This project is, of course, about my primal relationships – those connections that have and continue to – form and shape, cut and tie, transform and stultify. In that case then, I have to write about my relationship with animal others. Specifically dogs… The animal other has been a feature of human artistic consideration since the first cave paintings, philosophers and writers have pondered our relationship with animals and whether or not animals are ‘conscious’, I am currently writing and researching on the subject and organising a conference that addresses the animal other in contemporary culture. But that isn’t what I want to think about today, I don’t want to theorise or describe the implacable hierarchies of being that cling to Kantian notions of being, or transcendence or Animal rights or the ‘face’ or even, the ‘plane of immanence’. I want to think only about my connections and affection for both the individual animals I’ve known, but wild animals too.
In ‘Name of a Dog, or Natural Rights’, Levinas writes very movingly about a dog called Bobby*, a stray who’d entered the Nazi concentration camp in which Levinas was imprisoned and who, every morning at assembly and every night when the prisoners had returned from their work, would leap up and down and bark with delight at the sight of them. Levinas tells us, that in world in which he and his fellow Jews were considered ‘subhuman, a gang of apes’, Bobby recognised him and his fellow prisoners as men. The text is of course, a sophisticated and fascinating mash-up of biblical criticism, autobiography and philosophy, but still this tender evocation of being seen, of being recognised as existing and of being worthy of greeting and reciprocal affection stands out as profound moment amidst the horror of the holocaust.
As a child my dog, Kerry, was the only being I trusted. She was a rescue dog, a golden retriever, placid and intelligent. All the humans I knew, in my rather limited experience, would hurt you eventually, sometimes profoundly. Either way, only Kerry didn’t hurt, only Kerry offered affection and loyalty without demands, only Kerry sat with me at the dinner table for hours while I tried to finish all the food on my plate (admittedly this was for scraps, but she was there, I wasn’t alone), only Kerry kept all my secrets and only Kerry tried to protect me when my stepfather was violent.
Animals have always been important for me, reminding me that there was another world beyond the human, a world in which I could be safe, at least from the intentional and perverse cruelty of my own kind.
I’ve been very lucky to know and love and live with a couple of amazing dogs, Bessie and now, Rose. Bessie was my first ‘adult’ dog. My dog. She was a Retriever/Lab X and was another loyal, patient friend. She too looked out for us and we looked out for her. It was a privilege to know and love her from puppyhood through to her dotage.
Last week, on a walk with Rose, we happened to pass a group of four or so men, I hurried past, nervous of men as always, and as isn’t an unusual event for any woman, was rewarded with ‘catcalls’, to put it politely, and one of the men had gotten up and taken step towards us, gesturing to his groin area and making obscene remarks. Rose made it clear, in the manner of her species that his attentions and insults were not welcome and would not be tolerated. I must add, no one was hurt, merely warned in no uncertain terms.
Rose and I walked on, me shaking and upset, and Rose stayed much closer than usual, not nosing off in the undergrowth as usual but instead, nosing my hand every so often, not leaving my side. As I write this, she is lying by my chair, as she always is. It is only with my dog companion that I feel safe. Something I think other PTSD sufferers can identify with.
As I write this I’m aware of a creeping sense of defensiveness, that writing about my relationship with my dogs is ridiculous, absurd, after all, Deleuze was pretty derisory about our ‘sentimental relations’ with our pets; but for me, the dogs I’ve shared my life with have provided a bond of companionship, trust and mutual care that has been the most enduring and rewarding in my life.