As I began to write this review of “Dogs,” a philosophical treatise on the nature of the human-canine bond by French philosopher Mark Alizart, my dog Rin was curled up at my feet.
Over the past two and a half years, Rin has been my constant companion, and I, his. We have grown together, traveled together and improved each other in profound ways. His joy is contagious, and his need to connect with me and other people has brought this introvert true introspection and into closer communion with the people I interact with on a daily basis.
Perhaps this is why, as much as I wanted it to, “Dogs” did not resonate with me. It tacitly promises a better understanding of ourselves through our canine companions but delivers a torturing over-analysis that strains credulity and even common sense.
The book started strong, framing dogs as “philosophers” under the conception proffered by “the Stoics, the Buddhists and Spinoza that wisdom consists in accommodating oneself, with simplicity and gratitude, to what life has to offer.”
The book is “devoted to understanding this miracle, the miracle of the joy of dogs” and how, as humans, we could understand and learn from it, Alizart writes. Pieces of the book allude to this, offering tantalizing phrases upon which the reader can briefly latch before the next idea sends them down the rabbit hole.
The freewheeling book pulls strands from mythology, philosophy, psychoanalysis, pop culture and classical works of art, weaving them into a disjointed thesis that strays from the original promise, instead focusing on a different question that sparked his exploration: Why are dogs so disrespected in our depictions of them when they have been such integral parts of our lives for millennia?
That nugget from Alizart came from an interview with TheBark.com, a “dog culture magazine.”
Much respect to the reader who sees that question coming by reading the setup of the book. The 96-page volume – almost more of an essay than a book — could have used some of the plain language Alizart employed in that interview, where he explicitly addressed the structure of “Dogs” as a book as well as what he considers the perplexing contrast of the representation of dogs in ancient times compared with the modern age.
Instead, the book floats from idea to idea over the course of short chapters with seemingly little to connect them. It makes giant leaps of logic through assertion when plain evidence will not do. Sweeping generalizations allude to a common understanding that does not exist, as if Alizart’s very deep knowledge of philosophy and psychoanalysis were part of some version of the Jungian collective unconscious, shared among potential readers to the point that introductions or explanations are rendered unnecessary.
That’s not the case, particularly in what TheBark.com referred to as a “seminal work” contemplating the creature that is dog.
For instance, Alizart references the work of Gilles Deleuze, saying that Delueze suggests that “dogs do not deserve the same respect as other beasts that roam [Deleuze’s] writings.” He suggests that Deleuze bestows grace upon everything from wolf packs to the “humble tick,” but not dogs.
Deleuze, apparently, says that “every man needs to experience a ‘becoming-animal, a becoming-woman, a becoming-minor’” although what this means and how it relates to Alizart’s next assertion that perhaps only through experiencing the “becoming-dog” can we be a “becoming-human” is unclear.
There is no explanation of what Deleuze was getting at, or even who this person was, other than an author and an apparent lover of dogs, if not a respecter of dogs.
Passages like this make one wonder if the 96-page book printed on 5 x 7.5-inch half-sheets with healthy margins lacked the space to fully flesh out Alizart’s ideas, and that the book may have benefitted from another 100 pages or so.
The absence of explanatory detail throws other sections into question.
Alizart spends much of the book looking at the depictions of dogs in different cultures’ mythologies. Our ancestors better understood and therefore venerated dogs, representing them as gods such as Anubis, the Egyptian god of death, or the fantastical creature Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the gates of the Greek underworld.
We see them as hapless and clumsy in some instances or heroic but only because of their slavish devotion to the master.
To some degree, he seems to blame our relationship with dogs as a departure from the polytheism present in these cultures. Monotheism caused us to eschew the “transclass” vision of dogs as a species that defies categorization and, instead, see them as a servant, just as the Abrahamic god is the master of those who worship him.
But this leads Alizart to make the assertion that monotheists find self-loathing in their worship of a single god, and sublimate this shame by taking it out on dogs, saying that they “need to be removed from our sight so that no one, ever, may be able to insult us by comparing us with them.”
This leap gains altitude because it is unbound by evidence or facts.
Such assertions with nothing to ground them derail aspects of the book.
In one instance, Alizart invokes the legendary Sphinx, a creature of Greek myth. The Sphinx famously has the head of a woman, the body of a lion and the wings of an eagle. Not so, Alizart claims. The Sphinx is a female dog because “the Sphinx is the daughter of Orthos (twin brother of Ceberus), and dogs don’t make cats.”
“Dogs don’t make cats.” Orthos is dog-like in the Greeks’ telling. Of course, he also had two heads and the tail of a serpent. The Sphinx’s mother, Chimaera, is also a hybrid creature with the tail of a dragon and the body of a lion.
Perhaps the Sphinx just took after her mother.
Other examples abound.
In Alizart’s telling, “Little Red Riding Hood” was actually a boy, because red was a boy’s color in the time it was written. This allows him to read more deeply into the tale, building on previous ruminations on humans’ lack of a baculum in their penis and castration.
It’s a lot.
The reader doesn’t get to understand how this book came to be until the final pages. Alizart found a Basset hound named Martin Luther born in the French countryside. Alizart had recently finished a book on the German thinker that took him 10 years to complete.
“I wanted to see this as a sign, and I was not wrong,” Alizart writes.
Martin Luther, sadly, did not live long, but his impact on Alizart was profound, transforming him from an “impoverished materialist” and sharing with him the “secret of his joy and wisdom.”
This is, perhaps, the most relatable thing about “Dogs” for those of us who love them. They are philosophers and teachers in their own right. They can bring out the best in us much like any creature we love and care for. Alizart explored these ideas, bringing to bear his experience and knowledge as a student of history and philosophy.
Most dog people, however, will not need to follow the same path.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Mar. 11-17, 2020 issue.