Part Spaniel, Part Canine Puzzle: Anthropomorphism in Woolf's Flush and Auster's Timbuktu
Ittner, Jutta, Mosaic (Winnipeg)
An exploration of traditional and "new" literary anthropomorphism and the fascination, problems, and limitations of imagining "being animal," this essay presents a contrasting analysis of canine constructs and their complex narrative fabrics of human and animal lives and consciousnesses.
In Paul Auster's novel Timbuktu, two children in love with a mangy old stray are told that the dog "is not a person, he's a dog, and dogs don't ask questions" (139). But the children know better, and so does the reader. Indeed, Auster's canine protagonist not only has a lot of questions about the world; he also finds it "odd that he should be thinking about these things" (31). Mr. Bones, "part spaniel, part canine puzzle" (5) in multiple senses, joins a vast menagerie of philosophizing animals in today's literature. He also raises the question of what makes animal protagonists so popular despite the disdain of literary critics for adult anthropomorphic fiction. Writing from the animal perspective tends to be dismissed as a trivial enterprise, and, as in the case of Virginia Woolf's Flush: A Biography, its result generally meets with critical neglect (Caughie 143; Beer 102). Many important writers have nevertheless chosen to venture into the field of animal consciousness, despite their own reservations. Woolf, anticipating that her reviewers would find Flush only "charming" (Diary 181), pre-empted their criticism by calling it a "freak [...] to let my brain cool" from her intense experimental work on The Waves (Letters 161-62). Flush was indeed originally conceived as a joke and a quick way to sell a novel at a time when publishers were wary of her innovative work (Caughie 149). The writing process took her more than two years, because "in even so slight a book [...] greater concerns" arose (Lewis 308). These concerns were, I suspect, deeper than the "complex and conflicted aesthetics" that today's readers find in the novel (Caughie 154). As one critic recognizes, Flush can be called a joke "only in the deep psychological sense, as unconscious truth-telling" (Squier 124). Although some Woolf critics have come to reassess Flush, the many facets of anthropomorphic bias surface again in the critical reception of Timbuktu. One reviewer dismisses the book that took Auster five years to complete (Interview II) as the "[marginal] result of a writer's holiday," at the same time critiquing the author's proclivity for "the utterly bewildering nature of human experience" and calling the novel too dark for a children's book and too whimsical and slim for an adult novel (Tayler 22). The reception of Auster's and Woolf's canine biographies ranges from the delight and fascination of many readers to the critics' disdain, which suggests that imagining the world as perceived through animal eyes is inevitably a complex and controversial undertaking.
Are these fictional representations of the animal mind just harmless testimonies to the curiosity and playfulness that the animals' Otherness evokes in us? Are they reflections of a deep, if unconscious, yearning for contact with the unknowable, or cheap exploitations of our need not to feel separate from the animated universe? The popularity of animal representations--in whatever form they appear--may spring from a genuine interest in deepening our understanding of the Other. However, as recent cinematic explorations of animal alterity suggest, even real animal encounters grant insights not so much into animalness as into the human condition. The documentary Grizzly Man, as filmed by Timothy Treadwell and mediated by Werner Herzog, demonstrates how the human interest in animals can be fuelled by a self-centred curiosity about how we might be perceived by the animal, no matter how much we "love" animals. To put it more pointedly, our interest may be fuelled by the narcissistic desire to have our superiority mirrored back to us by creatures that lack the capacities for which we pride ourselves. Baker's claim that humans "have typically wanted things from animals, wanting them to be meaningful, and wanting [...] to be consoled by these meanings" (82) is validated by Herzog, who says about Treadwell that "the bears redeemed him more than he redeemed the bears." So, are even the most recent animal representations just new versions of the traditional self-serving, "unashamedly anthropomorphic sentiment" (Baker 20) that renders the animal invisible?
In this essay, I argue that the literary imaginary reflects a paradigm shift from the traditional anthropomorphic view, where the animal is inextricably linked to human consciousness and deprived of its own agency, to a new anthropomorphism that views the animal as a separate and unknowable entity. By thinking of an animal, we construct it within our own consciousness and therefore what is reflected back to us is our own existence, irrespective of the point of view we choose to adopt. The new anthropomorphic approach acknowledges this impasse and integrates it into its inquiry on animal alterity. Philosophical explorations such as Thomas Nagel's seminal "What is it like to be a bat?" for example, or Roger Grenier's The Difficulty of Being a Dog jolt the human mind out of its accustomed anthropocentric complacency and allow it to enter a space that Giorgio Agamben calls the Open, the nonconceptual territory that humans share with nonhuman beings without being conscious of doing so.
It is hardly surprising that the most abundant literary animal is canis familiaris, man's best friend. Unlike any of the other species that have served as pets, dogs form the close, merging relationships with their humans that satisfy our need to be mirrored. Dog-lovers often insist that their dogs have both cognition and consciousness. They readily back it up with anecdotal evidence of "almost-human" performances, forgetting that performance itself is a defining human, not animal, quality. As Simons warns, "Animals do not perform being animals [...] the difference we see in a borzoi and a bull terrier is a function of our own performative urge" (9-10). From the large number of anthropomorphized canine protagonists and their reflections on human and animal existence, I have chosen Flush and Mr. Bones to highlight both the similarities and the fundamental differences between these constructs. The two spaniels--Miss Barrett's companion, "a pure-bred Cocker of the red variety marked by all the characteristic excellencies of his kind" (14), and Willy's "sidekick [...] a hodgepodge of genetic strains [...] a pooch primed for oblivion" (5)--have a lot in common, despite their different historical and cultural backgrounds. Both dogs use an omniscient narrator to express their feelings and thoughts. The voice of the Victorian interpreter ranges from the sentimental to the subtly ironic, and the contemporary interpreter's from utter seriousness to witticisms and sarcasm.
Both dogs exhibit unconditional love. The sole confidants and soulmates of their owners, they suffer "pure ontological terror" when separated from their masters. Mr. Bones, foreseeing the demise of his master, is sure that "Subtract Willy from the world, and the odds were that the world itself would cease to exist" (4). From the fifth day of his abduction to Whitechapel, for Flush only the "featureless face of someone he still called 'Miss Barrett' [...] existed; all the rest of the [former] world was gone" (92). Most importantly, both are endowed with the consciousness to reflect on their lives, on human existence, and to philosophize on their species' place in the world.
Despite these important similarities, Woolf's and Auster's canine constructs are fundamentally different in terms of how the "other," separate existence is conceived. Flush, received by his original readers as both "a real person and a real dog" (Caughie 166), is a creature who sees himself as inferior and aspires to be a human. Mr. Bones, an "everyman who happens to be canine" (Kellman 3), is viewed as an equal by his human and as a puzzle that becomes ever more unsolvable the harder his master tries to understand him. Woolf's narrator imaginatively describes canine reality, as in the puppy's first outing, where "a million airs from China, from Arabia, wafted their frail incense into the remotest fibres of this senses" (29). Willy explores his companion's world as far as he can, realizing that "where things grew complicated was when you tried to understand what the dog was feeling." "What did Mr. Bones experience when he smelled something," and more important, "why did he smell what he smelled?" (38). Out of love and in the name of scientific progress Willy creates a replica of the world's symphony of smells, a pathetic olfactory experiment during a "lunatic winter," as Mr. Bones views it. And out of love the dog plays along, but how can he make Willy understand that "for a dog [...] every second of his waking life is at once a physical and spiritual experience" (39-42)?
Woolf's and Auster's novels exemplify the fundamental paradigm shift from the traditional to a new anthropomorphism. That this shift is not as obvious as we might expect is due to the overlay of humour, mockery, and even sarcasm characteristic of both authors' writing. Locating the narrative stances is difficult, because the tone of the omniscient observers fluctuates between amusement--a contemporary version of Homeric laughter, so to speak--and ridicule, condescension, and even cynicism. In an interview about Timbuktu, Auster suggests that the choice of authorial voice--that is, the fictitious emotional stance towards reality--might reflect literary fashion rather than a writer's individual preference. He says that "Victorian sentimentality is something we all sneer at now and find very funny. But I think people will look back at us and sneer at the way we've looked at the world, too. Because cynicism and sentimentality are just two sides of the same distortion" (Interview I).
Woolf's ironic attitude towards Victorian sentiments renders her capricious reconstruction of a Victorian spaniel quite ambiguous. Consequently her recreation of the traditional, empathic anthropomorphism is also multi-layered. This ambiguity is compounded by the fact that Flush was conceived in part as a parody of Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, and its perspective was chosen to expose the "fictionality of our imagined Victorian England" (Beer 103) and to critique the values organizing London's social and political life (Squier 122), a culture where even dogs "are strictly divided into different classes" (Flush 32). Paul Auster's Timbuktu outrageously anthropomorphizes the dog, satirizing the many facets of the human-animal dyad as his picaresque hero roams Brooklyn, suburbia, and gritty Baltimore, yet its attitude is empathic. "There has to be that love. I think what happens in a lot of writing today is a very edgy, cynical feeling about the world and about people. And I'm not interested in that at all" (Auster, Interview I). The novel raises profound questions about animal existence in a world governed by humans and also about the nature of love, death, and humanity.
Flush: A Biography is the historical account of Elizabeth Barrett's courtship with Robert Browning, or rather a dog's view of the Victorian poet's liberation from her sickroom in the secluded, upper-class world of London's Wimpole Street. The dog's memoir is told by an anonymous, omniscient third-person narrator whose consciousness freely moves in and out of the spaniel's, at times empathically merging, at other times creating a distance. Yet it constantly blurs the boundaries between the canine and the human mind, be it the narrator's or the poet's. As told by the elusive narrative voice, their first encounter already exhibits all the elements of an anthropocentrism that seems to discount animalness as a value in itself by first "elevating" the animal to the human level and then relegating it to the foot of the evolutionary ladder: "For the first time she looked him in the face. For the first time Flush looked at the lady lying on the sofa. Each was surprised.[...] There was a likeness between them" (26). Woolf's protagonists experience love at first sight. Their bond is established through an act of mutual recognition of sameness. Woolf did indeed see an actual similarity between the historic figures--"Yes, they are much alike, Mrs Browning and her dog" (Letters 234)--but this scene has a distinctly narcissistic flavour. What seems to be an experience of recognition is, in fact, constructed as an experience of projection--the activity that humans unconsciously engage in to find their existence mirrored through the other. It is interesting to note that the narrator's omniscience flows through human and canine thought processes and emotional reactions as if they were one medium. The "naive" account of how human and canine protagonists perceive each other--that is, project, and interpret their projections in identical ways--is based on the premise that their minds and souls are indeed alike. In fact, to attribute "surprise" when Flush recognizes himself in his mistress's features presupposes that dogs are capable of developing detailed self-images just like humans, only at a much earlier stage--this precocious puppy exhibits a very advanced state of individuation.
A closer examination of this passage reveals how Woolf simultaneously creates her protagonists' fantasy and undercuts it by quickly deconstructing this sentimental idyll and exposing it as a delusion. The details presented as evidence of the "likeness" between human and animal turn out to be images generated in a distorting mirror; the proclaimed similarity is a travesty: "Heavy curls hung down on either side of Miss Barrett's face; large bright eyes shone out; a large mouth smiled. Heavy ears hung down on either side of Flush's face; his eyes, too, were large and bright; his mouth was wide" (26). The juxtaposition of the human and the "brute's" actualizations of physical attractiveness destroy the fantasy of sameness. It obviously mocks the mind that created the illusion, although it is not clear whether it is the Victorian narrator's mind, the poet's, or the dog's--or all three of them. The ensuing realization that there is no "likeness" but rather an abyss between the human and the nonhuman condition does not lead to greater clarity but rather increases the confusion. The narrator's consciousness seems incapable of conceptualizing the very separation that it claims to have recognized: "As they gazed at each other each felt: here am I--and then each felt: But how different![...] Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other? Between them lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog" (26-27). Both human and animal minds are congruent in that they possess a conscious sense of self, recognize their ontological difference, and resort to a quasi-mystical explanation of their feelings of a mutual bond. How a being without words can have thoughts like a human is not a question the narrator--or Miss Barrett--considers. The passage moves from sophisticated linguistic structures and metaphors to the most rudimentary expression, as though the narrator's mind first channelled the poet's consciousness and then the dog's. However, Woolf does not specifically address the difference between human and nonhuman consciousness, much less thematize it. Instead, she constructs vivid representations of a dog's view of the world.
Critics have traditionally described Flush as the respectful and informed attempt to map canine subjectivity without a specifically human agenda (Smith 348). For my examination of anthropomorphism, Wylie's thoughts about the power and the "necessary failure of the imagination to be Flush" (118) are most pertinent. I would argue that rather than attempting to imagine dogness per se, Woolf constructs a particular dog defined by Victorian consciousness and values. That Woolf was aware of the fact that dogs are "humanized," that is, bred and trained according to the concept humans have of their canine companions, is evident in her notes on Carlyle's dog Nero. Here she muses about the impact that the human individual as well as the specific culture might have on "canine psychology [...] whether it is possible to call one dog Elizabethan, another Augustan, another Victorian, together with the influence upon dogs of the poetry and philosophy of their masters" (Flush 162). Flush is not only a sentimental amalgam of the historical Flush--Elizabeth Barrett's cocker spaniel--and Pinka, Vita Sackville West's gift to the author (Bell 409). Woolf has also conceived Flush as the perfect nineteenth-century pet whose role includes the representation of a rising middle class that defines its identity by creating strictly separated breeds, the representation of the eternal good child, and "a machine a aimer [and] an affective end in itself (Kete 55).
In a society where any relationship was contingent upon compatibility of rank, class, and appearance, even a canine companion has to be a perfect match: "Flush was worthy of Miss Barrett; Miss Barrett was worthy of Flush" (19). The words evoke not a mistress and her dog but the partners in an arranged marriage. Indeed, on one level the narrative develops into a tragicomic love triangle with Flush changing from a devoted admirer into a pathetic suitor who even challenges the "rival" to a duel ("He resolved to meet his enemy face to face and alone" ). Flush seems conceived less as an anthropomorphized dog than a zoomorphized human. Like a human, he seeks to ascertain that he is indeed worthy of his "love" and belongs on Wimpole Street. The criteria for his belonging imply a scathing critique of Victorian society: "[He] examined himself carefully in the looking-glass. Heaven be praised, he was a dog of birth and breeding![...] He noted with approval the purple jar from which he drank--such are the privileges of rank; he bent his head quietly to have the chain fixed to his collar--such are its penalties" (33). Such self-constructs have no internal foundation and exist only in their reflection. In a sense, the residents of Wimpole Street move as in a hall of mirrors, each of them simultaneously mirroring and being mirrored. However, the conclusion of this passage suggests that belonging comes at a price, and not only for a pet. Just as Flush's freedom is limited by the length of his chain, so is Miss Barrett's by paternal and societal authority. The dog's submissiveness corresponds to his mistress's acquiescence in her secluded, sheltered life. The Victorian pet is, according to Kete, not so much a "replacement person, a metaphor, but [...] a dream image" (55). Miss Barrett's misunderstanding of his gaze is a perfect example. When she observes him staring into the looking-glass, she assumes he is "meditating the difference between appearance and reality," only to have her illusion destroyed by the omniscient commentator. Miss Barrett, fully aware of the discrepancy between the two, projects her own view of society onto her soulmate who ironically turns out to be "one of them." The narrative voice, shifting from the poet's consciousness to the dog's, bluntly states that "she was mistaken [...]. On the contrary, he was an aristocrat considering his points" (33).
This and previous examples suggest that Miss Barrett and Flush represent the upper middle-class Victorian couple, perfectly matched, imprisoned by societal rules and trapped in their mutual projections. The grotesque relationship between the lady and her would-be lover is doomed because the dog Flush is congenitally "immature." He is constructed as the eternal child whose need to be taken seriously provides a constant source of amusement for others--including the reader--and a source of pain for himself. According to Kete, Victorian pets were viewed and treated as children, and their education "actually mimicked human lessons in behavior, ideally resulting in the reproduction of a controllable, infantilized image of the self" (83). Woolf's tongue-in-cheek description of Miss Barrett's efforts "to refine and educate [the puppy's] powers" comments on a society that tried to turn little "savages" into obedient citizens. Like a young child, the eager puppy measures himself against an idealized parent, yet even the most talented animal will never make the grade. So poor Flush is placed in an existential quandary that would baffle a philosopher. When his mistress plays the harp for him, would he think the instrument was alive? "He pondered, it seemed, for a moment in doubt and then decided it was not" (45). Flush is the lesser being even in his own eyes, and his efforts only magnify the gap that separates him forever from attaining human perfection. Whenever his mistress is writing, for example, "his own furry paws seemed to contract and he longed that they should fine themselves to ten separate fingers." When she speaks, "he longed for the day when his own rough roar would issue like hers in the little simple sounds that had such mysterious meaning" (39). Growing up, the dog is doubly denied his instincts, by the "prime lesson of [his mistress's] bedroom school" which was to "resign, to control, to suppress the most violent instincts of his nature" (35), and by the Victorian prudishness that negates a dog's intense physicality or couches it in metaphor ("Love blazed her torch in his eyes; he heard the hunting horn of Venus" ). Flush's aspirations to become human show the most important aspect of Woolf's Victorian recreation: he is a human extension and not a separate species. Flush epitomizes the characteristics that humans most cherish--beauty, faithfulness, and love--but he also shows their darker emotions: his "flesh was veined with human passions; he knew all grades of jealousy, anger and despair" (125). Of course, showing any negative affect is taboo and is met with a combination of physical and psychological punishment--ridicule, humiliation, banishment, beatings. When his mistress punishes him for attacking a man, she explains in a revealing Freudian slip that "if people like Flush, choose to behave like dogs savagely, they must take the consequences indeed, as dogs usually do!" (67). At this point the narrator intervenes, chiding Miss Barrett for projecting her own emotions onto the dog when she dismisses his reaction as histrionic ("[Flush] is of the Byronic school--il se pose en victime"--a reference to the historical Barrett's diaries): "But here Miss Barrett, absorbed in her own emotions, misjudged him completely" (63). Flush's value is assessed by how close he is to being human, or, conversely, by the degree to which the beast is tamed and repressed. Bell's comment that Flush is "not so much a book by a dog lover as a book by someone who would love to be a dog" (410) overlooks the fact that to his mistress's and his own chagrin, his tragic fate is that of a noble, nearly-human soul and mind forever trapped in an inferior body.
Flush, in summary, is a creature that is doubly instrumentalized. First, because he has been created by Woolf as a conscious and emotive animal in order to tell a familiar story from an unusual angle, he has no agency of his own. The dog's perspective provides a loving yet cleverly distorted portrait of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning's life. As a creature of Victorian sensitivity that refracts his mistress's inner life, Flush is constructed less for the purpose of creating complexity or contrast than for amusement while reinforcing societal values. In fact, all the different layers of this anthropomorphic construct are human- rather than animal-oriented, with the possible exception of the often-quoted olfactory outings where "doggyness means that the early Victorian age is experienced through different senses" (Beer 102). Second, the mock agency granted to Flush is Woolf's ironic critique of Victorian constructs of class, rank, and gender relationships. Of course, Flush's and his mistress's liberation from the overheated preciousness of an invalid's bedroom also parallels Virginia Woof's liberation in moving from the stuffy Victorian family household in Kensington to the brave new world that she and Vanessa established in Bloomsbury. In other words, animal existence is diminished to an anthropomorphized caricature--animal alterity turned into a literary device. Flush's inner and outer world as constructed by Woolf does not challenge the reader to reconceptualize animalness but rather reaffirms human projections in a loving, if ironic and often condescending, way. Since the mind behind the animal gaze differs from human consciousness only in what it perceives, not in how it perceives and processes experience, the radical potential of the animal perspective remains untapped.
After decades of denouncing anthropomorphism, "animal consciousness is back in style" (Griffin x-xi), and not just in cognitive behaviourist circles arguing that the accumulation of objective evidence about animal behaviour has not brought us any closer to animals. That "the more we know, the further away they are" (Berger 14) is "one of the great anxieties of the modern age," as Scholtmeijer points out (89). Paul Auster's Timbuktu challenges the taboo of literary anthropomorphism with sensitivity, a wild imagination, and a measure of chutzpah. His narrative circles around the impossibility of knowing what an animal actually feels or thinks, and the result is funny, at times irritating, at times profoundly moving. The novel is based on close observation of the canine species, and yet it "scorns critical fastidiousness or verisimilitude.[...] Despite its fanged and growling narrator, Auster would count Timbuktu as realistic" (Kellman 4). His protagonist is a complex novelistic construct, a well-defined character with a philosophical bent, a sense of beauty, and deep and complex feelings that are never sentimentalized or infantilized. His dog's eye view of Americans and American reality at the end of the twentieth century is anything if not realistic, for, as Kellman puts it, "no one is a hero to someone else's dog" (5).
Despite the repeated assertions of the narrator, of Willy, and of Mr. Bones himself that a dog is a dog, this individual is larger than all the humans he encounters--with the possible exception of Willy himself. The only character in the novel who sees nothing in the temporary lodger but a particularly unattractive exemplar of canis familiaris, is the suburban father, an ignorant and insensitive character who is undeserving of a dog and a family.
Mr. Bones's story can be briefly told. It is a tale of blissful union and painful separation similar to Flush's, but instead of travelling in style from Victorian upper-class London to Florence he drifts from Brooklyn to the down-and-outs on the streets of Baltimore. Like Flush's mistress, his human is a poet. Willy, however, the crazy, tortured soul and would-be literary genius turned bum, finds peace and freedom not in sunny Italy, but only when he dies in a Baltimore back alley. The novel ends with the dog once again on the run, jumping onto a busy freeway where he is bound to be hit by a car. However, the story as told by Mr. Bones is not so straightforward. The novel begins with the dog's flashback to the day he senses that his master's life is coming to an end. It proceeds to reconstruct their life together, and after his master's death it recounts in a series of picaresque experiences the dog's painful period of grieving, of reminiscing, of out-of-body experiences, and of dreams, until one day he charges across the freeway to meet his maker, or at least his master. For what looks like an accident is a premeditated suicide despite Mr. Bones's assertion that all he intends to do is play a harmless canine game of chicken. After all, the heartbroken wanderer has just received his master's message from the beyond that certain dogs do get admitted to Timbuktu "when the time comes" (176).
The novel is an odd and fascinating contribution to the current discourse about animals and whether they have cognition, consciousness, feelings, objectives, or possibly even a soul. Auster's tongue-in-cheek statement that humans are "not dogs after all. We're not driven solely by instincts and habits; we can think, and because we think, we're always in two places at the same time" (Kellman 1) is grotesquely inverted by his narrative. Its protagonist proves more than a match for his philosophizing master. He learns to tease out the truth from his ramblings and at one point even wonders how a particularly brilliant idea "could have occurred to him, a mere dog, and never once have crossed Willy's mind" (87). Like Flush, Auster's dog employs an omniscient narrator who effortlessly translates canine thoughts into human language. But Mr. Bones does not suffer from being "dumb" and misunderstood. An accomplished mind reader, he communicates with series of "yaps and yawns and yowls" which are crystal clear to his master: "Sure, I know what you're thinking [...] I can hear the words in your head, mein herr" (59). Like Woolf, Auster cannot always resist the comedic possibilities provided by the mind of an imagined Other. For the sake of a chuckle, he has his creation suffer from sudden lapses of cognition that amount to an anthropocentric exploitation of the "dumb" animal. For example, the dog recalls an encounter with a boy who, glad to have a companion, told him about a world in which "orioles fought with tigers, blue jays battled against angels, bear cubs warred with giants, and none of it made any sense" (107). The author, clearly enjoying the literal mind of the idiosyncratically educated, uses the "naive" perspective of a baseball ignoramus as one of many inside jokes that reduce the canine hero to a trivially anthropomorphized vehicle.
Auster's novel also shares with Woolf's the complexity and elusiveness of its narrative stance.
All he had to do was step into he road, and he would be in Timbuktu. [For] that was the beauty of this particular game. The moment you lost, you won. And so it happened, on that resplendent winter morning in Virginia, that Mr. Bones [...] set out to prove that he was a champion among dogs.[...] He ran toward the noise, toward the light, toward the glare and the roar that were rushing in on him from all directions. With any luck, he would be with Willy before the day was out. (180-81)
The imperceptible shifts in and out of Mr. Bones's mind make it difficult to separate the outside from the inside perspectives. Here the narrator's consciousness seems indistinguishable from the protagonist's. However, a closer reading sometimes reveals a clue, as in the following passage about Mr. Bones's take on his master's life stories. A less sophisticated language than Willy's and the inclusiveness of the experiencer suggest a canine consciousness: "There were fine things in Willy's soul [and] you forgot the other things that were in there as well." The next sentence is clearly the dog's reasoning: "Who could blame him for sentimentalizing the past? We all do it, dogs and people alike." However, "and in the long run Mr. Bones saw no reason to doubt him" suggests the outside perspective, as does "the dog had lived long enough to know that good stories were not necessarily true stories." The conclusion again seems to be Mr. Bones's: "Willy had done what he had done, and the years had passed. That was the essential thing, wasn't it?" However, the following riff, "[he was a] boffo rhymester and self-appointed bearer of Santa's message, your basic sorry excuse rigged out in the filthy duds of tramphood," could be an echo of his master's voice or, more likely, the narrator's imitation of William Gurevitch, a.k.a. Christmas (26-27).
Timbuktu--like Flush--is first and foremost a novel about love. Both canine protagonists represent the unwavering love that, according to Auster, "all dogs have--a purity of emotion and an intensity of attachment" (Interview II), and both suffer greatly from losing their masters. But unlike Flush's, Mr. Bones's love is not a caricature of human emotion in all its narcissistic distortions ("[She took Mr. Browning's flowers] an act, Flush thought, of calculated and deliberate malice" ). Auster's irony and his linguistic trickery do not diminish the complexity and depth of his exploration of human and canine love. His book is "nakedly about feelings" (Auster, Interview II)--love, joy, and despair. Mr. Bones feels like a human, but his feelings are without the impurities. His soul is unaffected by the pitfalls of object relations, free from egotistical reactions; it taps naturally into a realm beyond human experience. Heidegger theorizes that "in the world, but unable to risk the venture of its loss, the animal turns its back to the future of the world" (110). This dog proves not only Heidegger wrong. Mr. Bones's life is tragic, not because he is deprived of access to the world of man that he nonetheless senses (Derrida, Eating 111-12), but because he knows more about truth, speech, and death than man does. From the moment that he senses Willy's impending death his heart "[jumps] through a hundred hoops of dread and despair," and awakens in him the desire to join his master in the place called Timbuktu (63). Whenever Willy speaks to him of Timbuktu, where in the "oasis of spirits [or] realm of nothingness," all the worries about food or shelter would dissolve, even the sound of the word stirs "the deepest part of [the dog's] soul" (49). Comparing Mr. Bones's experiences of the mystical realm with those of Flush highlights yet another major difference between the two animal constructs. Flush's description of the seances involving a crystal ball and the antics of a piece of furniture is Woolf's comment on spiritual explorations in fashionable Victorian circles. The dog's perspective serves as a humorous reality check in two ways: tables don't kick, and focussing on the beyond can make humans blind to what stares them in the face. Flush's reaction to being ignored is, once again, completely and narcissistically human. When his mistress looks "through him as if he were not there, [with the] cruellest look she had ever given him" (145), he feels rejected. Mr. Bones's relationship with the mysterious place beyond death forever connects him with his beloved master.
Mr. Bones's pure soul is the antithesis of Willy's chaotic, slowly disintegrating psyche. Initially taken in as a "bodyguard with four legs" (27), he becomes the self-appointed guardian of his troubled human's soul. On the road to Truth--or Timbuktu--Willy does the best he can, but since he happens to be a "bred-in-the-bone liar with a strong paranoic bent" (25), it is up to his animal companion to separate what is true from what his human's mind concocts. Mr. Bones, diligently sniffing the street corners, approaches his daunting task with as much loyalty to Willy as to the truth. The narrator, in fact, warns the reader who wants to get "to the truth, the gritty nub of existence," that only "the good Herr Doktor Bones" himself will be of help. "Ignore his opinion, if you will, but who else are you prepared to trust?" (15). Here and throughout the novel, an earnestness in Auster's playful imagination elevates his dog to the role of a messenger from a pristine world that humans have lost. Willy, wildly determined to turn into a saint, believes that Mr. Bones was sent to him, "an angel trapped in the flesh of a dog," and that he is perhaps even God himself, for dog read backwards means "The Truth, that's what" (34).
Both funny angels and sad clowns, Mr. Bones and his master are deeply humanistic constructs whose truth emerges in hilarious ways, sometimes through seemingly extraneous linguistic disconnects. In Willy's last hours, the exhausted dog, "fighting through the miasma of his mounting grief" (62) finally gives up searching for the one person that can save Willy's poetic legacy. His only consolation is that instead of finding his old schoolmistress, his master has found his ancestral "Poland." However, what Willy is resting against is the wall of a Baltimore building with a plaque of E.A. Poe (62-63)--"Poe-Land." The poet has indeed found his home at last, a place not haunted by "anxiety and tsuris" (31) but by poetic shadows. Fate intervenes again with a linguistic joke for the sake of Mr. Bones. The old stray has finally found a home. However, he smells trouble when he is given a disgraceful new name--Spark. Before he can run away, Willy, whose presence has only changed quality after his death, appears in a dream to talk him out of doing so. He knows as well as the reader that the scrubbed suburban surface hides a hell where "the moment of truth" means fixing a dog that "won't even know what happened to him" (145). But he also knows that the ravaged dog will not survive unless he recovers before hitting the road again. "You'll always be Mr. Bones to me. But if it ever starts getting you down, just put it in its Latin form, and you'll feel much better. Sparkatus. It has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? Sparkatus the Dog. Behold you Sparkatus, the noblest tail-wagger in all of Rome" (177). These two jokes, examples of Auster's irrepressible urge to play with language, are made at the expense of his hero only on the surface. They are also expressions of the profound connection that transmits the truth not despite but via misunderstanding, thereby transcending what humans generally think of as indispensable--language, and even life itself. The dog learns that Willy is as alive as ever in his memories, and he gets accustomed to visitations from beyond--or is it from within his own consciousness? "Willy was still with him [and] even if the eyes that looked down on him were actually inside him, it made no difference in the larger scheme of things" (120).
Mr. Bones, the innocent and unassuming stray, is surely one of the most evolved of literary animals. His creator even allows him to foresee--in fact, personally witness--Willy's death in minute detail. As the literal fly on the wall, he rides with Willy to the hospital where he accompanies his "beautiful" dying (77) together with "the goddess of wisdom" (73), the old schoolmistress, in a proleptic dream sequence that one critic has called "the best thing in the book" (Tayler 22). When he blinks and is no longer the fly but back to his old dog self, he goes through a moment of intense confusion worthy of an existential philosopher: "The dream was over, but he was still inside the dream, which meant that he had dreamed a dream within the dream, a parenthetical reverie of flies and hospitals and Mrs. Swansons, and now that his master was dead he was back inside the first dream. That's what he imagined, in any case, but [then] he blinked a second time and woke up, and there he was again, camped out in Poland with the recumbent Willy" (77). Mr. Bones's consciousness is not limited by his physical body, in fact, both seem to be part of a much greater whole. Just as naturally as he can leave his body, he can rely on it to inform him of Willy's death in a hospital far from where he has run: "It was as if the air had flattened him." His immediate wish to follow his master is not granted--"God paid no attention to him--or else he could not find him"--and just as naturally, life returns: "[As] unexpectedly as it had come on, the heaviness began to lift, and he felt his life stirring inside him again" (94-95).
In conclusion, I hope that my examination of Flush and Timbuktu has shown that reading animal narratives as texts about the exploration of animalness and humanness is a compelling and complicated undertaking. Both authors' empathizing imaginations provide a contact zone in which humans and animal consciousness may meet. Woolf enters the animal field cautiously, taking small steps and never really venturing out into the unknown, while Auster bravely explores a territory that transcends animal and human existence. Woolf creates a dog whose world consists of smells and sounds inaccessible to humans but who is nevertheless defined as a lesser being. Auster endows his canine hero with all the instincts and the physicality of a pathetic, flea-ridden mutt with malfunctioning bowels, but also with the awareness, cognition, and deep feelings of a dog whose choice to attach himself to a human is entirely his. Unlike Woolf, Auster is aware of the distinction that animals are not in a "lesser relationship [but] an other relationship" to the world (Derrida, "L'animal" 49), risking the criticism that any construct of a "zoomorphic" view will perpetuate the speciest equation.
With Marcus Bullock, I would argue that despite the multiple problems of allocating a mind and language to animals, the steadfast refusal to see expressiveness in animals and the insistence "on hearing only silence and seeing only empty matter in the language of animal forms [...] merely becomes another species of anthropomorphism" (112). It may be true that "thinking animal" is impossible because we are creating the animals the moment we think about them (Mullan and Marvin 3). All we might ever see of an animal is it surface, never its soul--and no one can prove that animals have or do not have souls. But, as Kowalski says, there is "an inwardness in all other creatures that awakens what is innermost in ourselves" (5). One point on which animal researchers agree is that many animals dream--only the content of their dreams remains unknowable. Therefore it should not surprise us that the analysis of such subtle, multi-layered animal tales as Woolf's and Auster's also reveal an inescapable solipsism--the unavoidable pitfalls of the animal's objectification that happens just by thinking about the Other. Although the canine puzzle may never be solved, "the expression of wanting to know what it is like to be [an animal] is the beginning to actually achieve that knowledge" (Malamud 7).
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JUTTA ITTNER is Associate Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland. She has published in exile studies (a comprehensive intellectual biography of Martin Gumpert, 1998), contemporary literature, women's literature (Brigitte Kronauer, Irina Liebmann), and comparative studies of the representation of animals in contemporary literature.…
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Publication information: Article title: Part Spaniel, Part Canine Puzzle: Anthropomorphism in Woolf's Flush and Auster's Timbuktu. Contributors: Ittner, Jutta - Author. Journal title: Mosaic (Winnipeg). Volume: 39. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 2006. Page number: 181+. © 1999 University of Manitoba, Mosaic. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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