Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Burying the dog

Over the weekend, I finished reading both Clarice Lispector's Family Ties and John Hawkes' The Blood Oranges. Thinking about these two books as a comparatist, there's probably a very rich field where the interests of these two texts intersect -- and it might have to do with existentialist philosophy, or maybe with the philosophical concept of Appolonian and Dionysian. Or at least the area where existentialism (closer aligned with Lispector's stories) and Appolonian and Dionysian (Hawkes) intersect. But leaving all of this aside, there's one plot point where the two texts are in direct dialogue with each other: both stage a burial of a dog.

In both cases, issues of ownership are involved. In The Blood Oranges, Cyril is telling the story, but the dog really belongs to the other couple, to their young daughter Meredith. And yet Cyril is the one digging the grave. In Lispector's story "The Crime of a Mathematics Professor," the man is burying a stray -- while he had abandoned the "real" dog, the one he used to own.

In both cases, the place of the burial plays a very prominent part of the story: "So now the sonorous gloom of the trees had given way to the clear light of the empty beach. We were standing motionless together between trees and sea with the soft blue sky above us and, at our feet, the small and heavy casket stark on the sand. (The Blood Oranges, 216)"

"When the man reached the highest hill, the bells were ringing in the city below. The uneven rooftops of the houses could barely be seen. Near him was the only tree on the plain. The man was standing with a heavy sack in his hand. ("The crime...,"139)"

(Note: when burying dogs, presence of at least one tree seems to be essential.)

Hawkes' Cyril digs the grave too deep, while the Mathematics professor -- too shallow. Cyril has the dog buried in a child-size casket, while the Mathematics professor takes the body out of the sack and dumps it in the grave, studies its strange features afterward. In comparison, the difference between the two texts becomes apparent -- more so than it was when I read the texts individually -- Cyril obviously wants to bury this dog, while the Mathematics professor is not ready to let go of his.

At the end of Lispector's story the Mathematics professor very specifically changes his mind: "[The mathematics professor] must not be consoled. He coldly searched for a way of destroying the false burial of the unknown dog. He then bent down, and, solemn and calm, he unburied the dog with a few simple movements. (146)"

Before the dog of The Blood Oranges is buried, little children also attempt lifting the lid of the coffin and exposing the body, but they never succeed. Cyril's desire to bury the dog comes across most clearly when he finishes digging the grave: "Deeper than necessary, higher than necessary, stark. Already my chest and arms were drying and I did not regret the magnitude of those expressive scars on the beach. (222)" Moreover, once the grave is dug, a shepard comes by and he has another dog with him, a would-be replacement dog. It's very important for Cyril to distinguish this dog from the one they are burying: "It's a different dog," he explains to the young girl, Meredith. "He's a lot younger than yours. Besides, he's got that white star on his chest. Listen, if you pat his head a few times, he'll leave you alone. (223)"

Take these two different dog burial scenes and write a comparative paper about them. Or your own dog burial story.

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