The Divinity of Dog Writing
Canine Companions Through the Eyes of Virginia Woolf, Eileen Myles, and More
Fear of my dog’s death preoccupies me more than fear of my own. It’s not just that it’s nearer or that I’ll live to the other side, where silence will replace the dashing of her paws across the floors. Assuming good health and good fortune, my fiancée and I will decide the time of her end. This is what haunts me: the anticipation of a death for which I’ll bear ultimate responsibility. But caring for a dog means speaking on behalf of an animal who cannot speak. To help a beloved dog die is the final act of this kind of care.
Eileen Myles’ extraordinary Afterglow (a dog memoir) emerges from the wound of this loss. An ode to Myles’ 16 years with their beloved pitbull, Rosie, Afterglow opens with Rosie’s decline and death and thereafter wanders through time and space, itself like the unhurried ambling of a dog. Though a dog’s death is a subject that lends itself to saccharine sentimentality, Myles’ account is moving without being maudlin. I read the first chapters as my German Shepherd mix, Micah, slept beside me, her heavy breathing the only sound in the apartment:
When I came in from the reading she was on her hassock by the window. Again very still. I had to stare to catch her breathing. I crouched down. We’ve been together for a while I said. If you’re ready to go it’s okay. I got down with her eye to eye. It was grey. I felt like she was swimming in some fluid and I was in there with her. It was our intimacy. A silent place. I felt I was guided by her. Her deep prescient calm. I would miss her so much. I wanted to keep swimming with her. But I couldn’t help it. I pulled out. I had to say no. I’m not dying with you. But who will I be without my dog. And I carried you to the bed.
Afterglow brings language to the nonverbal intimacy of a human life lived with a dog. No one who has spent time with a dog would deny that they communicate with us, but lacking language, they try other means: vocabularies of motion and sound. Pacing near the door to go out, rolling for a belly rub, barking to invite play—dogs speak speechlessly. Myles acknowledges that dogs’ basic mode is silence, semantically even when not literally. A dog, Myles writes, is “like an eternally silent child.” This silence creates an unbridgeable gulf between dogs and humans. Yet it also creates the conditions for our care by opening a space in which we speak imperfectly on dogs’ behalf.
Dogs can’t say; they can only, as Myles writes, “seem to say.” And we are their deeply flawed interpreters. “To be an animal owner,” Myles writes, “you get to be broad. Even a little deceitful. Nobody can speak up for herself.” Humans’ beneficence toward their dogs is rooted in this assurance, our ability to confidently construe meaning from silence. Afterglow, as “a dog memoir,” advances that fraught project of speaking for dogs—a project that engages our empathy but risks projecting human misconceptions—by at times literalizing it in prose that purports to be written by Rosie herself.
In this task of making prose of a canine consciousness, Afterglow follows Virginia Woolf’s Flush: A Biography. Flush relates the life of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Cocker Spaniel, primarily through his own perspective. A product of Woolf’s research into Barrett Browning’s poems and letters, Flush takes the genre of biography and applies it to a nonhuman life. Like Myles, Woolf considers the language gap as a source of both distance and closeness. Between Barrett Browning and Flush, Woolf writes, “lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other.”
How is this distance a source of intimacy? Woolf imagines Barrett Browning, frustrated from writing, wondering: “Do words say everything? Can words say anything? Do not words destroy the symbols that lie beyond the reach of words?” The human-dog relation, Woolf suggests, touches what’s beneath and beyond words. A dog’s silent company provides relief—particularly for a writer, who, ever toiling with words, knows their limits. “I read for Rosie that night,” Myles writes of a time shortly before Rosie’s death. “Read every poem she was in. Dedicated it to her. Not that she needed it. She did not need poetry. She was it.”
Flush, like Afterglow, complicates such claims about the beauty of dogs’ wordlessness by giving voice to Flush’s inner life. Yet the book also reminds the reader of its own task’s impossibility. Woolf ventures to narrate Flush’s life as he would experience it, with a focus on scent over sight. But when Barrett Browning, her husband, their infant child, and Flush have just moved from England to Italy, Woolf pauses before an account of the new country’s impact on the dog to note the account’s limitations. “Here, then,” she writes,
the biographer must perforce come to a pause. Where two or three thousand words are insufficient for what we see […] there are no more than two words and one half for what we smell. The human nose is practically non-existent. The greatest poets in the world have smelt nothing but roses on the one hand, and dung on the other. The infinite gradations that lie between are unrecorded. Yet it was in the world of smell that Flush mostly lived. […] To describe his simplest experience with the daily chop or biscuit is beyond our power. […] Not a single one of his myriad sensations ever submitted itself to the deformity of words.
Flush threads an awareness of this contradiction with an understanding of the tenderness of the human-dog bond, which is bound up in this same dwelling-together despite irreducible difference. Woolf chronicles the first time Flush’s and Barrett Browning’s eyes meet:
Each was surprised. Heavy curls hung down on either side of Miss Barrett’s face; large bright eyes shone out; a large mouth smiled. Heavy ears hung down on either side of Flush’s face; his eyes, too, were large and bright; his mouth was wide. There was a likeness between them. As they gazed at each other each felt: Here am I—and then each felt: But how different! Hers was the pale worn face of an invalid, cut off from air, light, freedom. His was the warm ruddy face of a young animal; instinct with health and energy. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other?
In the biography’s final pages, Woolf repeats the moment of their meeting in the seconds before Flush’s death, echoing the language of the first passage but reconfiguring the question as a statement. “Her face,” Woolf writes, “with its wide mouth and its great eyes and its heavy curls was still oddly like his. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, each, perhaps, completed what was dormant in the other. But she was woman; he was dog.”
“A dog’s silent company provides relief—particularly for a writer, who, ever toiling with words, knows their limits.”
In A Breath of Life, Clarice Lispector’s fragmentary final work, she devotes a few short passages to her dog, Ulysses, with a focus on this same strange intimacy of difference. A Breath of Life takes the form of a dialogue between an author and his imagined character, Angela, each of whom shares traits with Lispector. “Angela and I,” the author explains, “are my inner dialogue—I talk to myself.” This bifurcation opens a space for Lispector to unfurl her paradoxical meditations.
Angela speaks of her dog in exultant terms that recall Woolf’s. “When he falls asleep in my lap,” Angela says, “I watch over him and his very rhythmical breathing. And—he motionless in my lap—we form a single organic being, a living mute statue. [. . .] Sometimes from so much mutual life, we trouble one another. My dog is as dog as a human is human. I love the doggishness and the hot humanity of both.”
Like Flush and Barrett Browning—“broken asunder” yet completing one another—Angela and Ulysses “form a single organic being” despite their absolute, insurmountable difference. For Lispector, the sheer vitality of that doggishness—as Myles puts it, the “poetry” of dog-being—is nourishing and thus makes possible this rich togetherness. “Contact with primal life,” Angela says, “is indispensable to my psychic health. My dog reinvigorates me completely. Not to mention that he sometimes sleeps at my feet filling my bedroom with hot humid life. My dog teaches me to live. All he does is ‘be.’ ‘Being’ is his activity. And being is my most profound intimacy.”
Myles, too, considers the nourishing simplicity of dog-being. Echoing Angela’s claim, they write to Rosie, “I suppose I could’ve imagined you loved me then but I only knew I loved you because I saw you in my way and I was listening. And you simply were. I loved you for that.”
Lispector—like Myles and Woolf—also appreciates the complex relationship between dogs and language. “The dog,” Angela says, “is a mysterious animal because he almost thinks.” The dog is “that misunderstood being who does whatever he can to share with men what he is.” There is that chasm of incommunicability, of misunderstanding, that appears in Afterglow and Flush. The author interprets Angela’s claim in terms of the dog’s desire for language. “Angela’s dog,” the author says, “seems to have a person inside him. He is a person trapped in a cruel condition. The dog hungers so much for people and to be a man. A dog’s inability to speak is excruciating.”
Myles, too, plays with the idea of a dog having a person imprisoned within. Near the middle of Afterglow, Myles reveals that—“No joke”—they view Rosie as the reincarnation of their father. And near the book’s finale, Rosie affirms this hypothetical occurrence as nothing out of the ordinary: “That’s what people do all the time. Become dogs.” Woolf, though she keeps humans and dogs at a greater distance than Lispector and Myles, imagines in Flush if not a literal human, then at least a lust for language. Watching Barrett Brown’s hands, “his own furry paws seemed to contract and he longed that they should fine themselves to ten separate fingers” so that he might write; hearing “her low voice syllabling innumerable sounds, he longed for the day when his own rough roar would issue like hers in the little simple sounds that had such mysterious meaning.”
For Lispector, this longing is mutual. “If I could describe the inner life of a dog,” says the author, “I would have reached a summit.” Angela retorts, “I can speak a language that only my dog, the esteemed Ulysses, my dear sir, understands.” But Angela doesn’t claim access to Ulysses’ inner life. For that she must wait. “One of these days,” she tells the author, “it’s going to happen: my dog is going to open his mouth and speak.”
In Kirsten Bakis’s novel Lives of the Monster Dogs, the dogs do speak, though not through their mouths. In contrast to Myles’, Woolf’s, and Lispector’s playfully lyrical approaches to the problem of dogs and language, Bakis’ is workmanlike: she uses a sci-fi premise. The eponymous “monster dogs” are equipped with voice boxes as well as enhanced intelligence. The product of a mad scientist’s machinations to create a race of soldiers, they also walk upright and possess artificial hands. Bakis’s monster dogs are in this way an intensification of everyday dogs, who are also a product of intentional, intensive engineering—what we blithely call “domestication.”
Bakis’s novel explores dog-human kinship and its limits. The human protagonist, Cleo Pira, develops deep friendships with—and in one case, romantic feelings for—the monster dogs. But the apparent technological solution to the barrier between dogs and humankind is revealed to be imperfect. They are, after all, monsters. Ludwig von Sacher, the dog chronicling the origins of his kind, writes in a diary: “They know that they are monsters, but I believe they do not really understand what that means to humans. [. . .] They look like ugly parodies of humans, and their biographies read like social satire. They will never be seen as anything but caricatures of human beings.” The fantastical element of the dogs’ monstrousness embellishes the point, but Ludwig’s claim here probes the limitations of human empathy, monster dogs aside. Bakis drives us to wonder: can we encounter dogs in their otherness? Or are we doomed to see them as, at best, versions of ourselves?
Bakis cleverly maneuvers Ludwig’s thinking here to implicate the reader: If the humans in her novel understand the “biographies” of the monster dogs only as “social satire,” is it possible for us to read of their fictional lives otherwise? Are the “dog memoir” and dog biography that Myles and Woolf attempt possible as authentic reflections of canine lives, or can they only be caricatures of human life-writing?
As the novel progresses, the distance between the monster dogs and humans grows as the dogs contract a disease that gradually strips them of their advanced intelligence. In his diary, Ludwig expresses his despair: “A dog has no money. A dog has no rights. A dog has no way to communicate his grievances. I am a dog. God help me.” In the final stages of his descent into dogliness, he reiterates this last point repeatedly, tragically, in letters he sends to Cleo. “I feel I am losing the ability to communicate anything to you,” he tells her. And later, desperately: “Can you understand what I’m saying?” He wails at the prospect of shrinking from saying to only seeming to say, at the mercy of human misunderstanding.
Bakis’s book takes a hybrid form and contains, among various other texts and documents, a libretto from an opera about the dogs’ revolt against their human masters. The novel’s attention to this revolt allows her to explore the hierarchy at the heart of human-dog relationships. Myles touches on this more whimsically, but no less seriously. Afterglow opens with a letter, addressed to Myles, from “Rosie’s lawyer”: “I take the liberty of calling you ‘Eileen’ to begin the unpleasant duty of forcing you to legally take responsibility for the damages you have inflicted over a period of nine years upon the being you have taken to calling ‘Rosie.’” Naming dogs is a form of linguistic domestication. When Rosie, Flush, Ulysses, Ludwig, and my dog Micah were named, they were brought under the control of human systems of meaning.
The letter causes Myles to wonder: “Could Rosie and my entire relationship be framed as blame.” This theme recurs in Myles’ repeated concern over the ethics of having bred Rosie (Myles titles the chapter focusing on this subject “The Rape of Rosie”) and in more playful moments, such as Rosie’s remark to the puppet in a sequence chronicling her appearance on a puppet game show: “The pathetic thing about humans is they think that everything is in their hands, and their hands are in or on everything.”
“Can we encounter dogs in their otherness? Or are we doomed to see them as, at best, versions of ourselves?”
In The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, Donna Haraway troubles this understanding of dogs. The Companion Species Manifesto investigates how we might learn “an ethics and politics committed to the flourishing of significant otherness” by “taking dog-human relationships seriously.” Haraway’s manifesto interweaves memoir, philosophy, dog training pedagogy, reportage, evolutionary biology, feminist theory, letters, and more to create an entirely new language worthy of its subject.
Haraway resists the interpretation of dogs’ domestication as an expression of human will over nature. She parodies that common account: “Man took the (free) wolf and made the (servant) dog and so made civilization possible. Mongrelized Hegel and Freud in the kennel? Let the dog stand for all domestic plant and animal species, subjected to human intent in stories of escalating progress or destruction, according to taste.” In this story’s stead, Haraway offers evolutionary accounts that appreciate the subjectivity of both species. “Domestication,” she writes, “is an emergent process of cohabiting, involving agencies of many sorts.” The entanglement of humans and dogs is Haraway’s central concern here, and in their “significant otherness” she finds a possible model for other relationships in a world constituted by complex, irreducible entwinements.
Yet, Haraway insists, dogs are not merely an instance to examine and from whom to extract a lesson. “Dogs,” she writes, “are not surrogates for theory; they are not here just to think with. They are here to live with.” This statement echoes Myles’ approach in Afterglow, in which Rosie is not so much the book’s subject as its partner in thinking and in living; this is one meaning of its being not just a dog book, but a “dog memoir.” “I don’t have another life partner,” Myles writes as Rosie begins to die. In one naked moment, they admit, “I’m writing this book to keep talking to her.” Like Haraway’s manifesto, Myles’ dog memoir is not so much about dogs as it is about everything it’s about—for Myles, this includes family, poetry, gender, alcoholism, feminism, and religion—as a result of speaking and living with dogs.
Still, despite her alternative proposition, Haraway takes seriously the rich impossible possibility of human-dog communication. “‘Communication’ across irreducible difference,” writes Haraway, “is what matters. Situational partial connection is what matters.” She argues that our speaking to dogs does contain meaning, despite the act’s fundamental absurdity. Citing Vicki Hearne on the value of using ordinary, potentially anthropomorphizing language in dog training, she writes, “All that philosophically suspect language is necessary to keep the human alert to the fact that somebody is at home in the animals they work with.”
Somebody is at home—but who? For Haraway, to truly love dogs is not to treat them like furry children. Dogs “are not a projection,” she writes, “nor the realization of an intention, nor the telos of anything. They are dogs, i.e., a species in obligatory, constitutive, historical, protean relationship with human beings.” Despite thoroughly examining dogs’ relationships to humans in a range of modes—from the evolutionary to the historical to the personal—Haraway also appreciates the ultimate fact of dogs’ sacred irreducibility. “Theologians,” Haraway writes, “describe the power of the ‘negative way of knowing’ God. Because Who/What Is is infinite; a finite being, without idolatry, can only specify what is not, i.e., not the projection of one’s own self.”
The connection between the deep otherness of God and of dogs is one of Afterglow’s recurring themes. The section early in the book that immediately precedes Rosie’s death is titled “My Dog/My God.” In it, Myles writes, “One evening I was feeling a little extra naked after describing the ritual of mopping her piss and I thought that’s it. She’s god. And I felt so calm. I’ve found god now. My God—My Dog.” Later, Myles refers to “Dog” as a deity and then as a state of divine inspiration: “The word enthusiasm refers to the early Christians who first got dog and they just couldn’t stop talking about it.” In other places, Myles draws the comparison less bombastically:
I like to be alone. But then I need to talk to someone. I like god. When I was a child I was taught that there was someone listening and I chanced tiny hellos that frequently felt empty but longer conversations often silences felt like I was sitting in an enormous radio, like I had big headphones on when I felt separated from the world but tuned in to this show. And that’s where you came in. Whether you listen or not, you’re in there too. My dog. You’re a part of the great silent show of this morning’s sun.
In their alterity, dogs—like the divine—stretch beyond the limits of our knowledge. Yet our access to this infinitude is possible only through their tragic finitude. Though their lives fit within ours, they expand our experience immeasurably.
Living with a dog makes possible a peculiar way of walking through the world. On the floor with Micah, tugging at a toy, my home becomes strange. Half-awake out in the early morning chill, a needy yet adventurous animal by my side, I see my neighborhood anew. I can’t see or smell or think it all as she does. But merely being beside her shifts everything. The world swells. Perspectives tessellate. Valences multiply. Adventurous dog writing seeks this wild wonder.