Colin Dayan: With Dogs at the Edge of Life (Book Review)

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

Colin Dayan does a rare thing at the crossroads of humanism and animalism by treating each as a reflection of the other. She engages the malleability of either tropism, stepping over the stalemated kings of corporeal and moral rights—which too often shunt their pawns to better enjoy the sound of their own echoes—and into a philosophical realm for which all life partakes equally of vulnerability. Such a project will not sit well with some readers. Neither is it meant to, for the uneasiness brought to life, and death, across the book’s 208 pages is a necessary encounter. In this respect, Dayan is the closest we have to a torchbearer of Vicki Hearne, whose classic Adam’s Task: Calling Animals by Name comes readily and repeatedly to mind as I read this worthy successor.

In her introduction, too, Dayan sidesteps convention by doing very little of the encapsulations to which academics are encouraged to accede. Rather, she sets up a fledged narrative through a call to action that is harder than it looks. In asking us to do nothing more than sit on the equals sign of the equation between Self and Other she is so artfully devising, she invites a “radical change in perspective: not only in how we see the world but also in how we read a story” (p. xiii). And so, while for her this is a book of tales, it is also a tale unto itself, an entity whose parts share ligaments with too many of our own to pass off as intellectual navel-gazing.

On the surface of Dayan’s theory-planet, dogs would seem to occupy a range of metaphorical terrains. They are, by virtue of variation, at once bridges between opposing states of sentience and being, bearers of revelation, personal property, “non-human persons,” and, in the most sweeping of Hearne-isms, language incarnate. Closer inspection, however, reveals these as more than cloak-and-dagger tricks of a talented wordsmith, but instead as markers of lived realities. For this reason, Dayan is far more interested in the “oscillation between the categories that bind” (p. xiv) than in the binding of oscillation into categories, and in destabilization of human positionality as the capstone of a worldview pyramid. She outs the project of judgment as one of collective privilege, reveals the empathetic precedent of ethical action, and the power of “mutual discomfort” (p. 110) to bring all into a truer sense of community.

From this emerges a tripartite concerto for canine soloists fronting an orchestra of conundrums. Part I, “Like a Dog,” is that concerto’s Allegro, and as such sifts passionately yet accessibly through autobiographical recollections of dogs living and non. “We are living in a time of extinctions,” she observes (p. 2), a central point she takes care to reiterate in the book’s EPK, and one which points to the harsh truths unraveling therefrom. And not only a time of extinctions, but of killings sanctioned by a society bent on devaluing dogs and other animals to the status of criminals.

Dayan reminds a missing piece in recent national conversations around police brutality: treatment of racialized humans as animals walks hand in hand with treatment of animals as racialized humans, and allows an indulgence of taboos normally relegated to the annals of private exploitation. And so, a discussion of pit bulls banned from low-income housing in New York City, for instance, not only discloses the absurdity of fears around specified breeds, but also sobers us to the sheer publicity of blatant discriminations and our acceptance of their ubiquity. While most, I think, can see that racial typing often revolves around the animalization of designated groups of human beings, forgotten is the humanization of designated species of animals. Which is why Dayan recognizes the all-too-common shootings of pit bulls as a national habit or, more viscerally, “a ritual that reminds citizens of the reach of lawful predation” (p. 9). It is with these dynamics in mind that she thinks back to the earliest dogs in her life, the necessity of their warm-blooded bodies against her own. An especially poignant discovery of a childhood photograph reminds her of a dog she never remembered, and whose anchorage draws light through the prism of this book as a magnet would iron filings.

In continued service of my musical analogy, I would characterize Part II, “When Law Comes to Visit,” as the central Largo. For while its rhythms might seem more furious and jagged, its carefully measured effect suggests the ponderousness of that very time signature. Here dogs unfold as sociopolitical animals, each subject to fatal blows of the law. Hypocrisies abound in such stories as that of Floyd Boudreaux, a breeder of American pit bull terriers who was erroneously accused of being a dog fighting kingpin and, once deemed as such, had to suffer the extermination of his entire line. By such acts, the warmongering tendencies of the state become a primary network in which worthiness of life comes to be determined (only the moral elite can kill dogs without being deemed cruel). Regardless of the motivations, be they financial or political, the fact is that the law legitimizes imagined threats and sanctifies animal exterminations through illusions of compassion (Boudreaux’s dogs were being done a favor, as the script goes, by being removed from danger to others and themselves). Pit bulls in this regard suffer the particular brunt of an historical amnesia in the United States, and have become the unfortunate collateral of stigmatization.

Part III, “Pariah Dogs,” is the concluding Vivace. In it, Dayan explores the expendability and vitality in kind of cinematic dogs, who on the one hand serve as mascots of loss, while on the other burst with so much awareness of things that it is all we can do to match their levels of understanding. “The fullness of a dog’s loyalty or commitment,” Dayan avers, “can be understood only as counter to the merely intellectual acceptance of a doctrine” (p. 159), and as such the dog comes to embody an unattainable state, so that “to position oneself in this way, even if tenuously, both inside and outside a human background, is to let our bond with dogs count for something momentous” (p. 162). So yes, Dayan has invited us to sit alongside her, with dogs, at the edge of life, but also to contemplate what happens when those same dogs are pushed off that edge. And where would they exist in our memories if not for brave writers like her to document their receding gaze with such honest fortitude?

And because the bricks of such a book might topple without the mortar of its personal experiences, I can’t help but end with one of my own, remembering a dog I met on the streets of Beijing who responded to constant harassment from local shop owners with a heaving sigh. I think of this image when Dayan writes, “Dogs have infinite patience” (p. 144), reading into those darkly set eyes nothing less than that very patience, which sees through my camera lens and into the heart of the one cradling it like the relic it will one day become.

China Dogs

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