Notes From the Edge

The Little Man and the Dentist

April 01, 2010

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The Little Man and the Dentist

—-Forgive me for interrupting, the little man said, but I thought I had read his oeuvre complete and suddenly I see a title unknown to me.

Ah, I said with contrived good grace (only a few pages to go), that may be because this novella’s only been published in 1987. As Stefan Zweig moved to Bath in 1939, it could have been written around that time—or any time I guess.

He and I were alone in the dentist’s waiting room. There was something moving about that gentle man. His voice was soft, with a Kissinger-like accent, and eyes just as sharp. Pianist’s hands matched finely carved features. His age? Around sixty.

—Is it good?
—Very, I smiled, but most disturbing for a dog-lover such as myself.

He smiled back.

—The story’s set in Bath?
—Yes. As usual, Zweig manages to sketch an atmosphere and portraits with a masterful economy of effects.

Almost an hour after my appointment, with no noise forthcoming from behind the walls, had the dentist forgotten us? The little man wore no watch. Sensing his expectation, I gave in.

—The elderly narrator and her husband move to a valley not very far from town. Theirs is the only house for miles. You can almost smell the marshy canal below their terrace. Once the waterway for coal from Cardiff to London it has now, due to the railways, become a stagnant surface the colour of malachite. It reflects clouds as precisely as a photograph. Though quite content in isolation, it is without displeasure that they witness the construction of a house nearby some months later. First, they meet its owner’s wife, a pretty woman in her late twenties, shy and pleasant. After some weeks, her husband bounces unto the scene: bouncing is what he’s all about. He invades rather than occupies space. Bonhomie notwithstanding, his gestures are all-encompassing; his manner exuberant; his voice booming; his loquaciousness extravagant; his cordiality overwhelming—in short, John Limpley is exhausting.  His wife’s constant air of fatigue becomes understandable, remarks the narrator—whom we learn little about, nor care. She’s chronicling and one of those people whose discretion is less a matter of decency than of polite indifference. Pas la meme chose.

—Aha, says the little man. ‘How come you read this in French, by the way?’
—As you might have noticed, I stumble over words when speaking German. Reading the language being, passport-wise, my mother tongue, is strenuous. Can’t disentangle all these telescoped words.
—Your enthusiasm makes up for it, he responds with kindness. ‘Go on, please’.

The story having stirred emotions, I knew it would be difficult to condense it.

—Let me try to make it short. The narrator discovers hidden frustration as, after nine years of trying, the Limpleys have given up on children. When, one day, a friend shows her a basket full of bulldog puppies, she thinks: a dog might keep my young neighbours company. The reaction to the suggestion, especially from him, is enthusiastic.
—Childish? the little man asks.

His tone’s veiled irony startled me.

—Quite. No sooner is the puppy delivered that John Limpley lavishes the animal with neurotic attention. No costs are spared to cater for the dog’s health and comfort; specialized publications are subscribed to; the veterinary, disturbed for peccadilloes. Ponto becomes an outlet for his volcanic energy. However: grown into a muscular mass of a dog, the dog gradually transforms the relationship from master and animal into that of a servant and tyrant. An emotional takeover, Mr….
—Dr. Turkheimer…
—…achieved with confounding astuteness. Within three pages of clinical precision, Stefan Zweig describes how the dog becomes a sultan and a blackmailer. The world revolves around him and he makes quite sure it shall remain this way. His tactics grow increasingly refined. His tail remains stiff so as never to show pleasure. When called, he lets people wait.  He only pays lip service to food. Bref, his insolent, arrogant behaviour conveys a “sultan’s debauch of power”…
—… in response to human debasement, it seems.

I paused again, now wondering: why is it that the three subjects that grip my imagination are excess, excess and excess, in whichever context?

—One day, Ponto’s falls from his pedestal: Limpley’s wife is pregnant. Of course, nothing else matters for this childishly monomaniac man. He subscribes to pregnancy publications; lavishes the poor woman with relentless and minute attentions; supervises her diet—etc. As a result of this frantic feverishness, the dog’s world is shattered. Given pale tokens of former reverence, he feels ignored. No faked ailments, no feigned hunger-strikes manage to restore his crown or throne. Ponto is faced with an invisible enemy. He behaves erratically, but to no avail: he is no longer the focus. Only the narrator seems to notice the disarray beneath his blind fury. Inclined to British aloofness, she thinks that Ponto will get over it, times cures all, and so on.
—A blatant ignorance in dog psychology, dryly comments the little man.
—Do you think so? Hmm. So, it seems, does Zweig. Yet there’s a passage that is in complete contradiction with the—by now, fathomable—end of the story. May I read it to you?
—Volontiers, he smiled.

I leafed through the thin book.

—“What distinguishes animal from human intelligence is that the former is strictly limited to the past and the present. An animal is incapable to imagine or to assess the future.”
—Nonsense! As is the pun, ‘Did you ever walk in a room and forget why you walked in?  That’s how dogs spend their lives’ ! They may not have an elephant’s memory, but they certainly have a child’s projection ability. As a matter of ….

The nurse came in, apologizing and asking whether we could have a little more patience. Yes, we said in unison.

—Let me guess. Ponto identifies the cause of his demise: the child. He attacks the baby. Considered dangerous, he’s is given away. But Ponto doesn’t forget. Systematic and monomaniac as his master—mimicry is a fascinating issue in the animal to man relationship - his energy, tense as an arrow’s bow, is aimed at one sole target: to kill.  He’ll ferret about like a fox. He’ll watch. He’s got time—and this may be where Stefan Zweig is right: time has no meaning; but finality certainly does. One day, the opportunity presents itself. Left in the garden for some reason or other, he hits the cradle. The baby drowns in the canal. Correct?

Exactly that had happened in the book.

—Yes. The narrator, much to my indignation, could have had foreseen and thus prevented it. But, as mentioned before, she’s a passive observer. Not likeable, at least not in my book. 
—That beast would have waited years until he got its revenge, I mused. Dr.  Turkheimer… are you a veterinary?’

He tapped the felt-hat he’d been holding all the while with his fingers.

—Considering that humans are distorted animals, you could call me that, but no. I’m a neurologist. Not a practising one. An academic, I’m afraid.

And a cool cat, I couldn’t help thinking.

—Do you think that an excess of attention (daren’t say love- might trigger off the same despotic behavior in say, a child? Would a child become as despotic as Ponto? Might Ponto not have developed another character if, for instance, he’d been one of two dogs instead as the sole focus of attention? Might some inherited trauma have come into it?

The little man eyes became dreamy.

—You’re raising the issue genes vs. environment, atavism vs. habits, intuition vs. experience…
—Perception?
—You see, dear lady: behavioral genetics will never explain things as was once expected. Links have failed to find anything larger than small associations. It is now clear that one gene almost never leads to one character trait. Instead, a specific trait may be the result of the interplay of hundreds of genes interacting with many environmental factors. Take Ponto: not so long ago, one would have explained the dog’s behavior in terms of a predominant aggression gene. No longer. Linear cause and effect relationships are obsolete. Biological processes are now en vogue—but the more I observe, the more I am—irrationally and therefore absolutely—convinced that the argument between geneticists and neurologists is vain. Novels and history can still produce insights into behavior that science cannot match, enmeshed as it is in what researchers call ‘The Gloomy Prospect’.
—Meaning?

The little man laughed merrily.

—Meaning the ineffable mystery of why people do what they do.

(Dr. Turkheimer, I later discovered, is a professor at the University of Virginia and our teeth are fine, thanks!)

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