Puppy Brain. I’ve got it. I think I may have made up the term – but I’m not so sure. They say you get Baby Brain, don’t they?
That condition of befuddlement and dreaminess that comes after giving birth to the next generation? Well, whose to say it’s not exactly the same thing when your beautiful black Labrador called June gives birth to six perfect little identikits of herself? Three boys and three girls apiece? It’s dreamtime, alright.
Katherine, my second daughter, was on duty with me through the night and although my husband had even said he was going to take “paw-ternity” leave – as they now call it – when the actual birthing time kicked in, he poured himself a large whisky instead and retired from the scene. He was following the role model of a traditional 1950s obstetrician, he said, claiming June was better left in the hands of “you ladies”, and we decided – despite vast feminist principles and the fact that both daughters have been brought up as fully paid members of the Walkyrie club, with regular outings to Wagner operas and a battle cry against injustice that would rally Brunhilde from the fields of Elysium – to humour him.
Anyhow, Katherine and I loved it. As she told her grandfather: “We are not the same people as we were before.” And it’s true. We are both certain, following our exertions and calm midwifery, that we could now guide any animal through the birth canal and into the world – human or animal, fish or fowl. Bring ‘em on!
In fact the whole experience has made me come to terms, emotionally, I think is the best way to describe it, with what philosophers and humanities departments in universities are calling the “post-human”. This age that is upon us where we two-legged creatures step aside and make way for the other animals with which we share our planet. It’s about realising how they might show us a thing or two, about how to live, how to be.
So I’ve been observing these six little dogs since they emerged into the world, one after the other in steady progression, and their development since. Now, days old, they are already doing what we call “the Labrador stretch” – that
delicious all-four-legs-extended body yawn – that you see in the full grown model in front of the fire after a day out on the hills. And they are starting to get their little Labrador faces, all thoughtful brows and domed heads and wet black noses, this despite the fact that it will be another week yet until they open their eyes.
Talk about time wasters! Forget babies. I never spent as many hours observing my daughters when they were tiny. After all, human beings… our babies are just more of the same. Whereas the animal kingdom up close and from the very beginning … well, it’s the very stuff of a David Attenborough documentary.
I’ve heard university students are putting on what they call “David Attenborough Raves” in car parks and student unions all over the country and it sounds like a fine idea. Once the university strike is over – and everyone I know who is involved with a university, either as teacher or a student or an administrator thinks the strike against pension cuts for staff is key in protecting the values of education that are fast being eroded by the priorities of capitalism – I’m going to start asking students I know if I might go to one. Famous clips of David Attenborough films get projected on to walls with his catchphrases synchronised into dance sequences. That’s one thing I’ve heard goes on. As well as kids in gorilla suits, of course, khaki casual-wear and so on, loads of shrubbery. What fun. Apparently a David Attenborough Activity Book is planned for publication later this year, with loads themed games and animal-related activities. More post-human thinking there, you see. Our young people know that our lot’s days are over, our political and civic responsibilites so squandered that the world needs a different way to think itself into being now that only they can imagine.
The art critic T J Clark, considering Picasso’s Guernica, that great painting about the Nazi’s bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War, describes it as “our culture’s Tragic Scene”. Clark writes about the way the destruction and terror the painting depicts – and that’s terror for human and animal both – is reproduced on placards and banners “being carried in anger or agony over the past thirty years in Ramallah, Oaxaca, Calgary, London, Kurdistan, Madrid, Cape Town, Belfast, Calcutta; outside US air bases, in marches against the Iraq invasion, in struggles of all kinds against state repression … an answer to the lie of ‘collateral damage’.”
On the eve of a massive retrospective of Picasso’s work that’s about to open at Tate Modern, Clark draws attention to how the artist’s representation of a world in crisis might teach us how to behave. The monstrousness Picasso displays in his figures and animals clashing up against each other in agony is moved, within the same painting, as though simultaneously, towards a composed scene that we might contemplate as “Tragic” – “the moment in human existence when death and vulnerability are recognised … but late”. This is what we do, what we’ve done to each other, the painting is telling us. Look what we’ve become. So horror is here, but pity too – a combination that, the critic suggests, might allow us to be vulnerable, uncertain. Qualities that, in the face of the great engine-like confidence of western behaviour, might be “our last best hope”.
As I look down from my desk, to the three little pairs of black socks lined up next to their calm, sleeping mother I do wonder, with the universities in crisis and the schools and health care stripped back to the bare bone, and politics and civil society run amok, whether our time might just be done. Thoughts of birth and death and the frailty of life preferable to the great endless shout of the “me” generation, all me! me! me! That so passé are we, so incapable of fixing the mess we’ve made, the best thing we could do would be slope off into the sunset now and leave all the beautiful new puppies in charge.