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my dog tulip

2 june 2012

There has probably never been a more eloquent attempt to understand an individual animal than J.R. Ackerley's great book My Dog Tulip – well, at least I don't know of one.

Ackerley begins by conceding one point to people who hate or fear German Shepherds:

Alsatians have a bad reputation; they are said to bite the hand that feeds them. Indeed Tulip bit my hand once, but accidentally; she mistook it for a rotten apple we were both trying to grab simultaneously. One of her canines sank into my thumb-joint to the bone: when I held it under the tap afterwards I could see the sinews exposed. We all make mistakes and she was dreadfully sorry. She rolled over on the grass with all her legs in the air; and later on, when she saw the bandage on my hand, she put herself in the corner, the darkest corner of the bedroom, and stayed there for the rest of the afternoon. One can't do more than that. (5)
Trying to understand a dog involves anthropomorphism – not because dogs are just furry four-legged humans, but because humans cannot start from anywhere except our own perspective, and we are anthropocentric by definition. I am struck, for instance, by the final sentence of the paragraph just quoted. "One can't do more than that." It seems at first like an offhand, slightly twee patronizing of Tulip, whose shamefaced behavior is a doggishly incommensurate apology for biting Ackerley's hand to the bone. But think for a moment. Once any creature has inflicted harm inadvertently, what are their propitiatory options? People can say they're sorry, and mean it or not. Dogs can't say it even if they mean it. And anyway, the harm is done. For a dog that loves activity and people and the open air to then take it on herself to deprive herself of those things, unbidden, is to show an empathy that crosses species boundaries in search of analogy. "I cause you pain, I deprived you of pleasure and new experience. I will now deprive myself of pleasures and new experiences." Ackerley's sentence seems like a throwaway laugh line because we imagine a human being shutting herself in a dark bedroom corner for the afternoon. But if a human were to take on the human equivalent of such an action, there really wouldn't be anything more one could do.

My Dog Tulip is full of such touches. You think that the book is turning cutesy, and then it pulls back with a deftness that evokes great depth of insight – the more so as it doesn't wax insightful. "By presenting Tulip in all her matter-of-factness," says Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in an introduction to the 1999 New York Review edition, My Dog Tulip "preserves her mystery" (xi). The book is an intensely-observed catalogue of Tulip's behaviors: overwhelmingly, sexual and excretory behaviors. In fact, it's no stretch to see My Dog Tulip as a way of talking about what unites all mammals, our sexuality and our constant need to pass waste: things that were just becoming untaboo to discuss with reference to humans in the 1950s, though they've never really become comfortable topics for light essays; things that he can lavishly describe with reference to a dog. Or rather, "bitch": that word appears in My Dog Tulip at a rate that would offend a hip-hop singer, but in Ackerley's prose it's utterly literal and unselfconscious.

Ackerley presents himself as dotingly fond, and somewhat unhealthily concerned with Tulip's urination, defecation, and coming into heat. Unhealthily for him, I mean, but sometimes for Tulip as well. Her relation to the world seems excretory first and sexual second; her Umwelt is constructed of urine, feces, and œstral blood. But for much of her life, Ackerley must thwart Tulip's endeavors to mark, to eliminate, to mate. She must learn to live in a human habitus of practices that seem arbitrary, even bizarre. He becomes more worried about what Tulip makes of him than about what to make of her.

My Dog Tulip is unevenly constructed, and for reasons not explained in the 1999 edition, has two endings, neither of them really satisfactory. In some odd way this only makes the book better, though. If it were more polished, it would also be more pat. It's not a narrative so much as it is a meditation, and like all good meditations, it's digressive and obsessive. The book ends first with a riff on mortality – the mortality of trees, but then by extension the mortality, the ephemerality, of individual dogs and humans.

He is sick, the great tree, he is doomed. It is a secret between us, but not for long will he escape the woodman's notice. … Tulip flies across the ride on which I stand, her nose to the ground. Out of the tattered undergrowth on one side, into the tattered undergrowth on the other, she rushes; she has come, she has gone, silence claps down again, it is as though she never had been. (173)
In an "Appendix," which repeats several themes and stories from the preceding chapters, Ackerley reflects on the irrevocable changes that affect whole species, as their natures are bent to one another's:

Stupidly loved, stupidly hated, acquired without thought, reared and ruled without understanding, passed on or "put to sleep" without care, did they, I wondered, these descendants of the creatures who, thousands of years ago in the primeval forests, laid seige to the heart of man, took him under their protection, tried to tame him, and failed—did they suffer from headaches? (187-88) What a strange turn at the end of that marvelous sentence, part periodic, part run-on: "did they suffer from headaches?" The question is both metaphoric – headache standing for existential stress – and quite literal (it's footnoted with concern about actual pain in Tulip's head). That's the manner of My Dog Tulip, throughout. It earns its very rare philosophical flights with chapter upon chapter of fine attention to everyday events.

Ackerley, J.R. My Dog Tulip. 1956. New York: New York Review Books, 1999.