Boy, it’s been quite a week in the good old Penny Press, hasn’t it? My reporting has been so consistent certain less steadfast members of the Silent Majority have expressed concern that I’ve given up on boring old books altogether. I assure you, that’s not the case – I still have plenty of tedium to unload on you all (including our next installment of Penguins on Parade), but I still read lots of periodicals, and this is still where I talk about what I read (swankier OLM-sponsored digs notwithstanding), so bear with me.
And besides, how could I of all people ignore the cover story of the 1 February issue of New York? “A Dog Is Not a Human Being, Right?” blares the cover, but the adorable little critter whose portrait (yet more stunning work by Jill Greenberg, the greatest portrait artist of our age) accompanies those words seems mighty uncomfortable with all the attention.
That critter is lucky not to be able to read, because the article in question, written by John Homans (and I’m accused of using flimsy aliases!), is very often very damn annoying – and as some of you will recall, I consider the ‘annoying’ bar set pretty damn high when it comes to anybody but myself talking about dogs.
I realize Homans can’t be held accountable for the stuff the copy editors attach to his piece, so the article’s subtitle, “Dogs are increasingly rootless souls, country bumpkins in city apartments. But is a vegan pup still an animal?” can’t be held against him, but the actual text of his piece isn’t all that much better.
The problem, as always, is one of focus. Homans’ shifts all over the map. At one point he’s making withering observations about the insane world of high price-tag dog-pampering, and at other points he’s talking about how all dogs are somehow mystically attuned to life in ‘the country’ and are only making compromises by enduring suburb, city, or apartment life:
The apartment is a far from perfect place for the dog. Still, they’re camp followers of our microtribes, the only beings that fully understand the customs. And unlike children, they’ll never reject them.
He’s not sure how to describe the hazy area dogs occupy in human (in his view, this always equates with “American Northeast Caucasian,” which gets a little irritating in its own right), even though that very area is the ostensible subject of his article. So at one point he says “The dog is an honorary human,” and at another he insists “Treating your dog as a person is nothing more or less than an aesthetic error.” Part of the problem stems from a doggie-fact of which Homans seems entirely unaware. See if you can spot it:
As the relationship [between humans and dogs] developed, specific canine qualities – the dog’s gaze, its unending adolescence, its uncanny responsiveness to human clues – evolved … What was created was not, precisely, a human child, but it certainly was able to push some of the same buttons.
Yes, those of you who know anything at all about dogs will have seen it immediately: our modern dogs didn’t evolve any of those qualities Homans is going on about. Those qualities – and plenty of others, intended and otherwise – were eugenically implanted into dogs by humans, who have controlled canine breeding lines (with varying degrees of intentionality, of course) for thousands of years. Dogs have been made to be childlike; they’ve been shaped to gaze upon humans with undivided attention. Once you learn this (or recall it), most of Homans’ talk about dogs yearning to get out to the country and herd things becomes just exactly the same kind of blather that usually irritates me when anybody other than myself talks about dogs. But that’s not what irritates me the most about Homans’ piece, oh no! That would be one single line, the seeming answer to the question on the issue’s cover:
No one believes, in his conscious mind, that the dog is a person.
In an article that takes pains to describe the vast strides various animal rights groups have made over the decades, such a sentence is almost vile, and it instantly begs the question: what is a person? It’s Homans’ persistent conflating of ‘human’ and ‘person’ that rubs salt in a very old wound. And Homans just won’t let up:
The dog’s innocence amplifies empathy, because there’s no ethical static, no human otherness to contend with. It’s less complicated to love a pet than a person.
This, to put it mildly, is just so much sheep-dip. As some of you will know, I’ve had many, many dogs. Some were angels of affability, perfectly happy just to lap up all the ease and comfort I could give them. Others were earnest little misses, always over-eager to please everyone. I’ve had gregarious dogs and the occasional tangled, haunted introvert. I’ve had happy-go-lucky dogs and those who were more remote (including one – my favorite, the best friend I’ve ever had – who behaved like a king and treated everybody but me – canine or human – with sometimes very visible disdain). I’ve had dog who were better at logical solutions to problems than I am, and I’ve had dogs who were (you should pardon the expression) barking insane.
I can tell you two things they all had in common:
First, they were all ‘persons’ – in that they were themselves and nobody else, every bit as individual as any humans I’ve known.
And second, they were all complicated to love. Loving anything living is complicated, and even the dogs who make it simple with their personalities make it more complex with one other canine trait (one humans almost never have to deal with amongst themselves), which Homans gets around to at the close of his essay:
In a footnote to one of his poems about the deaths of his dogs, John Updike wrote, “Sometimes it seems the whole purpose of pets is to bring death into the house,” a sensationally cruel observation because there’s truth in it. The dog’s mortality is never far from an owner’s mind – it’s the central flaw in this best-friend business. No one is ready for their dog to go. And the dog doesn’t know where it’s going – the dog joke turned into a tragedy.
It’s confusing that Homans could be so clear on this point and yet make that preposterous ‘the dog is not a person’ stance. He gets love, individuality, devotion, variety, humor, and now grief – and still he says the being who evoke all those things are somehow less than his fellow humans, even if those fellow humans don’t evoke them. All dog-owners know this contradiction for the shortsighted silliness it is … but Homans is a dog-owner (that's his gorgeous dog at the top), and yet he appears not to see it. I’m hoping he sees it just fine and is merely stirring the soup to make an article chat-worthy. And considering how scatterbrained that article is, I’m really hoping he entirely cleans it up if he ever decides to expand it into a book. We don’t need any more dumbass dog-books out there – especially since we’re already dealing with a flood-tide of dumbass dog- articles.