Image by Gillian Wilson
Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis is an apologue that wanders through the tensions between language and happiness, specifically in the form of human intelligence and consciousness. The premise of the book is grounded on the question of whether human intelligence and consciousness is a gift or a precursor to inevitable unhappiness, and so to test this, Alexis pries the condition of being human from the human body and human society and inserts it into the umwelt, or the surrounding environment, of a non-human animal.
The gods Apollo and Hermes bet on whether what follows from granting human consciousness and intelligence to a randomly chosen group of fifteen dogs in a Toronto dog shelter will lead happy or unhappy lives. Hermes points towards the complex human language that makes humans more amusing because “you’d swear they understood each other” though most of the time, they have no idea “what their words actually mean to another.” Apollo does not disagree but wagers that if only one dog were to die unhappy, then Hermes loses the bet. Apollo then can claim that the essence of humanity is not the ideal quality for the best type of life, which is often the belief that we hold as human subjects tucked deep in the egoism of our way of being.
Still today we often set human lives high above all others in an act of either unconscious or conscious narcissism based on a variety of reasons, ranging from the superiority of human rationality to our deep range for human creativity and emotion in our relationships and with ourselves.
Alexis challenges this hierarchy of valued experience by constructing several scenarios in which commonly treasured human experiences are posed as at least arbitrarily constructed if not corrupt and troublesome. Each dog continues to develop a different relationship with their newly acquired language. The three most important and distinct uses of language can be simplified to rhetoric, literature, and politics. Benjy makes peace with language for his own selfish means in forming beneficial relationships with humans, Atticus and his followers, in their suppression of English, winds up creating a new language as an “imitation of an imitation of dogs,” and Prince uses language primarily express his experience in the world through a creative means, specifically poetry. All the dogs, with the exception of Prince, die unhappy with the changes in their life caused by human intelligence.
The first large point of contention among the dogs is whether it is right to use the new language in the poetic manner that Prince does. A few dogs protest Prince’s “despicable” perversion of their language on the basis that it fails to accurately represent the truth of reality and instead, actively leads them away from the truth. As an allusion to Plato’s Republic, the dogs’s remonstration against poetry questions the usefulness or purpose of poetry, and in a broader sense, any type of aesthetic relationship with language. The first pun is made by Prince, in which bone and stone have nearly identical sounds in the dogs’s new language. This first play on language, in which words represent more than the actual truth of what is being thought of from within, hardly amuses the dogs. To the mind that can appreciate words themselves, poetry is entertaining at minimum and enlightening at most. In human culture, poetry is seen as a complex, multi-purpose aesthetic relationship to language. However, when created and expressed by dogs, who do not naturally have abstract thoughts, poetry is essentially useless an insult to clarity–clarity as in power. To the majority of minds, it seems that poetry is distracting and serves as the perfect example to demonstrate how misleading human language can be compared to the direct and straightforward language and tradition of dogs; it also becomes a threat to the community and change from old tradition and knowledge. This representational system of metaphors and similes and words, in general, is a faulty engine to human language.
There are several other interesting cases against the common joys or usages of language in daily human life but at the core of each is the nudge towards seeing other forms of experience on a non-linear hierarchy, in which human experience is not the supreme or dominant experience. There is no sufficient legitimate reason in which we should assume that human experience is better than, say, the experience of a dog. Alexis also discourages perspectives from anthropomorphic lens of nonhuman experience. People often treat their dogs as four-legged people possessing a certain extent of human emotions and understanding, such that they hug their dogs to express love; there is no guarantee that the hug translates into dog language as a loving gesture rather than a spontaneous, intruding one. This book has helped me realized that I am so often within my own head, projecting my experience of the world onto others, assuming that others also experience my perceptions the way I do. There is, of course, a certain degree to which you can assume that there is shared experience among people and animals, people and other people, or animals and other animals, but it is more accurate to assume that experience is individual. There is less room for misjudging and much more room for understanding how far the world extends beyond our own lives.