Q&A with Mark Alizart

The Bark’s conversation with the author of Dogs (A Philosophical Guide to Our Best Friends)
By Cameron Woo, November 2019
Mark Alizart and his present dog Master Eckhart

Mark Alizart and his present dog Master Eckhart

Dogs (A Philosophical Guide to Our Best Friends)
This thoughtful examination of the unique place dogs hold in society and the world is from one of Europe’s preeminent philosophers—Mark Alizart. The author delves into historical myth, religion, pop-culture and wherever canines intersect with big ideas. From Buddhism to Spinoza, he makes a compelling case on why dogs matter and articulates the important lessons they can impart to us. The Bark spoke with Alizart about this seminal work.

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The Bark: Congratulations on the publication of your new book! It’s refreshing to read a thought-provoking work that ties philosophy, history, religion and culture around themes of dogs and our relationship with canines. Few “dog” books reference such a diverse collection of ideas and thinkers, ranging from the Bible and Darwin to Bakunin, Sartre, Spinoza and Droopy. Is that an indication of how dogs have touched so much of the world’s cultural thinking?

Mark Alizart: Thank you. I believe it is. Although it is not self-evident at first sight. I myself wasn’t aware of it to begin with. I wrote the book in part because I felt there were very few, if any, notable dogs in great novels or works of art I could relate to and find some relief in after I lost my own dog; I wanted to make up for the injustice. I mean, there are lots of dogs to be found around us but they are often depicted as “happy imbeciles”—like Scooby-Doo, Pluto or Santa’s Little Helper—or as “boy scouts”—like Lassie or Rin-Tin-Tin—rarely as beautiful beings or as profound thinkers, to the exception of Snoopy, and even then, Snoopy is a cartoon character, he’s not the hero of an epic tale like the white whale in Moby Dick. Why is it dogs have been with us for thirty thousand years, they have dramatically impacted our development as a species, they pay us more services than any other animal, and still they receive so little respect? Sure, you can find great books on dogs but they are mainly science books or animal handling books and the more they say that dogs are indeed greater than we think, the more it becomes mysterious that dogs should be treated that way. Think about the fact that whilst every country has an animal for emblem, not one has ever chosen a dog to be figured on a flag. Whilst each evangelist has an animal for symbol, none is represented by a dog. There are no equivalents of “Cat in Boots” or the “Cheshire Cat” for dogs. There is the Lion King, and then there is Lady and the Tramp … This discrepancy between facts—the crucial importance of dogs in our history and the genuine love we have for them—and representation needed to be explained. So that was my starting point. I wanted to make the case for dogs, when I discovered the situation was more contrasted than I had imagined.

In fact, dogs do appear everywhere in art and culture if you start to look for them. An example: Velazquez’s Meniñas. That painting is very famous. Well, there is a dog in the righthand corner we don’t pay attention to until we ask ourselves about it. There are dogs in the paintings of Verrocchio, Carpaccio, Durer, Veronese, Van Eyck ... often in very significant positions (at the bottom of the cross, next to Jesus during the last supper, at the feet of the angel of melancholy ...). If you go even further back in time, you see dogs were outright gods. In Ancient Egypt, Anubis was the servant of the god of death, as was Cerberus in ancient Greece or Xolotl in Aztec mythology. Maha Kala Bhairava, the Hindu god of death also has a dog at her side. And then there are dogs in the works and the lives of Freud, Darwin or Kafka, as you mentioned

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But the question still remains. Rather the mystery grows. Why are dogs invisible, if they were always present? Why are there confined to darkness, to the shadows, to the infernos even? And why have they gone from idolized to ridiculed, in modern times, falling into deeper shadows still?

The Bark: You point out in the book the many divergent ways in which societies, cultures and religions have viewed dogs—some ancient (and some would say current) cultures have held them in high regard, even as deities, while others have seen them as evil pests—our colloquial language associates dogs with mostly negative impressions … what does this say about our society?

Mark Alizart: When something of someone can be held at the same time in the highest and in the lowest regards, you know you’re dealing with a subject that triggers the unconscious; that it is both a “totem” and a “taboo,” as Freud put it. A totem is always a taboo and conversely, in the same way a phobia is a repressed desire trying to find its way out in the open (and there’s no need to expand on the phobia of dogs!). Dogs who are both loved and negated definitely belong to this category. Hence, the answer to the question “why are dogs so bizarrely invisible?” is that they have been suppressed, and they have been suppressed because they constitute a menace to the foundations of society, that is, to masculinity, the ultimate “totem” of civilizations since their inception.

On the one hand, dogs celebrate masculinity. They enable us to feel powerful when they yield at our orders. They make masters out of us. That’s the reason why you often find strongmen surrounding themselves with muscular dogs. They show off their virility by doing so. But on the other hand, because dogs seem to enjoy the process of that very subjugation, because they are tamed and because they even seem to crave to being tamed, they put masculinity in trouble. How can a dog be both a symbol of manhood and of submission? That triggers a cognitive dissonance. That’s definitely a totem made taboo.

The French poet Jean de La Fontaine popularized the idea that dogs are but failed wolves and traitors to the animal kingdom because they accepted a leash in exchange of a home. The modern philosopher Gilles Deleuze—another lover of wolves—despised dogs as being the “shame of nature” in a similar fashion: shameful because they didn’t rebel against their domestication. But what they really meant, albeit unwittingly, is that they couldn’t stand how they felt shamed themselves by dogs, because dogs interrogate our own desire to be tamed and mastered, which is the most repressed desire there is to be found. This is really why dogs live in the infernos in myths: they inhabit the deeper parts of our minds, those where the feminine and the masculine sides of our identity are not well defined anymore, where manhood sways and falters and defends itself pathetically by attacking what it deems to be a menace instead of embracing and loving it.

It comes as no coincidence that some gods of hell are actually goddesses in Greek mythology, and that they are depicted with dogs by their side, like Hecate or Persephone, or that the great dog god that kicks off the Mahabharata is actually a great bitch, “Samara.” Even the double-meaning of the word “bitch” is telling ... It shouldn’t surprise us either that werewolves appear at the full moon, like periods, or that the Big Bad Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood is dressed as a grandma. Until medieval times, it was believed the only way to cure someone who had been bitten by a rabid dog was to wash the wound with menstrual blood ... Femininity is key to unlocking the deeper meaning of dogs.

The Bark: But isn’t your book a sign that shows things are changing for dogs? Do you believe that dogs have found a new relevance to the times we live in?

Mark Alizart: Yes, certainly. The fact the book was met with success when it was first published in France made me realize I was not alone in thinking the time had come for dogs (and dog lovers) to come out of the closet! It does feel like we are going through a “dog moment.” Lots of artists have put dogs at the forefront of their work lately: William Wegman’s beautiful photographs of Weimaraners come to mind first obviously, because he’s been doing so for many years already (I'm ever so grateful he agreed to our using of one of them to illustrate the cover of the book); David Hockney’s paintings of his Dachshunds also come to mind, or the Canadian collective General Idea’s performances in the 1990’s (dressed as Poodles); the French Pierre Huyghe’s use of an amazing white Podenco in one of his exhibitions; Wes Anderson and his Isle of Dogs; Daft Punk’s clip featuring an mythological “cynocephalus” (a man with a dog’s head); or the short film Tilda Swinton recently shot with her own four Springer Spaniels running to Handel’s operatic music ... I believe this is linked to the fact that we are going through an exhilarating period of self-reflection on the harm the process of “invibilization” of non-male/non-white/non-humans subjects has caused in general, and that contemporary artists are taking a particularly active part in it. Dogs are the latest to benefit from the essential work that has been done in the last century to evade it.

The Bark: Do you think dogs or dog owners have a role to play in the process of emancipation you describe?

Mark Alizart: I would hope so, but yet again, our relationship with dogs is very ambivalent and I don’t believe it might change any time soon. There are thousands of reasons to have a dog and as many ways of being a dog owner. Some people just like the fact that dogs are good hunters and probably believe there is no point in overthinking dogs. Others find it even preposterous to believe we should think of dogs this way; often the very ones that entertain an unconscious relation with their dog, tainted by superiority of inferiority. They remind me of the people who liked to call their dog “Turk” or “Bismarck” in the nineteenth century, because it made them feel good to dominate their rulers or their foes. I find the common name “Rex” still given to many dogs very ambiguous for the same reason. Others have pet dogs like they have the latest iPhone. But overall, yes, I’m sure the majority love their dog because they feel deeply how dogs connect us to our inner selves and to the larger world of nature. As to me, I didn’t write on dogs to make a point. Although I’m a trained philosopher and I’m not ignorant of the debates which have being going on for half a century regarding the flaws of western philosophy, domination and deconstruction, etc., I really wrote for my dog, and to overcome my sadness. As I said, I wanted to build a small monument to his memory and, from one thing to another, I ended up making the case for dogs in general and engaging in much more profound ideas than I had first envisaged. So maybe my book can help dog lovers to make the same journey as me. I’d be glad if it did.

The author’s canine companion Martin Luther

The Bark: Tell us more about your dog Luther.

Mark Alizart: Luther was my first dog. He was a beautiful Basset Hound whom I fell for in part because his name really was “Martin Luther,” like the German Reformer. In France, pure breeds’ names must start with a specific letter every year, and so the breeder had chosen to call him that way the year of the M’s. Not only did I think that was the most peculiar idea to have (most dogs that year were called Marshmallow or Marvin, as you would expect), but it so happened that I had just published a book on the Reformation which had taken me 10 years to write, so it really felt like a calling to me that he should bear that name. And a calling it was, because he had such a transformative action on me, albeit in a peculiar way too. The thing is Luther got ill very quickly after I picked him up in the mountains of the center of France, where he was born, and he finally died a few months later from an unknown virus he must have caught in Paris, or maybe from a genetic defect caused by too much inbreeding; the vet couldn’t say. But his passing, as much as the time we spent together, had a life changing effect on me. Since that moment, a day has barely gone without me thinking of him. I feel like he is still there, besides me, overlooking what I do and shrouding me in his grace. Moments after he died, a white dove crossed my way, which is both the symbol of the holy spirit and of the Reformation. Naturally, I like to believe that was him saying a last good bye to me. In fact, the picture I took of the dove is still, to this day, my phone’s lock screen photo …

The Bark: The book’s table of contents is rich with intriguing chapter names—Canis Major, Oedipus Rex, The Mark of Cain, Darwin’s Dogs. Please talk about the organization of the book and its sections …

Mark Alizart: I would like the book to read as a mystery philosophical thriller, something like the Name of the Rose or the Da Vinci Code of dogs, the “Dog Vinci Code”! It’s an investigation behind the scenes of our culture and our history, an essay to make dogs come out of the shadows where they have been sent. So the book starts by going back to the remotest past, the ancient times when dogs were gods, and from there it tries to understand why these dog cults existed in the first place, what they meant, and how it is they were lost, or even deliberately concealed. In the process of the enquiry, I examine what became of dogs in later epochs: Judeo-Christianism, Medieval times, the Victorian era, up to contemporary art and science. All this finally brings me to assert that the suppression of dogs goes hand in hand with the suppression of a secret, a secret about our origin, the origin of humanity. I call up a tale told by Kafka which says dogs know of a big secret about us, unfortunately they refuse to say what it is (Investigations of a Dog). I’m convinced it is true, that dogs are the guardians of a secret. That’s exactly what I try to uncover in the book. But it’s a dirty secret obviously, it’s a secret about sex. So the reader needs to be prepared to accept to hear what anthropology and psychoanalysis have to say about it. Freud loved dogs (he had two chow-chows), but he had a very curious way of thinking about them which came to his mind after treating the so-called “wolf man,” who appeared to him as being truly a “dog man.” Following him down this route helps to comprehend the deepest mysteries that link dogs to humans.

The Bark: The book is full of intriguing passages, a few of which I will cite here and ask you to expand on: “Dogs have become philosophers …”

Mark Alizart: Dogs are philosophers in many ways. Their behavior can be related to Stoicism or Buddhism (the story says Siddhartha had a dog himself). Dogs seem to be able to get the best part of any situation: whatever they are fed, they are happy, wherever they sleep, whenever they are woken up, it seems to make no difference to them ... If philosophy is about getting wise and wisdom is about accepting the world as it is, then dogs really seem to be great philosophers! Dogs are also philosophers inasmuch as they don’t care about good manners. The philosopher Diogenes made a pride of calling himself a “cynic,” which means “a dog” in Greek, understating that way that he cared only about the truth, not about people’s opinion. But dogs are above all philosophers because of that secret they keep, and you see this illustrated in the story of the Sphinx. The Sphinx is the “keeper of secrets” (“Sphingo” means “a lock” in ancient Greek) and she is also a bitch (not a lioness as is sometimes believed). She is the niece of Cerberus, the hound of hell. And so the secret she keeps is precisely a secret about the origins of man, which is the most philosophical question one can think of, and more specifically about the origins of manhood, which is the reason why she is such a menacing creature to the men she eats alive if they fail to answer her riddle …

The Bark: Or another quote, "To have a dog is to have an angel by your side.”

Mark Alizart: I wrote that in reference to Luther, my late dog, as a way of conveying what he meant to me. But the comparison is also grounded in mythology. Dogs and angels have many things in common. Again, the Sphinx is a bitch with wings and she happens to be one the earliest representations of an angel. What were known as “Cherubs” in ancient Assyria were sometimes oxes with wings or dogs with wings (in an old Egyptian story, the dog Anubis is said to be the brother of an ox, Bata). Still today, we talk of “guard dogs” and of “guardian angels”. The Greek god called “Angelia” has lots of traits in common with a dog. You also find these weird amulets that were very popular in Rome which are made of a phallus with wings on a leash, like a dog. In the Old Testament, the angel Raphael goes along with Tobias’s dog. And then you have this hadith saying an angel will not visit a house if a dog lives in it, which might mean the contrary of what it is commonly believed. ie. not that dogs are so impure angels won’t mingle with them, but that angels are not needed if there’s already one in the household.

The Bark: And then there is this insightful passage, “Many grieving dog owners feel as if they have lost a child, but in my own experience it has felt more like being orphaned, as it were not a child I had lost, but a parent. … there is another cause for feeling that ‘orphan’ of a dog: it’s that the dog is perhaps just as much a father or mother as it is a child …”

Mark Alizart: Well that’s how I felt after losing Luther, orphaned, yes. In the process of writing the book I understood why: in the same way Darwin explained we descend of great apes, we descend of dogs. Homo Sapiens would maybe never have evolved the way they did if they hadn’t encountered a dog (some even say Neanderthal’s downfall is linked to the fact they didn’t have dogs). This means dogs are paleontologically speaking our “parents” and should be treated as such. Of course, we mainly adopt puppies, so we tend to consider them as our children. But it is wrong from this evolutionary perspective. In fact, I invite people who have dogs to try this experiment at home: instead of calling your dog “baby,” try calling him/her for once “mummy” or “daddy,” or maybe “grandma” or “grandpa.” It’s a very weird thing to do. But it has a great impact on the relationship you build with him/her. It totally changes ways of relating to dogs. And I believe for the better. I mean, you wouldn’t tie a pink knot on the head of your grandfather would you?

The Bark: Bark’s editor is a big fan of John Fante’s novel West of Rome — you mention Fante … what attracts you to his writing?

Mark Alizart: I think Fante made a great job of describing that dog called “Stupid” in the book. Although I don’t like the idea of a dog named like that in the abstract, in this case you can feel that it is an act of love in the author’s mind (Fante had quite a few dogs) and that it captures something essential about them, which is the fact that intelligence is not a sufficient quality to capture their essence, and possibly not a necessary one either. I know many people like to evaluate dogs’ intelligence and, generally speaking, animal rights advocates make the case for animal intelligence, and I understand why. But I think it’s a risky path to follow. Because what does that entail in the end, other than that the lower you are on the scale of intelligence, the worst you can legitimately be treated? It’s an anthropocentric projection to judge animals with a human criterion of that kind. And it can even have terrible consequences on humans themselves … My dog Luther was not “intelligent” in respect of these standards—Basset Hounds are stubborn, they can’t do “agility,” they take ages to understand the simplest of commands. But was he not a fantastic dog? He was, and because he just was. Dogs have an amazing way of being, of being there, of being present, of being with us, which makes them invaluable per se, and Bassets have definitely a singular talent at doing that, at being there, unmovable, like a rock, like a mountain, like eternity. A vet told me that after thirty years of practice he had finally understood that what people like most about their dogs is to feel them. It’s well known that the doggliest quality is loyalty. That doesn’t actually mean that dogs love us unconditionally (they don’t, and it’s doing them a disservice to say they should because it gives us permission to mistreat them), but rather that dogs “bind” to us and to their kin. Dogs are a binding force. And that is also a form of intelligence. It is the intelligence of the heart, it is love, the which makes the atoms of the universe stick together, as the Italian poet of the Renaissance Dante Alighieri put it. And Fante gets it: the fact that the family he describes in his story dislocates after Stupid is lost says it all.

The Bark: You also cite Donna J. Haraway’s seminal work The Companion Species Manifesto … can you talk about her ideas on how dogs and people are bonded in “significant otherness.”

Mark Alizart: I admire Donna Haraway a lot. She was the first philosopher to take dogs seriously. The argument of her Manifesto is basically that we shouldn’t take for granted the opposition between nature and culture (which is the underlying justification for the opposition between masculinity and femininity, domination and subjugation, etc.). In fact, all living beings are an assemblage of nature-culture and dogs are precious insofar as they remind us of this. Dogs live in between worlds, half of them belongs to nature, half to culture. They are like ambassadors sent to us by nature. Mythology doesn’t say anything else: the fact that dogs were representatives of the afterworld in ancient times meant that they bridged the gap between life and death, day and night, nature and culture, masculinity and femininity ... Dogs were considered as protectors of thresholds as can be seen in the figure of the Greek messenger god Hermes, who was sometimes depicted in Asia Minor with a dog’s head (and known as “Hermanubis” in that case, a contraction of Hermes and Anubis). Saint Christopher, the giant who enables Jesus to cross a river by taking him on his back, is also sometimes represented with a dog’s head. In China, a legend says agriculture (which is the basis of culture) was brought to men by a dog carrying the first seed of wheat in his fur ...

The Bark: Can you talk about the “joys of dogs” and what that means to you, to the world…

Mark Alizart: The joy of dogs fascinates me. Dogs are not the only animals to manifest this trait of character which long seemed reserved to human kind: monkeys, elephants, dolphins are full of joy. But dogs are the only ones whom we could expect not to be happy: they are neither free, nor blessed by nature. Dogs were probably bullied for thousands of years by other animals. They had to live on scraps and remnants of rotting flesh, like rodents, on the edges of the wild. Then they were subdued by men, put on a leash. And yet, dogs did not become hardened like hyenas or vultures. Nor did they fall prey to depression, like zoo animals. On the contrary, they became lighter, more delicate, more spiritual. This has to be a lesson we can learn from, because our world is getting harsher too. More and more people are left over on the side of progress and prosperity. Competition pits human beings one against the other. Climate change is making things worse by the day. So here we are with a choice: should we become more aggressive, like scavengers? Should we give up, like circus animals? Or should we try to become even kinder, like dogs? I believe the latter. Lots of Christian saints were likened to dogs in medieval times because they felt dogs had a saintly dimension to them. Saint Dominic created the order of the Dominicans with a pun in mind on Domini Canis, the “Dogs of God.” Recently, Gandhi or Martin Luther King reminded us in the same terms of how non-violence can spark revolutions. So if we are to be treated like dogs, maybe the answer lies in becoming a dog all together …

The Bark: Is there a BIG IDEA in the book that you’d like people to take away …?

Mark Alizart: Dogs are us.