- Of Canines and Queers
In Year of the Dog (dir. Mike White, 2007), a forty-something secretary named Peggy (Molly Shannon) descends into an almost paralyzing state of mourning after the untimely death of her pet dog, Pencil. Refusing to acknowledge the depth of this loss, Peggy’s coworker Layla (Regina King) coldly suggests that “maybe your dog died so your love life can live.” Obsessed with the rituals of heterosexual courtship and marriage, Layla articulates one of the film’s central concerns: the tension between normative, heterosexual love and Peggy’s seemingly aberrant love for animals. Layla’s concern with her friend’s deviant sexuality recalls the hysterical proposition that the legalization of gay marriage will legitimate all sorts of nefarious sexual practices, including bestiality. Yet the film’s denouement adopts a sympathetic tenor toward Peggy’s decision to reject the heterosexual injunction, abandon her dreary office job, and run off with a new dog to pursue a career as an animal rights activist. The film thus explores how love might live not at the expense of the animal’s death but in the form of alternative, interspecies kinship arrangements.
Although not overtly concerned with the politics of queer kinship, Alice Kuzniar’s Melancholia’s Dog: Reflections on Our Animal Kinship poses a number of questions that interrogate the social shame that is often imposed on those who appear inordinately attached to their pets. As Kuzniar observes, “one of the most unutterable aspects of closeness with pets is the shamefulness about intimacy with them, as if it might be construed as bordering on bestiality or as if to love dogs betrayed an inability to love humans” (10). One consequence of this shame, Kuzniar maintains, is the melancholic disavowal of human attachment to animals, a recognition and refusal of the human/animal bond that is exacerbated by the transience of dog lives (compared with human life expectancy): “During the life of pets the propensity is to deny to some degree the intensity of the bond,” leading humans bereft of a language to express their grief on the occasion of an animal’s [End Page 352] death (138). Kuzniar’s emphasis on the unspeakable and ungrievable character of dog love intersects with the work of scholars in race, gender, and sexuality studies who have worked to expose the larger cultural violence through which minorities become especially vulnerable to an untimely death.1 Such an overdetermined affinity with death is compounded, moreover, by the frequent characterization of such deaths as unworthy of grief.2
Offering nuanced readings of a wide assortment of literary texts, films, photographs, and paintings by Franz Kafka, J. M. Coetzee, Rebecca Brown, Sally Mann, William Wegman, David Hockney, and Sue Coe (among others), and engaging with a rich panoply of philosophical writings on the human-animal question — Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Witt-genstein, and Søren Kierkegaard — Kuzniar offers a compelling and often moving account of human relationships with dogs. For instance, in her reading of Whym Chow: Flame of Love (a collection of poems written in 1906 by Katherine Harris Bradley and her niece and lover, Edith Emma Cooper, and published in 1914 under the nom de plume Michael Field), Kuzniar suggests that the authors’ expression of grief for their lost dog links “the love that dare not speak its name” to an interspecies love that defies societal norms. In these poems, “sadness is exalted and grief stylized into a worship of the deceased that beatifies the love between the two women” (161). And in her reading of Brown’s The Dogs: A Modern Bestiary, Kuzniar observes that the narrator’s relationship with her dogs “adopts a queer dimension” insofar as its required secrecy (the landlord prohibits pets) mimes the closeting of the narrator’s sexuality (130).
While Melancholia’s Dog displays careful attention to the practices of interspecies grief and mourning, the book’s focus on dogs might strike some readers as arbitrary. Kuzniar chooses to interrogate the human-animal divide “precisely via the animal with which the human has the...