"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
From a Flickr photo uploaded in the past 10 seconds to a 2,500-year-old Greek urn that shows wispy, wild-tongued creatures frolicking with our ancestors, our devotion to our pets is easy to document.
Our relationship, though, may go back much further and deeper than we realize. Some scientists believe our relationship with domesticated animals — dogs, in particular — goes back as far as 100,000 years. And that speculation has launched a nascent school of study into the theory that man and dog have co-evolved through the centuries in untold ways; one scientist speculates that we lost our own, keen sense of smell by relying on the sharper sniff of our beastly hunting partners.
In his new “The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving,” Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson considers how a “mutual evolution” not only impacted dogs, but us as well, and our own capacity to love and feel empathy for other creatures. Warmly told through his relationship with his own dog, a joyfully failed guide dog named Benjy, Masson breezes through some of this curious new research while celebrating the seemingly bottomless capacity of dogs to express love and devotion to their owners.
Masson has cut an intriguing figure across our intellectual landscape for four decades now. First, he was the director of the Sigmund Freud Archives, raising explosive questions about Freud’s motivations before being dismissed; later, he was the plaintiff in one of the most sensational libel cases ever. But, beginning with “When Elephants Weep” (written with Susan McCarthy), Masson entered another chapter of his career, becoming the leading translator of the emotional lives of animals and our relationship to them. We spoke with Masson by phone from his home in New Zealand.
You talk a lot about love in the book, which is like an extended love letter to your dog, Benjy.
That’s right, yeah.
Why is it so important to show that dogs are capable of love?
I think one insight I had in the book, one thing that is absolutely new, is that dogs and people seem to be the only two species that formed these deep attachments to other animals. Lots of animals love their own kind. And some animals love us. But it’s very rare to find an animal that seems to create friendships right across the species barrier all the time. We do it. And lots of dogs do it, not every dog, but lots of dogs. So then the question is, Has it got something to do with the fact that we’ve been together?
Dogs happen to like horses and goats, they like cats, they like rats. I mean, Benjy does, certainly. He likes everything. Lots of dogs do, it’s not that unusual. But it’s highly unusual to find another animal who does that. I don’t think there’s any animal in the wild who does that. Right? Including the ancestors of dogs, namely wolves. I’ve never heard of a wolf making friends with some other animal in the wild. So my question is, is this something we did for one another? Did we somehow manage to convey to one another, Hey, this would be a good thing to do and mutually encourage one another to do it? I believe that’s more likely than if it just happened to be an accidental convergent ability to love other species.
There has been this sort of fashionable approach, though, to think of our domesticated pets as having been hard-wired to behave in certain ways to get what they want.
Yeah, that’s the [Stephen] Budiansky book, “The Truth About Dogs.” I did read that several times. As you can imagine, I’m not a great fan. Mind you, he does love dogs, no question about it. But he thinks they’re just profiteering from us.
But, you know, all you have to do is just look at your dog. I mean, one of the things that astonishes — I didn’t put it in the book, because I kind of just realized it the other day — if you don’t feed your dog, your dog never gets angry at you. He looks at you quizzically. Benjy does. I don’t forget to feed him, but if I’m late, he looks at me and it’s like, “Why? Why are you doing this?” But he’s never angry. And if I decide he’s just not going to eat tonight, for whatever reason — he was getting a bit heavy, now he’s much better — but there are times when I say, “Now, tonight you’re not getting any food.” He doesn’t stop behaving with great pleasure and joy. I can’t believe it’s just because we feed them. I could believe that about cats. But about dogs, it’s just not true. Now, whether they’re hard-wired to be a kind of parasite, I don’t know. It sounds unlikely, but not impossible.
But it’s weird that no other animal does that, right? I mean you don’t see sheep or any other animal doing it. Of course, we don’t allow pigs to get close to us. I mean, they can become affectionate but it’s not like they just love us, whatever we do to them. And dogs do. I mean, that’s a terrible thing about dogs. Even if you beat them, they still come back. They want to be loved. It seems so essential to their nature. I think we’ve added something. And it’s rare that humans do anything that adds anything good to nature. But I think in only two cases, that I can think of, that we’ve done that. We’ve done it with cats, because we’ve made them so sociable, at least some of them, at least some of the time. And they were not on their own.
Cats are very solitary creatures.
Definitely. They were, and they’ve overcome that. So I think that’s the one thing that humans can say, we’ve achieved this. We’ve altered the nature of cats for the better. And I believe that’s happened with dogs.
But, as you also point out in the book, dogs are the only domesticated animal that really couldn’t survive on their own. So there are clear downsides to our involvement with them.
Well, yeah, they could not survive. There are no really feral dogs, actually. You get stray dogs, but they don’t do well. They really need us. They don’t go back to hunting as they did as wolves. But, you know, I hear from a lot of people who know a lot about cats. That’s true with cats, too. We think of them as doing fine on their own, but they don’t.
So we’ve taken away their ability to do that and I think both of those species have become close to us, and lost a lot of their natural aggression, hence their hunting ability, they are part of the human family in a way that no other domesticated animal is. For example, pigs can go feral quite easily. And when they do, they survive. Chicken go feral and can survive. And it’s interesting that those animals don’t have much to do with us, really.
You write a lot about the increasing study of co-evolution — what you call “mutual evolution” — that suggests we’ve evolved in a complementary way with dogs. How do you think most people will respond to that notion?
What surprises me is that scientists don’t seem to have a big problem with that. I’m not a scientist and I’m not a geneticist. And I wonder if there’s any mechanism that would make this possible or whether we could know. I put out this idea and I’m hardly the first. A lot of people have been saying this in the last couple of years, really, and I latched on to it and tried to be the first person to really elaborate what that would be. What the consequences would be. And I think I’ve given one scenario.
In the book you go further, saying, “I would go so far as to suggest that we are no longer two entirely different species. There is a sense in which we have merged.”
That’s a very provocative way of putting it.
That’s not a scientific statement. We’re two different species, but in the ability to trust us, dogs have achieved something that no other animal has achieved. And we wouldn’t do that with any other species, except a dog. I remember when we had newborns. And Benjy would be fine around a newborn. I would never hesitate … but I would hesitate before allowing my cats in there. You just never know what a cat might do. Or any other animal.
You write of an imagined scene in history, the seismic event when a human befriends an animal. You imagine it happening between children and wolf cubs. Why?
Well, I think the sense in which children respond so much more quickly and so much more reliably to a puppy, I mean, it’s the rare human that doesn’t like a puppy or even a kitten or the young of any animal. We’re programmed to like that. But children tend to carry it to extremes, in good ways. You cannot show a puppy to a group of schoolchildren without having them go, “Ah!” and rushing up and wanting to hold them. And, I must say, there’s a gender difference here. I think that women tend to be, the minute they see something like that, oxytocin begins to flow and then the kind of maternal protectiveness, a nurturing instinct.
I suspect that the original scenario, which everyone likes to think about because it’s so fascinating — how did it happen? — I think that a mother wolf was killed and there was a litter of puppy cubs. The children would run up. The men would want to kill them, and the women would say, no, no, don’t. Something like that must have happened. But I think it was women and children who did it. But, you know, it’s hard to know. If it is part of our makeup to feel a certain protectiveness to anything that looks that way, then men should have it too. And most men do today.
We’re no longer pure hunters.
Well, that’s right. So we don’t know how it would have been then. But I suspect the men would have hung back a little bit, even today. I have a 14-year-old and I guarantee if I would take a group of puppies into his class, half of them would run forward and the other half would make jokes.
You recount in the book some of the horrors of overbreeding. And yet Benjy is a specific breed — a yellow lab — that many people really seek out.
I wouldn’t call myself an animal rights activist, but as someone very sympathetic to many of their positions, I have to say I’m not in favor of breeding dogs, the whole idea of this becoming a profitable enterprise. I wouldn’t go to a pet shop and buy a dog and I wouldn’t want to go to a breeder and say this is a specific dog I want. I would hope to go to a pound, a place where a dog has a last chance, and give a dog, who might not find a home, a home. And obviously the characteristics you get then with a dog, you get the genetic vigor and you get the interbreeding vigor, you get all kinds of wonderful things, it does seem true.
And I hate to admit this — because it goes against my own philosophy — it does seem true that Labradors, for example, are a very easygoing dog. You don’t often hear, although I did look at the statistics and there are times when even Labradors bite and cause harm, but when I walk down the street everyone says, “We had one, aren’t they wonderful dogs? Aren’t they easy to be with? Aren’t they great family dogs? Aren’t they great kids’ dogs?” And you don’t hear that with German shepherds, but of course if you talk to anybody who has a certain breed and is loyal to that breed, they’ll deny anything they have to say negative about that breed. They say that’s a myth. But it is true that we have bred certain dogs for certain things. And I imagine if we did that to humans we’d probably get some things similar.
But, on the other hand, any dog at all can be turned into a really difficult animal by being mistreated. Just as can any human. And I find it hard to believe that if you had a dog from the time it was just a few weeks old, at home, and showed the dog nothing but love, that you would get a very aggressive, mean, unreliable, biting dog. It’s very hard for me to believe that. I’ve not seen it. But people who work with pit bulls say, yep, it does happen.
What do you think about these movements to ban pet stores?
You know, I’m totally behind it. It’s not my field at all, but I’ve read enough to know that these puppy mills are horrendous places. And almost all pet stores get their dogs from these puppy mills. So there’s a big movement now in the United States to close them down. And I think San Francisco and various other cities now have moved in that direction. I’m not sure if they’ve succeeded, but the idea of selling an animal in a store is something that’s time is up. That’s not going to be happening much longer. I’m convinced of that. And that is related, a little, to the idea of breeding dogs too. It does seem to be wrong to be raising dogs just to sell them for profit. Especially when there are so many dogs that need homes. I don’t know if you’ve ever … do you have a dog?
I have in the past. I’m a cat owner right now.
Can’t use the word “owner,” it’s not the politically correct word now.
Oh, right. What is the …
Guardian. Or companion, friend. Or if it’s a cat, servant. I’m the servant to the cat.
Ha, that’s right. I’m definitely the servant.
It’s equally true of cats. You know, cats are so aloof, but I’ve been inside of shelters where cats are going to be euthanized and believe me, those cats know it. Perhaps the only times in their lives where cats beg and reach out. You know, they put their hands through the bars and it just breaks your heart. You know that these cats know that something terrible awaits them. How they know, I don’t know. And it’s true of dogs and cats. It doesn’t seem to be true of other domesticated animals. I wouldn’t say they don’t have a sense of death, but it’s not obvious to us. But I think cats and dogs definitely know when someone means to kill them. Once you’ve been to one of those shelters and seen the situations of dogs and cats, it just feels wrong buying an animal when you could be adopting one.
The book is such a celebration of the relationship with dogs, but the sad side is tough to ignore. There’s the overbreeding, for sure, but also this evolution that has seen them grow so dependent upon us. Should we feel bad about what we’ve done to dogs?
Well, yes. Sure. I mean, to the extent that we’ve harmed them, absolutely. In a pure world, I think it’s phenomenal that we have this relationship with other species, but it’s been at a cost. Sure, Benjy has a perfect life with us, but he’s still not a free being. He’s still not, and never will be, where my sons are 14 and 8, they’ll grow up eventually. Then they don’t have to do what I tell them. But with Benjy, I put him on a leash, he eats when I want him to eat, what I want him to eat and how much I want him to eat. He does what he wouldn’t necessarily choose to do all the time. He is a kind of slave. He has a good life, but it is a form of slavery. That’s why I’m a vegan, because I feel with every other form of domesticated animal, except for cats and dogs, we do this only to kill them, to murder them, to eat them. And that’s terrible, in my opinion. It’s just not right.
Are you suspicious of people who don’t like animals?
That’s an interesting question. I must say, I feel that’s a trick question.
It’s not, actually. It’s something I think about.
Well, I do think about it. I must say, I have a very close friend who’s a professor of psychology. And we have identical views about psychology. We both don’t like psychiatry, for example. We hate electroconvulsive therapy, we just hate it. We find it an abomination. We don’t like psychiatric drugs. And if we go through psychology we find that we’re practically twins. He doesn’t like animals. At all, zero. He just doesn’t have the vaguest interest in anything about them. And I find it weird. I wouldn’t say it’s suspicious, but it just puzzles me. And so I’m always trying to work on him and not getting anywhere in the past 10 years. I can’t imagine anyone who grew up having animals in their lives who’d feel that way. There are definitely people who are totally indifferent. Have zero interest in them. But I suspect that’s only the people who’ve been raised without animals. Or they come from a culture in which animals of all kinds are considered food or unclean.
Are you a dog person as opposed to a cat person?
Well, no, I’m both. I’m really both. Yes, if I had to choose between having dogs and cats, I would choose dogs. Because, the one thing I’ve really come to dislike about cats is they hunt. When you live in New Zealand, as I do, as you have free-roaming cats, as I do, you can talk until you’re blue in the face about vegetarianism and peaceable kingdom and being kind and compassionate and they’ll look at you like, “What’s your problem?” and they’re off. Especially when they’re young. And they’ll bring back rabbits and rats and birds and it’s upsetting. On the other hand, it’s their nature. You cannot change their nature. You really just can’t. And with dogs you can.
There’s another thing. I don’t think I said that in the book, but if you think about it, that’s truly interesting, isn’t it? You can alter the nature of a dog. So dogs who were meant to hunt, for your sake, will not hunt because they know you don’t like it. But cats, forget it. They will. If I had to choose, I would choose a dog. And only because a dog would go wherever I go. If I tell my cats we’re going for a walk, they’ll come for walks on the beach, by the way. They like walking on the beach at night, they love it. For a car ride? Get lost. They aren’t going anywhere near that. You might take me to the vet. Where Benjy goes to the vet and he lets them do whatever he needs to do. And the cats won’t. The cats will maul him.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)