“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Monday, July 24, 2006

dogs, considered philosophically

I usually comment on Long Sunday symposiums, but a symposium on democracy is a little bit too much like high school civics class book reports for me. I think those guys are, at the moment, symposiumed out.

Since these are the dog days of summer, the time when, traditionally, LI’s financial life passes before our eyes – summer is Motha Hubbard bare indeed around here – we are more interested in the philosophical topic of the dog. As in – when you walk a dog, whose free will is exercised, yours or the pooch’s? And does this depend on the size of the dog? We’ve been reading Roger Grenier’s The Difficulty of Being a Dog (we have a sideline interest in the literature devoted to dogs, from Cervantes Colloquy to Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip). Grenier’s first essay, enigma, begins with a nice anecdote about Paul Valery. It seems that when people would come to see Paul Valery’s grave, the man who ran the cemetery would tell his dog, “Paul Valery,” and the dog would guide them to the sacred spot. The Ministry of culture caught wind of this, and finally decided (no doubt after several meetings and memos), that the man would have to cut it out. Grenier, who knew Valery, says that in all probability Valery would have liked his grave stone being tour guided by a dog. And after all, in all probability, the dog knew as much about Valery’s poems as the man did.

My own experience has not been with genius dogs, but I’ve known some bright ones. Bliss, my friend S’s dog, is a personable mongrel bitch who can cast the slyest glances, so that it is impossible not to wonder what she is thinking. In fact, thinking is the question monomaniac philosophers always put to the animal kind – can you think? However, dogs make you wonder, instead: what are you thinking about? What, for instance, does a dog plan to do when it gets up in the morning? What, in fact, is a morning to a dog? I have a feeling their divisions of time aren't like ours -- where I see day and night, I imagine the dog sees other divisions of the natural flow. However, I do know that, like me, Bliss’ first thought is to pee. The arrangements that lead to relief, for Bliss, are a bit more complex than my matitudinal stagger towards the toilet. A ritual has evolved. S. must find the leash. She has to find the poop bags. Bliss helpfully either points to the door, or sometimes goes down to nose it.

Now, once the walk has begun, if it is a nice day, surely the dog plans to not only take care of her natural functions, but make the round of her favorite places. Dogs get bored, but they are also compulsive creatures, always wanting the same thing. Also, she looks for messages in the dirt and grass, odors left by other dogs, or humans, or cats. There’s an itinerary. So the plan is to go through with the itinerary, then back to the house. But some would say that dogs don’t plan at all, even though they are clearly leading on the leash. But then, these same people would probably bridle at saying dogs improvise. So in general, I don’t pay attention to those people. It is recommended that they content themselves, if they feel the need for pets, with guppies. Goldfish. A few bottom feeders. Generally, this kind of backbiter and sceptic is sniffed out by dogs straightaway, and barked down the street when they pass. Unhappy sods.

Grenier writes: When I’m in the prescence of a dog, I always ask myself a lot of questions. I may be naïve, but I’m in good company, for Paul Valery himself shared my naivete: “The animal, that inevitable enigma, is the opposite of us in its very likeness.”

And he further writes:

“How can such an understanding exist between two species? I t seems more miraculous, more precious to me than any relationship among humans. At the same time, what could be easier? You come across a dog. A word, a caress, and it responds with no further ado. It is the mystery of these exchanges that led me to write this book. But I know it will resolve nothing and that dogs will never cease to amaze me.”

I must recommend the University of Chicago Press cover of the book – the dog on it looks amazingly like Bliss.

2 comments:

Brian Miller said...

Is it anthropomorphizing to think that my basenji is looking at me with a very...quizzical...
expression. That she is soemwhat "amused" by me? Or that my creaky old mutt, Max, has learned new techniques of stubborness from the basenji?

roger said...

Brian, to my mind, if you thought basenji was wondering if you had named him on your life insurance policy, that would be anthropomophizing. Or if you thought Max stubbornly held to a political position. Ascribing to dogs such things as puzzlement, or learning, seems to me as true and as false as ascribing them to humans. Ascribing contents, however - that is where we do project.