At the vet’s recently, because Cat the Ripper has had a stroke, his back-end’s gone skew-whiff, he’s old so apparently these things can be expected, I saw on the counter a brochure from an animal-health company. ‘Is your dog missing out on playtime?’ it asked. Of course there was an accompanying picture: a white pooch, its head softly resting on the carpet and eyes looking glumly into the distance (impersonating a writer perhaps), an abandoned chew-toy on the other side. ‘They could be suffering from osteoarthritis,’ was the answer provided.
Being a writer, and a pedant, which is a dangerous combination, I noticed that clunky they. In my old-fashioned opinion, a singular dog cannot be a they. So as I waited with Cat the Ripper in his carry-box for us to be called into the consultation room, I silently rearranged the sentence: ‘He or she could be suffering from osteoarthritis.’ Still clunky, plus the sentence should be more precise. ‘Osteoarthritis could be the cause.’ But we need that suffering word; at least the animal-health company does. It forces us to relate to and empathise with the four-legged members of the family. We need to know they might be in pain, or uncomfortable, or just plain unhappy. Then we can act.
Artists, writers especially, are besotted with the idea of suffering. They (and I’m using that they to hypocritically distance myself from the others of my ilk, or ink) explore it, try to resolve it; some even wallow in it, creatively, or personally, or both. Thankfully we (ah now I’m back amongst the fold!) have the ability to analyse and order and communicate. We use words to make sense of it all; sometimes we can make it all go way. Think of a novel and its heart will be suffering. Gillian Mears’ extraordinary but distressing Foal’s Bread (2011) is an example. So is Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886). Even amongst the articles of this newspaper, every story, the sports ones too, and the latest weather report, there is that thing: suffering, or the potential for it.
Needless to say, dogs aren’t that interested in this philosophical stuff – they just be – and Cat the Ripper has other things on his mind. So we have vets to act as our intermediaries, and we have animal-health companies with their questionable grammar. In the end, everything hinges on language, doesn’t it.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 15 December 2012.)