Doctor Johnson and Mister Garrick … can anyone actually own anyone…
My human friend Handsome loves exciting entertainment. He loves fun bright music, he watches movies with lots of car chases and horses and guns, and especially loves those with monsters created in laboratories and people who turn into wolves. Oh and does he adore that TV show with the dragons and the beheadings and the snow-zombies and… you know the one I mean.
But he also has this insufferable, ego-driven quest to read all these boring books that someone else once said were important. Which he often does by playing audio readings of them in his car, so I have to hear them too. Now it’s delightful to take a nap on a long drive while he’s listening to Harry Potter or a good mystery. But when he gets to old philosophers or drawn-out novels about women staring at wallpaper or Russian brothers debating religion, I get annoyed. Yes, I can sleep, but these even make my dreams turn dull!
His latest might be the most intolerable (though luckily he’s only reading the book, not making me go through it). It’s James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson (Bet you’re bored already, right?!). For 250 years it’s been acclaimed as the greatest biography ever written, the best book ever about 18th-Century England, blah blah blah. I’ll tell you what it really is; it’s the record of one guy fawning like a lovesick Golden Retriever over every utterance a pompous bore says.
Oh, and almost all this noted philosopher speaks is about how everything is just the way it should be. Their religion is the best, their political system is the best, their class system is the best (Funny, people at the top of their pecking order almost always seem to feel just that way!). And even that poor people love their class system too, and think it’s the most delightful anywhere (Really?! I find that usually isn’t… well, never mind).
But one interesting thing did come up in the book, that Handsome asked me about.
You see, Dr. Johnson (who, I’ll admit, deserves a lot of credit for writing the first English dictionary, a nearly impossible task) was friends with the most popular and honored actor in the British theater of this time, David Garrick. But they had the sort of friendship where Johnson would insult Garrick’s acting at every opportunity. To take him down a peg, arguably; though he might also have been jealous of his talent, success, and popularity.
But if someone else put down a performance of Garrick’s, Johnson would disagree with them at once, using his sharp wit to destroy their argument.
Then at some point, a great painter named Joshua Reynolds commented that Johnson’s treating Garrick this way – always insulting his successes but critiquing his critics – proved that Johnson considered Garrick his own property. That he alone had the right to criticize, and compliment, him and his work.
So Handsome told me about this, and asked me, “So I’m always insulting you, and telling you that you’re the best thing ever. Does this mean I own you?”
And this got me thinking. A lot.
Now yes, the law says he does own me. He pays for my license, which registers me as his property. And if I bite someone, he’s liable. But when people marry they have a license too, registering with each other. And (at least here, today) no one considers one married partner the other’s property. And while children, of course, are absolutely considered to “belong” to their parents, they’re also seen as their own persons.
If you want proof of this, look at the difference between how the law looks at it if someone smashes up their own refrigerator or sofa or computer, to if they smash up their spouse or their child!
Now we dogs and cats are in a sort of in-between status there. If someone beats their Fido or Mr. Whiskers extra badly, they can be arrested for it. But the law sees nothing wrong with a person putting their pet to a painless death; it’s a major part of what veterinarians do. While doing that to their spouse is controversial, and to their child absolutely out of the question.
Handsome showed me an old movie where a man argues to a woman that because he loves her, she belongs to him. Now we might laugh at that (or, if it were in real life, be scared she’s about to be kidnapped!), but don’t we all feel that way? That when we love someone, we feel we own them?
I get very upset with dogs who Handsome pets too much. I don’t get mad at him; I get mad at them. I jump on them, growling, so they know “He’s mine! Keep away!” I love him, so he’s mine. Right?
And once anyone’s in any sort of committed relationship, they are sort of saying they own each other, right? They set rules: Children should obey their parents. Romantic partners should stay faithful to each other. Employees should show up to work on time, and employers need to treat their employees with respect (now more than ever before).
So do any of these people own the other?
Do voters own politicians? They can vote them out of office, certainly, if they feel they’re not doing what they want. But meanwhile, politicians make decisions that spell life and death for those voters (declaring wars, cleaning up or poisoning air and drinking water, etc.).
And what about abusers? Those awful cases we hear about where a person so dominates another that they command full obedience, even beyond what a parent has over a child. Even there, does the controller actually own their victim?
Lots of questions, and not much answer, I know! But I’ll sure say one thing here: I love loyalty, I love relationships, and I especially love love. But I do believe we’re each our own being. So that no one fully, completely, owns anyone else. If I eat a fly that’s annoying me, I’ve ended its life, yes. But its life was still its own. I never owned it. And even when Handsome tells me that I “own” his heart, I know I don’t really; I just occupy a very large portion of it.
I suppose the closest anyone gets to true ownership of another is in the child-parent relationship. But not because kids do what they’re told. No, I mean the way the child owns the parent!
From the moment a baby is born, or a child is adopted, that mom or dad is never the same. Their life is never what it was before. Their choices never are. Even a negligent parent is just avoiding the responsibilities they know they have.
Handsome loves to tell me about the first time he held his baby niece in his hands, and he looked down at this newborn scrunched-up thing and thought “That is the ugliest single creature I’ve ever seen, and I will be hers forevermore.” And that wasn’t even his own kid!
And, to rest my case, in conclusion, as it were, indubitably (see, I can write boring too!) to go back to Handsome’s original question… No, I don’t think he and I have the same relationship as Dr. Johnson and Mr. Garrick. At all.
Because Handsome would never tell someone they’re wrong for complimenting me. Or for critiquing me. If they say they don’t like me, he’ll gladly tell them he feels the opposite, but he respects their opinion. Instead, he spends every moment in a state of gratitude that he’s been able to have me around. Just as I feel towards him.
And I think that’s the real answer to this whole question. I don’t own him, but I sure own my joy that he’s in my life. And he owns his constant awe of me.
So my wish for you is to have the freedom to do what Handsome did with his niece (who did get a lot prettier), and what he and I do with each other every day. To own yourself enough to be able to commit fully to those you care about, those you love, even those you worship. But always to know that you’re still yourself.
Hey, if a pooch can be, certainly you can.
Which leads me to something I enjoy Handsome listening to in the car far more than boring books -a great old song. If you don’t know it, it’s easy to find (it’s been recorded thousands of times, by too many people to list). But even if you do know it, just let these words to this great Gershwin ballad feed your soul. Because here’s what all us lovers truly get to own:
The way you wear your hat
The way your sip your tea
The memory of all that
No, no, they can’t take that away from me
The way your smile just beams
The way you sing off key
The way you haunt my dreams
No, no, they can’t take that away from me
We may never, never meet again
On the bumpy road to love
Still, I’ll always, always keep the memory of
The way you hold your knife
The way we danced till three
The way you changed my life
No, no, they can’t take that away from me
Just as no one can take YOU from me, my friends! Hear that? MY friends!!
Loads of Love,