When my son was two and a half, in the spring of the year 2000, I bought a Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy. We had driven down to Lewes to see it, to a breeder who was, I remember, preoccupied by the ghost of her husband. He left her messages in the kitchen by moving a tin of biscuits or the jar of Marmite. We drank milky tea and talked about his absence. Later Daniel, my son, sat on the floor of the kennels and held the tiny puppy that was to be ours, then only a few weeks old.
Fifteen years later, Leo was very old. His hind legs dragged, and he was blind and deaf, though to what degree was hard to tell. I came back from a radio show in Sweden to find him with a deep open blister on his paw – a blister that, this time, was unlikely to heal.
We called the vet the next day. She came with an assistant. We brought his bed out and I held him, feeling his heart beating. They shaved his hind leg. For a moment I wanted to stop them, to protect him from what was about to happen, but I didn’t. And then his heart stopped.
The moment between life and death was almost imperceptible. The ease of that transition was enviable and yet also shocking. We buried him wrapped in a sheet, but for a while beforehand he lay on the sheet, in the sun. We lay on the grass next to him. His fur was moving in the wind so that he seemed still alive. Archaic thoughts of the horrors of the cold, dark grave came to me, along with an obsessive – and unexpected – conviction that he was not really dead. We tried, and failed, to close his eyes. The line between the human and the non-human seemed so fine – I felt a sense of existential confusion about this meeting of possession, love and death.
None of this had ever struck me as problematic before. I grew up with animals, and therefore with death. My father would shoot our old dogs (and later his old laptops). But the ownership of sentient beings, and the power possession gives you, seems to me now
a graver matter than I believed then.
This issue of Granta is about possession, in many different guises. Oliver Bullough writes about the surreal aftermath of the revolution in Ukraine, and the situation in Crimea following the Russian annexation. Kerry Howley, who has written a book on cage fighting, describes giving birth in the context of her belief in the value of the fight, and of endurance. Marc Bojanowski’s story, ‘This is New’, shows how a single moment of impatience leading to a violent gesture can destroy a career. We are, in that sense, at the mercy of our ids. Our superegos try their best to remain in control but they often fail – and perhaps the destruction of a career could in fact be justified with reference to the psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious. If the id can take control once it can do so again.
Bella Pollen’s disturbing memoir piece is also about the power of the mind: she describes her waking nightmares, of being sexually possessed by an incubus. There is a scientific explanation for these things, but even so it is an anthropological riddle how similar the incubus phenomenon turns out to be across cultures and eras. Why is it that humanity seems to invent and reinvent the same male or female nightmare demon?
Poet Molly Brodak’s memoir about her father, a Polish-American gambler and failed bank robber, is unexpectedly framed by the aftermath of war. He was born in a displaced persons camp in 1945, and the family ended up in Detroit. Brodak finds the now derelict house they stayed in as refugees: ‘The sky can be so solid gray in Michigan, like wet concrete, churning without breaking for days. Under it, this home, sinking into the earth, the earth digesting its own paradox, in silence.’
Possession takes many forms, and at the heart of it is death and dereliction, invasion and submission. Nothing can be still, as poet Rae Armantrout writes. Possession and loss are intertwined.