cat writers pursue a more private muse.

Notable dog writers include:
Alexander Pope
Robert Burns
Samuel Butler
William Cowper
John Muir
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Emily Dickinson
Emily Bronte
Leo Tolstoy
Friedrich Nietzsche
Robert Louis Stevenson
Rudyard Kipling
Jack London
G.K. Chesterton
Rainer Maria Rilke
Gertrude Stein
Sigmund Freud
Thomas Mann
Franz Kafka
Virginia Woolf
James Thurber
William Faulkner
John Steinbeck
Doris Lessing
Milan Kundera
Tom McGuane
Raymond Carver
Willie Morris
Dean Koontz

Notable cat writers include:
Dr. Johnson
Victor Hugo
William Wordsworth
Lord Byron
Charles Dickens
EA Poe
Charles Baudelaire
Charlotte Bronte
Thomas Hardy
Robert Graves
WB Yeats
Henry James
TS Eliot
Raymond Chandler
Ernest Hemingway (30 cats!)
Albert Camus
William S. Burroughs
Charles Bukowski
Jack Kerouac
Sylvia Plath
Hunter Thompson
Julio Cortazar
Joyce Carol Oates
Ruth Rendell
Margaret Atwood
Stephen King

It’s hard to not conclude from such a list that cat writers possess a more iconoclastic, subtle and even snobby bent while dog writers are dominated by those forever making arguments, alternatively idealistic and pragmatic, manly and child-like, more aware of the potential treat awaiting a word well played.