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Friday, July 30, 2010

Five Wounds: Dogs

Chantal Montellier, Like a Dog
Dogs occupy a prominent and sinister role in Five Wounds, partly because of events in the autobiographical backstory to the novel, which are described in The Art of Grief. But there are other reasons for this canine presence. Dogs are ubiquitous in modern Venice, which is actually quite baffling given the lack of parks in the city. Hence Venetian streets are notoriously littered with dog shit, which no-one ever bothers to clean up. Considering this, I imagined a variation on Kipling's animal tales ('How the cat got his tail', 'How the camel got his hump', etc.), in which a child might ask her father, 'Why are there so many dogs in Venice, daddy, and why are they so spoilt?', and the answer might be, 'Well, daughter, once upon a time, the dogs ruled this city, and they still have their ancestral privileges, although they have no real power any more'.

Below I review a menagerie of fictional and literary dogs, many of whom were barking away down in my subconscious as I wrote. I am just listing the ones that come immediately to mind now as I write. I didn't ever make a comprehensive list, and I omit here several relevant examples already mentioned in Dan's post about the Black Dog.

The most explicit historical reference to dogs in Five Wounds is to a passage from the Hierogylphics of Horapollo, which is quoted by Crow in the chapter 'A Meeting of Minds', as follows (I may have tweaked the text slightly to fit the context; I don't have the original in front of me):

When the Egyptians wish to indicate a scribe, or a prophet, or an embalmer, or the spleen, or a judge, they draw the hieroglyph of a dog. A scribe, since he who wishes to become an accomplished scribe must bark continually and be fierce and show favours to none, just like dogs. And a prophet, because the dog looks intently beyond all other beasts upon the images of the gods, like a prophet. And an embalmer, because he looks upon the bodies which he has taken care of naked and dissected. And the spleen, since the dog alone among other animals has a very light spleen. If death of madness overcomes him, it happens because of his spleen. And a judge, because as the dog gazes intently upon the images of the gods, so the judge of ancient times contemplated the king in his nakedness.

Horapollo's treatise is a neo-Platonic interpretion of Egyptian hieroglyphs from the early Christian era. It was very influential in the Renaissance, but it is based upon almost entirely erroneous premises, a fact that was not proved conclusively until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in the nineteenth century. Horapollo therefore fits the theme of interpretation / misinterpretation that runs through Five Wounds, which is why I was reading the treatise in the first place, but then I came across the passage on dogs, which could be made to fit my five protagonists.

Other dog references are less openly acknowledged, like the famous last line from Kafka's The Trial, 'Like a dog', which is quoted above in a comic-strip version of the novel, adapted by David Mairowitz and Chantal Montellier. The phrase is Joseph K.'s final reflection upon himself, and upon his treatment at the hands of the law, as the executioner's knife descends. Here the dog is a figure of the abject, of the pariah, who is excluded from human society, like the outlaw of medieval legend, whose figure is the wolf.

Several dogs in Dante's Inferno are rendered below in William Blake's illustrations. The first image is of the three-headed Cerberus, the guardian of the underworld from classical mythology (Dante's text, like Five Wounds, jumbles its mythological and historical frames of reference). In the Inferno, Cerberus torments the souls of the gluttonous, whose fate is elucidated in Dorothy L. Sayers' commentary, as follows (p. 107):

The Gluttonous: The surrender to sin which began with mutual indulgence leads by an imperceptible degradation to solitary self-indulgence. Of this kind of sin, the Gluttons are chosen as the image. Here is no reciprocity and no communication; each soul grovels alone in the mud, without heeding his neighbours - "a sightless company", Dante calls them. .... [Cerberus] is the image of uncontrolled appetite; the Glutton, whose appetite preyed upon people and things, is seen to be, in fact, the helpless prey on which that appetite gluts itself.

William Blake, Second version of Cerberus

Later in the Inferno, Dante and Virgil travel through the Wood of the Suicides, in which the souls of the inhabitants are imprisoned in sterile trees. The trees cannot speak, unless their branches are broken, whereupon they bleed, and they can whistle through the coagulating blood, until it clots, when they are once again condemned to silence. Also trapped in the Wood of the Suicides are the Profligates, who run through it, pursued eternally by black dogs (aha!), and in fleeing, they tear the branches from the bleeding trees as they pass.

William Blake, The Hell-Hounds Hunting the Destroyers of Their Own Goods

In the Inferno, dogs are therefore associated with the gluttonous and the profligate, and the latter group is also associated with suicide: All these ideas can also be linked to the theme of addiction.

At the beginning of the Inferno, dogs are also associated with avarice via the figure of one of the three beasts that terrify Dante in canto 1 (see illustration below): the She-Wolf, who can only be vanquished by the prophesied Greyhound, the Master-hound. Here is Sayers again on this image (p. 75):

The Beasts [Leopard, Lion and She-Wolf]: These are the images of sin. They may be identified with Lust, Pride, and Avarice respectively, or with the sins of Youth, Manhood, and Age; but they are perhaps best thought of as the images of the three types of sin .... The Greyhound has been much argued about. I think it has both an historical and a spiritual significance. Historically, it is perhaps the [p. 76] image of some hoped-for political saviour who should establish the just World-Empire. Spiritually, the Greyhound, which has the attributes of God (“wisdom, love, and power”), is probably the image of the reign of the Holy Ghost on earth – the visible Kingdom of God for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.

William Blake, Dante Running from the Three Beasts

The following passage from Walter Benjamin's The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p. 152, refers to Albrecht Durer's engraving of Melancholy (which features a sleeping - no doubt dreaming - dog), and which 'portrays the dangers of excessive study', a highly relevant theme for Gabriella and Crow:

One of the properties assembled around Durer's figure of Melancholy is the dog. The similarity between the condition of the melancholic, ... and the state of rabies, is not accidental. According to ancient tradition 'the spleen is dominant in the organism of the dog'. This he has in common with the melancholic. If the spleen, an organ believed to be particularly delicate, should deteriorate, then the dog is said to lose its vitality and become rabid. In this respect it symbolizes the darker aspect of the melancholy complexion. On the other hand the shrewdness and tenacity of the animal were borne in mind, so as to permit its use as the image of the tireless investigator and thinker. 'In his commentary on this hieroglyph Piero Valeriano says explicitly that the dog which "faciem melancholicam prae se ferat" [bears a melancholy face] would be the best at tracking and running'. In Durer's engraving [of Melancholy], especially, the ambivalence of this is enriched by the fact that the animal is depicted asleep: bad dreams come from the spleen, but prophetic dreams are also the prerogative of the melancholic.
Albrecht Durer, Melancholy
Coincidentally, Dan also discusses Durer's Melancholy in relation to another illustration for Five Wounds, although it was not a reference that either of us ever mentioned to each other.

Another source I came across in the British Library in 2006, while I was researching Goya, is an English translation by Abraham Fleming of a Latin treatise by Johannes Caius, On English Dogs, first published in 1576. The following passage is from p. 17:

Of the dog, called the Thievish dog; in Latin, Canis furax.

The like to that whom we have rehearsed, is the Thievish Dog, which at the mandate and bidding of his master fleereth and leereth in the night: hunting conies by the air, which is leavened with their savour; and conveyed to the sense of smelling by the means of the wind blowing towards him. During all which space of his hunting he will not bark, lest he should be prejudicial to his own advantage. And thus watching and snatching in course as many conies as his master will suffer him; and beareth them to his master’s standing. The farmers of the country, and uplandish dwellers, call this kind of dog a Night Cur; because he hunteth in the dark.


I took one of the chapter titles in Five Wounds from this passage: 'Leavened With Their Savour'. Interpreted in the context of the novel, this passage might also be a way of linking the character of Cur, the dog-man, to that of Magpie, the nocturnal thief.

Finally, the barking of dogs represents the idea of non-sense or 'noise' (as opposed to 'signal' in information theory), as in the following passage from A. S. Byatt's Babel Tower, in which an expert witness testifies in court during an obscenity trial that serves as the novel's climax. The book on trial here is Babbletower, an allegory written by one of the characters within Byatt's novel, excerpts of which interrupt the frame narrative, along with several other competing, interpolated texts:

Well, let us start with the title. La Tour Bruyarde translates as the noisy, or shouting, or howling tower – the word ‘bruyard’ suggests the noise made by hound dogs. It is an image of the Tower of Babel which was constructed to displace God from Heaven, and was punished for its presumption by having a spirit of discord sent amongst its members, so that their languages were confused, they could no longer understand each other.

2 comments:

Leonie said...

My god, these black dogs are ubiquitous - ubiquitous, I tell you! I suspect a conspiracy is a afoot (or a-paw.)

And the plot thickens: to whit, I work for Allen & Unwin in Australia - who you seem to be connected to. Dark forces are at work, I tell you.

I enjoyed your post - especially the demonic dog pics - and will have to ponder it more deeply when I haven't just drunk half a bottle of wine.

Jonathan Walker said...

Leonie, I worked with the Alien Onions (from whose blog I found your Black Dog post). The Black Dog from my book is here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jonathanwalkervenice/4610656430/in/set-72157622352216481/. He would surely agree with your polemic on his behalf.