The Splendid Life of Feeling
I love my Scottish Deerhound inordinately. It’s spring, and the tenderness of the spare and bouncy, asparagus-green leaves emerging like surprised exhalations of breath has encouraged this confession. I can’t believe the green. I can’t sufficiently express my gratitude, I can’t contain my excitement about it. Neither, apparently, can the dog. She is, hands down, the most beautiful Scottish Deerhound nature and breeders’ luck ever produced. An American father (Sire) and an Australian Mother (Dam) for the vigour and fresh, racy blood, this dog of mine was purchased by a dedicated breeder in Ohio as show stock and finally for producing more champions. But my hound wanted more, a fuller life with meaning, some depth, and she began resisting the performance ring, increasingly staging protest sit-ins in front of the judges, cowering and getting down low. Channels of communication among those of us who require a Deerhound’s silk ears the way a smoker needs a cigarette–urgently, always, and for pleasure–got the news to me. A juvenile Deerhound needing immediate relocation with a suitable lifetime partner. Will travel. Please come for me now.
I did. She’s here with me. It’s been over three years. The cowering ceased the moment she leapt from the back of my car. One thing about how she looks, and she is lovely, is her very very long pointed nose. She’s grey; her muzzle is white thistledown. Her olfactory capabilities are acute. She misses nothing. Lately she has taken to halting muskrats. The muskrats aren’t halting; they’re well. She’s causing their advancing to halt. Inhaling their essence through that long long nose, hunting them down–no one is faster than this hound in her spring prime–she snaps them up, administers a decisive quick shake and it’s done. North of Winnipeg, south of Gimli, on Willow Island, in the marshes. I feel very badly about the muskrats–glossy little creatures with no malevolent intent, consumers primarily of water plants, and, while overcrowding in the nests can lead to occasions of cannibalism, that would occur only in situations of duress, when few of us act well.
There were two unprovoked incidents. One while the marshes were still frozen and only the edges and banks where muskrats nest were softening in the spring sun, and the second a month later when the marshes were ice free and a muskrat was crossing the narrow gravelled road. Inevitably springs to mind the eternal question, why did the muskrat cross the road, when glossary descriptions identify them as having poor vision, poor hearing, limited olfactory capabilities and not much speed on land. These are areas where Deerhounds excel, and are opportunists. And this one, fit, young, well-fed and primally ungoverned seized the impulse, or was the impulse manifest; and so it went.
Engaged as I always am by the dogs with whom I’ve lived, and particularly connected with this one, I’m interested in where we diverge, one from the other, and aside from the obvious black nose and long tail, do we?
Sense, essence, sensation, consciousness and perhaps the fissure in the listing of awareness–reason, is the subject of Daniel Heller-Roazen’s The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation (Zone Books, New York, 2007). Heller-Roazen begins with E T A Hoffmann’s cat Murr, alone in the night on a rooftop high above the sleeping city, noting fully, and with pleasure, the amplitude of what lies around him. He claims, with confidence, his animal domain, what Heller-Roazen describes as the full force of his existential sentiments and asserts, in his own romance or autobiographical novel, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr: “One comes through life and to life without ever knowing how.” He is sensate, full of languor, stretch and satisfaction but is not without questioning. He is there in the perfect black night, and it is sufficient. Heller-Roazen sets this against the response of German philosopher, Hegel who, in a lecture given in Jena 15 years before Hoffmann’s cat, disclosed his comfort with the origins of his being, expressed a contrary sentiment. Instead of being an affirmation of the rightness of things, for Hegel, the same black night was a source of anxiety. Heller-Roazen says Hegel describes the origin of the pure self as “‘an empty night,’ which is utterly ‘conscious-less, that is without being, as an object, presented to representation.’” It is “the Nothing, the first, from which all being and the multiplicity of the finite emerged.” For Murr, in his apprehension of it, it is splendid and needs nothing more. Not that the clever cat doesn’t blink in acknowledging that humans worry the issue and grapple with consciousness and reason. It’s just that Murr finds reason sometimes unreliable as a device, and unnecessarily complicating. Murr, the author of his story and a close observer of life, thoughtful and reflective in his core, recognizes something that resides outside articulation. It is, as Heller-Roazen writes, “the experience of one sense shared by all the individual senses and felt, however faintly and however intermittantly, in all sensations: the sense of sensing by which we find ourselves…consigned before or beyond consciousness, to the omnipresent life…” It’s in this recognizing the unanswerable how or what that the cat’s silky contentment lies. Still, equanimity aside, the cat succumbs, or happily gives over to an almost trance-like state, at once feeling everything and its opposite, and writes, “That singular feeling, woven of pleasure and displeasure, stunned my senses, overwhelmed me–cannot possibly resist–I ate the herring.”
And so it is too, for the muskrats–hapless, soft-furred, plump muskrats, short-sighted like Mr. Mole, bumping up against the vacuum inhalations of an acutely active Deerhound and her quick snout.
There’s a desirable time we seek, a temporal zone we can’t fix that is sensed when we nod for a fraction of a blinking eye in the back of a warm taxi; there’s a recollection that slips before we can name it, prompted by a tone in the voice of someone hurrying past us in the street; there’s a pattern of shadows–leaf shapes against a garage wall that transports us to no place we can name and carries with it a stab of grief; and there’s the profound desire we have for locating ourselves in these hovering, indeterminate, barely conscious modes or postures. This threshold of awareness that is neither forward nor back, not inside or out, not present or past (and which isn’t immanence either because that would imply our anticipating a particular time), is there in our interior night, the place Murr surveyed proprietorially. It’s almost achieving and slipping back with ease, it’s suspension with no notion of falling, it’s an opportunity for awareness with no need or compulsion, it’s a sense of time that is expansive rather than linear, like drawing in a fine soft breath that puffs and expands and drifts off with no edges.
In two chapters, distant from each other in the book, Daniel Heller-Roazen addresses this state. One, “Awakening, A short Chapter in which Proust, Valéry and Benjamin say much about the Disturbances at the End of Sleep,” Heller-Roazen reports on, among much else, the excitement Valéry felt upon awakening. “Nothing,” Valéry wrote in one of his Cahiers, “tends to give a more extraordinary idea of…everything than this auto-genesis.” He described it as “re-cognizing, reconstituting and pulling oneself together again.” It was a form of rebirth for which one was responsible and which was self-generated. Astonishing, a recovery of self. The second chapter, “To Myself; or The Great Dane, In which a fearsome Dog famously leaps upon Jean-Jacques Rousseau putting an End to an otherwise solitary Walk.” Heller-Roazen relates that Rousseau, happily strolling on a country road, is knocked down and rendered senseless by an out of control Great Dane. When he recovers himself, regains consciousness, he remembers nothing of the physical event that brought him to that state but only the pleasure of a gentle restoration where he is aware, but of nothing specific. In his Reveries, Rousseau describes the state: “Entirely taken up by the present, I could remember nothing. I had no distinct notion of myself as a person, nor had I the least idea of what had happened to me…I felt throughout my whole being such a wonderful calm, that whenever I recall this feeling I can find nothing to compare with it in all the pleasures that stir our lives.”
It is Rousseau’s coming to himself and Valéry’s auto-genesis, a perfect state of being where “I” is conjoined to self in a reflexive doubling that is complete. This, I think, is the animal’s abiding condition. Heller-Roazen refers to Diogenes’s process “by which nature makes all living things ‘appropriate to themselves’.” It is innate; it is thorough-going. I felt regret at the death of the two muskrats; my dog Tulip did not. Without division or pause, as one gesture, she sensed and acted. My expressed displeasure could sway her, but that’s between me and the dog and not between dog and first impulse. She sees out over her long elegant nose to the world at its tip. She can do only this, and what returns and is contained in the shallow, fur-covered pan that is the top of her head, flat but for the characteristic Deerhound boney ridge topped, in her case, by a ducky tuft of grey, is a mystery to which I long to have access. My perception of the world is determined, and try as I do not to anthropomorphize, I too am limited by my point of departure. I think the thoughts of a human being, however I try to see as though I were Tulip.
Here are some things about her: She is tall at the shoulder; her head is at my hand when my elbow is bent. It is never necessary to bend to her when she is on her feet. I feel we are the same size. She is very fond of children, very small ones as well as the rangy teenagers we pass on our morning walks. When she spots them she swings her tail in low, wide arcs. It is so generous it appears to me more like a ’40s wardrobe fur piece than a tail. There is no mistaking her eminent good will. I watch it sweep, my chest hurts and I think how fortunate are the walkers we approach. She is able to rise on her hind legs and use her forelegs in an embrace. There are times when the joy of a squirrel or the fineness of the morning overwhelm her, and if she’s behind me her forelegs wrap around my shoulders in a quick squeeze. This is not the discouraged “jumping up”; it’s an embrace. If I’ve been away and approach her, she will do the same. It is unmistakeable as an embrace, and very little else will happen in a day that can best it. Similarly the powder puff, maribou feather-like probes of her muzzle. A gift which she distributes on that basis. Also, she smiles. In my family we have broad smiles. We love each other, are expressive and smile at each other often. Wolves smile too. It’s a pack animal response that is learned. Tulip has lovely, very white, very even teeth (she was a young show champion after all). At appropriate times, that is, upon greeting, there are selected people at whom she smiles. She lifts her lips and smiles. She goes out of her way to do this.
She evidences quiet, mannerly interest when spoken to; she observes the goings-on around her in the same way. Deerhounds are gaze hounds, lookers and watchers.
Daniel Heller-Roazen notes that the sense of touch was so broad in its definitions and applications that Aristotle used the term “sensible” to mean “tactile,” writing in *De anima *that “tangible qualities” were ultimately equivalent to the “qualities of the body as a body.” He concludes, “The sensitive soul in the classical doctrine encountered nothing if not by contact, and the terrain of the tactile body remained everywhere as wide, and as varied, as that of aisthēsis itself…thoughtful or thoughtless, conscious or not, the life of the animal, in his [Aristotle’s] eyes, remained a matter of tact before all else.”
It pleases me that touch, which is such an essential pleasure for Tulip, and for most dogs, is linked in language to sensitivity in delicate situations. This is a dog who never “misspeaks” herself and evidences tact in all things, save certain occasional encounters in the wild.
When Gertrude Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas she found its positive reception and the notoriety that attended it overwhelming. Everybody’s Autobiography followed, and in it she wrote, “I am I because my little dog knows me,” turning its meaning, in this case, on its ear. For her private self, the public attention was felt as a personal diminishment; everyone knowing her reduced, rather than amplified, her sense of herself. Taken from a Mother Goose nursery rhyme about an old woman who believed her identity had been lost when her petticoat was stolen as she slept, for the old woman reassurance lay in her finding her identity confirmed in her little dog’s recognizing her when she returned home without her familiar apparel. Like the nursery rhyme woman needing her dog’s reassurance I set Tulip as a mirror, or maybe a guide. I project or reflect onto her character traits and qualities I wish for myself. I assess her better instincts: generosity, tolerance, humility and see her as their exemplar. This sensible being will be my teacher.
The whole of this highly intelligent and erudite book has probed and questioned the issue of reason over feeling, placing Descartes as just one on an Aristotelean continuum of perception. Tulip is so thoroughly complete in her being she needs no thesis to elaborate her splendid life.