Awwwwwwww. Picture after picture of dogs came on the screen and it made no difference -- mutt, pooch, purebred, we all went awwwww for each one at the Tail Waggers ritual in the Regent hotel (Anne Blair in charge and leading the chorus) while Agnes Mongan showed her discoveries. A grande dame of the museum world (the Fogg in Boston), she is unparalleled in her ability to find seven dogs in an interior of St. Mark's, though the casual viewer of the painting sees none. On the bronze doors at Pisa she first of all will spot some dogs, while everybody else is peering at Adam, Eve or a cherub.
The Tail Waggers is a charity for the care of dogs, and those who attended the lecture hold sound views on the prince of fauna. We saw on the screen a gorgeous nude of Titian's, spread 10 feet wide on the screen, one of the sensuous masterpieces of the West, and all said awwwww as usual, skipping over the lady to concentrate on the small detail of her dog.
If she had shown a Crucifixion (there are some with dogs) we'd have all said awwwww, too, since this is the universal utterance when faced with the image of faithful paws; though as she said, it depends what you're looking for. Otherwise you don't see the dogs in St. Mark's even if a whole pack of them is roaming about. And admittedly the Tail Waggers are the only known audience that sees in the Titian nude a primary display of enchanting and fuzzy ears.
In Venice this irresistible lecturer knew dogs personally, as well as in masterpieces of painting, and cited a few. One used to swim the Lido or fly through the air or something miraculous, and another used to cross the Grand Canal every day for a newspaper, perhaps for others to read. When these dogs died, she said, their funeral notices appeared in the press, and she spoke of visiting their tombs.
Aww. She knew and we knew their tombs were symbols. We never met the dogs, and not even the great lecturer had known them through the hours dark and bright of their brief lives. She knew one of them, paws crossed at the prow of a gondola, as the greatest navigator of Italy, but she did not know the fullness of his doghood, in which he may have behaved wretchedly sometimes, or said to hell with watching the house all night, or even the hour of his greatest glory, now forgotten, and maybe never known to mortals. There was more to the dog than she or we can know, and that is why his tomb is chiefly a symbol, a resting place of loyalty and love by our common consent. When a creature dies only some things are remembered, but they are remembered vividly.
The times have been that when the brains were out the man would die, and there an end, but now they rise again. Death used to be one thing, but now it's another. Death used to obliterate distinctions of rank and consciousness, princes level with pariahs, purebreds with curs.
But we are the animals that cannot forget the dead, or the past that touches us every living minute. As with dogs, we cannot know the full past of men, either, but we know something and we think we know some things important.
If Nazi soldiers lie in a cemetery, some storm troopers among them, we can guess that some were noble in ways unknown to us and some were not. Neither their greatest evil nor their greatest good may be on record at Bitburg or anywhere else, but their graves are bound to be symbolic to us, as the graves of the Venetian dogs are, but with the awful difference that even the humble mutts touch us as loyal and loving, while the soldiers are very symbols of disgust. They were instruments of violence against us and were prime agents of the worst evil of the German nation then.
What's done is done, but evil is not easily undone. A whole chain of order is broken and virtue becomes chaos. Nobody imputes to each soldier there a supreme evil in himself, but we are bound to think at the Bitburg graveyard of the mass murder of the Jews and many others, for which the soldiers as a unified force were directly responsible.
Any man who does evil things can be said to be a victim of evil himself, but this does not absolve him from his part in it.
President Reagan obviously meant, in his allusion to the German soldiers as victims of Hitler, that they were victims of evil as well as participants in and agents of it. It is a gross distortion to say he "equated" the soldiers with their victims, and no good can come of such deliberate misreadings.
In any case it is not we who absolve. That is a function too grand for us. Even the words commonly said over millions who have died -- Blessed are they who die in the Lord for they rest from their labor -- do not authorize us, I guess, to announce who is blessed and who is not. But a God said to be concerned with the fall of a sparrow would notice the fall of men. We are not, by and large, infallible judges and something of this is implicit in the president's remarks.
The world is full of graves, which hold a reality of death but also a reality of memories, comforting or terrifying. Hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs, shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves all share the name of dog, and in men the variety is at least as great. All dogs are basically one animal and so are men, for all the differences. There's no mind that's honest, but in it shares some woe. All life is so netted together that hate and love run quickly through the weave, and this should make us merciful and help us understand ourselves. Injustice and murder are all the worse because they cut so many other strands.
All the same, the time for generosity is not when a wretch is about to cut a woman's throat, and even in retrospect the first compassion of all must go to the lamb and not the butcher.