This essay appeared as ‘The Dog, The Home and the Human, And the Ancestry of Derrida’s Cat,’



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This essay appeared as ‘The Dog, The Home and the Human, And the Ancestry of Derrida’s Cat,’ Oxford Literary Review, 29 (2007) special issue ‘Derridanimals’, pp.37-54


The Dog, the Home and the Human and the Ancestry of Derrida’s Cat
There are many stories, told by philosophers, historians, poets, about dogs, those loyal companions of our moments of recreation. In these stories, which are often played out in the most familiar locations, the absence of the dog is a mark of disorder, its presence order, and thus we find ourselves, in these tales we tell, at home, at peace - with dogs. Indeed, the stories told about dogs, we might argue, are never really about dogs at all, they are always about humans. These are stories that tell of a desire for completion - for self-knowledge, self-possession, security and stability - but which also have the potential to record - in the dog’s death or disappearance - the fragility of such self-knowledge, self-possession, security and stability.
Eric Knight presents probably the most famous modern version of this dog myth:
When they had had Lassie, the home had been comfortable and warm and fine and friendly. Now that she was gone nothing went right. So the answer was simple. If Lassie were only back again, then everything once more would be as it used to be.1
But Lassie Come-Home is by no means the final rendition of this link between the dog, the home and stability. Contemporary writers are still adapting the story for their own uses. In his 1996 short story, ‘Last Days of the Dog-Men,’ Brad Watson, for example, writes of one character: ‘He was a man who had literally abandoned the hunt. He was of the generation that had moved to the city. He was no longer a man who lived among dogs.’2 And in her 2004 novel Wild Dogs, Helen Humphreys tells a story of a group of dog owners awaiting the return of their now-feral pets. Alice, the novel’s first narrator, says ‘I love the dog. But there’s no need to mention that, not really. She has been my stability and security through these last four years. I could say that instead. And what I can’t believe is that she’s gone from me.’3 What follows in Humphreys’ novel is a series of stories of broken lives. Without dogs humans fall apart.
Cats, on the other hand serve another function for many writers. Rather than constructing the domestic sphere a cat might challenge its existence by denying its importance. For sociologist Adrian Franklin cats ‘are in but not of the social, and have been attributed with characteristics consistent with that. [They] are mysterious, secretive, sexual (female), aloof, intellectual, independent and spiritual; they are of nature whereas dogs are of culture.’ Cats, he continues ‘are seen as independent and single minded (whereas dogs are more conservative and conforming).’4 Historian Kathleen Kete goes so far as to call the cat ‘the anti-pet par excellence.’5 In Hélène Cixous’ short story, ‘The Cat’s Arrival’, the narrator asks: ‘Who would have thought that a united and harmonious family would end up sinking because it had run into a cat’s back?’6
In this essay I want to place Jacques Derrida’s ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’ within the lineage of such dog and cat stories; in fact, I want to read Derrida as the re-teller of a key myth of modernity that brings together the dog, the home and the human. Part of Derrida’s re-telling is to place the human at home in the company of a cat rather than a dog. There are, of course, biographical reasons for this - Jacques Derrida lived with a cat. But I want to argue that Derrida’s focus on a cat rather than a dog at the beginning of his lecture is more than simply biographically accurate: it is also philosophically rigorous because part of what Derrida is attempting in this lecture is to uncover a different kind of human and a different kind of philosophy from the one that has placed the dog at its feet. I begin with the myth; I will, like Lassie to her home, return to Derrida.
No Place Like Home
Kathleen Kete notes that in nineteenth-century France - a period that she identifies as one of increasing bourgeois dog ownership - stories of ‘the long trek homeward of a faithful pet, unguided and against all odds ... were commonplace events ... and the object then of much serious concern.’ She cites as an example the (apparently true) story of Victor Hugo’s poodle, Baron, who travelled from Moscow to Paris to find his master.7 Such stories were the stuff of fiction as well. In Albert Payson Terhune’s story Lad: A Dog of 1919, Lad’s journey is much shorter than Baron’s but just as meaningful. He is accidentally left in New York when he falls out of his Master’s car and is forced to travel alone the thirty miles to ‘The Place’, the New Jersey farm on which he lives.8 The myth finds its most popular restatement, though, in the text that first appeared as a short story in 1938, was expanded into a novel in 1940 and filmed in 1943: Eric Knight’s Lassie Come-Home.9 Set in Greenall Bridge, a fictional Yorkshire village, after the closure of the pit, Lassie Come-Home tells the story of the Carracloughs, a mining family, who are forced to sell their prize collie to the local aristocrat to pay the bills. The dog continually escapes from the Duke’s kennels returning always to meet the Carracloughs’ son, Joe, from school. Eventually Lassie is taken to the Duke’s estate in the north of Scotland to be separated from the boy and prepared for dog shows. However, she escapes again, and most of the novel follows her arduous thousand-mile journey across Scotland and the north of England, back to the school gates in Greenall Bridge.
Many critics have regarded the relationship between the boy and the dog as the core theme of Lassie Come-Home,10 but this interpretation is not only heavily influenced by the American television series, Lassie - which bears scant relation to Knight’s original story - it also misses out what is more challenging in the text. I want to argue that Lassie Come-Home has wider implications; that it is a novel about dog ownership and its role in the construction of human status, and that it provides an important context for reading Derrida’s discussion of his encounter with his cat.
The novel’s representation of the nature of pet ownership becomes most apparent at the moment when Joe’s fantasy of the dog’s return appears to have come true; when Lassie arrives home. But her return is accompanied by a realisation that, even after her extraordinary journey, she must still be given back to her owner, the Duke. This realisation breaks Joe’s heart: ‘And then, for the first time in all his trouble, Joe Carraclough became a child, his sturdiness gone, and the tears choked his voice.’ Mrs Carraclough’s attempt to deal with her son is harsh but pragmatic: ‘Tha mustn’t Joe ... Tha mustn’t want like that. Tha must learn never to want anything i’life so hard as tha wants Lassie. It doesn’t do.’ (216) The boy’s response to this adult reality is not childish, it is, you might say, ethological: it speaks of the actions of the dog and not the human. ‘Ye don’t understand, Mother. Ye don’t understand. It ain’t me that wants her. It’s her that wants us - so terrible bad. That’s what made her come home all that way. She wants us.’ (216) This assertion of canine desire transforms the relationship between the dog and the humans around her in that it ensures that we recognize the mutuality of that relationship. The journey home is made, after all, by the dog and not by the human, and as such Lassie is, as Marjorie Garber has noted, not only Argus, Odysseus’ dog who dies wagging his tail at the sight of his finally returned and disguised master in The Odyssey. Lassie is also Odysseus himself: the mythical ‘quest hero ... crossing a fearful and unknown territory in search of home and love.’11 The dog is both the object and the subject of the story.
As well as this we should remember (as many critics fail to do12) that the ‘Come-Home’ in the novel’s title is hyphenated: that is, that the title is not an imperative, it is a name. Such quibbling over a hyphen might sound like scholarly pedantry, but the point is an important one. In the final chapter of the novel Joe says to the dog, ‘ye brought us luck. ‘Cause ye’re a come-homer. Ye’re my Lassie Come-Home. Lassie Come-Home. That’s thy name! Lassie Come-Home.’ (231) It is as if, as well as invoking the Greek myth - putting the Homer in the ‘come-homer’, you might say - we are also witnessing a modern version of Adam’s naming of the beasts, where, in Genesis 1.19, the first man gave names to the animals that were not mere labels but reflected truly the essence of those animals. Thus in Lassie Come-Home ‘Come-Home’ is the dog’s name and it is also a declaration of the dog’s nature; coming home is what she must do.
The text proposes, then, two possibilities about the nature of the relationship between the boy and the dog. On the one hand Knight suggests that it is the dog’s desire to return to her master that is central (‘it’s her that wants us’), and on the other hand he offers the possibility that it is in the dog’s nature (which, the novel tells us, is instinctive rather than reasonable [96]) to return. Knight, in fact, has both of these contradictory narratives working at once in Lassie Come-Home, and what emerges is the sense in which the relationship of the dog to her boy (and the relationship is now that way around: she is not his dog so much is he is her boy, she has chosen him) is all the more natural and timeless because the return belongs with nature (the animal, instinct) and not with culture (the human, reason).
But in offering this reading of the relationship Knight is not simply reiterating the connection between the child and the animal.13 Lassie Come-Home also proposes an important way of understanding the human-pet relationship more generally which offers a counterpoint to Yi-Fu Tuan’s later twentieth-century argument that, across history, ‘Domestication means domination.’14 The presence of the hyphen and all that it denotes in Lassie Come-Home challenges the idea that what underlies the human-pet relationship is the imperative ‘come home’ in which the pet submits to human dominance. The hyphen, indeed, makes the pet’s submission the pet’s natural desire. Tracing links between topiary and training animals, Tuan states that the ‘harsh story behind the making of pets is forgotten’ under the veil of affection.15 The fictional representation of the true and natural love of a dog for her boy found in Lassie Come-Home is, we might say, one of the most famous and powerful ways in which we perform this act of forgetting. From Tuan’s perspective, such an image of the boy-dog relation places a veil between the reader and the domination that lies at the heart of the human-pet relationship by making a claim to its mutuality: by emphasising the ‘fact’ that they want us perhaps even more than we want them. Such a claim is not new to Knight, it had already been made in two novels that are key precursors to Lassie Come-Home. In Eleanor Atkinson’s Greyfriars Bobby (1912) Mr Traill, the kindly pub landlord, says ‘ilka dog aye chooses ‘is ain maister.’16 And likewise in Lad: A Dog Terhune makes the distinction between ‘owner’ and ‘Master’ (he always writes this with a capital M) on a number of occasions and in a particular way: ‘Any man with money to make the purchase may become a dog’s owner. But no man - spend he ever so much coin and food and tact in the effort - may become a dog’s Master without the consent of the dog.’17 But how is this consent to be represented? How can an animal that cannot engage in a verbal contract, agree to be a pet? - for it is the animal’s agreement that is so important. The expression of the dog’s desire to be mastered - the communication of the animal’s consent - is contained, of course, in the dog’s arduous journey home.
In a recent study former Freud archivist Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson shows that stories of dogs making long journeys to be reunited with their masters continue to be told into the late twentieth century. He argues that ‘What drives [these dogs] is love.’18 This answer seems inadequate, but perhaps this is simply because Masson’s account is so brief. Perhaps we need the meander - The Incredible Journey, as Sheila Burnford called her story of the return home of two dogs and a cat19 - to make the story about the dog’s love palatable. And we do need, I think, the story to be palatable, because if we discount the existence of the dog’s love we raise an important question: if dogs cannot love us why do we love them? Without the dog’s desire such emotional responses as Odysseus’ and Joe Carraclough’s tears make no sense and the human-pet relation becomes simply what Yi-Fu Tuan has identified as dominance veiled by affection.
The emphasis on Lassie’s desire is thus, I think, the most resonant aspect of Lassie Come-Home. Without such a perception of agreement by the dog, dog ownership becomes potentially meaningless, or at best merely an exercise in human control. In fact, the dog’s consent to be mastered does more than give meaning to the relationship, it actually attests to the naturalness of dog ownership. But we can take this further. If it naturalises the human-dog relation, then the dog’s consent also makes natural the hierarchy inherent in that relation, and in making the hierarchy natural it cements the boundary between the human and the dog, as the love of the dog speaks for the natural mastery of the human. As such, dog ownership is what we might term a truly humanist pursuit in that it reiterates the natural and absolute difference between animal and human that persists in humanist thought. And we might say, therefore, that Lassie Come-Home is a key humanist text of the twentieth century.
The role of the dog in the construction of the human is not, of course, original to Knight (Homer knew about dogs). And nor is it only in literature that such stories are told. Philosophers also had much to say about dogs, and their conception of the doggishness of the dog provides another framework in which to place Lassie Come-Home - and Jacques Derrida’s discussion of his cat.
Philosophical Animals
In his fourth century CE Homilies on Hexaëmeron, Basil the Great wrote:
The dog is not all that intelligent, and, still, he has a sense which compensates for this shortcoming. Whereas the wise of our world may spend a lifetime of laborious meditation on the combination of syllogisms, dogs manage to clear up such problems naturally. Pursuing his quarry and finding that the tracks part in different directions, the dog examines the tracks, and with little trouble he works out his syllogistic reasoning. The prey, he reasons, has escaped either hither or thither, or in a quite different direction, and since it is neither here nor there, only one direction remains. Thus, by eliminating the erroneous alternatives, the dog discloses the truth. So do also those grave men of thought, who, seated in front of geometrical figures, draw lines in the sand and, confronted with three propositions, have to discard two in order to discover the truth of the one that remains.20
The tracking dog, first discussed by Chrysippus (c.280-c.206 BCE),21 becomes, for Basil, a figure of the truth seeker: it becomes an icon, indeed, of those schools of philosophy that claim the possibility of absolute knowledge, and that claim alongside this an absolute difference between humans and all other animals. The dog, frequently pictured sitting by the philosopher’s feet in Renaissance iconography,22 invokes this idea and is thus, you might say, the retriever of certainty. And if the dog hunting its quarry is the image of the philosopher, then it is clear that this image works to support the belief that, just as the quarry exists (how else would a scent trail be left?) and can be caught, so the truth exists and is attainable.
Not all philosophers believed this, of course, and it is significant that the thinker most obviously present in the early part of Derrida’s lecture is one of those who believed that the truth available to his human mind to be of only limited value. It is also significant that this thinker turned to a cat - his cat - to make this point: ‘When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?’ Michel de Montaigne’s question about his games with his cat, asked in a paragraph added in his post-1588 revisions to his 1580 ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond’, sets up in the most homely terms an important philosophical issue. The issue’s seriousness is not undermined by its homeliness, by its presence in a scene in which a human and an animal ‘entertain each other with reciprocal monkey tricks’ (his phrase added to the posthumous 1595 complete edition of the Essais). The seriousness is, I would argue, enhanced by its very domesticity. Montaigne’s cat follows directly his original assertion about the nature of human superiority:
It is by the vanity of this same imagination that he [i.e. man] equals himself to God, attributes to himself divine characteristics, picks himself out and separates himself from the horde of other creatures, carves out their shares to his fellows and companions the animals, and distributes among them such portions of faculties and powers as he sees fit. How does he know, by the force of his intelligence, the secret internal stirrings of animals? By what comparison between them and us does he infer the stupidity that he attributes to them?23

‘How does he know?’: this question is key to Montaigne’s philosophy. He asks - questions are the appropriate rhetorical strategy for the sceptic24 - and later adds, not an answer, but another question: ‘When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?’


But why does Montaigne remove us from philosophical abstraction - the nature of the human ‘imagination’ - and take us to this scene of a man playing with his cat? There are, I think, a number of possible reasons, all of which underline his intent. Firstly, he is moving deliberately from abstract to concrete because it is his belief that it is only in the real world that the nature of animals can be properly contemplated.25 Secondly, he is proposing that pets are significant tools for contemplation, as he writes later in the ‘Apology’: ‘in my opinion, if anyone studies closely what we see ordinarily of the animals that live among us, there is material there for him to find facts just as wonderful as those that we go collecting in remote countries and centuries.’26 Thirdly, he replaces the dog with a cat to mark his difference from the philosophy that Sextus Empiricus labelled dogmatic (the pun is accidental, but appropriate) in his Outlines of Scepticism (second century CE).27 If a dog is trainable, then a cat is much less easily tamed; it is a much more independent - less homely - animal. Fourthly - and bringing the first three together - Montaigne invokes this domestic scene in order to upset the conception of human superiority that has become naturalized in dominion over animals. This seems a paradox - a pet owner attempting to uproot the structures of thought that allow for pet ownership - but Montaigne is careful to include in his later additions to the ‘Apology’ a sentence that undoes any sense of dominion in his relationship with his cat. There is equality in the home of Montaigne, visible when he writes of their games: ‘If I have my time to begin or to refuse, so has she hers.’28

In ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, Jacques Derrida refers to this passage and its textual expansion and also, of course, contemplates his own cat: a cat which, he insists, ‘isn’t Montaigne’s cat’ but his own ‘little cat’ - adding parenthetically, ‘(but a pussycat never belongs)’.29 This cat, unlike Montaigne’s, is not involved in a game, but rather is claiming its dues: ‘The cat follows me when I wake up, into the bathroom, asking for her breakfast, but she demands to be let out of that very room as soon as it (or she) sees me naked, ready for everything and resolved to make her wait.’ (382) It is this demand, this address by the animal that Derrida is concerned with. For him it opens up important philosophical questions and helps him to position himself both alongside and at a distance from those philosophers who have never been, as he puts it, ‘seen seen by the animal’ (382); that is, who have never acknowledged the gaze of the animal. ‘I often ask myself,’ Derrida writes, ‘just to see, who I am - and who I am (following) at the moment when, caught naked, in silence, by the gaze of an animal, for example the eyes of my cat, I have trouble, yes, a bad time overcoming my embarrassment.’ (372) The invocation here is of Aristotle’s assertion in the Rhetoric that ‘no one feels shame before small children or animals,’30 an assertion that refuses the animal gaze and that marks a foundation of the philosophical ‘architecture’ (383) that Derrida is challenging. And Derrida mounts his challenge in an utterly appropriate way: by speaking of a cat looking at him when he is naked. He turns from the abstract concept of human shame towards an actual event in a bathroom (‘I’d also never have imagined’, writes Hélène Cixous, ‘that a cat ... could be an Event.’31).


But more than this: Derrida insists that this incident with his cat is a real encounter, ‘a scene,’ he says, ‘that is repeated every morning.’ (382) He describes the scene, returning insistently to his nakedness, his actual nakedness. He speaks of the ‘impropriety that comes of finding oneself naked, one’s sex exposed, stark naked before a cat that looks at you without moving, just to see.’ (372) He tells of his embarrassment at his embarrassment ‘Especially, I should make clear, if the cat observes me frontally naked, face to face, and if I am naked faced with the cat’s eyes looking at me as it were from head to toe, just to see, not hesitating to concentrate its vision - in order to see, with a view to seeing - in the direction of my sex.’ (373) Whatever Derrida may have written about speech having no priority over writing, it is important to remember the power of Derrida’s repeated return to his own nakedness in a lecture, in a medium in which he stands in front of his audience and speaks of his own full frontal nakedness. The philosopher - the great mind - asks his audience, who are fast becoming his spectators, to view him as a body, and worse, as a naked body. In discussing his embarrassment at being embarrassed Derrida embarrasses himself.
But why this shameful behaviour? Why invite us - over and over again - to imagine his naked body? It is an attempt, I think, to undermine the arrogance he finds in the figure of the philosopher and in much philosophy. This is the arrogance that has separated mind from body, and human from animal, and has been represented in the image of the philosopher with the dog at his feet. Derrida’s challenge to this idea of contemplation’s link to dominion is simple: he opens his discussion of animals in his bathroom, in this place that so distant from the study: the former is a place of the body, the latter of the mind. It is in this architecture that the address of the animal, he argues, can best be contemplated. ‘The animal looks at us, and we are naked before it. Thinking perhaps begins there.’ (397)
So what is the thinking that Derrida begins? He recognises that the concept ‘the Animal’ - the general singular - is a refusal to acknowledge difference, and is a - if not the - means by which the opposition human/animal is upheld. ‘Animal,’ he says, is a word ‘that men have given themselves at the origin of humanity and that they have given themselves in order to identify themselves, in order to recognize themselves, with a view to being what they say they are, namely men.’ (400) But he goes further: if the Animal is a means of self-identification, it is also at the root of philosophy. ‘Interpretive decisions (in all their metaphysical, ethical, juridical, and political consequences) thus depend on what is presupposed by the general singular of this word Animal.’ (409) By implication, if we begin to think about animals, about the multitude of difference, rather than the Animal we have already uprooted the opposition of human and animal, as some animals appear closer to us than to them.
Such a fracturing of the binary opposition of human and animal would also undo the logic that persists in key conceptualizations of the human in western philosophy. Aristotle’s claims about human shame are premised upon such an opposition, for example, as, of course, are the ideas of René Descartes, a philosopher who found no reason to believe any animal (Animal) had possession of an immortal soul because, as he wrote, ‘there is no reason to believe it of some animals without believing it of all, and many of them such as oysters and sponges are too imperfect for this to be credible.’32 The title of Derrida’s lecture signals Descartes as perhaps his key focus: ‘L’Animal que donc je suis (à suivre),’ translated as ‘The Animal That Therefore I am (More to Follow)’ by David Wills, is obviously an invocation of Descartes’ definition of the human mind: ‘je pense, donc je suis’ - I think therefore I am. As such we can trace a complex philosophical journey (an Incredible Journey, perhaps) in Derrida’s essay from dualism (Aristotle’s sense of shame) to doubt (Montaigne’s game with his cat), back to dualism (Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’) to doubt once again, when, in place of Descartes’ formulation of the human of humanism, Derrida recognises that his own humanity is never so fully present. Je suis - I am (here, now) - and je suivre - I follow (there, after) - are placed alongside each other, or as simultaneous with each other, and the self is thus understood to be present only as following, as being in movement rather than being, you might say, at home. Indeed, we can return to Montaigne once again to find a precursor of Derrida’s assertion when the former writes, ‘We are never at home, we are always beyond.’33
It is utterly appropriate, then, in terms of philosophical ideas (figured in the dog at the feet of the thinker) and in terms of modern myths (the stability of the home being linked to the presence - the self-willed presence - of the dog) that Derrida can only challenge philosophy by refiguring the myth. He maintains many of the elements of the humanist myth that finds its highpoint in Lassie Come-Home - the animal, the home, the human - but all are revised, all are transformed. We no longer find an encounter between a boy and a dog by the fireside such as we get at the end of Knight’s novel where the final words tell of the domestic bliss created by the dog’s return:
Joe bowed his head to the dog, and forgot [his parents].

‘You’re my Lassie Come-home,’ he crooned. (233)


Instead, we are asked to imagine - repeatedly asked to imagine - the scene of the aging, naked philosopher being challenged by his cat in his bathroom every morning. This is no domestic bliss; this is a constant reminder of our physicality, our mortality. But if the cat is a reminder of human mortality Derrida’s tale ultimately offers no such sense of an ending: instead its end returns us, it seems, to its beginning: ‘“But as for me, who am I (following)?”’ (418).
Beware of the Dog Myth
But, this is too simple. While this analysis might provide a context in which to read Jacques Derrida’s lecture, such a reading - that posits an opposition between Knight and Derrida, between humanist and posthumanist thought - undermines the sophistication of Lassie Come-Home and reiterates what we might call the ‘naturalized’ reading of that novel in which the image of dog and boy in happy communion takes precedence. If we follow Kenneth Burke’s argument that myth is a ‘drive towards completion’,34 however, then it seems only natural to assume that the mythical nature of Knight’s novel should take us beyond the boy and his dog, should lead us to what it is that is incomplete and must be veiled, to use Tuan’s term. Read in this way Lassie Come-Home is still a story about species stability, but it is a story written and set during at a time of instability: of industrialization, urbanization and increased mobility. In an economic context in which, in Marx’s terms, ‘each [man] is alienated from the human essence,’35 the myth in which the dog, the home and the human are brought together can be read as being part of the way in which western humanity constructs itself in modernity. What Knight presents, however, is an uncomfortable version of this myth. Indeed, Lassie Come-Home, while it deals on one level with the relationship between the dog and the boy, is, as Knight himself acknowledged in a letter written in 1940, ‘never so much one of a dog, as it is of a man and a boy whose family is faced with what to them is a tremendous economic problem.’36 What happens when the novel is read with this sense of it in mind is that two different but inextricably linked issues come to the fore: the nature of the human in his or her relation with the dog that we have already encountered, and the nature of the relationships between humans in the modern world. It is in the contradictions between these two concerns, I think, that the most significant and lasting implications of the novel can be found.
The story is set in a community in which the dog that meets Joe Carraclough from school every day stands for an order that is being lost. The novel is not subtle on this point: in the very first chapter, before the dog has been sold, we are told:
Lassie was a well-loved figure in the daily life of the village. Almost everyone knew her. But, most of all, the people of Greenall Bridge were proud of Lassie because she stood for something that they could not have explained readily. It had something to do with their pride. And their pride had something to do with money. (11)
By possessing Lassie and resisting the lucrative offers for the dog from the Duke of Rudling, Sam Carraclough is asserting his working class independence. As such, the sale of Lassie which takes place between chapter one and chapter two - it is the unspeakable of the text - represents the ways in which these working men are, as the narrator puts it, ‘bludgeoned by fate.’ (12) For Joe, as we know, the order that the dog represents works on a more limited, less abstract level: she represents the order of the home. His thought process is simple: ‘When they had had Lassie, the home had been comfortable and warm and fine and friendly. Now that she was gone nothing went right. So the answer was simple. If Lassie were only back again, then everything once more would be as it used to be.’ (63)
But when the dog does reappear in Greenall Bridge after her astonishing journey the Carracloughs’ troubles are far from over. The family have sold the dog and spent the money and thus she must, once more, be returned to the Duke. But Sam Carraclough is both a good father and an honest man and he finds a way of keeping the dog without cheating the Duke. He resorts to using the skills of the ‘dog coper’ who disguises the flaws of an imperfect dog before sale. However, Sam does not attempt to hide Lassie’s bad points, it is her beauty he disguises, but only in order to engage the Duke in a knowing, quasi-legal, conversation about the nature of ownership; for, as the novel says, ‘in dog-dealing, as in horse-dealing, the spoken word is a binding contract, and once it is given, no real dog-man will attempt to go back on it.’ (220) Thus, when the Duke arrives at the Carracloughs’ house and looks for his dog Sam says of the disguised Lassie: ‘This, I give ye my word, is th’only tyke us has here. So tell me, does it look like any dog that belongs to thee?’ (219) The Duke’s reply, which has the potential to either ruin the father’s reputation for honesty37 or return Lassie to the Carracloughs, is a long time coming as he looks and realises how far the dog that he bought has travelled to be here in this house in a Yorkshire pit village. But eventually his answer comes, and it is an answer that reiterates the idea that it is the dog that chooses the master (or Master, as Terhune had it) not the other way around: ‘Sam Carraclough ... This is no dog of mine. ‘Pon my soul and honour, she never belonged to me. No! Not for a single second did she ever belong to me!’ (221) With these formal words the Duke knowingly renounces his rights to the ownership of the dog and Lassie truly comes home.
The Duke offers Sam the post of kennel-keeper, and a deal is struck between the Duke and Mrs Carraclough over his wages and the family’s right to a cottage on the Duke’s estate. The Carracloughs are thus saved from poverty and the humiliations of the dole, and the return of the dog seems to be truly a return of the time when things were, as Joe had imagined, ‘comfortable and warm and fine and friendly’. But this is not the end. Eric Knight, as some of his other novels show, is a social realist,38 and in the original short story on which the novel is based the tale ends with a conversation between the Duke and his granddaughter Priscilla about the deal Mrs Carraclough and the Duke have just made - a version of which appears in the penultimate chapter of the novel.
‘And I thought you were supposed to be a hard man.’

‘Fiddlesticks, m’dear. I’m a ruthless realist. For five years I’ve sworn I’d have that dog by hook or crook, and now, egad, at last I’ve got her.’

‘Pooh! You had to buy the man before you could get his dog.’

‘Well, perhaps that’s not the worst part of the bargain.’39


This tale telling apparently of childhood innocence actually ends with a child recognising the economic realities of the scene she has just witnessed. In the original short story there is no final vision of domestic bliss such as is found in the later novel, instead, while Mrs Carraclough may feel she has got the better of the Duke in their financial dealings, the story notes that employment has made her husband, like a dog, simply a commodity in the possession of the local landowner; that there is an uncomfortable connection between the collier and the collie.
But this alignment of the worker and the dog by the economic structures under which both live is not all that Knight proposes: such alignments were commonplace by the time he was writing.40 What is also present in Lassie Come-Home is an acknowledgment that the structure that leads to the objectification of the worker is inextricably linked with the possession of a dog. Knight thus presents both the transcendent human (the owner of a collie) and the objectified human (an owned collier) in the same person, something that is an acknowledgment, surely, that he does not assume that the human of humanism is the natural human. Lassie Come-Home, in fact, is not a humanist text after all. It does represent the human of humanism but only in order to argue that in a system in which humans can become objects this representation is needed to veil that objectification and to offer an alternative conception that gives meaning to the (not-so) human. For Knight the myth of dog ownership is the means of achieving this. And of course, he has precedent to call upon, for, as so many philosophers knew, without a dog at one’s feet how can one know one is human?
In both Knight’s novel and Derrida’s lecture, then, can be traced an admission of the centrality of animals to the assertion of human status, and a simultaneous confession of human fragility. In the novel such fragility is disguised as stability even as the disguise itself is acknowledged, whereas in the lecture fragility is presented naked, without costume. We can argue therefore that if we are seeking to find who Derrida is (following), if we are searching for an ancestor for his little cat, we could do worse than turn to Lassie.


1 Eric Knight, Lassie Come-Home (1940, reprinted Harmondsworth: Puffin, 1981), p.63. All further references are given in the text.

2 Brad Watson, ‘Last Days of the Dog-Men’ in Last Days of the Dog-Men (1996, reprinted London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1997), p.16.

3 Helen Humphreys, Wild Dogs (London: Maia Press, 2005), p.17.

4 Adrian Franklin, Animals In Modern Cultures: A Sociology of Human-Animal Relations in Modernity (London: Sage, 1999), p.101.

5 Kathleen Kete, The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeping in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p.56.

6 Hélène Cixous, ‘The Cat’s Arrival,’ Parallax 12:1 (2006), p.27.

7 Kete, Beast in the Boudoir, p.22.

8 Albert Payson Terhune, Lad: A Dog (1919, reprinted New York: Puffin, 1993), ‘Lost!’, pp.111-134. It is interesting that Lad’s separation from his home is an accident brought about by one of the most iconic technological developments of the modern world - the car. A similar fear about the danger of modernity had also been voiced by Kenneth Grahame in The Wind in the Willows (1908) when Mr Toad also temporarily loses his home because of his love of motor cars.

9 The novel was translated into French in 1950 when Lassie Chien Fidèle, was published by Hachette, Paris.

10 See, for example, Ace Collins, Lassie: A Dog’s Life: The First Fifty Years (New York and London: Penguin, 1993); Peter Haining, Lassie: The Extraordinary Story of Eric Knight and “The World’s Favourite Dog” (London: Peter Owen, 2005). An alternative reading can be found in Henry Jenkins, ‘“Her Suffering Aristocratic Majesty”: The Sentimental Value of Lassie,’ in Marsha Kinder ed., Kids’ Media Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), pp.69-101.

11 Marjorie Garber, Dog Love (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1996), p.54.

12 See, for example, the missing hyphens in the representation of the novel’s title throughout Haining, Lassie; Jenkins, ‘“Her Suffering Aristocratic Majesty”’. The title of the original short story is also missing its hyphen in Dog Tales: Classic Stories about Smart Dogs, introduced by Richard A. Wolters (New York: Viking Studio Books, 1990). The critical use of the hyphen-less title originates, I think, with MGM’s decision to drop it for film of 1943, Lassie Come Home.

13 For Henry Jenkins the story ‘stands at the nexus of two central ideological reconceptualizations, both of which occurred during the late nineteenth century. The first centered around the sentimentalization of the dog ... the second revolved around the “sacrilization” of the child.’ Jenkins, ‘“Her Suffering Aristocratic Majesty”’, p.70.

14 Yi-Fu Tuan, Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), p.99.

15 Tuan, Dominance and Affection, p.108.

16 Eleanor Atkinson, Greyfriars Bobby (1912, reprinted London: Puffin, 1994), p.27.

17 Terhune, Lad: A Dog, p.13.

18 Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Dogs Never Lie About Love (New York: Random House, 1997), pp.57-60, quotation, p.59.

19 Sheila Burnford, The Incredible Journey (1960, reprinted London: Coronet, 1973). This is a text in which the cat works to construct rather than disrupt the home, but perhaps this cat can only do this because it is accompanied by two dogs; because it has become-dog in the home.

20 Basil the Great cited in Patrik Reuterswärd, ‘The Dog in the Humanist’s Study,’ in The Visible and Invisible in Art: Essays in the History of Art (Vienna: IRSA, 1991), p.211.

21 See Luciano Floridi, ‘Scepticism and Animal Rationality: The Fortune of Chrysippus’ Dog in the History of Western Thought,’ Archiv Fur Geschichte der Philosophie 79:1 (1997), pp.27-57.

22 See Reuterswärd, ‘The Dog in the Humanist’s Study,’ passim; and Karl Josef Höltgen, ‘Clever Dogs and Nimble Spaniels: On the Iconography of Logic, Invention, and Imagination,’ Explorations in Renaissance Culture 24 (1998), pp.1-36. Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving ‘Saint Jerome in his Study’ is perhaps the most famous version of the image.

23 Michel de Montaigne, ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond,’ translated by Donald Frame, in The Complete Works (London: Everyman, 2003), p.401.

24 ‘The Sceptical investigator neither asserts nor denies, neither believes nor disbelieves’ writes Julian Barnes. Barnes, ‘The beliefs of a Pyrrhonist,’ Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 208 (n.s.28), (1982) 1.

25 On this question see Erica Fudge, Brutal Reasoning: Animals, Rationality and Humanity in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), pp.74-83.

26 Montaigne, ‘Apology,’ p.416.

27 Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Scepticism, Julia Annas and Julian Barnes ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.3.

28 Montaigne, ‘Apology,’ p.401.

29 Jacques Derrida, ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),’ translated by David Wills, Critical Inquiry 28 (2002), pp.375, 374 and 376. All further page references are given in the text.

30 Aristotle, Rhetoric, II, 6, translated by W. Rhys Roberts in The Works of Aristotle (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc: 1952), II, p.631

31 Cixous, ‘The Cat’s Arrival,’ p.21.

32 René Descartes to the Marquess of Newcastle, 23 November 1646, in John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch ed., The Philosophical Writings of René Descartes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), Volume III, p.304. It is perhaps not irrelevant to note ‘that Descartes owned a little dog - Monsieur Grat - upon whom he lavished much affection, and who used to accompany him on his walks.’ Peter Harrison, ‘Descartes on Animals,’ Philosophical Quarterly, 42 (1992), p.220.

33 Montaigne, ‘Our feelings reach out beyond us,’ in Complete Works, p.9.

34 Kenneth Burke is discussed by Laurence Coupe in Myth (London: Routledge, 1997), pp.6-9.

35 Karl Marx, ‘Alienated Labour,’ in David McLellan ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p.83.

36 Cited in Elizabeth Wasserman, ‘Erik Knight and Lassie Come-Home,’ in Susan M. Brown ed. Lassie: A Collie and her Influence (St Louis, MI: The Dog Museum, 1993), p.20.

37 Knight discusses the relationship between Yorkshiremen and dog theft in his short story ‘Sam Small’s Tyke’ in which he notes: ‘For scores upon scores of years, though goodness knows why, malicious people have been accusing Yorkshiremen of finding dogs - especially dogs of likely looking breeding. And, what hurts the county’s sensitive pride even more, these purveyors of a cruel canard even go to the depths of alleging that Yorkshiremen will find a dog before he’s very lost, as you might say.’ The narrator continues: ‘there is a record of a West Riding baby whose very first spoken words were, “It’s a bloody lie. I didn’t steal thy dog!”’ Eric Knight, Sam Small Flies Again: The Amazing Adventures of the Flying Yorkshireman (Berne: Alfred Scherz, 1943), p.121.

38 See, for example, Knight’s Second World War novel, This Above All (New York: Eagle Books, 1941).

39 Eric Knight, ‘Lassie Come Home’ (sic), in Dog Tales, p.48. A similar conversation takes place in the novel on pp.224-225.

40 See for example, Coral Lansbury, The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers and Vivisection in Edwardian England (Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).



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