:: Article

Concerning the Nobility of my Dog

By Adrian Nathan West.

As I lay over my wife and said in a childish voice, “You never loved anyone else as much as you love me, did you?” and my wife responded, “You never loved any person, or animal, as much as you love me?  Not any dog?”  my thoughts turned back to my Labrador Jake, who must have lived with me for three or four years before he was sent away to live on a farm where, according to my mother, he would be happy.  I did not want to say anything, being already on the verge of tears and aware that my tendency to cry unexpectedly was not my most appealing aspect, but I thought, even if to say so is perverse, that the estimation in which my wife held her deceased grandmother as teacher, confidant, and source of unqualified affection, had had, in my own life, its only proximate equivalent in my dog.  My relations with my mother were not complicated but my mother was often not at home:  my much older sister was often out with her friends or working at various nursing homes and fast-food restaurants, my brother had gone into the military, and when he came home, I had the sense that the little time he passed with me was proffered from a sense of duty, that he was bored and had rather done something else—this is before his first marriage, which effectively ended our involvement with one another.  My significance in my father’s life wavered but was only paramount when someone had divorced him, and even my mother, savoring the taste of freedom after twenty years of uninterrupted work and child care, did not hesitate to escape when, for the first time since meeting my father more than a decade before, she fell in love; he will be OK, she must have told herself, he is independent and is already almost a teenager.  My dog, however, followed me every day to the end of the street as I walked to school, waited by the mailbox to meet me when I was done; when my father took me on one of those inexplicable vacations to Florida where we sat all day listlessly on the beach in plastic chairs—only now do I appreciate the degree to which his drunkenness must have made these moments tolerable—my dog sat outside until dusk, when my mother would bring him in and put him to bed.  As I thought of the loneliness that had plagued me throughout my life, of the sense that I am somehow unfit for social intercourse and the sour suspicion that the various gestures of love that I have been shown may yet be proven to have been faked, provisional, or subject to revocation, I considered my dog and the possibility that, had he not been present during that less than happy period, this suspicion would at some point have become too much for me to bear, so that the night in Chicago when vertigo overcame me as I crossed the Randolph Street Bridge, and I ran home, writing a perverse letter to an unrequited love about Adalbert Stifter and the circumstances of his suicide, I might instead have simply thrown myself over the copper railing atop the broken blue-white ice floes; or else that, when I believed myself possessed of artistic talent, and painted a buckled figure tormented by monstrous faces in the sky, their tongues coiling like black serpents, and an imponderable horror overcame me, to the point that I could not clear my mind of the thought of shooting myself in the roof of my mouth with the glossy revolver my mother and her boyfriend had told me to keep under my bed, because they were afraid someone from their small town was intending to rob us—a thought that I only dispensed with by repeating to myself the phrase of Wittgenstein’s, “Death is not an event of life,” and trying thereby to convince myself of the irrelevance of suicide to my anxieties—I might instead have brought my life to an end.  If, as I have written elsewhere, I learned from one parent that the phrase “I love you” is not necessarily true, and from the other that considerations of love might be of the second or third order, my dog served as the sole, but very luminous example of love as a basic principle of existence.  I would have liked to thank him, but that is ridiculous, an animal cannot properly accept gratitude, and in fact such higher-level emotions as gratitude and respect only exist as a consequence of our denaturing of our fundamental relations of affection, suspicion, loyalty, and animosity.  Gratitude is appropriate to favors rendered in an economy of exchange where our general irresponsibility toward kindness is a given, not to mention the organization of society into groups whose privilege permits them the velleity of charities which for others are materially impossible; the goodness of my dog was of another sort. Had he still been alive, had he been able to understand me, I would have liked to say, for example, that I owe to his having been, as much as to anything, whatever happiness I have later encountered; that if I have, for example, been able to accept that others do indeed love me, and have not destroyed my relationships, as so many people do, by questioning their veracity and demanding increasingly extreme proofs of it until the benevolence of those who love me was exhausted, it is thanks to him, the only person, if I may permit myself this expression, for his existence is more dignified to me than that of many people I have encountered, whose assertion of the distinction between love’s essential and merely gestural aspects I found convincing in my early life.

Adrian Nathan West is a writer and translator of numerous works of contemporary European literature, including Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny and Marianne Fritz’s The Weight of Things. His first book, The Aesthetics of Degradation, will be published in June of 2016 by Repeater Books. He lives between Spain and the United States with the film critic Beatriz Leal Riesco.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 14th, 2015.