I have a bookshelf in our bedroom, one that I seldom add to, if ever. I don’t know what to call it exactly, except that it has books in it that I return to, that I love, that are warm baths to the soul.
The only trouble is, they keep changing.
I will go back to reread, for the 14th time, one of these cuddly old familiar books, and suddenly it’s not so cuddly any more. Or not so well-written. I’d give you a list of them all, but it would embarrass me.
Something has happened over the years, especially since I began taking seriously the process of writing fiction. Oh all right, after being a book reviewer for 25 years: I think I know crap from the real thing, but it’s not exactly that.
It’s the ability to spot writers’ card tricks.
There’s a little bit of conjurer in every writer, whether fiction or non-. Hell, more than a little! What does a conjurer do? He makes stuff appear, usually out of nowhere. Such as plots and scenarios and dialogue which seems to just sprout up off the page.
All this is a long lead-in to one of my warm-bath books, one I decided to pull down off the shelf for the first time in years. It’s a very old paperback, circa 1962, probably belonged to my mother originally and floated into my hands the way these things do. It’s not just yellowed but browned, and has that punky stale smell of very old paper.
It’s Travels with Charley.
This is probably John Steinbeck’s most popular book (and the spiky red banner shouts at the top, “The #1 National Bestseller, Now Only 75 cents! OVER A MILLION COPIES IN PRINT!”) It’s touted as a first-person, nonfiction account of Steinbeck’s road trip across America, kind of like the thing Charles Kuralt did on TV a long time ago, where he travels the length and breadth of the United States (“He saw things which stirred his anger and things which made him swell with pride”), and talks to all sorts of down-home, folksy types, including a few racists.
The only problem with it is that it’s almost pure fiction.
I didn’t find all this out until I Wiki’d Steinbeck and Travels with Charley and discovered this bit of information:
"I'm fairly certain that Steinbeck made up most of the book. The dialogue is so wooden. Steinbeck was extremely depressed, in really bad health, and was discouraged by everyone from making the trip. He was trying to recapture his youth, the spirit of the knight-errant. But at that point he was probably incapable of interviewing ordinary people. He'd become a celebrity and was more interested in talking to Dag Hammarskjold and Adlai Stevenson. The die was probably cast long before he hit the road, and a lot of what he wrote was colored by the fact that he was so ill. But I still take seriously a lot of what he said about the country. His perceptions were right on the money about the death of localism, the growing homogeneity of America, the trashing of the environment. He was prescient about all that."
Steinbeck’s son, John Jr., was quoted as saying, “He just sat in his camper and made up all this shit."
All right, all right. We’re finally getting to the real point of this ramble: not just the discovery of cracks and holes in the work of a legendary writer, but said writer’s observations about dogs.
It’s really the best part of the book. As he drove his camper (romantically named Rocinante after Don Quixote's horse) all over the length and breadth of said United States, his companion was an elderly standard poodle called Charley. If Charley had more character than most of the people Steinbeck supposedly interviewed, it was no accident. He was one noble dog, able to see through the shadiest of humans with aplomb (whatever aplomb is – I’ve never figured it out).
Charley, being far too old to take this sort of trip and probably being let out to pee once a day, keeps getting sick, predictably with urinary problems. This necessitates taking him to vets several times. But it’s Steinbeck’s take on people who treat their dogs like children which made me sit up and take notice.
It made more sense than anything I’d read in a long time and made up for some of the vacuous drivel ("MUST READ: Seven Sex Secrets the Kardashians Don't Want You to Know") that I read on Facebook.
“On the other hand, I yield to no one in my distaste for the self-styled dog-lover, the kind who heaps up his frustrations and makes a dog carry them around. Such a dog-lover talks baby talk to mature and thoughtful animals, and attributes his own sloppy characteristics to them until the dog becomes in his mind an alter ego. Such people, it seems to me, in what they imagine to be kindness, are capable of inflicting long and lasting tortures on an animal, denying it any of its natural desires and fulfillments until a dog of weak character breaks down and becomes the fat, asthmatic, befurred bundle of neuroses. When a stranger addresses Charley in baby talk, Charley avoids him. For Charley is not a human; he’s a dog, and he likes it that way. He feels that he is a first-rate dog and has no wish to be a second-rate human.”
In the past few years I have seen an alarming, even nauseating rise in dog-worship: people who lavish far more energy and attention and even affection on their dogs than they do on their own children or spouse. “He’s my ba-a-aby,” I hear over and over again, in the same swooping, crooning tone, a tone their children have never heard. I don’t know what this means, but it makes me squirm. As Steinbeck states, he’s a dog, not a baby. Is it the fact that this baby never grows up, is subservient and expected to be obedient, that you OWN it and therefore are always in control? Is it the fact that, in loving your dog, you will never have to deal with all the complications and vicissitudes of loving a human being?
Or do some people genuinely prefer them? The whining, the supplicating tail-wags, the slobbering tongue on the face (“Awwwwwww!”), the endless barking, the fleas, the leg-humps, the . . . you get the idea.
The point is, dogs are NOT babies, certainly not baby humans, and an adult dog isn’t even a baby dog. We infantilize them by insisting that they are, and we rob them of their animal dignity. The “unconditional love” they give us has an awful lot to do with the fact that they know where their food and shelter comes from.
I don’t think dogs are capable of “love”. Attachment, yes. Perhaps a certain loyalty, if I’m not anthropomorphizing too much. The capacity to guard and protect, bred in for millennia. It can seem like love. But does something you own really have the capacity to love you?
To a person who has given up on human nastiness and betrayal, turning away from humans and loving their canine “babies” can seem like a step towards emotional liberation. But it isn’t. It's escape. We were never meant to love another species that way. When speaking of authentic, mature, mutual love, there are no substitutions.
Alarmingly, I’ve seen many TV documentaries about people who keep exotic animals such as poisonous snakes and tigers as pets. In almost every case, the owner speaks of the animals as “my babies” (or “muh buhyy-beeze”, depending on where they come from). A 500-pound Bengal tiger, restlessly pacing in a small chain-link enclosure and alertly looking for clues to the next kill, becomes “like one of my own kids”.
What is this all about? I have a dreadful feeling it’s about alienation, about a culture where clicking a little device in your hand passes for conversation and people tweet by their mother's deathbed. It's about giving up on the human species altogether. What alarms me is the extent to which it is escalating and thus becoming "normal". There’s a bitterness about it, along with a strange lack of awareness of the real dynamics of the situation. These people look right at it and don't see it, a form of soul-blindness which I perceive as one of the worst forms of mental illness.
What does it mean when you buy your “baby” from a breeder, keep your “baby” in a yard and walk it around on a leash? It's called "ownership", and it's not that much different from owning a swimming pool or a car or a gun. Your possession won't talk back, grow up, move away from home. Until it dies (its life usually needlessly prolonged as an act of appalling selfishness on the part of the owner), he will belong to you, he will be your property and will never change.
Certain Godzilla-mothers, the kind who devour their children's identities whole, would like to own and operate and control their offspring, but these children usually insist on breaking away to save their own lives. Enter the dog, the boo-boo, the “baaaaaayyy-beeeeeeee” who rescues the whole situation, offering “unconditional love” and face-slobbering in charge for plenty of Kibbles n’ Bits.
I don’t get it. But then, to me, a dog is just a dog. Is there anything wrong with that?