The Enviable Dimwittedness of a Dog

Why we love dogs, even though "dog culture" is annoying and it sucks when they die

It must be the season of the dog, from the recent treasure chest that is The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (one of the best art books of 2012) to the history of rabies to Fiona Apple's stirring handwritten letter about her dying dog. But what is it about dogs, exactly, that has us so profoundly transfixed?

That's exactly what former New York magazine executive editor John Homans explores in What's a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend -- a remarkable chronicle of the domestic dog's journey across thousands of years and straight into our hearts, written with equal parts tenderness and scientific rigor.

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In a chapter on reconciling the inevitable pain we invite into our lives when we commit to love a being biologically destined to die before we do and the boundless joy of choosing to love anyway, Homans cites John Updike's heartbreaking poem "Another Dog's Death" about the last days of one of his beloved animals:

For days the good old bitch had been dying, her back
pinched down to the spine and arched to ease the pain,
her kidneys dry, her muzzle white. At last
I took a shovel into the woods and dug her grave

in preparation for the certain. She came along,
which I had not expected. Still, the children gone,
such expeditions were rare, and the dog,
spayed early, knew no nonhuman word for love.

She made her stiff legs trot and let her bent tail wag.
We found a spot we liked, where the pines met the field.
The sun warmed her fur as she dozed and I dug;
I carved her a safe place while she protected me.

I measured her length with the shovel's long handle;
she perked in amusement, and sniffed the heaped-up earth.
Back down at the house, she seemed friskier,
but gagged, eating. We called the vet a few days later.

They were old friends. She held up a paw, and he
injected a violet fluid. She swooned on the lawn;
we watched her breathing quickly slow and cease.
In a wheelbarrow up to the hole, her warm fur shone.

But rather than agonizing over the morbidity of it, Homans celebrates the remarkable Zen-ness of it all, somewhere between John Cage and the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi:

This state of being-in-the-moment is what's so compelling about dogs. It's hard for a human to get to it. Even in the most difficult times, dogs are cheerful and ready for experience. A dog can't figure out that it's being measured for its grave. The three-legged chow that walks on my street every day doesn't know the number three or have any sense that anything is wrong with her at all (and as I write, the dog is sixteen and still fit). It's not that a dog accepts the cards it's been dealt; it's not aware that there are cards. James Thurber called the desire for this condition 'the Dog Wish,' the 'strange and involved compulsion to be as happy and carefree as a dog.' This is a dog's blessing, a dim-wittedness one can envy.

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He considers the warm tackiness of loving a dog:

Loving a dog means, among other things, making peace with kitsch, if you haven't already. You don't have to make goo-goo eyes at every puppy picture you see in a magazine or bake your dog birthday cakes. But if you resist too much the power of the big primary-color emotions that surround the dog, you're missing the experience. ... Dogs are a national religion with a catechism composed by Hallmark, so heresy is necessary. I suspect some people resist the dog culture with such passion precisely to avoid the kitsch, the appalling melodrama: if you give in to it, you're trapped in a narrative you can't control. You feel like a dope, buying into it. The emotions around the dog can be as neotenized as the animal itself.

Rather than an end, kitsch can be a starting point. ... Much as I'd like to think that kitsch has no purchase in my world, it's found its way in -- and it's sleeping on my rug.

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Beautifully written and absolutely engrossing, What's a Dog For? goes on to examine such fascinating fringes of canine culture as how dogs served as Darwin's muse, why they were instrumental in the birth of empathy, and what they might reveal about the future of evolution.


This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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