Friday, 27 August 2010

What the dog meant

First I was riding my bike along narrow roads which were miles out in the country, then I was walking along familiar streets in a town I thought might be Dundee, but I wasn’t certain of it. I came to a spiral staircase and started climbing it. Near the top I found I couldn’t go any further, then I realised it was because an old man was sitting on one of the steps. He was dirty and dressed in bulky old clothes. He started to stand, muttering apologies and saying it wasn’t open yet, but I saw that I was nearly at the top and the staircase just led to a wall, so I told him not to get up and I started back down the steps.

That was last night’s dream (well, one of them) and the reason I describe it is because it’s like the dog – it calls out for meaning. What do the various elements represent? What do they mean? And what did the dog mean?

The short (and correct) answer is nothing. I did climb the hill, see the stump, speculate about the granite blocks, but there was no dog. I borrowed it from Flaubert. I used to give lectures and tutorials on him and still think he’s a great writer. Dogs figured largely in his life but also in his books. An early experience which marked him was seeing a woman called Mme Schlesinger at Trouville – she was 26, he was 14 and he fell in love with her. He used to take her dog for walks on the beach and, when he was out of sight, cuddle and kiss it where he knew her lips had been. (Don’t ask.)

Madame Bovary had a little sort of greyhound and she’d sit with it as it ran around chasing butterflies, biting at flowers. Flaubert said its actions were like her own thoughts, aimless, restless, scattered. But the dog I borrowed was a very sinister one from an early novel, the first Sentimental Education. That’s one based on his love for Mme Schlesinger. Jules, the hero, has just had a sort of revelation of the harmony and beauty of the world. The sun’s setting, the air’s pure, and everything seems fresh to him. Then the dog comes rushing up to him.

It’s scabby, horrible, much worse than mine, but it runs eagerly round him and tries to lick him. He throws a stone at it but it doesn’t run away. Then, as it gets dark, he starts feeling scared of it – it’s both repulsive and attractive. He thinks it may be one he gave a girl way back but then maybe it isn’t. The dog seems to want him to follow it. It barks, howls and snarls, especially when they get to a bridge over the river. And Jules remembers he’d once thought of committing suicide there. In the end, the dog seems to be looking at him with human eyes and it’s so scary and loud that he kicks it hard. It carries on howling, running near him but at last he gets home and locks the door. He then has a terrible night and, when he opens the door in morning, there it is, lying just outside.

All this takes about 8 pages to describe and critics have written articles about what it means. The only reason I borrowed the dog was to remind myself and you of how readers supply so much of the reality of what we write. Your comments were great, offering different versions of what the dog ‘meant’, and they were all legitimate. So what we do is provide readers with clues and they make their own stories out of them; they decide what the characters look like and whether they’d want to spend time with them; they decide what is and isn’t significant and what fits into the patterns we provide. So thanks for continuing to make sense of these ramblings. Normal service may or may not be resumed later.


  1. I tend to read less "literary" works involving canines - to whit: Steinbeck's Travels with Charley [an all-time favorite], Call of the Wild [of course], Old Yeller [still need three hankies for that one]; a dozen or more books about running the Iditarod including a wonderful work, My Lead Dog Was a Lesbian. I suspect that says way more about *me* than offering any deep insights into the meanings of ...

  2. Your explanation for the dog makes perfect sense to me. Take a picture or a painting and give it to a several individuals, and it's a guarantee no two will see the same exact thing. One may notice the water in the background, another will see a time-line in the picture, yet another will read emotion in what they see.

    I rescue strays and have a working dog for the deaf. In this way I've learned the undying love of an animal given a moments time. I've seen animals withstand tremendous cruelty and remain loyal. Stupid creatures? Or do they see something in the abuser - you and I may not? So I readily, used my life to interpret the story of the dog.

    Sometimes it comes down to what the individual wants to take away from a story. Me? I'm always looking for the other side. Life is more interesting with it's mysteries. (Hugs)Indigo

  3. I'm an animal lover and just want to share that my recently adopted cat bopped me the other night and gave me a bloody nose. She wasn't being nasty--just thought I was going to drop her [again] as I attempted to hoist her corpulent body from the floor. This event might have been traumatic for another feline/human pair.

    Isn't it wonderful how we all have different perceptions, fears, and expectations?

    Plug: if you like animals and/or have rescued any, feel free to contact me about posting on my Forever Friends blog:

  4. Well, well, this stray (symbolic?) cur has revealed more than I expected. First, DL, my own ignorance. I know the Steinbeck and the Jack London (and would claim that they’re as ‘literary’ as the Flaubert), but I’ve never seen Old Yeller and I had to Google the Iditarod to find out what it was. But, had I come across the title ‘My Lead Dog Was a Lesbian’, I think it would have triggered many wildly varying interpretations before I thought of snow.

    Indigo and Linda, I have to confess first that, while I like cats and dogs, I’m too selfish to think of having one. They’re as bad as kids for inhibiting one’s freedoms. I know what they give by way of unquestioning affection but I guess I supply that for myself.

    But your response to the story dog, Indigo, definitely chimes with my own. Even when I have strong feelings about a book or a painting, I’m fascinated (and even sometimes excited) by other people’s interpretations of it. Linda’s point about us having different perceptions, fears, and expectations is spot on. With Flaubert, for example, I’d been lecturing on his stuff for several years before I read a book by a particular critic that reopened the works for me and gave them dimensions I’d never thought of.

    I agree too that the mysteries of life are more interesting, even though I believe nothing has ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ and that’s it’s all a terrific accident which we should enjoy. But just trying to imagine, for example, the vastness of space and the reality of lumps of rock floating in it infinities away from us makes me shiver.

    And Linda, here’s a mystery for you. One of my stories is about a woman and her kitten and, early on, the kitten does just what your cat did to you. I have to confess, it doesn’t end happily.

  5. I love the way you explore the use of symbols, Bill. It seems when we choose to write about domestic animals or pets from any perspective, it's a sure way to get emotional responses. On our BlameItOnTheMuse blog this week, someone asked about pets and we had some of the longest blog posts of the month.

    This weekend is the anniversary of Katrina. I heard yesterday that 250,000 pets were left behind in the flood with only about 20k reunited with owners. Soooo, totally off your topic, I know.

  6. I saw the muse blog, Marley, and read the comments but since, as I said, I'm not a pet keeper, I didn't have anything interesting or relevant to add.

  7. I don't know if Virginia Wolf's 'dog' story, "Flush" belongs in DL's list....

    To move slightly to one side of the 'reader's personal translation' of any text, I like the description of reading as "a psycho-linguistic guessing game", and the thought that readers are doing far more than just decoding. Look at this, for example,

    Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

    It's also interesting how little of the printed word is needed to decipher text. Cover these words (the ones I am writing) with a piece of paper, lower it slowly and notice how little of the top of the word you need to see in order to 'read' it.

    I know this is the stuff of reading 'as a process' but maybe it further underlines the gap there can be between the writer's intention and the reader's apperception of the text.

  8. The scary thing about this, Ron, is that it makes my frustration with writers who let typos and poor spelling through even more pointless. But, as you say, this is writing as a process. My wonder (and pleasure) is at the creative aftermath of the reading when, out of the barest of indicators, readers construct something meaningful (and do our job for us).

    How refreshing, too, to be reminded of those evenings in our one-roomed flat, when all 17 of us would sip our gruel and laugh so freely at the absurdity of Schopenhauer's scepticism.

  9. Ah yes, eight girls, eight boys and Max. I think it was Max who coined the phrase 'the Schopenhauer happy-hour'.

  10. Dear old Max. I wonder if his condition's cleared up yet.

  11. I fear not; I'm just glad he stuck to radio.