Friday, October 20, 2017

Review: A history of humanity’s love affair with dogs

Review of: The Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Literary, Royal, Philosophical, and Artistic Dog Lovers and Their Exceptional Animals
Author: Mikita Brottman
Publisher: Harper
Source: Dallas Public Library
Grade: A

I can’t imagine what it would be like for a person never to have had a dog until well into her fourth decade. But before pitying author Mikita Brottman for this deprivation, please note that once she met the dog love of her life, she not only fell head over paws, but devoted herself to compiling a history of similar love affairs in The Great Grisby. Its eponymous hero, Grisby himself, a 30-something pound fawn piebald French bulldog, romps through the book, joining hundreds of perhaps more illustrious but not better-loved pooches of all breeds and mixes of breeds.

Brottman is a scholarly professor and psychoanalyst who addresses the question dog lovers – or perhaps female dog lovers – dread: Does our love for dogs mean we’re repressed neurotics, unable to form healthy relationships with members of our own species?

Her study, she writes, has led her not to an answer but to more questions. “Why is a woman’s love for her lapdogs considered embarrassingly sentimental when men bond so proudly with their well-built hounds?” And: “Married women admit they sleep with their dogs, and married men deny it. . . but who’s lying, and why?”

Brottman organizes the 26 chapters of The Great Grisby alphabetically (by dog names, naturally), from misanthropic German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s Atma (make that Atmas, because Schopenhauer gave each successive dog the same name) to the Z√©mire of French poet and intellectual Antoinette du Ligier de la Garde Deshouli√®res. 

This doesn’t mean that Brottman writes about only 26 dogs. Each chapter’s namesake dog is a springboard into discussions of similar dogs and their evolution both in form and culture. The uncharacteristic disloyalty of Richard III’s greyhound Mathe inspires not only a history of the greyhound breed, but of the inversion of the more common legends of dogs loyal to death to their masters, man-killing dogs, and supernatural dogs of doom.

The chapter entitled “Robber” (for Richard Wagner’s gigantic Newfoundland) becomes an exploration of the composer’s shady ethics and less than savory marital adventures, as well as canine musical muses and even dog houses. (You’ll have to read the book to see how Brottman manages that linking of topics.)

I expected even Brottman would be stumped to find a famous dog whose name started with X, but she does – Xolotl, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s Mexican hairless (and avatar of the Aztec god of the underworld), a connection that lets Brottman range from the role of dogs as guards and guides of the dead, to serving, literally, as sustenance for the living mourners.

And also as the familiar demons of witches and sorcerers. 

“I’d like to think of Grisby as my familiar,” Brottman writes, “but opinions are mixed on whether familiars can be pets. . . According to one source, a spirit that appears in the form of a bulldog is always accursed or accusatory, but anyone who believes this nonsense has obviously never met Grisby.” She concludes, “in most cases, a dog is just a dog. Thankfully, Grisby is neither shaman nor guru nor archetype, but himself – my living, snorting companion. That’s magic enough for me.”

Still, Grisby serves as a loveable, undoubtedly doggy guide through his own book. Written in prose both erudite and sprightly, readers don’t have to be dog lovers to lap up The Great Grisby.  But be warned, if you’re not hooked on canines when you start, you may find them stealing your heart before you reach the final page.

In the end, the answer to whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing to be totally besotted with members of the canine persuasion is simply – who cares? Just give us our dogs!