Do Dogs Know Death?

Leland de la Durantaye’s dog Bear enjoys a walk on a brisk day. (Photo courtesy of Leland de la Durantaye)

Earlier this week I interviewed Leland de la Durantaye, a professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College, about his dog – an Akita-Husky mix named Bear. Professor de la Durantaye’s most recent book is “Beckett’s Art of Mismaking.” In another sort of “art of mismaking,” Bear recently fought off two coyotes in Elysian Park.

TSL: How did you meet your dog?

De la Durantaye: I’ve had my dog for the exact amount of time that I’ve been in California. I moved here from Berlin and my things hadn’t arrived yet — I had a rental car, one chair and a mattress — but I’d been looking on Petfinder every day. I felt morally obliged to do something that my family had done a number of times as I was growing up, which was to adopt or foster an adult dog with some deal-with-able issue. And that’s the sort of thing you find on Petfinder.

But every once in a while, very rarely, there would be puppies. There was a listing in East LA in a really ganged-up neighborhood, which I called, but no one answered. So I just drove over there and found two puppies who’d clearly been neglected.

They were locked up in a big cage, where they pissed and shit in one corner and tried to live in another corner. It was nine in the morning and the owner was drunk, so I couldn’t really get any information out of him. Because this was the first week that I was in LA, it’s easy for me to think about him and Los Angeles together.

TSL: So how long has it been, now?

LD: Five years. He has the same birthday as me. When I took him to get his shots I didn’t know anything about him, and a year and a half later when I got my final certificate I noticed that it had “July 17th 2013” as his birthday. I realized this had to be their best guess for Bear’s birthday, which is also the best guess for mine.

TSL: What astrological sign does that put you under?

LD: We’re both Cancers, probably pretty typically so. It’s really soothing to read and write around an animal, especially at home, in the garden. There are lots of paintings and woodcuts of St. Jerome with a lion, which to the Italian Renaissance imagination almost always looked like a very big dog, since not a lot of people had seen lions. There are these images of the scholar tranquilly protected either by a magically powerful animal or a big dog. You’re not quite alone, but you’re not going to be pulled into conversation, either.

TSL: I recently read Walter Benjamin’s essay on Kafka, and I was really struck by the formulation of Kafka’s animal characters. I think for both Benjamin and Kafka, animals are privy to a higher sort of knowledge, and that comes across in their being these weird “unfinished” creatures, or hybrids. Does that ring true for Bear?

LD: Those Kafka stories are amazing. Especially the “Forschungen eines Hundes,” [Investigations of a Dog] in which the dog is very human. I don’t have any strong desire to imagine him graced, or cursed, with speech. I think a lot about what his time-world is like. Obviously dogs live in the moment, they’re very forgiving. I remember seeing a three-legged dog in the Canyon de Chelly, and we couldn’t quite figure out how it had gotten there. We fed it some Triscuits. I was amazed at what a good attitude it had about its handicap. I thought: “you’re so in the present of life”.

TSL: I mean, what would a dog in that position even want to say?

LD: I think it would want to know what it was like for you to be living so distended and neurotically in time. And if you said you weren’t happier as a result, it would want to know why you didn’t just live closer to the present, why you have all these nonstrategic concerns.

TSL: I feel like any discussion about the canine experience of time inevitably begs the question of whether or not dogs are thinking about death. Do dogs know death, as we do?

LD: It seems like it has to be one or the other – either they’re never thinking about death, or they always have death on the mind because they always have survival on the mind, in the way that they’re never so carefree about death as we are. We think that we’re the ones who are so burdened by our knowledge of death, and that animals are so lucky to not know that they have to die, and so they don’t know the existential question.

I think the sense of mortality lives very differently in them. Dogs live right up against the problem of mortality because, generally speaking, they live much less long than do we. And therefore people who love dogs, they almost always have loved and lost a number of times. You can’t have dogs without them dying, from the human perspective. So they have the good side of reflecting on death, which is that it makes life very sharp and interesting and present.

TSL: I didn’t grow up with dogs, mostly because my small New York apartment didn’t permit having them. My sister had a fish that she never took care of, and so would die every few months and have to be replaced. So I was never attuned to dogs’ sensibilities in the way that people who grew up around dogs seem to be.

LD: There’s this really cool Adam Gopnik essay, “Death of a Fish”, about child development and having fish in a New York apartment. Definitely one of his best essays. I don’t remember a time without dogs. And I remember they were the one of the most interesting things about the world for me, when I was little. Not even to the exception of humans. One of them was really well trained and she would go places with me, and protect me in this little college town where there wasn’t really any danger. Dogs were always just a warm background hum to my earliest memories and feelings. Having a dog is the default state of the world, for me.

TSL: My early experiences with dogs are totally opposite. I have these memories of playdates where one of my friends’ giant dogs would run up to me and I would just freak out, it was really terrifying. I mentioned to one of my other professors that I never had a dog, and she responded by asking if I had any love in my heart at all.

LD: Wow. I definitely can’t approve of that extremity, but certainly for some people it’s the purest form of love. Not for me, but for some people. Would the dogs actually come into contact with you?

TSL: Yeah, this particular friend would let his dogs lick me until his mother came and pulled them off me. And I remember the mother would always say, “Oh don’t worry, they just love you.” I couldn’t process that as a young kid.

LD: Yeah. It’s hard to love and trust the animal when you’re like, “this is how it expresses that? How does it express the other things? If it just likes me, why is it doing this thing which I’m obviously not into? How is it so oblivious?” I realize that I could just be the most “ancient mariner” about dogs. What is it to have a lot of experience with dogs? Why do they feel as they do, thereafter?

TSL: You mention the Ancient Mariner – did you ever have an “albatross” moment with Bear?

LD: I have a variety of them, but they all sort of work out. He’s gotten attacked a few times, one time in Huntington Beach, one time in Claremont. I’ve let him off leash, a bunch of times. There are a lot of things that ended up being ok. Like the time he fought coyotes in Elysian Park. So there isn’t a single albatross, a single mistake that endangered him.

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