The Book Club

Pity, Compassion, Admiration, and Awe

Yvor Winters wrote that the major difference between a chimpanzee and a professor of English is that the professor has greater command of language and that the chimpanzee has no faculty by means of which to understand the nature of this difference between them. He went on to say that the major difference between the professor and a great poet is that the poet has a greater command of language–and that the professor has no means by which to understand the nature of this difference between them.

Colin McGinn points out that Paul Auster gets literary mileage out of the difference between our sense of smell and the dog’s sense of scent. (I use different terms because working with tracking and other kinds of scent has me forever convinced that there is as great a gap between the dog’s abilities and ours and there is between a deaf child and a blind one, or between a professor and a great poet.) Every piece of fiction, small or large, that makes it to the status of fiction (as opposed to say, grievance, socially worthy message, Soviet realism, or some other condition of redeeming social significance) betrays thereby its putative subject.

My colleague in this discussion is sure that dogs have no art. But Mr. Bones is a visionary artist, a canine Gulley Jimson. Dogs do, in my experience, especially though not exclusively in their early primes, engage in what I would like here tentatively to call proto-art. Especially found metal sculptures and now, just possibly, but only that, the New Guinea Singing dogs.

Mr. Bones meant for his life to be intended. In the last scene in which, full of fever and debility and having slept under a storm of snow and ice, he decides upon his dodge-the-cars exercise, there’s small room for a small compassion, but far greater room for admiration. This is no ordinary dog, even if the diction by means of which we glimpse him is a bit flat. He is right when he announces to the reader, or the air, or the angels, or Willy Christmas, that he is not committing suicide. Instead, with great imagination and a great power of soul he has taken the banal facts of his life and made of them a sublime dance. Sympathy in this situation is simply galling, as it would be were a member of an audience watching Marcel Marceau to pity him because he must make his art silently. The image may be banal. He rushes toward a white light. (When the novel ends, he is still dancing, though. Art is immortal.)

Elephants come to Western readers, in the last few years, decked out in grief; their eyes seeping like their hearts. But my conviction about elephants is that they, like dogs, desperately need from us not our pity but our admiration. I have been on a first-name basis with only 11 elephants. I have with awe watched a 12th, Ana Mae of the Big Apple Circus, perform in such a way that anyone watching her work–and the work is her property and not ours–with pity rather than astonished applause (and perhaps a bit of fear) in their hearts is psychically mutilated. There was also Debbie. It was her great joy, when she and the other elephants were taken out for their morning constitutional, to provoke among her peers a kind of giggling stampede, but entirely without fear and without malice. Only when I was there. She knew the logic of art, that it demands audience.

I assume that if a young matriarch can so disturb the mind of her male human handler, gleefully, that she could also so disturb, with glee but without malice, the young bulls who ever and forever fail to learn house manners and must be driven away to make do with each other, like a group of teen-age boys under a street lamp. But there is no joking in Gowdy’s account of the exile of the young bulls from their families, and the weeping drowns the images of nobility.

Colin McGinn has praised these novels for giving us a dose of the sympathy the animals need from us. I perversely harp against this and, even as I admire their characters, against the novels, for placing sympathy first. Left to its own devices it weds itself to pity, and their offspring is murder. If you doubt this, take some time to visit–really to stay against blow after blow to your solar plexus–the shelters near you. Donald McCaig wrote once of the thousands upon thousands animals who wake up in such shelters on the last day of their lives that they do so with hope in their hearts. That hope, which has as many textures as animals have hides and hearts, has so far found few artists with the skill to teach hope to catch the light. Though Gowdy’s accomplishment is not outside such a realm.