A Dog's Life

Colin Dayan's With Dogs at the Edge of Life is the work of a mind that slips the leash of genre or narrow specialization at every opportunity, writes Scott McLemee.

December 16, 2015

As our schedules and the weather permit, my wife and I walk dogs rescued from high-kill and overcrowded shelters and held in a foster-care facility. The walks are, in part, a way to find the dogs new homes: they wear vests or bandannas inviting people to inquire about adoption. (Anyone inclined to make an end-of-the-year donation to this worthy cause should inquire here.)

For the dogs, of course, a walk is an end unto itself. Most are raring to go, though we’ve occasionally had new arrivals from the countryside who feel overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of an urban downtown. One got about half a block out the door before he’d had enough and, refusing to budge, sat down and cowered in place. But that was a rare and extreme case. Normally it takes just a few minutes for a dog to adjust to the environment and feel drawn into it, pulling us along into the excitement of open space.

Before long we start crossing paths with attentive people who stop to admire the dog, and sometimes Rita interests them in taking information on how to adopt. The foster facility seems to have pretty high turnover, so mission accomplished, presumably. But after the first or second expedition, that part of the walk became much less interesting to me than the moments of heightened awareness that sometimes occurred between contacts with other humans. It was an almost meditative absorption in our surroundings -- an effort to imagine the world as experienced from the other end of the leash.

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake asks, “How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way, / Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?” A dog on the ground raises that question in an earthier way than a bird in the air, for there’s a constant reminder (at least two or three times per block) that the dog’s landscape consists of a fine-grained texture of smells that is almost entirely lost on humans. (Likewise with sounds beyond our ken.) The bird’s ecstasy was a matter of conjecture for Blake. But that an “immense world of delight” opens itself to a dog’s senses seems self-evident, even though the human imagination is closed to most of it.

My musings on dog sensibility have been a lot like the walks themselves: occasional and fairly restricted, exploring no more than could be covered by a circular route in about an hour. Colin Dayan’s With Dogs at the Edge of Life (Columbia University Press) is a much more comprehensive exploration -- the work of a mind that slips the leash of genre or narrow specialization at every opportunity

The author, a professor of humanities and of law at Vanderbilt University, makes sharp turns and intuitive leaps that are, at times, unexpected and disconcerting. She published parts of the book in The Boston Review and other journals as essays of diverse kinds (memoir, reportage, criticism, political commentary, etc.) but with continuities and themes developing across the differences in framework and voice. Generalization seems hazardous with such a hybrid text, but here goes anyway.

Dayan refers to “those of us who believe that the distinction between human and nonhuman animals is unsustainable.” She takes the experience of toggling between human and canine awareness -- as with trying to imagine walking the dog from the four-legged perspective -- as a given. It is basic to the relationship between the two species that has developed from tens of thousands of years of cohabitation.

Humans and dogs read each other’s minds, in effect, or at least we try -- and anyone who lives with or around dogs for very long knows that a real zone of intersubjectivity emerges from the effort. A degree of anthropomorphism is probably always involved, but we get around it a little in moments of recognizing, and respecting, the dog’s own capacities.

“Dogs live on the track between the mental and the physical,” Dayan writes, “and sometimes seem to tease out a near-mystical disintegration of the bonds between them. What would it mean to become more like a dog? How might we come up against life as a sensory but not sensible experience? We all experience our dogs’ unprecedented and peculiar attentiveness. It comes across as an exuberance of a full heart. Perhaps this is what the Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards meant when he emphasized a physical rather than a moral conversion. He knew that the crux of divinity in earthbound entities lay in the heart’s ‘affections.’”

The movement within that paragraph -- between metaphysical categories and the ordinary dog owner’s intuitions, with the dismantling of dichotomies raising moral implications which then, even more sharply, plunge into the sphere of theology -- presents in miniature what the book does on a much larger scale. At the same time, Dayan’s thinking is grounded in concrete particulars, including issues around a particular variety of dog, the pit bull terrier, which appears to have become the contemporary, secular embodiment of diabolical menace. In some places they are very nearly the target of a campaign of extermination.

Not so coincidentally, perhaps, it is African-American residents of housing projects and poor white Southerners whose pit bulls are most likely to be confiscated and destroyed. Video of the police killing poor or homeless people’s dogs, whatever the breed, seems to be its own genre on YouTube. (I am willing to take her word for it.) At the same time, an association between impoverished or collapsing cities and feral dog packs has become a commonplace in journalism, while a number of directors have used the roaming dog as a character or scenic element in recent films.

It’s tempting to say that Dayan does for dogs what Melville did for whales: tracking the social roles and symbolic frameworks built up around them and depicting them at the intersection between cosmic order and human frailty, while also giving them (dogs and whales alike) due recognition as animals with worlds of their own, which we humans impinge upon. That description may intrigue some people while doubtless putting off at least as many. So be it, but I’ll say that With Dogs on the Edge of Life was one of the most memorable books I’ve had the chance to read this year.


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