Some dozen years ago, in the middle of one of those conversations which are apt one minute to be about Proust's asthma and the next about the size of chocolate bars in these depraved times, Stan Brakhage, the most advanced guard of filmmakers, asked me if I knew anything about Pergolesi's dog.
Not a thing, I answered confidently, adding that I didn't know he had one. What was there about Pergolesi's dog to know? There, he replied, is the mystery. Just before this conversation, Brakhage had been shooting a film under the direction of Joseph Cornell, the eccentric artist who assembled choice objects in shallow box frames to achieve a hauntingly wonderful, partly surrealistic, partly homemade American kind of art. He lived all his adult life, more or less a recluse, on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, New York, sifting through his boxes of clippings and oddments to find the magic combination of things - a celluloid parrot from Woolworth's, a star map, a clay pipe, a Greek postage stamp - to arrange in a shadow box.
He also made collages and what you could call sculpture, such as dolls in a bed of twigs; and films. For the films he needed a cameraman: thus Brakhage's presence on Utopia Parkway. The two got along beautifully, two geniuses inventing a strange poetry of images (Victorian gingerbread fretwork, fan lights, somber rooms with melancholy windows). Brakhage was fascinated by the shy, erudite Cornell whose hobbies ran to vast dossiers on French ballerinas of the last century, the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, and the bric-a-brac of all ages and continents.
In one of their talks Pergolesi's dog came up. Brakhage asked what the significance might be of the Italian composer's pet. Cornell bristled. He threw up his hands in profound shock. What! Not know Pergolesi's dog! He had assumed, he said with some frost and disappointment, that he was conversing with a man of culture and sophistication. If Mr. Brakhage could not command an allusion like Pergolesi's dog, would he have the goodness to leave forthwith, and not come back?
Brakhage left. So ended the collaboration of the Republic's most poetic filmmaker and one of its most imaginative artists. The loss is enormous, and it was Pergolesi's dog who caused the rift.
I did the best I could to help Brakhage find this elusive and important dog. He himself had asked everybody in the country who he thought might know. I asked. The people we asked, they in turn asked others. Biographies and histories were of no help. No one knew anything about a dog belonging to, or in the society of, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. For ten years I asked likely people, and when my path crossed Brakhage's I would shake my head, and he would shake his: no d. of P. yet found.
We never considered that Cornell was as ignorant of Pergolesi's dog as we. In Samuel Butler II's Notebooks there is this instructive entry: “Zeffirino Carestia, a sculptor, told me we had a great sculptor in England named Simpson. I demurred, and asked about his work. It seemed he had made a monument to Nelson in Westminster Abbey. Of course I saw he meant Stevens, who made a monument to Wellington in St. Paul's. I cross-questioned him and found I was right."
We are never so certain of our knowledge as when we're dead wrong. The assurance with which Chaucer included Alcibiades in a list of beautiful women and with which Keats embedded the wrong discoverer of the Pacific in an immortal sonnet should be a lesson to us all.
Ignorance achieves wonders. The current Encyclopaedia Britannica informs us that Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle is a novel (it is a book of essays), that Eudora Welty wrote Clock without Hands (by Carson McCullers), and that the photograph of Jules Verne accompanying the entry about him is of a Yellow-Headed Titmouse (Auriparus flaviceps). The New York Review of Books once referred to The Petrarch Papers of Dickens and a nodding proofreader for the TLS once let Margery Allingham create a detective named Albert Camus.
Vagueness has vernacular charm. A footnote in a Shaker hymnal identifies George Washington as “one of our first presidents."
Cornell when he had his tizzy about Pergolesi's dog was beyond vagueness and into the certainty of the dead wrong. Sooner or later I was bound to luck onto the right person, who, as it turned out, was wise to Cornell's waywardness with bits of trivia. This was John Bernard Myers, art critic and dealer. What Cornell meant, he felt sure, was Borgese's dog. I looked as blank as Brakhage had on the previous, fatal occasion. What! Not know Borgese's dog!
Elisabeth Mann Borgese, daughter of Thomas, professor of political science at Dalhousie University, the distinguished ecologist and conservationist, had trained a dog in the 1940s to type answers to questions on a special machine that fitted its paws. The success of this undertaking is still dubious in scientific circles, but the spectacle it made at the keyboard of its machine stuck in Joseph Cornell's mind as one of the events of the century, and he supposed that all well-informed people were familiar with it. La Borgese's accomplished beast's habit of typing BAD DOG when it had flubbed a right answer had brought tears to his eyes. He had a dossier of clippings about all this, and despite its sea-change in his transforming imagination, had no qualms about dismissing people tediously ignorant of such wonderful things.
(from Every Force Evolves a Form. North Point Press. 1987.)