Another story, this, about life imitating art. In 1988 I published The Dog in Art from Rococo to Post-Modernism, an art-historical caprice that readers may well have been deceived into thinking was written by someone who had always shared his life with dogs. But that, I now write with embarrassment, is a total falsehood. As far as dogs went, I was a bachelor until 1990, when my book came to life in a new twist on the Pygmalion and Galatea story.
The epiphany was simple and sudden, and having checked my diary I can now date it precisely. In the entry for September 23, I jotted (apparently after the fact, for he came to us without a name) "Archie arrives." My two children, of course, had been nagging all along for a dog, and so had my wife; but I kept putting my foot down, repeating the dull litany of reasons for remaining liberated from a self-inflicted burden. Then, on that eventful Sunday, while I was out of town for the afternoon, the three of them went off to join some dog-nut friends at an annual bulldog convention in western Connecticut. One thing, it's true, had been clear: by unanimous vote, the English bulldog was our favorite breed. But I preferred to experience its irresistibly grotesque charm in the undemanding and uninvolving form of, say, the bulldog portraits by Delaroche or Toulouse-Lautrec. I still recall the shock, then, of putting the key in the lock to discover behind the door a squealing family surprise party. With a large dark spot like a pirate's around one eye, there, fallen from the sky, was a white bulldog puppy (born, I was quickly told, on Bastille Day, just two months before), and it was waiting, so they thought, for my instant surrender. But my inflamed ego -- how dare they do this behind my back? -- made the anonymous intruder almost unlovable for about 24 hours. And that is the short first act of an epic romance that will go beyond the grave.
The next day, of course, all began to change. By the time this stranger became Archie (the children didn't cotton to the arty, classical names -- Atlas, Ajax, Hector, Hyacinth -- we tossed into the ring, but Archie finally got all our votes). I was totally happy that my unsmiling prediction, that I would be the only one to take care of him, came true. And I am still happy, four years later, when the life-enhancing rhythms of walking Archie three times a day (early morning, late afternoon and just before bedtime) and feeding him twice a day (just after our breakfast and before our dinner) continue to be absorbed into my own mental and physical metabolism, where they provide the kind of mysterious serenity that, way back in the 1970s, I recall toying with in the form of one of the decade's spiritual fashions, transcendental meditation. Who needs twice-a-day, eyes-closed, inward voyages when you can slip into oblivion by becoming one with a 60-pound teddy bear of a mantra who looks like a canine Popeye (mammoth biceps and pectorals followed by a bell-jar waist), understands your every mood shift and has as many of his own, and participates in a mystical fusion with subhuman (or is it superhuman) sensations?
I never stop marveling over the strange release of near-psychoanalytic dimensions that Archie can trigger in his thrice-daily rounds of Greenwich Village, where we live. A very doggy neighborhood, it is filled with people who walk id-first, barely restrained by a leash. We all follow our temporary masters as they do things Freud taught us lie not so far below the surface of our own two-legged, upright stances -- sniffing strangers' pudenda, wallowing in a scatological continuum or, less carnally, merely insisting that this is mine and not yours. And then there is the ventriloquial stunt. I am constantly amazed by all these strangers who, like me, talk through their dogs. I know few of these people's names; and should we bump into each other dogless, we refer only hurriedly to our canine personae, squirming with the momentary exposure of our human selves. But when protected by our dogs, we go on and on, as if on a shrink's couch. "Good morning, Archie. Here's your friend Lucie, the slut. Watch her turn on her back for you." (And she does.) Might this really be a conversation between the owners? Or just the other day, a new dog on the block is nervously introduced as follows: "Oh, Betty hates males ... I must say, don't blame her." Then there's the ultrapampered bichon frise, whose bristly, old-maid mistress always salutes with a warning: "Archie, don't come near her. You weigh too much and you'll hurt her. Besides, she just had a bath." And invariably, there is the wordless ventriloquist in black leather whose Doberman growls at Archie like Cerberus while his owner chillingly avoids my anxious gaze. But apart form these ongoing encounters is the more isolated therapy of a back-to-nature immersion in that cosmos of sensory data, especially via twitching nostrils, which we can only experience vicariously as we are dragged this way and that by the clue of a scent we know is there, right on city pavements, even on the corner of Sixth Avenue, but are too handicapped to perceive.
Back home, Archie takes on another persona, fulfilling now the broadest spectrum of intimate domestic needs as he closes the door on his outdoor life. Family feud? One has only to hold up Archie's hugely compassionate, Buddha-like head to reduce us all to smiles and tears of reconciliation. Feeling down? He is ready to share and to console, with searching eyes and warming body. Tired of adult constraints? Baby talk won't embarrass him. Want to feel significant? Try his whirling-dervish greeting when you return from an overnight trip.
Now I remember the pre-Archie moment when I was doing research for my "dog in art" book and read how Lord Byron was so smitten with Boatswain, his beloved Newfoundland, that he commemorated his grief over the animal's death in 1808 not only with a poem, but with a commission for a funerary monument in which he himself also planned to be buried. At the time, I thought this was a textbook example of the delirious extravagance of the Romantic imagination. Today, however, I am eternally grateful to Archie for giving me the occasion, in an otherwise temperate life, to understand with the heart and not the mind that I, too, can be Byronic.
This text was read by its author at a Valentine's Day celebration in New York, five days before Archie's sudden death. It was originally published in Dog People, Michael J. Rosen, ed. (New York, 1995).
ROBERT ROSENBLUM teaches art history at New York University and is a curator at the Guggenheim Museum.