“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Day 73: On Resisting Sentimentality, Part Two

Zoe received a valentine last week from Sadie, my sister, Mira's, saucy little black dog.  It was a card of three adorable golden retriever puppies singing "I'm a believer" by the Monkees, except they replaced the word, "believer" with "retriever."  The pups thought love was only true in fairy tales, until they/Sadie had been converted after meeting Zoe. 

I still have the card on display in our living room.

Mira's birthday is coming up next week and I need to get her the perfect dog card today.  If I were a cartoonist, or knew my way around photo shop, I would make her one.  In anticipation of Mira's upcoming trip to New York City it would have Mira and Sadie in smocks painting at an easel a copy of a masterpiece from the Met.  I just found one on Google by Gustave Courbet, "Hunting Dogs with Dead Hare,"which would do nicely.  Or else the card would have Sadie and Mira on roller skates in Central Park, or riding a bicycle built for two, or taking in a Broadway show.

Instead, she'll have to settle for a pug eating a cake, or maybe a beagle with a party hat blowing out candles.

I might also have to buy Mira another dog book to add to her collection.  I just saw that there's an art book called The Artful Canine of dog paintings at the Met, so writing this post gave me some great gift ideas.

My favorite dog book is a memoir by Mark Doty called Dog Years.  It isn't funny, and it isn't cute, and it's the most moving and literary book I have read about what it means to adopt a pet and watch it become part of your family.  He takes us through several years of his life, including the days in New York just after 9/11, and we watch his two dogs, Arden and Beau, grow old, survive illnesses, and eventually die.  It's a beautiful, heartbreaking, groundbreaking book: meditative, philosophical, lyrical, smart, brave, and anything but sentimental.

In between his main chapters he has little italicized mini-essays he calls "entr'actse."  I am going to reproduce one of them,  "On Sentimentality," in entirety because I think it's insightful and scary-honest and provocative.
The oversweetened surface of the sentimental exists in order to protects its maker, as well as the audience, from anger.
 At the beautiful image refusing to hold, at the tenderness we bring to the objects of the world--our eagerness to love, make home, build connection, trust the other--how all of that's so readily swept away.  Sentimental images of children and of animals, sappy representations of love--they are fueled, in truth, by their opposites, by a terrible human rage that nothing stays.  The greeting card verse, the airbrushed rainbow, the sweet puppy face on the fleecy pink sweatshirt--these images do not honor the world as it is, in its complexity and individuality, but distort things in apparent service of a warm embrace.  They feel empty because they will not acknowledge the inherent anger that things are not as shown; the world, in their terms, is not a universe of individuals but a series of interchangeable instances of charm.  It is necessary to assert the insignificance of individuality to make mortality bearable.
 In this way, the sentimental represents a rage against individuality, the singular, the irreplaceable.  (Why don't you just get another dog?)
 The anger that lies beneath the sentimental accounts for its weird hollowness.  But it is, I suppose, easier to feel than what lies beneath rage: the terror of emptiness, of waste, of the absence of meaning or value; the empty space of our own death, neither comprehensible nor representable.  Not a grinning death's head but something worse: the lifeless blank, a zero no one steps around, though we try; repress it and it returns, more hungry, more negating, with more suck and pull.
 Despair, I think, is the fruit of a refusal to accept our mortal situation.  Perhaps it's less passive than it may seem; is despair a deep assertion of will?  The stubborn self saying, I will not have it, I do not accept it.
Fine, says the world, don't accept it.
The collective continues; the whole goes on, while each part slips away.  To attach, to attach passionately to the individual, which is always doomed to vanish--does that make one wise, or make one a fool?
When I read this for the first time, I swallowed hard.  I always assumed that what inspires generic cuteness and Hallmark smarminess is the same social conservatism that made Norman Rockwell paintings so popular: a fear of (or perhaps lack of training in appreciating) idiosyncratic images and original forms of expression.  In other words, sappiness and art are natural enemies.

But anger?  Rage?  Against individual mortality, including our own?  

The more I think about this, the more I think he nailed it.  The sensibility that goes for cheesy cutesy with all joking aside is one that wants to blot out pain and suffering and make everything airbrushed sweet.

I'm not sure how Mark Doty would characterize the dog humor cards my friends and sister and I send to one another.   We are generally making fun of ourselves for the excessive love we pour into our individual, irreplaceable dogs, but those cards are certainly excessively cute.

And now that my dog is fighting a grave illness and every occasion for a greeting card--a birthday, a holiday--is marked for me by the sadness that it might be the last time I get to spend that particular day of the year with her, these cards have an added poignancy for me.

My friend Rebecca's husband died suddenly in the fall of 2010, and she knows more about grief than anyone I spend time with these days.  After she read my post from yesterday she wrote:
"I think you have to be lighthearted in the face of such a serious situation. I joke about things Skip used to do all the time. It's not denial; it's a coping strategy. Equal measures of laughter and tears can be a great help when dealing with issues of life and death."
I will end again with Mark Doty's resonant ending to his short chapter:
To attach, to attach passionately to the individual, which is always doomed to vanish--does that make one wise, or make one a fool?
Is the humor in silly dog cards and pet trick videos a way of acknowledging that we, indeed, are fools for love?  And that we simply can't help it?  That to just surrender and be, as my husband likes to say with his slight English accent, "hopelessly besotted" with an individual dog, knowing I will lose her, knowing she will break my heart, knowing we are all going to lose loved ones and grieve: is this a form of masochism?  What drives this appetite and capacity for love that refuses to put on the brakes, even though sorrow is on its way too?

(She's a dog, not a person, someone somewhere is saying.  Yes, she's a dog.  And maybe that's part of what makes this love so tender.)

I know one thing for sure.  I used to not keep all of them, but every single dumb dog card I get from now on is going into my box of treasures.  They all make me smile, or snort, or guffaw, and I need that now more than ever.  A day might come in the future when I'll go to the box and look at them all again, including the valentine of the singing retriever pups from Sadie.  When I see them again, I'll cry.  But I'll be glad I have every last one of them.
photo by Tara Freeman

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