‘Animal Melancholia: on the scent of Dean Spanley’

Turner, Lynn. 2015. ‘Animal Melancholia: on the scent of Dean Spanley’. In: Michael Lawrence and Laura McMahon, eds. Animal Life and the Moving Image. London: British Film Institute/Bloomsbury, pp. 134-151. ISBN 9781844578993 [Book Section]

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For everything that happens at the edge of the orifices (of orality, but also of the ear, the eye-and all the ‘senses’ in general) the metonymy of ‘eating well’ [bien manger] would always be the rule. - Derrida ‘Eating Well’

The beguiling 2008 film adaptation of Lord Dunsany’s 1936 novella, Dean Spanley, prescribes what I call an ‘animal cure’ for the melancholia of an elderly man. This man, Fisk, maintains an extremely formalised relationship with his surviving son, Henslowe, with whom he can scarcely discuss the recent deaths of his wife and his other son. Henslowe becomes fascinated with the highly convincing stories produced by the local clergyman, the eponymous Dean, of his life as a dog when enjoying the scent of the Hungarian liquor, Tokay. Realising that the dog, in whose name the Dean speaks, uncannily recalls the lost pet of his father’s childhood, Henslowe effects his animal cure through the means of a dinner party. From the moment that this pet, Wag, is ‘returned’ through the medium of the Dean’s apparent recollections, Fisk can begin to cry and thus to admit his grief. Yet from this moment too, the intoxication with Dean Spanley fades: the last scene sees a happy Fisk accompanied by a new pet dog.

Through the inhalation of Tokay, the Dean is transformed. His olfactory intake of the other speaks of an identification named in the narrative as reincarnation but that invites speculation on death, mourning, transference and friendship among and for animals, specifically the dog (as man’s best friend). Women may inhabit the periphery of this film, but the motivation and the action of Dean Spanley remain within the homosocial preserve of men and/as male dogs. With the turning point of the film located around the dinner table, this homosociality has the sense of the mythical ‘band of brothers’ enjoying the primal feast, gorging on the adventures told by the Dean and gloriously depicted by the film matching human voice-over to canine action.

This essay will explore the interrelated oral processes of incorporation and introjection in the double mourning at stake in Dean Spanley, as exemplified by the terse Fisk and loquacious Dean (and as theorized by Abraham and Torok). While the Dean inadvertently teaches Fisk how to ‘eat well,’ in Derrida’s phrase, which is to say how to mourn, this essay will examine the uneven relation to mourning for humans and for animals, specifically that exceptional animal or exception to ‘animality’, the pet dog.

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Book Section


Animal Life, Moving Image, Cultural Studies

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Visual Cultures


December 2015Published

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Date Deposited:

23 Feb 2015 08:19

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 17:02



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