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Humans and Dogs, Animals and Beings, Me and Coetzee

“In my account […] the life cycle of the frog may sound allegorical, but to the frogs themselves it is no allegory, it is the thing itself, the only thing. […] They exist whether or not I tell you about them, whether or not I believe in them.”

J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello

Had a couple of strange encounters with humans chasing dogs yesterday, both in which I felt little solidarity with the human and his desperate commands, and viewed the dog with respect instead of pity or disdain or awww. I didn’t align myself with a species. I was neither human nor dog. Merely an objective observer.

For the first encounter, I was in motion, going for what has become a routine evening jog down Chestnut, a one-way residential street with sidewalks on either side often obstructed by overhanging azaleas and palm branches — really gorgeous obstacles you get to limbo under to add extra dimensions of strife to your run. No vegetation dangled in my way at this time, but there was a man ahead obstructing the sidewalk, a man who seemed to be playing with his dog, running in circles as a game. The dog held the figure of a greyhound, but was likely some different breed altogether. What appeared from a distance to be an affectionate declaration of the dog’s name (“Moses! Come on buddy!”) clearly became a command or plea from the man as I drew closer. Moses was frolicking about a Synagogue playground with a swingset and slide and clearly printed “No dogs allowed” sign posted on the fence. As I approached, Moses fled his own private Egypt and bounded across the street, the man run-walking after him. The situation seemed far from desperate. Moses maintained a distance of about five feet from his owner, just enough to entice him yet keep him from making any capturing dives. As I leveled with the pair — ran past, even — the man addressed me: “Hey. Hey buddy. Hey man…” — a hesitant, incomplete appeal for me to help capture Moses, who was prancing on the opposite sidewalk at this point while the man stood helpless in the street. I slowed my jog and craned my neck, but I did not stop. I typically go to extreme lengths to avoid stopping during jogs (sprinting across traffic, changing routes altogether, etc.), and the situation didn’t register as an emergency, as a human in desperate need of another human. I considered who I would be helping in this situation, and some inherent hesitation caused me to keep moving. I did not stop for the man. Nor did I yell “Run Moses! Part the seas of traffic on Market Street!” I continued as I was. Not with a sense of apathy. Maybe with a sense of destiny, but that’s too heavy a term for the situation. I just felt it necessary to let nature run its course while I ran mine. If Moses wanted to be with his master, he would return to him in due time.

For the second encounter, I was even further removed. I was also stationary, sitting at my desk as I often am early-evening, supposedly writing but likely just staring at a blank Word document. I live in a second-floor apartment in an old boarding house that’s right on the street, so any foreign noise outside is intimate. I’ve learned to ignore most of the voices, proximate as my kitchen, but this particular voice was persistent, gruff, male. There was no equivocation in his tone as he repeatedly yelled “Stella!” a la Brando, but first in my mind a la Elaine from Seinfeld because I live in the generation where we learn about famous art from its parodies. The irony of the call was enough for me to rise from my desk and stand before my window, opening an inch of blinds with thumb and forefinger to assess the situation. At the adjacent street corner, a man wearing gym shorts and a potbelly gestured  furiously at a dog the size of housecat, scampering just out of the man’s reach, avoiding the man’s touch while simultaneously exploring new ground. “Stella! Come’ere, goddamnit,” he growled. Over and over and over, building himself into a frenzy with the chant. We humans are such repetitive beings. Another small dog ran about, too, somewhere to his left, but Stella seemed to be the only one in his sights. “Stella! Come’ere! Goddamnit! Come’ere!” He stood, powerless except for language, as the gap between man and dog widened. Stella continued her journey, indifferent. I closed the blinds and sat back down at my desk, the same.

Here are some more quotes from Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello that seem tangential:

“The universe is built upon reason. God is a God of reason. The fact that through the application of reason we an come to understand the rules by which the universe works proves that reason and the universe are of the same being. And the fact that animals, lacking reason, cannot understand the universe but have simply to follow its rules blindly, proves that, unlike man, they are part of it but not part of its being: that man is godlike, animals thinglike.  […] that reason may be not the being of the universe but on the contrary merely the being of the human brain. […] reason looks to me suspiciously like the being of human thought; worse than that, like the being of one tendency in human thought.”

“In the olden days the voice of man, raised in reason, was confronted by the roar of the lion, the bellow of the bull. Man went to war with the lion and the bull, and after many generations won that war definitively. Today these creatures have no more power. Animals have only their silence left with which to confront us. Generation after generation, heroically, our captives refuse to speak to us. All save Red Peter, all save the great apes. Yet because the great apes, or some of them, seem to us to be on the point of giving up their silence, we hear human voices raised arguing that the great apes should be incorporated into a greater family of the Hominoidea, as creatures who share with man the faculty of reason.”

“Kafka saw both himself and Red Peter as hybrids, as monstrous thinking devices mounted inexplicably on suffering animal bodies. […] Of all men Kafka is the most insecure in his humanity. This, he seems to say: this is the image of God?”

“Shame makes human beings of us, shame of uncleanness. Adam and Eve: the founding myth. Before that we were all just animals together.”

“The Greeks had a feeling there was something wrong in slaughter, but thought they could make up for that by ritualizing it. They made a sacrificial offering, gave a percentage to the gods, hoping thereby to keep the rest. The same notion as the tithe. Ask for the blessing of the gods on the flesh you are about to eat, ask them to declare it clean.”

“In the lives of animals, things, good or bad, just happen. So vegetarianism is a very odd transaction, when you come to think of it, with the beneficiaries unaware that they are being benefited.”



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