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The Wit's Guide to Pets
Or, subsidiary deities
The Great Wits are unanimously aware that the word “pets” is an anagram for pest. Unless of course they speak French, in which case the words are different and they might promenade their pet lobster around the gardens of the Palais Royale on a leash made of blue ribbon.
To paraphrase surrealist Gérard de Nerval, it’s only weird if you make it weird:
“Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? Or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don’t bark, and they don’t gobble up your monadic privacy like dogs do.”
Also, no one would pay attention to a man walking a dog. Animals aren’t ridiculous; pets are. That’s because of the relationships we have with them, and that’s why the best art about pets is about us, not the animals themselves.
“Dogs are not merely untouched by evil. They are celestial beings, angels incarnate, furry guardian spirits sent to watch over and help people live. Like the deification of cats, this belief is all over the internet, and growing. It makes you wonder. About people, I mean.”
— Sigrid Nunez
Nunez’s great 2019 novel The Friend is about a Great Dane named Apollo, but it’s really about a writer who inherits this dog, falls in love with it, and reinterprets the world as a result. When I originally read it, I admit I hardly noticed the dog. And maybe that’s the point!
“Your whole house smells of dog, says someone who comes to visit. I say I’ll take care of it. Which I do by never inviting that person to visit again.”
— Sigrid Nunez
Mitz, an earlier novel by Nunez, fictionalized the true story of a marmoset adopted by Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Drawn from letters and diaries of the Bloomsbury couple, it uses the clever little monkey to create a clever little portrait of a literary marriage between the wars.
“As much as they liked animals,” Nunez writes, “the Woolfs disliked people who were sentimental about them or who cherished them to the point of fetishism.” Tellingly, one of Mitz’s most simpering admirers is a Nazi stormtrooper.
“If we could talk to the animals, goes the song.
Meaning, if they could talk to us.
But of course that would ruin everything.”
— Sigrid Nunez
In her novella Pigeon Pie, Nancy Mitford nicely lampoons The Pet’s Programme, a 1939 German propaganda exercise that calls upon English pet owners to press for peace. Through “a series of shrieks and groans,” the radio show engaged wild and tame animals across the British Isles.
“Dogs and cats joined in the choruses, horses danced upon their hind legs, and dickie-birds went nearly mad with joy. Mice crept out of their holes to listen, while in the country the radio on these occasions proved such a magnet to frogs and snails and slugs that many people thankfully used it as a trap for small garden pests.”
The result: “On the day after one of these concerts Members of Parliament would be inundated by a perfect flood of letters from sentimental constituents demanding instant cessation of hostilities against our fellow animal-lovers, the Germans.”
“Dog, n. A kind of additional or subsidiary Deity designed to catch the overflow and surplus of the world’s worship.
Cat, n. A soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.”
— Ambrose Bierce
If a pet is thought of as a dependable dependant, the exact species doesn’t really matter. Patricia Highsmith disliked humans but loved her pet snails, bringing them to cocktail parties in her purse and smuggling them across the French border in her bra. That detail tells you absolutely nothing about the gastropods.
“To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs.”
— Aldous Huxley
Absurd pets, from Salvador Dali’s anteater to Nerval’s lobster to the Pet Rock to the Tamagotchi, reflect our absurdity. That’s the whole premise of Andrey Kurkov’s darkly comic novels about a penguin stuck in post-Soviet Ukraine. To borrow the opening joke from Death and the Penguin:
A Militia major is driving along when he sees a militiaman standing with a penguin.
“Take him to the zoo,” he orders.
Some time later the same major is driving along when he sees the militiaman still with the penguin.
“What have you been doing?” he asks. “I said take him to the zoo.”
“We’ve been to the zoo, Comrade Major,” says the militiaman, “and the circus. And now we’re going to the pictures.”
“I loathe people who keep dogs. They are cowards who haven’t got the guts to bite people themselves.”
— August Strindberg
Now that we’re well into January, perhaps it’s time to revisit those resolutions we all made or didn’t make or kept or broke. Whichever it was, congrats!
Get Wit Quick No. 184 is well aware that Homer Simpson walked a lobster named Pinchy. Does your pet have a human name, or do your humans have pet names? This clever bit of data journalism from The Washington Post informed me that Ben is a mostly dog name, while Benjamin is human. Checks out! Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting was my pet project and the ❤️ below is my catnip. Who’s a good boy?