The Bat Segundo Show: Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #415. She is most recently the author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering an alternative timeline with the golden retriever rising as the heroic dog of choice.

Author: Susan Orlean

Subjects Discussed: Rin Tin Tin references in Finnegans Wake, Rinty’s indefinable charm, Jack London, dogs in World War I, the state of marketing in different time periods, flawed people and dog heroes in early animal films, soldiers reading poetry, mass cultural mediums and heroic animal images, emotional connections with animals, Burt Leonard’s desperate efforts to revive Rin Tin Tin, Paul Klein impersonating Lee Aaker at conventions, Rin Tin Tin as the blank slate for the American obsession, Strongheart, Rinty’s durability as an American icon, devotion to dogs, a tense 1955 photo shoot with Lassie and Rin Tin Tin appearing on the cover of TV Guide, fierce competition between Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, having “bitten exclusively” written into a contract, Daphne Hereford and Rinty’s obsessive defenders, sinking one’s savings into battling intellectual property law, the perils and nature of giving into passion, knowing Lee Duncan through records, going through a dead man’s ATM slips, respect and “intimate eavesdropping” into subjects, occupational hazards in quirky journalism, cultivating trust with subjects, the bigness of passion, avoiding Rin Tin Tin overload, the rising population of German Shepherds in the 20th century, whether Rinty was bad in any way for history, the rise of fascism, and contrary images that meet on the battlefield.


Correspondent: I wanted to start off with something unusual. I had found this accidentally. Because I started to read Finnegans Wake a month ago. I’m now on Page 20. But on Page 12, I was very happy to find this. There is this passage: “She knows her knight’s duty while Luntum sleeps. Did ye save any tin? says he.” Now this comes after Joyce has laid down all sorts of Germanic references. And of course, While London Sleeps? Rin Tin Tin film.

Orlean: Right.

Correspondent: So this seems as good a pretext as any to ask, well, if Rin Tin Tin got the approval of James Joyce, what accounts for his appeal? What accounts for his enduring popularity? What is the ultimate quality of Mr. Rinty here?

Orlean: You know, I think, in a way, that you can’t quite answer that is the answer. There’s a kind of charisma that certainly the first Rin Tin Tin had, but also this symbol of a dog, which is a dog who is brave and true and loyal and heroic. That resonates with people. He embodied it — especially the first Rin Tin Tin — so well that I think it touched something that was already there. The desire to have a superhero who was credible and not some comic book figure, but actually something real.

Correspondent: Krypto before Krypto.

Orlean: Yeah.

Correspondent: A superdog to match a superman.

Orlean: Exactly. I also think that, if you could say what it is that makes something endure, you’ve ruined it in a way. That there is something mysterious and wonderful about something that connects something with so many people and that lasts for so long, that shouldn’t be something you could put in words. I think that it defines itself by being something emotional that you feel and that you respond to. That can’t quite be described.

Correspondent: Well, I want to point out something you mentioned in the book. You point out that in the 19th century, dogs had only been recently domesticated. They were considered to have deep feelings. They were capable of expressing their emotions more than humans. Now I should point out that Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and White Fang — well, this was only fifteen years before the Rin Tin Tin film. I’m wondering. How did World War I, I suppose, tilt this fixation from dogs as emotional beings to this heroic quality that we’re talking about? Was hero worship the next inevitable stage in the evolution of this man-dog perception situation?

Orlean: Well, for one thing, there were so many dogs in the war. People in World War I saw dogs performing heroically. When you think of a battlefield and dogs being brave and being companionable and working hard, which they did, and maybe not showing as much fear as a soldier might — because dogs don’t have the apprehension of death or the worry of mortality the way people do. So they have the chance to be brave in a way people can’t. So there’s no question that seeing dogs and being alongside dogs in the war had a very huge impact on their perception. I mean, there were tens of thousands of dogs in World War I. So I imagine this entire generation of soldiers coming back, filled with awe. It was also a time where dogs were working not as our servants — the way they might have on a farm or a ranch, but as equals pretty much. I mean, dogs were in the trenches with soldiers. So the feeling that they were our partners almost more than our possessions arose during that time.

Correspondent: Well, you mention this move toward the cities.

Orlean: Right.

Correspondent: That’s still ongoing even in our time. It’s interesting to me that we went from dogs being perceived as “Well, let’s figure out when they’re domesticated, when they come from the wild, and vice versa.” Those two Jack London novels. And then you have this situation when suddenly they’re fighting wars with us.

Orlean: Right.

Correspondent: I’m wondering what it is about that turns a dog into a hero as opposed to some emotional being or tapping into some sort of primordial instinct or what not. Do you think that the original folks — Lee Duncan and company — sort of knew that they had to push the dog thing further?

Orlean: I think what Lee did was totally instinctual. I don’t think he was somebody who did a lot of strategizing and projecting forward what would be good. And, in fact, I think that’s part of what’s so touching about him. He seemed to be somebody who was really responding entirely out of this feeling of “I have this wonderful dog and I want you to appreciate how wonderful he is” rather than “Hmmm, I can make some money off of this if we write scripts that make him such and so.” Remember too that people consumed entertainment in an entirely different way in the ’20s. It wasn’t the juggernaut that it is today. You come up with a good character. You can then merchandise it and turn it into a multi-platform marketing device. It wasn’t like that. I think it was a simpler thing. How the idea of the heroic character evolved? Well, first of all, animals very often appeared in early literature as having heroic qualities that were selfless. I think selflessness is something that an animal can have more easily than a person.

Correspondent: Or it’s easier to understand altruism when it’s placed within an animal as opposed to a man.

Orlean: Exactly. And I think that it may seem a little funny to us now. But when you look at an animal doing something heroic, you don’t project a million things onto it. You don’t think “Oooh, he reminds me of my Uncle Milton who I didn’t like that much” or “I’m sick of this type of person always being the hero” or “She isn’t my race or gender or color” or whatever. A dog is something else. So you can look at it and admire it and maybe be in awe of it without bringing a lot of your own baggage to it. It’s not a person. You don’t look at it with the critical eye that you might look at a person with. So there’s a way that it’s easier to be thrilled by them and not have that reserve of thinking, “Oh, I don’t know.” I mean, it’s funny in those films. The early Rin Tin Tin films. The people are all so flawed. Each one of them has some terrible character flaw. Even the heroes among the humans have some — they’re either naive or they’re — they all fail. And whether that’s some aftermath of the war, in which people saw what terrible things people could do to each other. That feeling that human beings were deeply flawed. Maybe that’s what made a dog a hero that could be admired more freely and with less reservation.

The Bat Segundo Show #415: Susan Orlean (Download MP3)

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A Brief Interregnum from Arnie the English Bulldog

While the proprietor attempts to come to terms with the many emails that poured in over the last several days, the considerable notes he took for several TOC panels, the video footage he has to put together and get on YouTube, and the rather insane obligations he has going on during the next few days, the proprietor interrupts the scheduled program to present a photo of Arnie the English Bulldog, which should tug gruffly at heart strings and serve as an interregnum to the considerable e-chatter about ebooks that has popped up at this li’l e-place.


How Drugged is That Doggie in the Window?

Pretzel on Prozac
By Ellen Palestrant, Elusive Press, 124pp., $12.95

dogskank.jpgIt’s become pretty hip these days to put the hate on Prozac. The drug has been accused of causing suicides, bringing about violence, of being ineffective and, most damningly, of making hipsters unable to love. Yet, even as Prozac-hating becomes a cause célèbre, it and and other antidepressants in the SSRI class are being prescribed in record numbers — and not just to humans, but to their pets. And what could be a surer sign of a decadent, wasteful and solipsistic society than putting your dog on an antidepressant?

Unfortunately, this question isn’t asked by Pretzel on Prozac: The Story of an Immigrant Dog, a book the bills itself as an “autobiodography”—a particularly weird neologism since “auto” makes me picture this dog hunched over a typewriter, wagging his angst-ridden tail between cigarettes and shots of Jim Beam. In this slim, self-published memoir, the only introspective hint on the value of giving a dog Prozac is a moment where the author hopes that the pharmacist doesn’t call out her name too loudly when he dispenses the medication; the author is clearly insecure about being judged by others on what she’s doing, but a discussion exploring why is conspicuously absent.

Pretzel, the titular dog, is described as being “neurotic” after being shuttled from South Africa to Arizona by his owners. Does Pretzel actually need Prozac? As portrayed, the dog has problems which the drug seems to diminish, problems that another dog owned by the author doesn’t have. (The other dog merely acts like a spoiled brat.) After witnessing a dish breaking, Pretzel runs scared any time the dishwasher is being unloaded. He digs holes in the backyard and refuses to come out of them. He refuses to eat whenever guests come to the house. But it’s suspicious that Palestrant (the author) spends no time at all discussing nature versus nurture. Pretzel is “just like this.” And it’s hard to overstate just how spoiled this dog is. When Pretzel runs into the bedroom at the sound of a dishwasher being unloaded, Palestrant stuffs a towel under the bedroom door to help muffle this din. When Pretzel is finicky about his food, she starts leaving five different bowls of food out every night, so Pretzel can have his fill. (If the other dog eats all of Pretzel’s food first, then five more bowls are set out.) Whenever Pretzel refuses to eat altogether for a night, Palestrant takes it to the vet to be fed intravenously. When Pretzel will not use the doggie door, instead of simply letting the dog in and out every once and a while, she is forced “to keep the doggie door permanently open for Pretzel—and for all the mosquitos, cockroaches, crickets, spiders, and scorpions wishing to enter our house. Because we allow the hot air in summer and cold in winter, we can’t conserve energy. Instead we increase the load on the heating and cooling systems and on our bank account.”

It’s hard to trust the author when she talks about Pretzel’s problems because there are levels upon levels to the anthropomorphism involved in her idea of him and of animals in general. The dog doesn’t just dig a hole and sit in it. He “wants to disappear into it and die.” After the dogs get off the plane, “immigrating” from South Africa along with the author, we learn:

They jumped and jumped and jumped and continued jumping the next day when we arrived. They were trying to tell us they’d been flying.

A cat who falls off a table is “embarrassed” afterward. A dog seeks the “respect” of other dogs. One dog assigns blame to another dog for actions beyond their control. A dog who is dying is described: “He’d had a long life and in the end dwelled more frequently outside his body than in it. But now his re-entry visa has expired.” How, exactly, is the dog dwelling outside of its body? We are told no more.

dogjump.jpgPalestrant enjoys “mentally instructing” Pretzel: “Be receptive to new ideas, Pretzel. Transcend boundaries. Try this new doggie biscuit.” At first I thought maybe the author was intentionally using Pretzel as a lens to examine her own thoughts and fears about immigrating. But nothing so subtle is going on; she is doing exactly what she says she’s doing: mentally instructing her dog. And the author appears to be writing with complete seriousness, “I enjoy communicating with Pretzel because he is a listener.”

A minor crisis comes about when the author, who had been told Pretzel was a Maltese, instead discovers he’s a Bichon. “Pretzel, I’m sorry, sorry, sorry,” Palestrant writes, talking to the dog, “I know you’ve been deprived of your essence. You’ve been what you’re not for far too long. … At least you know what you are: a Bichon and not a Maltese. Forget the past. Give yourself a second chance. Take charge of your salvation. Don’t be a Dodo-dog, Pretzel. Learn to fly. … We’ll stop encouraging you to wade in the lake, Pretzel, or cool yourself under the sprinklers.”

Pretzel is described repeatedly as being “confused about his identity” because of this.

But then, race is a very strange subject in Palestrant’s hands. Much is made of the fact that the dog and author are coming from South Africa. Early on the author writes, “We feel guilty for having been born into a country that adheres to a system of separating groups according to race. We know we must leave.” It’s hard not to insert the word “white” in between “born” and “into”, and it seems bizarre that the reason the author and her partner are leaving the country is simply “guilt”. If one really felt guilty wouldn’t one want to stay and try to make things better? If she had instead said (as I think is more likely) that they’d left the country because it was unpleasant for them to live in a place where their kind oppressed and was despised by the majority of the population, that at least would be more honest. Whatever the real reason, “guilt” doesn’t make any sense in this context.

The author prides herself on being broadminded about race and knowing that things she’d been taught in school about it were lies. However, the irony that someone is leaving apartheid because of race guilt and yet only owns purebred dogs is completely unexplored. She does say, she’s “never been dazzled by titles. Always felt that a dependency on family trees, designer labels, and on the broadcast of one’s accomplishments … are [sic] signs of weakness. … So why now, do we have four pedigreed dogs?” The question is never answered.

Indeed, Palestrant has positively Lamarckian ideas of racial inheritance, at one point wondering if Pretzel might fear water because one of his ancestors had a near-drowning experience. At another point a look from the dog is interpreted like this:

Do you know how depressed I am? Do you have any idea of the burden I carry—the collective sufferings of my ancestors?

Things get weirder when she tries to contemplate the situation in South African in relation to her dogs. She writes, “Pretzel, glued to his neuroses, is poor immigrant material as he still lives in a past that wasn’t that vast. Pretzel, accept change. Look, if your old government can finally reinvent itself, so can you.” Yes, Pretzel, your plight is just like that of South Africa.

South African dogs dominated the sidewalks during apartheid. They had terrible attitudes. Attacked passersby. Having been brought up in a society where many of the laws were difficult to respect, some dogs, like their owners, broke them.

Now that the old laws in South Africa are obsolete are people free to stroll the sidewalks, while dogs are gated?

Many, many times while reading this book, I had to stop, read the sentences again and realize I still didn’t have the foggiest idea what Palestrant was talking about. Is Palestrant actually suggesting that the dogs were biting people out of some kind of civil disobedience toward Apartheid? And now that Apartheid is over, she wonders if dogs are kept behind gates—it’s suggested that they won’t bite people in the name of Mandela?

Ultimately, Palestrant’s anthropomorphism gets really batty, as when she buys a new dinner service and shoves it unsteadily in with an old one from South Africa. When the dishes burst out of the cupboard and smash all over the floor, she reads it as her old country’s tableware physically fighting the American tableware. In reference to Pretzel’s old fear of broken dishes, she says (in all apparent seriousness), “Had Pretzel, years ago, sensed the pent-up emotions of the dishes in our cupboard?”

The truth is, I know from personal experience that SSRI drugs have helped a lot of people, and I would have really liked to read a book which explored legitimate psychological disturbance in animals and the ability of Prozac to treat it. Such a book might be very interesting.

Pretzel on Prozac, on the other hand, is less about disturbed psychology than the product of it, and something that the Prozac-haters out there could easily hold up as a clear example of everything they are complaining about; someone using medication (in this case, on their dog) because of a clear inability to address their own problems. It is an extreme example of the way that many parents want to blame anything but themselves for their child’s shortcomings; Pretzel is the way he is because he’s a Bichon, an identity-confused Bichon, an identity-confused Bichon from South Africa, an identity-confused immigrant Bichon from South Africa. Anything but because he is Ellen Palestrant’s dog. And clearly, he needs drugs.

Did Pretzel really need Prozac? Could Pretzel’s problems have been solved by being given to another owner? Or by having been raised by a different owner? We’ll never know the answer to these questions.

As for Prozac in general, one day a book will come out that neither vilifies nor glorifies it, that speaks compassionately about the people it’s helped and looks carefully at those using it for the wrong reasons. That’s a book I’m waiting for.