Dogdom: nonhuman others and the othered self in Kafka, Beckett, and Auster.
The concept of the radically secretive, unrepresentable animal, inhabiting what German biologist Jakob von Uexkull labels "unknown and invisible worlds," is a familiar one (2010, 41). Less familiar, however, is the idea that literature's incongruity with animal worlds may open new possibilities when it comes to representing human life. As Karla Armbruster observes: "The notion that human language cannot capture the fullness of animal existence often carries the unstated assumption that it can capture humans' experience of the world" (2013, 26). Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Paul Auster are all skeptical of that assumption and each resorts to uncanny dehumanized creatures in their writing to subvert the privileging of human language. But in Kafka's 1922 story "Investigations of a Dog," the dog episodes in Beckett's 1955 novel Molloy, and Auster's 1999 novella Timbuktu, the epistemological and expressive poverty in reading and writing animals is itself implicated in human autobiographical reflections proper. In this essay, I examine experimental prose that challenges humanist assumptions about the reliability of self-reflection to contend that autobiographical deeds are beset by inimical challenges comparable to those encountered in reading and writing animals. In this line of twentieth-century writers, the disjunctions that mark the relationship between human and nonhuman animals to an extent also mark the relationship between self and writing. Indeed, I argue that, for Kafka, Beckett, and Auster, writing the self can involve writing the other in the same way that writing the other can involve writing the self.
It was not until literary modernism, Carrie Rohman argues, that animality proliferated in literature: "Traditional narratives do not register the eruption of animality through the eruption of language: modernist literature is the first to do that" (2009, 41). As modernity produces alienation from self and community, that is, modernism's interrogation of human identity leads to a fresh recognition and reassessment of nonhuman beings. As Oxana Timofeeva suggests, "Modernism establishes a kind of imaginary space, inhabited by and crossed by transitional, monstrous figures, in which human beings hardly recognize themselves.... Modernist desire is constituted around the system of distorting mirrors in which faces are altered. From such mirrors, various nonhuman 'others' are staring back at 'us,' incessantly bothering, troubling, and bringing into question our properties and identities" (2013, 332-33). Like discrete embodiments of the stranger within, animals attend the destabilization of human identity in the wake of modernity.
An alterity associated with animals seems to inhabit the fragmentation of human expression and identity, even in the most interior and self-conscious first-person and autobiographical forms. Leigh Gilmore describes how "the self becomes oddly multiple just at the time one might think it was most organized and coherent--the moment of telling its own story" (2001, 36). Cases of heteroglossia are commonly understood as testimonies of traumatic events, in which the distance between the actual experience and the expressed account is magnified, yet representational difficulties are also evident in more diffuse traumatic ruptures, such as that between psychological reality and the material, everyday world, registered by modernism; that between the human and the natural world, as in the Marxist narrative; and, on a more widespread linguistic level, that between speaker and the spoken. This last fracture is exemplified by Beckett in his 1958 novel The Unnamable through the phrase "I say I" ( 2003, 293). The first "I" might appear to assert more authority here, as it determines the representational function of the second "I." However, Beckett's phrase intimates that the first pronoun is as suspect as the second, as a signifier floating away from its signified, rendering the autobiographical "I" a self-othering expression. Jacques Derrida also identifies this gap, in his seminal lecture for the 1997 "Autobiographical Animal" conference: "Between this relation to the self (this Self, this ipseity) and the I of the 'I think,' there is, it would seem, an abyss" (2008, 417). Pervading narratives of self-reflection, this distance between the real and the representation prompts explorations of others. Again, Derrida alludes to this note of nonspecific alterity as a basic feature of autobiography: "The I is anybody at all.... Whosoever says 'I' or apprehends or poses him or herself as an 'I' is a living animal." Far from securing itself to the individual, the attempt to articulate the self bypasses the human and nonhuman animal distinction to betray only a general, anonymous significance. This formulation, revising the unknowability of animals, contends that human autobiography shares in the profound ignorance.
Dogs in particular evoke a complex range of alienations, occupying a liminal space between the domesticated life of humans and the wilderness of nonhuman animals. Living in close proximity with humans, they forge tight fellowships that ineluctably cause them to seep into human consciousness and creativity. In fact, such was the integration of dogs into human thought during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that they figured as annexes of human identity, deserving comparable rights. Susan McHugh identifies this shift: "People not only started to accept the idea they owned dogs as property but, more importantly, envisioned even dogs in the street as representatives or extensions of themselves, if not beings entitled to protection from state torture" (2004, 137). It is no coincidence that the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, nominally reserving Otherness to the human face as a disruption of egocentrism and activation of ethical relations, is complicated when he refers to dogs. The face of the human Other "is bewildering and strange: its ethical provocation manifests itself to us as a rupture or an invasion" (quoted in Rohman 2009, 10), but, as Matthew Calarco points out, Levinas's humanity-affirming encounter with a dog named "Bobby" in a Nazi concentration camp and his recourse to dogs in interviews on animals as ethical beings suggest that canines are sufficiently both close to and different from humans to also conjure reciprocity, inspire responsibility, and challenge a self-absorbed worldview: "Levinas's main example in his discussion of the animal face is a dog (we don't know if he has Bobby specifically in mind), in which he finds both a vital force and a vulnerability evoking pity" (2008, 68). Encounters with others, including nonhuman beings, decenter the human as a site of knowledge, throw the self into the agnostic position of ethical consideration, and stir awareness of an alienation from what is most familiar.
Despite such ethical recognition of dogs, they also carry derogatory associative meanings as emblems of menial labor, or "dogsbodies," and as visions of abject indigents leading the idiomatic "dog's life." The infamous "No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs" signs that appeared in London shop windows in the 1950s provide a particularly potent example of the dog's integration into human society, but they also illustrate its association with ostracized (and often oppressed) people. Canines retain a negative symbolic value that haunts the image of the loyal and lovable pet so that, in effect, the dog is simultaneously companionable and contemptible. Owing to this curious mixture of inclusion and exclusion, Philip Armstrong proposes that the dog is "the animal that perhaps more than any other runs to and fro between the human and animal worlds, simultaneously marking and crossing the boundary between them" (2008, 17). Our intimacy with dogs appears obvious, and yet that very familiarity can make their difference all the more palpable and, Alice Kuzniar suggests, more painful: "The melancholic pet owner longs for complete rapport and to know that the dualisms between animal and human are untrue. Yet she is saddened by the inevitable disjointedness and nonsimultaneity between herself and the extimate species, extimacy being that which is exterior to one yet intimately proximate" (2006, 7-8). Its relative closeness strengthens the human desire to fully comprehend the dog, that is, but also underlines the fundamental separation. This is a familiar dynamic, emerging especially in autobiographical writing, wherein one's own life and human identity can seem oddly detached in the process of reflection and retelling. So whereas Gertrude Stein raised the possibility of identity being affirmed by dogs--"I am I because my little dog knows me" (1973, 111)--the dog might also provide a lesson in living with what is simultaneously known and unknown or, to put it otherwise, the self and the other within the human. For this very reason, Christina Gerhardt locates the suppressed animal in Theodor Adorno's conception of "the nonidentity of identity," whereby "each entity contains its opposite within itself and is thus constituted, by this tension of identity and non-identity" (2006, 165). If the ancient Greek maxim "know thyself' involves knowing one's limitations, knowing thyself might also involve the impossibility of truly knowing thyself. Indeed, perhaps the most significant limitation of knowledge itself lies in the possibility of self-knowledge--a paradox that at once points to and refutes the inevitable anthropocentric gravity of animal writing.
"Reflection without end": (De)anthropomorphism in Kafka's "Investigations"
In Franz Kafka's diaries there are more than a dozen references to dogs, most of which pertain to incidents that either amuse or disconcert him. Two entries in particular reveal how Kafka aligns himself with the view of the dog as a miserable, wretched creature. In November 1913, he expresses his doubts about writing, associating himself with a dog: "At bottom I am an incapable, ignorant person who, if he had not been compelled--without any effort on his own part and scarcely aware of the compulsion--to go back to school, would be fit only to crouch in a kennel, to leap out when food is offered him, and to leap back when he has swallowed it" (1976, 237). Just over a year later, on February 7, 1915, Kafka is at a "complete standstill" with his writing and regards himself as "execrable" (330).The next entry reveals that his failure now concerns an effort to produce a "dog story," focusing on the very creature to which he previously related when struggling to write: "Wrote a little today and yesterday. Dog story. Just now read the beginning. It is ugly and gives me a headache. In spite of all its truth it is wicked, pedantic, mechanical, a fish barely breathing on the sandbank." Ill-suited for its purpose, the story seems to Kafka like a fish out of water: "Wicked, pedantic, mechanical," it seems to him a kind of perversion, a distortion of the natural. In his diaries, then, it is apparent that Kafka perceives himself as doggish as a result of the dog tale he cannot write.
Early in 1922, in the lead-up to writing "Investigations of a Dog" in October and November, Kafka suffered a breakdown, prompting a period of intense introspection. Suggestively, his diary entries are less frequent during this time and trail off, especially after the summer. Indeed, this decreased interest in using his diaries as a site of life writing seems to signal a turn in his autobiographical impulse toward fiction. During this introspective period, Kafka spent time walking the landlady's dog, which he mentions in the diaries simply as "walk with the dog," before commenting on "an innocently attentive animal gaze" (1976, 422). As his earlier failure to write was framed in terms of an affinity with dogs, Kafka's experience with the animal during this time seems bound up with his new impetus in autobiographical writing, prompting Kafka to invest himself into a dog story. As Eric Williams suggests:
"Investigations of a Dog" is the only story he wrote in which all the significant phases of the protagonist's development, from early childhood and pubescence to old age, are fashioned into a life-narrative. Indeed, a short time before beginning this uniquely retrospective Bildungsnovella, Kafka had resolved to remedy the torment that so frequently beset him when "writing denied itself" to him, with a self-reconstruction project that would reverse the tracks of his career: "Hence, [my] plan for autobiographical investigations," he writes. (2007, 100)
This link between self-scrutiny and dogs invites autobiographical interpretations of his animal writing. In this story, writing himself in the dog becomes a way of negotiating his experience of insurmountable gaps in ontological meaning but also a recognition that canine life itself involves the same predicament. Inhabiting human and nonhuman worlds both, the undecipherable [indecipherable] and unknowable guide his writing.
Kafka's short story announces itself as a meditation by a dog for an audience of other dogs, the narrator confessing detachment from the canine community but at the start referring to "dogs like you and me" (2005, 281). The report itself contemplates the profound questions of canine existence, particularly "what the canine race nourished itself upon" (286), and the narrator surmises that the answers might lie in the canine community that escapes him. Kafka makes no effort to devise a canine aesthetic as such, couching his dog narrative in a rational register that is recognizably human and, even if it gradually degrades, this appears to court anthropomorphic and anthropocentric readings. Naama Harel, for example, lists several allegorical possibilities (the number of which might seem to refute the story's allegorical status) involving Jewish identity, homosexual identity, the limit of human consciousness, the attempt to examine the human ability to establish its own existence, and relations between an individual author and society (2013, 50-51). At the same time, Kafka's dog imitates human anthropocentrism in a way that seems to expose the self-absorption of all beings. "One effect of this story," Margot Norris argues, "is to turn anthropocentricism inside out by parodying the world of species narcissism which allows humans to perceive creatures purely from their own cultural vantage" (2010, 24). By the narrator's own admission, he is fixated on his own kind: "All that I cared for was the race of dogs, that and nothing else" (Kafka 2005, 289). Humans are virtually erased in his representations of feeding, training, transporting, and hunting, and echoing the humanistic notion that "man is the measure of all things," Kafka's narrator claims, "All knowledge, the totality of all questions and answers, is in the dog" (289-90). By mirroring a "species-anthropocentrism" back to the reader, Kafka at once partakes in and censures anthropocentrism, prompting readers to acknowledge their complicity in this self-centeredness, and broadening the scope to suggest that such narcissism may mark other species as well.
Kafka's dog story thus presents species in their shared insularity, even as this shared myopia divides them. Ultimately, such insularity undermines self-knowledge, both in the animal's presumed absence of sophisticated self-consciousness and in the interminability of human self-reflection. The autobiographical reflections that Williams identifies in "Investigations" and the sort of anthropocentric readings to which Harel points suggest a projection of the profound estrangements from human and nonhuman animal neighbors, but also those within human autobiography. If the story can be approached in relation to Kafka's experiences, that in turn points to broader cultural readings. As Matthew Powell puts it: "What is clear in 'Investigations of a Dog' is that Kafka is not only attempting to portray the obsessive introspection that dominated his life, but also the alienating other(ness) that defined his existence. This need to define the self--and consequently, this need to define other(ness)--was a chronic attempt to search for a reason or a cause for his position as other in European society" (2008, 137). Such readings, however, do little to address the suspicion that the dog merely betokens the human. We might instead remain alert to how the story addresses humans and animals both, as their significances converse and overlap. If the story concerns marginalized identities and personal social alienation, Kafka also arranges a correspondence among the failures of canine self-knowledge, the failures of human self-knowledge, and the impossibility of knowing other species.
In an obvious anthropomorphic move, Kafka humanizes the dog, tracing the narrator's exploration of his own kind through human logic and language. At the same time, however, Kafka undermines human logic and language, conveying their failures in the pursuit of knowledge, and thus executes a dehumanizing tactic or, rather, deposition of the human, in both senses of the word. Emphasizing the fragility of human thought, the story thus displaces a secure notion of human identity and thereby testifies to the mysteries of what it really means to be a human, or any living creature for that matter. Tellingly, the complexity and scale of his subject of inquiry overwhelms the quasi-scientific, reasoned investigation the narrator carries out. He despairs over the "superabundance of material," lamenting how truth is "not only beyond the comprehension of any single scholar, but of all our scholars collectively.... It ever again crumbles away like a neglected ancestral inheritance and must laboriously be rehabilitated anew" (2005, 287). Devotion to rigorous academic disciplines and to education itself is in vain. Even science, seeming to offer a privileged access to truth in the early 1920s--with confirmations of Albert Einsteins theory of relativity in 1920 and his Nobel Prize for physics in 1921--adds, "mere details, mere details, and how uncertain they are," and, disputing the usefulness of such investigation, the canine narrator sees "science" as "rich in knowledge but poor in practical results" (288). To the extent that human identity rests on these privileged properties of self-reflection through language and logic, Kafka's anthropomorphizing story also undermines anthromorphism, as it both applies and undermines human methods of gaining knowledge.
In Kafka, what remains when the human conceit is removed is not the animal but the bewildering enigma of all living creatures. Walter Benjamin is particularly attentive to this dynamic: "It is possible to read Kafka's animal stories for quite a while without realizing that they are not about human beings at all. When one encounters the name of the creature--monkey, dog, mole--one looks up in fright and realizes that one is already far away from the continent of man. He divests the human gesture of its traditional supports and then has a subject for reflection without end" (1999, 118). Dethroning the enlightened human, Kafka points toward the recesses, not to illuminate them but to stare at the darkness of the mystifying human. In doing so, Kafka suggests that a creature's inability to know metaphysical truths about that creature's own kind converges with a similar inability to know such truths about other beings. In this respect, humans and nonhuman animals are in the same predicament. Indeed, when the dog narrator asks, "How long will you be able to endure the fact that the world of dogs, as your researches make more and more evident, is pledged to silence and always will be," it is clear that that silence engulfs human and nonhuman animals both (2005, 292). Each is remote to the other and to itself.
As Peter Stine observes, such silence manifests a failure of language: Kafka's "discovery that language might pursue the self but never reach it led him to envision this failure to reach the goal of self-knowledge as our common fate, and to posit an 'indestructible' self permanently hidden from us as his only article of faith" (1981, 58). But self-reflection in language that fails to locate the human self also fails to decipher the other, either human or nonhuman. In this way, living creatures, even without language, are all united in their alienation, the self's failure to know either itself or an other, whether through self-reflection or autotelic immersion. For Kafka, then, it seems the goal of human language is to evoke the shared silence that sits at the heart of literary anthrozoology and human self-reflection. As with Beckett's and Auster's, Kafka's work manifests the instability of the distinctions between humans and animals, and the ambiguity of others in his story, besides marking difference, also marks a kinship, an obscurity shared by humans and nonhuman animals alike. Human uniqueness and superiority are thus undone in the face of our relative unknowing.
Going to the dogs: human-becoming-animal in Beckett's Molloy
Kafka "allows the fictional animal to speak itself through or as a deconstructed human," Norris suggests (2010, 19), and Beckett's 1953 novel Molloy evokes the animal by way of a similarly ruined version of the human. But where Kafka's dog tale must first humanize the dog in order to then undo that anthropomorphism, Molloy is a human protagonist subject to a kind of "animalization," a process that levels the humanist vision of the human. The first part of Beckett's quasi-detective novel of self-discovery is focused on Molloy as he sits in his mother's room, reflecting on his failed journey to find his mother and revealing his transformation into an uncanny, reptilian creature. Molloy's search for his mother is the first indication of a regression to his origin, a rewinding back through infancy to the fetal attachment in the womb. Looking beyond the psychoanalytic implications, Shane Weller suggests that this is "a reversal of evolution, an unhumanization rather than a spiritualization" (2005, 99), what elsewhere Beckett calls the "loss of species" ( 1998, 82) by which Molloy is dislocated from the normative idea of humanity.
This "unhumanization" emerges distinctly in Becketts deliberately defective aesthetic, which dwells on the weaknesses of expression, the fallibility of narrative, the fragility of knowledge, and the creativity of memory, all of which disrupt the premises of humanism. During Molloy's observation of the two rambling strangers A and C, for instance, he is drawn to the accompanying dog, but as soon as Molloy tries to specify the breed, he is beset with a cognitive stutter: "A little dog followed him, a pomeranian I think, but I don't think so. I wasn't sure at the time and I'm still not sure, though I've hardly thought about it.... Yes, it was an orange pomeranian, the less I think of it the more certain I am. And yet" ( 2003, 12). The desire for clarity and the persistence of doubt shred through Molloy's narrative, and the uncertainty that plagues his identification of the dog is frequently repeated, not least when the story involves self-reflection. More pressingly "unhumanizing," perhaps, is that Molloy experiences his own words as animal sounds of the most alien variety: "And the words I uttered myself, and which must nearly always have gone with an effort of the intelligence, were often to me as the buzzing of an insect. And this is perhaps one of the reasons I was so untalkative, I mean this trouble I had in understanding not only what others said to me, but also what I said to them" (50). In Kafka's Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa's insect noises, nonsense to his family, sound articulate to him, but Molloy hears his own voice as other. Although the communicative drone and dance of Moran's bees in part two of Molloy lends some vague semblance of meaning to Molloy s murmur, for the most part he experiences his own language, a defining feature of his humanity, as alien, as failing to connect him with other people and separating him from himself.
As Beckett's trilogy of novels unfolds, the reduction of human properties is only exacerbated, so that "by the end of the trilogy Beckett hovers over the ruins of modernism, the exhaustion of a certain view of what it is to be human and rational" (Miller 1992, 18). Nevertheless, Molloy persists in his attempt to relate his own past and make sense of the events of his life. As Molloy tries to scrutinize himself, however, he inevitably adopts an outside vantage, dividing an already perplexing life into two and then reconstructing it through a doubly mystified lens. In this way, Molloy rehearses the trilogy as a whole: from "I" to the fallibility of "I," to the third person implied in every "I." In turn, The Unnamable, the third text in the trilogy, makes to abandon "1" altogether: "I shall not say I again, ever again, it's too farcical" (Beckett  2003, 358). For Beckett, then, as Elizabeth Barry argues, "the very act of trying to perceive oneself separates the self into subject and object," so that "seeing is an asymmetric action" and "listening to oneself is almost always already inherent in the act of speaking itself" (2008, 123, 124). In the tradition of self-rupture carried forth by Kafka's "Investigations," Beckett zooms in on the incipient point of self-expression to trace the extent of the fault lines.
In an early essay on the presence of dogs in Molloy, Philip Solomon writes: "In Molloy, human beings are condemned to lead a dog's life and to die like a dog" (1967, 91). Although Beckett himself was in fact fond of dogs--particularly the Kerry Blue terriers his mother May owned at the family home in Foxrock, despite what Deirdre Bair's biography observes was their belligerance (1990, 12)--in his letters during the 1950s, Beckett expresses more negative conceptions of dogs. He describes "Balzac lying like a dog, abandoned by all, with the smell of gangrene pervading the house" (2011, 248), and, as in Kafka, the trope of dogdom helps frame his self-deprecations: "The dog is duller than ever but its friends know it doesn't mind if they get up and go away" (611). Dogs inhabit his fiction too, and the decisive dog episode in Beckett's Molloy occurs when, with his bicycle, Molloy accidentally runs over and kills Miss Lousse's dog. The aftermath is especially revealing:
Instead of grovelling in my turn, invoking my great age and infirmities, I made things worse by trying to run away. I was soon overtaken, by a bloodthirsty mob of both sexes and all ages, for 1 caught a glimpse of white beards and little almost angel faces, and they were preparing to tear me to pieces when the lady intervened. She said in effect, she told me so later on and I believed her, Leave this poor old man alone. He has killed Teddy, I grant you that, Teddy whom I loved like my own child, but it is not so serious as it seems, for as it happens I was taking him to the veterinary surgeon, to have him put out of his misery. For Teddy was old, blind, deaf, crippled with rheumatism and perpetually incontinent, night and day, indoors and out of doors. I would as it were take the place of the dog I had killed, as it for her had taken the place of a child. ( 2003, 32-33)
That the angry mob seems ready to rip Molloy to bits anticipates the animalization of the human fulfilled at the end of the passage, as Molloy foresees that he would "take the place of the dog." Similarly, the transformation of wise "white beards" and "angel faces" to a "bloodthirsty mob" reflects Molloy's own deterioration from integrated citizen to primitive reptilian creature. The animalized Molloy would thus be quite in keeping with the savage human society that bays for his blood, just as the dog's condition as "old, blind, deaf, crippled with rheumatism and perpetually incontinent" describes Molloy's own state at the end of the story. As Molloy replaces Teddy, then, the novel points toward the animality of human society itself.
Although the first-person narrative in Molloy adopts a human perspective, like "Investigations" it deconstructs human properties, unhinging reason, so that the human can act as a substitute for the animal. Molloy can become a subjugated pet, too, recalling the Irish myth of Setanta, the man who slayed Culain's guard dog in self-defense and took its place, becoming Cuchulain, meaning "Hound of Culain." Although Beckett recognizes that the myth served as inspiration for the "antiquarianism" of the Celtic Twilighters that he despised (see Knowlson 1996, 188-89), he nevertheless retains the fascination with the porous border between human and nonhuman animals. Indeed, as Weller argues, with the creaturely Molloy "Beckett disintegrates the Cartesian human/animal distinction, producing neither a rational animal nor Aristotle's political animal, but rather a human-becoming-animal that counterpoints Kafka's animal-becoming-human in his 'A Report to an Academy' (1917)" (2008, 215). This "becoming" unsettles the human-animal distinction to create what Gilles Deleuze calls a "zone of indiscernibility or undecidability between man and animal" (2003, 21). Though Weller does not mention it, Teddy the dog was already a replacement for a child, which casts infants, animals, and adult human indigents as interchangeable objects of care. Substituting a pet dog for a child is an example of the "anthropomorphic insolence" Beckett criticized covertly in his earlier novel Watt ( 1998, 202), but exchanging a pet human for a pet dog redresses the balance somewhat. Whether the human is equivalent to the animal or vice versa, the point is that a relation is forged that destabilizes the binary.
Such destabilization also marks part 2 of Beckett's novel, concerning the man in search of Molloy, Jacques Moran. During his own deterioration, finding himself in a field of sheep, together with a shepherd and his sheepdog, Moran observes that the animals have a bond with the shepherd, that "his dog loved him, his sheep did not fear him" ( 2003, 159). He soon adopts the position of an animal himself, longing to say to the shepherd, "Take me with you, I will serve you faithfully, just for a place to lie and a little food." Wanting to "serve ... faithfully," to "lie," and to be given "food," Moran wants to be like a domesticated dog, reminiscent of the way Lousse keeps Molloy. It is telling that when Moran imagines the shepherd returning to his dwelling, "the dog stops at the threshold, not knowing whether he may go in or whether he must stay out, all night," his hesitation suggesting that, though he is domesticated, the dog understands he is not quite human (160). Instead, in their shared state of homelessness, the man and the dog are kin, lacking secure self-knowledge or a sense of belonging. The animalized human is not fully an animal, just as the domesticated animal is not fully human, but these transformations do foreground the creatural interstice where one indeterminate can replace another.
In light of this replaceability, the inadequacy of language and personal narrative in Beckett appears as a sign of the autobiographical silence shared by all living creatures. It is not only that Beckett's dogmen are poor storytellers but also that human systems of communication themselves appear deficient. Revealingly, in his Whoroscope notebook, Beckett quoted Fritz Mauthner, who, reflecting on the limits of language, described "our deluded sense, like a clever dog, that we are free simply because the chain is long" (quoted in Ackerley 2013, 183). Attempts at apperception and self-expression in Beckett are thus occasions where the human is revealed as animal. The human self and the animal other find kinship by virtue of their being beyond representation and essentially unknowable.
"A man with the heart of a dog": speaking in lieu in Auster's Timbuktu
Like Kafka and Beckett, in his 1999 novella Timbuktu Paul Auster evokes and complicates the trope of the dog as a miserable, wretched creature. His emphasis is on language in the book, and the narrative perspectives it generates, repeating the logically inevitable anthropocentric gravitations and intimating the mutual blindness that unites human and nonhuman animals. The preoccupying elusiveseness of identity there is presaged in his 1987 New York Trilogy, albeit in exclusively human terms. Like Beckett, Auster loosely evokes crime fiction, adopting the genre's quest for knowledge but focusing less on the goal than on the searching individual and his engagements with others. In a genre that enacts the workings of the mind, powers of deduction, and commitment to scrupulous observation, Auster considers the precarious meaning of the self in a world mediated by language and indistinguishable from fiction, pursuing the question, as Mark Brown puts it, "How do we locate ourselves in the world when language has failed us?" (2007, 45). But while Auster focuses keenly on the fragility of human identity, psychological immersion in the unknowable human other, and the apertures in the human self revealed by explorations into alterity, it is not until Timbuktu that he introduces an animal into that exploration, with questions about the human now pointing to the question of relations between humans and other creatures.
In Timbuktu a dog called Mr. Bones and his homeless poet owner Willy G. Christmas endure the idiomatic "dog's life," impoverished on the fringes of society, a cliche Willy evokes: "Dog as metaphor, if you catch my drift, dog as emblem of the downtrodden, and you're no trope, my bod, you're as real as they come" (Auster 1999b, 57). As they share their dog's life, Mr. Bones remembers Willy, in a psychotic episode, somewhat doggishly "eating a bowl of his own excrement" and that generally "he stank and drooled," perhaps recalling the early nineteenth-century vision of the psychiatric asylum as a menagerie, although Mr. Bones also feels kinship with Willy in more positive ways, seeing him as "a man with the heart of a dog" (30). Even their phallic names associate Mr. Bones and Willy together, especially considering Mr. Bones's next owner is called Dick. But where in The New York Trilogy it is the human other that disrupts the unity of the human self--so that, as Dennis Barone argues, "when a character loses self-identity it is as if that character has been overfed on the character of an other" (1995, 16)--in Timbuktu the convergence of human and dog does not destabilize identity as much as bring hitherto unknown facets of the self to the surface. Later in the novel Mr. Bones observes a child imitating a wild cat: "The boy might not have been a real tiger, but that didn't mean he wasn't dangerous. In his own little way, he was more of an animal than Mr. Bones was" (Auster 1999b, 127). This wild substrate always inhabits human civilization, as Mr. Bones's and Willy's border crossings disclose.
Auster has suggested that Timbuktu has "a lot to do with language, which is basically Willy's language and the way Mr. Bones interprets that language" (1999a). To an extent they can understand each other, though a gulf nonetheless remains, producing some frustration, especially for Mr. Bones. Mr. Bones's "grasp of Ingloosh was as good as any other immigrant who had spent seven years on American soil. It was his second language, of course, and quite different from the one his mother had taught him" (Auster 1999b, 6), the narrator tells us, likening him to a human nonnative speaker, and framing the communication difficulties as a cultural barrier rather than as a fundamental difference. Similarly, when Willy tries to decode the animal's body language, "it was like learning how to speak a new language, Willy found, like stumbling on to a long-lost tribe of primitive men and having to figure out their impenetrable mores and customs" (37). Though Willy here suggests Mr. Bones's language is a part of his own ancestry, Mr. Bones nevertheless dreams of having the same language as his companion, evoking once again the distance between dog and human: "It feels like talking. It sounds like talking. But that doesn't mean I'm really doing it" (181). Despite their close relationship, then, man and dog encounter insurmountable barriers to mutual comprehension.
The title of the novel refers to what the dog imagines as a remote afterlife "in Timbuktu [where] dogs would be able to speak man's language and converse with him as an equal" (50). As this vision of a kind of heavenly afterlife connects the dog to the human, it also suggests that the dog shares both the yearning for this afterlife and a profound ignorance about death. In the final analysis, both are denied transcendental knowledge and left with the vulnerability of corporeal existence in a "dog eat dog world" (this may literally be the case when Mr. Bones, offered food from a Chinese takeaway, "couldn't help wondering if he was eating a fellow dog" ). As with the language barriers that prevent full comprehension of each other, the pair share an ignorance about such existential questions, accentuating both their dispiriting but shared isolation and, especially for homeless and stray beings, a potentially precarious physical survival.
Representing how humans and dogs share a creaturely life yet remain mutually distant poses a narrative challenge, one Auster responds to with a third-person narration inconsistent in its omniscience. In acting as a witness and filter for both human and canine characters, the narrator enacts an equivalence that reflects their equal narrative status. The narrator may insist that "Mr. Bones saw it happen with his own eyes," yet we necessarily receive a second-hand account, the human owner present to us through the eyes of the pet dog, filtered through the anthropomorphic narration (3). Moreover, while the narrator attempts to speak for both man and dog, to articulate lives and worlds that they cannot speak themselves, this omniscience turns to first-person alienation strategies when, early in the novel, the narrator adopts Mr. Bones's perspective, referring to the sun as "surely" a "lamp in the clouds that went off and on every day" (3-4). In this and other ways, at this stage in the novel Auster gestures toward "authentic" animal autobiography, deferring authority to Mr. Bones: "Ignore his opinion if you will, but who else are you prepared to trust? After listening to these stories for the past seven years, had he not earned the right to be called the world's leading authority on the subject?" (15). In this appeal to the animal's authority, however, the narrator exposes his own interfering hand, as interpreter and translator of the story, his superficial claim to animal authenticity revealing its own inadequacy. Necessarily, the narrative centers on the human voice, that inevitably anthropocentric and autobiographical gesture discussed above. At the same time, in doing so it highlights how human and canine subjects both contain mysteries beyond human articulation. Auster's inconsistent narrative texture enacts the difficulties that plague any attempt to speak for others, betraying how alterity emerges when humans and animals are unable to speak for themselves as themselves--when speaking in lieu seems inevitable.
In their undoing of human language and reliable narrative, Kafka's "Investigations of a Dog," Beckett's Molloy, and Auster's Timbuktu represent humans and nonhuman animals by attesting to their shared unknowabilility, their equivalent narcissism, and the corporal vulnerability that defines all living creatures. In Kafka's, Beckett's, and Auster's animal narratives, the failures of language confront us with the gulf between the human and the world of nonhuman animals, but also with the human's inability to account for itself--pointing to a kinship constituted partly by that gulf itself. Declining a stance of imperial domination, these writers work against totalizing narratives that imagine they could somehow adequately inscribe the lives of animals, remaining open to obscurity and difference, to the unaccountable complexity of animal life. Indeed, perhaps, they suggest it is entirely plausible that humans enfold canines into their everyday lives and culture, including our artistic practices, partly as a way to keep the unknown close, grow familiar with its enigma as an enigma that we also share.
Joseph Anderton is assistant professor at the University of Nottingham, UK. He is author of Beckett's Creatures: Art of Failure after the Holocaust (2016). His journal articles and book chapters include "Hooves! The Equine Presence" in Beckett and Animals," Ceremonious Ape!: Creaturely Poetics and Anthropomorphic Acts" in Performance Research, and "The Impulse towards Silence: Creaturely Expressivity in Beckett and Coetzee" in Beyond the Human-Animal Divide. His reviews have appeared in Journal of Beckett Studies and European Journal of Humour Studies.
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|Title Annotation:||Samuel Beckett, Paul Auster, and Franz Kafka|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2016|
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