Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A stretch of river XLIV: Scruffy as Ishmael

Scruffy longs for ice.

"Call him Scruffy--I do. On several occasions this winter--never mind how many; I've lost count--having no money whatsoever in his purse, and nothing particular (aside from his leash) to interest him in staying on the banks of the Little Arkansas, he thinks on occasion he will suddenly lunge forth when there is ice on the river and visit our small watery-but-frozen part of the world."--from a (very very) false start by Herman Melville.

Now: Scruffy being some sort of terrier mix, you'd think water would be something of an antithesis to his nature. But the elements don't stand in opposition to each other--and, after all, ice is water's version of earth, sort of, if you squint just right and haven't had your coffee yet.

Or maybe one doesn't have to squint too hard after all. Have a look at some more of Melville's (very very) false start on his great whaling book, when the author was uncertain whether to make the narrator the very thing he himself would wind up hunting:

Etymology
(Supplied by a middle-aged Instructor in English)

"While you take in hand to school others, and to teach them how "Scruffy" is to be called in our tongue, leaving out, through ignorance, the letter C pronounced hard, which almost alone maketh up the signification of the word, you deliver that which is not true." --Middle-aged Instructor in English.

scruff·y (skrŭf'ē) adj. (scruff·i·er, scruff·i·est) 1. Shabby; untidy. 2. Chiefly British Scaly; scabby. [From obsolete scruff, "scurf," variant of scurf; see scurf.]

*****

scurf /skɜrf/ –noun 1. the scales or small shreds of epidermis that are continually exfoliated from the skin. 2. any scaly matter or incrustation on a surface. [Origin: bef. 1000; ME, OE < ON skurfa scurf, crust]

"Any scaly matter or incrustation on a surface," eh? Like ice, perhaps? Scruffy's abrupt strains on the leash are analogous to what Ishmael sees in the "story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. . . . It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life . . ." Scruffy sees himself (figuratively speaking, of course) in the ice? Crust you are, and to crust you shall return?

The saner among you will think about all this much like Starbuck does as he confronts Ahab on the quarter-deck of the Pequod: you too will think Scruffy "a dumb brute" and thus see this as silliness at best. You'd be entitled, too. All I know is this: This dog is obsessed with river-ice in a way he is not when the water is ice-free. As much time as I spend with this animal, as well as I know him, he remains, in many ways--and perhaps ultimately--as inscrutable as the White Whale.

It's weird, is all I'm saying.

Nay: it tasks me. It is a mask to strike beyond.

8 comments:

Pam said...

I just love it.

The New Wild Dog sniffs out and digs - truly finds - toads. Wondrous obsessions.

John B. said...

Thanks for dropping by and for the comment, Pam.

I've blogged about this before, how, through our allegedly domesticated dogs and cats, we begin to dimly realize just how little in the world we can really perceive of it.

I suppose The New Wild Dog's toad-hunting abilities were an unexpected bonus when you acquired her?

R. Sherman said...

A solid addition to the series. Nothing beats the fun of watching a dog on ice.

Cheers.

Gwynne said...

I always had a hard time with Melville, but see, if I'd had a professor such as you, I might have understood more. I "get" Scruffy/Moby-Dick analogies. ;-)

That is a wonderful image of Scruffy on the bank!

John B. said...

A belated thanks for the kind words, Randall and Gwynne.

Randall, I have yet to actually let Scruffy on the ice; I don't know how thick it gets and, though I care about my dog, I'd just as soon not fish him out of the river should he break through.

Gwynne, thanks for the compliments, though I suspect there are some Melvillians out there who'd read my little post and hear fingernails on chalkboards in their minds.

Winston said...

A fine piece you have penned, my good sir. It maketh yet another corner stone in the temple you build, the temple named "Scruffy".

John B. said...

Thanks, Winston. He's jes' a dawg, as my daddy would have said. But he does amuse me in various ways--and, to be quite serious, he does have the ability to make the familiar seem strange, or even unknown on occasion. So, yeah--he's good for the occasional blog-post, if for nothing else.

Pam said...

Just the other day, a study in the lab was talking about dogs and their sense of smell - and how they measure 'layers' of chemicals, so not just one chemical, but multiple chemicals in the same 'smell' - so I suppose that The Mountain Goat (aka New Wild Dog) could be highly useful if anyone was missing their pet toad. (Yes, it is an added benefit, isn't it?)