This Tiny Life Which Deems Itself Eternal

Some things go unnoticed. The motivations behind our small acts and choices. Often, they slip by us, no matter how glaring to others. Little unexplained tendencies. We all have them. How, for example, did I fail to notice the phonetic resemblance between the two old-fashioned names, Agnes and Gladys, plainly symptomatic of something? Minimally, this may cause confusion to the reader. Bear with me. It will pass as Agnes passes from the story, fading from dog to ghost.

__________________________

Agnes dies on December 12, 2019. For almost a year, I am without a dog. It’s hard to let go of the old Labrador girl, our habits and affections so ingrained. Gladys, a spaniel, is born on September 19, 2020. She leaves her litter and comes to me in November.

The arrival of a puppy would be detrimental to writing. With Agnes, I could be at my desk all morning, break for a leisurely stroll, then back to my desk. With Gladys? Nary a line since her arrival.

Until now, I haven’t minded the loss of writing time, the changes to my hours and daily routine. In truth, I sought such a break. I longed for her soft brown coat and oversized paws promising growth. Her general physicality. The interruption of Agnes thoughts. The care of another life entrusted to me. To be forced to rise early, spend more time outdoors, and feel tired at the end of each day. These are a gift to a person in lockdown.

But lately, I sense my rusted brain creaking. It’s a door ajar, catching the wind and its messages from an open window, idling back and forth, tapping the doorframe. I notice leaves scuttling along the pavement. Gladys chases them, darting in all directions. I am readying for precious minutes to chase my own leaves, those old habits of study.

I miss the burly Labrador whose thick coat seemed to absorb the clamour of ideas in my head and the tapping of my keyboard. Now the reverse has happened. The new dog is fine-coated, rather clamouring in herself and constantly on the move. My ideas bounce off her. I struggle to organize them. I must fit my paragraphs into puppy naps. My living space has altered too. There is a faint memory of the large-boned calm of my old girl as this fresh thing called a spaniel nibbles my trouser legs, chair legs, then races past in a blur to the next chewable location. Let’s just say the room is no longer conducive to study.

I can’t love her yet as I loved Agnes. This is not to say there is no love. But it is new. She’s a puppy — a teething, manic, pre-hormonal, pooping little mass, as yet unsettled in herself. At times, surprised and confused by her own body. I’m not sure who she is, who we will be together. All that took time to reconcile with Agnes. As it will with Gladys.

Yet already, new love brings a fierce protectiveness. The few times I have thought she was unwell, my stomach knotted with fear and a sense of obligation. Donna Haraway has said, “I have a dog. A dog has me.” (“Making Kin: An Interview with Donna Haraway” Los Angeles Review of Books [LARB] 2019).

Gladys has me, but I can only be inadequate. We must learn a dog, and ourselves with a dog, as we do for another human. We accept that there will be error, misunderstanding, power imbalances, and most of all, mystery, the enchanting unknowability of another:

“If you take anybody seriously, one of the things you learn is not knowing. That’s one thing I learned from Cayenne and my other dogs… And the appreciation of not knowing and letting that be is something you learn in a serious relationship. It’s a kind of letting go. Not knowing and being with each other not knowing… It’s very hard. But that kind of relationship is also deeply joyful. It takes a lot of restraint, and it takes forgiving each other. It takes forgiving yourself for imposing yourself on the other, for thinking you knew when you didn’t, for not paying enough attention to know when you could have.” (Haraway, LARB, 2019.)

With Gladys, all this is compounded by the relative fragility of a puppy. Young life. I am anxious for her tender bones, her reckless spaniel acrobatics. Her untried organs. Everything still developing. I am her keeper, yet I am woefully inept. Words, so useful to me normally, will fail as they often did with Agnes. Beyond the prison house of language, dogs do not speak to us in words.

Historically, we humans have held this against animals. We measure their ‘powers’ against our own, thereby diminishing animals and our relations with them: “Lacking speech, the faculty of reason, and what recent ethicists term ‘the capacity’ to suffer, the animal has also been said to be incapable of death — in the ‘proper’ sense of that word.” (See Dawne McCance, “Death” in The Edinburgh Companion to Animal Studies [ECAS] Lynn Turner, Undine Sellbach and Ron Broglio, eds. 2017)

Engaging this western philosophical view of animals in The Beast and the Sovereign, Jacques Derrida notes that:

“in the dominant tradition of how the animal is treated by philosophy and culture in general, the difference between animal and human has always been defined according to the criterion of ‘power’ or ‘faculty’, i.e. the ‘being able to do [pouvoir faire]’ or the inability to do this or that (man can speak, he has that power, the animal does not have the power of speech, man can laugh and die, the animal can neither laugh nor die, it is not capable of its death, as Heidegger literally says; it does not have the power (können) of its death and to become mortal, etc.), and, as I said here quite insistently not long ago, Bentham always seemed to me to be on the right track in saying — in opposition to this powerful tradition that restricts itself to power and non-power — that the question is not, ‘can the animal do this or that, speak, reason, die, etc.?’ but ‘can the animal suffer?’ is it vulnerable?” (Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, vol. 2)

Further to this, and drawing on Derrida’s argument, McCance notes “Derrida’s contention that vulnerability is a ‘non-power’ humans share with animals and that it is from ‘compassion in impotence’ that we might begin to rethink human-animal relations…” (McCance, ECAS.)

It is this notion of shared vulnerability which first suggested itself to me during my last years with Agnes. The two of us had experienced some difficult losses and changes together. I resisted them in ways that my dog seemed not to. And it would be Agnes, in her silent constancy, who showed me how to ‘weather’ these changes without denying them. Slowly, my daily rhythms began to meld with hers; we were as the two images in a rangefinder camera, coming into alignment. The pleasure of that alignment, the labour of it, ever at risk, always sought. Likewise, our immediate concerns grew more compatible. Were we warm? Did we have a place to be? Food? Some company? I saw the humbling significance of our having satisfied these basic needs. I worried less, grew quieter, began to see her, wait for her. I realized that her vulnerabilities were not so far removed from mine. At a certain point, we seemed to ‘age’ together, in our bones and muscles. Our femaleness achieved some mutuality. By the end, I was at greater peace in myself, and with Agnes.

I knew we were moving towards the end. She was old. I could imagine the possible ways she might die although ultimately, she found one I had not foreseen.

We had recently moved back to the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire. On the valley floor, there were rows of little houses once inhabited by mill workers. Further up the lanes, there were weavers’ cottages, and the moors above us on all sides. Agnes, I reasoned, had at least a year or two left in her. I could take her up to the tops where the wind might raise her thick Labrador coat and make her frisky, and we could drop down to the canal towpath when her limbs were too tired for hill walking.

The pandemic was yet unseen. We began each day in an innocence of the near future which, in retrospect, looks more like misplaced optimism. Curled at the foot of my bed, Agnes always raised her head to greet me, her tail lazily tapping. She waited while I went down to make coffee with warmed milk, fetching a small dish of kibble for her to enjoy while I sipped my brew. We sat together, old friends. Those elements — coffee and kibble, Agnes, her gaze — gave us the pretense of longevity. Like all life, we were an endangered coastline, a house at risk of sliding into the waves. But we were tenacious. Still on the trail. Purposeful. We believed in the promise of each day. We were on dry land.

Then, on the morning of December 12, there was no coffee hour. Agnes didn’t raise her head or look to me. She never moved. She was already cold and stiff when I opened my eyes. She must have been dead some hours.

She had been poorly for two days, having got hold of moldy bread thrown on the canal towpath and I believed this was the cause of her sickness. I was used to the scavenging of a Labrador. She had found rotting food before and made herself sick. Recovered in a few days. Agnes had a stomach of steel, I often said. As on other occasions, she threw up soon after ingesting the bread. I could see lumps of it in the large mass of vomit I cleared from the floor. I hoped this would be the worst of it, but she seemed so weak afterwards that I took her to the vet anyway. The vet checked her over and agreed she had upset her system rather badly. She was given medicine to coat her stomach and help with nausea. We put her on a diet of boiled chicken and rice. But her appetite never returned. She stood before her bowl, stared at it like a disappearing pleasure, tried to eat, but couldn’t manage it. I put small amounts in my hand to tempt her. But she backed away and dropped to the floor, confusion in her eyes.

By the end of the second day, I sensed danger and made another call to the vet. We agreed that if she did not improve by morning, I should bring her in. She didn’t make it through the night.

I had always expected there to be a ‘moment of decision’ on my part, ending in a final trip to the vet. But this was not to be. In retrospect, I believe Agnes retained a degree of power over herself by dying at home without assistance from a vet. But at the time, her departure from such intervention, this final solitary agency of hers in the dark of night, felt shocking and painful, and yes, fraught with unknowingness.

The fact of her age, that death was coming, that life had been lived — in the end these would make mourning possible. Our long history together, not always easy, marked by loss and grief for us both, this too made mourning possible. We fear and dread death, often forgetting that death is also a setting free. I don’t think I will ever forgive myself for being asleep when Agnes died. Nor have I ceased to mourn her. But as time passes, it has become, mostly, a beneficial mourning.

__________________________

But Gladys. This little reminder that youth can be more terrifying than old age. I cannot tell Gladys what I rarely needed to tell Agnes. That it is too hard on puppy legs to launch herself off six feet high banks down to a hard path — as she longs to do. I cannot tell her that it is unsafe to walk on broken glass, or worse still, consume it. I cannot explain that eating discarded face masks found on the pavement in town is not a good idea. I must watch for her, pre-empt things, distract and guide her away from danger without stamping on her agency. I must keep her secure without interrupting her joyous forever-present of seeming indestructability. I must, as Marie Bonaparte did for her Topsy, “love this tiny life which deems itself eternal, since its running paws so cheerfully deny their inevitable stop, one day.” (Marie Bonaparte, Topsy: The Story of a Golden-Haired Chow, 1937)

Should anything happen to Gladys, this innocent dog with life still ahead of her, I fear healthy mourning would not be possible. No, to borrow from Freud again, it would be full-barrelled melancholia for me. Between the two dogs, Agnes and Gladys, there might be a pitiful enactment of the great essay:

It was her fear of Topsy’s death, not to say its anticipation coupled with a pre-emptive mourning that led Bonaparte (friend to Freud and psychoanalyst herself) to write her dog memoir. In 1935, a cancerous lump was discovered on the Chow’s upper lip. Topsy would be cured following treatment at the Curie Institute, but much of the book concerns Bonaparte’s meditations on death, Topsy’s and her own, mainly, although the wider context of 1930s Europe and the rise of Nazism clearly added to the morbid anxieties evident in numerous passages.

Of the import of losing Topsy as dog: “People may say it is too much to cry for a poor dog… [but] When two creatures on this earth… have found each other, have loved each other, even though they be of different species, why must other affections, other duties, and work that a poor dog cannot understand, be strong enough to separate them?”

At times troubled by what she calls the painful tension (tension douloureuse) between human and dog, Bonaparte burdens Topsy with a series of competing ideas. Writing across difference, she declares her “sisterly feeling” for Topsy. She states that her love surpasses the love she has felt for most humans while, at the same time, noting the mystery that is Topsy, the ultimate impossibility of knowing a dog: “What will Topsy have loved when death comes to take her away?” And: “Topsy, the greatest philosopher, strive as he may, will never know the visions which pass through your little golden head.”

Bonaparte is wonderfully unafraid of contradiction. At times Topsy is her protector, a “talisman of life…She guards me and by her presence alone must bar the entrance of my room to a worse ill, and even to Death.” Yet in another passage, it is Topsy who threatens to bring death closer: “As a dog’s life is so short, to have one, to love one, is… gratuitously to invite death into one’s house.”

Poor Topsy! The reader can only feel some relief that her dog cannot know Bonaparte’s labile thoughts and scribblings. We are relieved too when Bonaparte remarks, finally, “I bless her… for not knowing that which I, alas, do know.”

Moreover, Topsy’s cancer takes her memoirist back and forward in time. Topsy becomes “the tragic messenger of the death my father suffered” (also from cancer, some twelve years earlier), and similarly, a portent of the cancer that would kill Freud. Indeed, both Freud and Topsy suffered from tumors of the right oral cavity. Bonaparte does not refer to Freud’s cancer in the memoir, but more than one commentator has suggested that the two sufferers — dog and founder of psychoanalysis — may have been linked in her mind. In any case, Freud responded positively to the project: “Just received your manuscript of the Topsy book,” he wrote to Bonaparte. “I love it; it is so movingly genuine and true. It is not an analytic work, of course, but the analyst’s thirst for truth and knowledge can be perceived behind this production, too.”

“Does Topsy realize she is being translated?” What a tender gift Freud gives us with this lighthearted question.

Does he mean his own translation of Topsy into the German? Most likely. But if anyone might read Topsy as Bonaparte’s own impossible desire to ‘translate’ her dog (and herself with dog), it would be Freud.

Moreover, we know that Freud loved dogs. There are dog references in his letters, photos and theoretical works. Jofi, Freud’s Chow, attended his sessions with patients.

In his Introduction to Topsy, Gary Genosko writes that “Freud’s consulting room, like his manner, was his alone. His devotion to Jofi was so strong that he did not entertain the idea of sparing an analysand a confrontation with his dog.” Peter Gay describes how “the dog would sit quietly at the foot of the couch during the analytic hour.” (Freud: A Life for Our Time, 1988). In Martin Freud’s memory of his father, Jofi would yawn and rise at the end of the hour — with such accuracy that Freud had no need to check his watch. (See H. Ruitenbeck, Freud as We Knew Him, 1973). Hilda Doolittle (the poet H.D.) not only wondered at Freud’s preference for dogs over cats, but took exception to the Chow’s regular attendance at her own analysis: “I was annoyed at the end of my session as Jofi would wander about and I felt the Professor was more interested in Jofi than he was in my story.” (Hilda Doolittle, Tribute to Freud, 1956)

Freud’s remark that dogs display no ambivalence in their object relations has been much cited: “Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate.” (Freud, letter to Marie Bonaparte) Perhaps less commonly known is Freud’s own lack of ambivalence towards his dogs.

When Wolf, Anna’s Alsatian, bit Ernest Jones, Freud remarked that Jones “deserved it.” Indeed, Anna recorded — with a hint of jealousy — her father’s fascination and affection for Wolf, the first of the family dogs: “I did not give Papa a present for his birthday because there is no present suitable for the occasion. I brought only a picture of Wolf… because I always assert that he transferred his whole interest in me on to Wolf. He was very pleased with it.”

But it is Jofi the Chow, Freud’s own dog, who features most prominently in the Freud story. And following a series of painful operations for his mouth cancer, Freud found comfort in Jofi’s presence. In a letter to Bonaparte, he stated, “I wish you could have seen with me what sympathy Jofi shows me during these hellish days, as if she understood everything.”

When Jofi died in 1937, Freud — the thinker who gave us the great essay on mourning — shared his sense of loss in a letter to the German novelist Arnold Zweig: “Apart from any mourning, it is very unreal, and one wonders when one will get used to it. But, of course, one cannot easily get over seven years of intimacy.”

Jofi died in the same year Topsy was published. Freud undertook, together with Anna, its translation into German, completing the work in April, 1938. Genosko (drawing on Anna’s own account) provides a poignant description of the circumstances (both personal and public) in which Freud completed the translation:

“…with the Nazi invasion of Austria (March, 1938), the climate of apprehension had turned to fear, and Freud found himself without any analysands, house-bound (ultimately put under house arrest), lonely, ill, and uncertain about his family’s future. It was in this state that he [in Anna’s words] took up ‘an old occupation, the work of translation,’ in order to ‘do a favor in gratitude for her [Bonaparte’s] unflagging helpfulness… it was not only the person of the author but, above all, the topic of the book which influenced Freud’s choice.’ This favor also in a manner of speaking ‘repaid’ Freud’s own dogs, Anna wrote, for their years of companionship. Her father, Anna explained, turned away from the violent and destructive world of his fellow men to that of animals… Ultimately, with the assistance of Bonaparte, the Freuds left Vienna on June 4, 1938, en route to London via Paris.” (Genosko, Introduction to Topsy)

Two threads may be further pulled from this account. The first goes back to Freud’s question: “Does Topsy realize she is being translated?” And here we may join this question to Freud and Topsy’s shared vulnerability: their cancer. Moreover, it is clear that Freud, a Jew in Vienna, came to the translation during a moment of personal danger that reached beyond his illness, and beyond the loss of his own dog. Moreover, Anna’s suggestion that Freud turned away from the world of humans to that of animals finds a counterpart in the text itself:

“Far away, nations might clamour threateningly, money markets collapse, but you [Topsy] knew nothing of it all… Dogs are ignorant of the extent and bitterness of human quarrels, their quarrels being limited and short-lived… Topsy knew nothing of the complications of human quarrels, and only knew how to love me.” (Bonaparte, Topsy)

Aside from the overworked point, again, concerning the perceived lack of ambivalence shown by dogs in their relations, it is clear that both author and translator understood the perilous world in which the two cancers (Topsy’s and Freud’s) had occurred. Yet what Freud translated, in the main, was that tension douloureuse described by Bonaparte in her efforts to love and care for Topsy across the dog-woman divide. We are touching, again, on the question of shared vulnerability, but here through the project(s) of translation. In her essay on ethics/translation/empathy, Kari Weil states:

“Animals are often better readers than we are. Dogs owe their integration into our homes and our lives in part to their ability to respond, not only to commands, but also to moods and the silent expressions of our bodies… Such felt readings, moreover, are also translations, whether from one sense to another, or from words to touch or smell and back again.” (Kari Weil, “Empathy” in ECAS)

And drawing more specifically on Derrida:

“To be sure, some of the most difficult translations are those demanded by human-animal relations. They give us reason to marvel at the uniqueness of human forms of expression, even as they must be checked by all that we don’t know about non-human languages — whether of dogs or rats or ants.

“For Derrida, translation, like empathy, is both necessary and impossible: necessary because we are always bound to an other — giant, man, beast, dog — who precedes us and awakens us to our senses. It is impossible because of what, in the other and ourselves, remains opaque to translation… It is through attention to the necessity and impossibility of translation that empathy can become an ethical force.” (Weil, “Empathy” in ECAS)

The complex set of translations that is Topsy (dog, dog with Bonaparte, dog with cancer, dog in a sick Europe, and finally, dog in book), that both author and translator were psychoanalysts, Jofi’s death, that sickness and death hovered, literally, over these projects, the larger historical context — all these make a memoir that is, at first glance, a deceptively simple read. At second glance, it challenges our conception of relations with others — human and animal.

Topsy and Jofi, like Agnes, are with the ghosts. But these are welcome hauntings in the plague year. The animals that, to borrow from Haraway once more, ‘have humans’ — are seeing more of those humans than before the lockdown. We can’t know how our relations with animals may be altered by the plague times, but certainly Derrida’s invocation of Bentham’s question remains powerful:

“The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789).

Bentham’s question has featured in the history of animal rights activism, but of course it lends itself to wider issues: the meanings of compassion and freedom, survival of the planet and those species currently threatened with extinction, questions of political justice and agency, the personal and the political, and finally, the ways in which our neglect of animals diminishes us as human-animals, and therefore our politics too. The point about my life with Agnes, for example, is not that I ever understood her dogness, but that her dogness challenged me to be a better human.

“Empathy across difference requires imagination,” remarks Kari Weil. Our relations with animals afford us an opportunity to “confront the prejudices that have kept empathy out of politics.” And she rightly cites Derrida’s plea for a “new experience of this compassion” that can “awaken us to our responsibilities and obligations vis-à-vis the living in general.” (Weil, in ECAS)

__________________________

Agnes is gone. But Gladys stirs. What I must do, now, is stop writing.

Bonaparte checks her writerly ambition by noting that Topsy prefers to inhale the “scented June air, whilst I strive laboriously to trace signs on this paper. Should I leave my cupboards full of immortal writings… they would only be what they already are… even for Topsy today: a worthless heap of the cellulose which men call paper.”

Gladys stirs.

A blog by Amy Kenyon, historian/writer/photographer. For further publications (books/essays/short stories), see https://amykenyon.net/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store