4. THAT THE SOUL EXPENDS ITS PASSIONS UPON FALSE OBJECTS
I was reading Montaigne’s fourth essay on expending our emotions. He believes that we have need for something outside ourselves to provide resistance to our passions which otherwise might turn to our detriment, the way it hurts when we mean to land a blow that misses. He cites Plutarch, the first century Greek historian “ of those who are delighted with little dogs and monkeys, that the amorous part that is in us, for want of a legitimate object, rather than lie idle, does after that manner forge and create one false and frivolous,” Plutarch was speculating that only childless women would be interested in small mammals, having no babies to love. Some other time, I will wax incensed about the implication that childless women have no true object. Today I wish to contest the assertion that small animals are illegitimate objects of concern. Maybe this is true of monkeys, that I don’t know, but cast not the aspersions upon the little dogs. Frivolous? False? I object vigorously.
I am one of those people who delights in little dogs. We have two male Cavachons ( half Bichon-Frisee, half Cavalier King Charles Spaniel) from the same litter- Ellwood P.”Cubby” Cubberly and Dietrich “Sparky” Buxtehude. We’ve had Cubby and Sparky for nearly eight years. It is well established hat they are completely and utterly useless for anything BUT delight. They scamper around the house, play fight, greet every passing dog and person with wagging tails and licks, then rest in the warmest place they can find, which is usually a lap. They don’t complain when little children haul them hither and yon, they are ecstatic to receive table scraps, they very rarely yap and they don’t shed. I am their primary caretaker. They follow me everywhere, they miss me when I’m gone, if I am to judge by how happy they are to see me return. Although to be honest, they seem pretty happy to see anyone who walks in the door. I freely took on this responsibility. My original thinking went as such- Someday, when my grandchildren are quite old and their minds are going and they don’t remember much, one of them will say to another, didn’t we have a grandmother who had dogs? And that grandmother will be me But as any parent who ever capitulated to the pleas of a child for a pet knows, it is never really just for the children.
Because of my dogs, I found myself worrying about the fate of Marie Antoinette’s lap dogs. It started one day when I was sitting by the fire, petting Cubby and Sparky, who were hoping for scraps of food to miraculously appear and it struck me that they were at least half French. And that French royalty would have most certainly have had lap dogs. How could they not? But what happened when the royal court was guillotined? Were the dogs executed as well? If not, did they wander starving in the ruined halls of Petit Trianon? Or did they run, liberated like the prisoners of the Bastille? And if they did run, were they caught by peasant children? Were the peasant children kind or hungry?
One of the marvels? curses? of our times is that questions like these, which would once have remained the subject of idle speculation or required painstaking research in the great libraries of the world, can now be answered by a touch or two on the screen of a smart phone. The answers you get run the gamut from indisputable nonsense to well sourced nuggets of truth. Here are two samples.
Marie Antoinette had a lap dog, most probably a Papillon, although Bichon Frisees were a la mode as well She gave the dog, one Coco, to a valued servant who managed to keep the dog alive and well, and bring it back to Paris after the Restoration. Coco lived to the ripe old age of 22 and is buried in the Hôtel de Seignelay. Bien joue, Coco..
Marie Antoinette kept a spaniel named Thisbee who followed her tumbril to the Place de la Concorde to witness the Queen’s beheading. Thisbee’s mournful howling attracted the attention of a revolutionary soldier who bayonetted the animal tout de suite, declaring “So perish all that mourn an aristocrat. “
And what of all the others? Paintings and testimony and histories attest to the presence of a zoo-full of house dogs, much favored by the aristocrats of all stripes. When the mistresses and masters abandoned them either through exile or execution, the animals were left to their own devices sauve qui peut- every dog for itself. They ran loose through Paris, says one story, and the poor people couldn’t resist their merry temperament and sweet faces.
Marie Antoinette is the incarnation of frivolity; there were monkeys at Versailles as well, although I imagine they did not win the hearts of the sans culottes as easily as the spaniels and pugs of the palace. I don’t think any of this would have surprised either Plutarch or Montaigne, if they had been around at the time.
I have to admit that it makes me uncomfortable to think I have anything at all in common with Marie Antoinette. She doesn’t have terrific press. At the best she was a bubble-headed inbred child of a dying system of privilege, at worst a cruel subjugator who wielded power with relish. Those Cavachons of ours are a complete splurge- they are designer dogs, pricey to buy and keep- between vet bills- vaccinations and meds for heart worm and fleas- and regular grooming, not cheap. We can afford it, but still, shouldn’t I have rescued some dogs? OR shouldn’t the money go to some worthy cause that helps people, not pets? Is my desire indulge in this luxury somehow less valuable than if I volunteered time at a suicide hotline or sent regular donations to Amnesty International?
I don’t have an answer to that one. Rather, if you go by what I choose to do, my answer is clear. I don’t have a justification. Whatever my misgivings, Cubby and Sparky are not going anywhere. So I will shrug and accept that modern day Plutarchs will sniff at my shallow existence. And I will allow myself to think with some pity, if not on Marie Antoinette herself, on Coco and Thisbee.