I moved to Philadelphia in step with the dead and the dying. In June, driving from Tucson, my home often years, to the East Coast, I decided to search for Red River, site of John Wayne's film of cows and honor. Once past Fort Stockton, Bakersfield, and Ozona, I realized I had not found it. On the way to San Antonio, I stopped for the night. Getting out of the car with Dogie my Rottweiler, I knew that this first night outside of Tucson marked the end of a kind of peace, the sun and sky that left humans in awe of things not often remarked upon or known: the precise grasp of a Harris hawk; the summer dance of the tarantulas; the wolf spider pulsing in the corner of a room; the wail of the Colorado river toads after August monsoons; footprints left in the dirt by the night-time wandering of the Javelina; long-backed lizards pressed against the windows; and coyotes searching for kill as bulldozers devoured the Sonoran Desert.
Let the elegy begin. The turn to things lost, the end of much that I loved. Now, in the humid summer of Philadelphia, I understand the meaning of that thing I saw in Sonora, outside of San Antonio. After feeding Dogie, I went out to the car to get my bags. I saw something stuck to the front grill of my car. A bird on the grill. In the night wind, the thing that once had been a sparrow must have flown toward the headlights. Trying to get it off, using a pencil and then a large comb, I saw that its guts were stuck, wrapped into the steel. Stuck by its guts. A curse, I thought. The next day, as I drove through sun into heavy rain, I prayed that it would fall to the ground. Instead, the sparrow held on all the way to Philadelphia. Once there, when I parked the car across the street from my house, the bird finally dropped off. Dried out in the heat, it fell to the ground, hollowed out and folded like a dead leaf. Last August something happened to Dogie while he was boarding at Redbank Veterinary Hospital. In an early morning call, the doctor tried to explain: "The old dog had trouble breathing, so we did what we could to help him." Dogie, at eleven years old, often breathed heavily during the night. But in the morning, he knew how to right the poise between strength and frailty. Great flabby jaws bared his hard teeth. He jerked his legs, gave tongue and sniffed up the air, as though he had found himself again. When I arrived at the hospital, they told me Dogie was waiting in a room they had set aside for me. Once left alone with him, I spoke his favorite words: "Let's go for a walk." "Want to go home?" He seemed broken. His gums had lost their color. The blood was out of them, the flesh pulled up into his teeth. He had trouble standing.
I sat down next to him on the floor. Then he lay down and put his beautiful and massive head on my right knee. A doctor opened the door, looked at us, and told me they tried to tap his chest for fluid but discontinued it when they drew blood. I bent over Dogie. So light of sleep and so true of heart. He had changed utterly from the dog who had run with me by the river just two days earlier. Sensing the procedure had wrenched the life out of his limbs, I decided to put him to sleep. After the lethal injection, his eyes would not close. "I can't close his eyes. They're still half open," I said to the doctor who euthanized him. "Often, dogs' eyes don't close." The door opened, and the tech who had seen him six hours earlier screamed. "Dogie, what happened to Dogie? He was fine last night. Why is he dead? Who killed him?" I began to doubt my decision. A mistaken idea about mercy, an unthinking response, perhaps, to some cliche about "putting him out of his misery." Had I killed a sedated dog? Was there some miscommunication between doctors? A radiance remembered haunted me. Had I given him a chance, I wondered, would he have lived?
A month after his death, after numerous requests for the records of his last days, and varied and conflicting stories, the woman in charge of cremation called. "I don't know how to tell you this. It's never happened here before. We've lost Dogie's cremains. We've looked everywhere." I remained silent, while she continued to talk. I heard her say something about sending me a check to reimburse me. Unlike the records, promised but evidently never sent, this time a check arrived by Federal Express the next day. A check for the cost of cremation at Pleasant Grove Pet Cemetery and a form with an "x" in the box that indicated "refund from Redbank Veterinary Hospital." A reminder of the meaning of redemption: to pay back or recover, a transaction trading in the merging of high and low. Death for human beings who kill, but if the object of the kill is an animal, then the human "shall make restitution for it," as the Lord tells Moses in Leviticus. Death or payback. Human and Animal. High and Low. How could I measure redemption with such inadequate compensation? Dogie could not be restored to me by money. Nor could another dog be a substitute for him. Loss could be removed neither by payment nor exchange.
"And I will set my face against you." The face of God decreeing punishment for turning away from the law in Leviticus leads inevitably to judgment. On the Day of Atonement, the Jewish people assemble together to pray: "May it therefore be Thy will, O Lord, our God and God of our fathers, to forgive us all our sins, to pardon all our iniquities, and to grant us atonement for all our transgressions." To forgive, pardon, and atone. "For the sin that we have committed before Thee under compulsion or of our own will." "And for the sin that we have committed before Thee by burdening our hearts." "For the sin which we have committed before Thee unknowingly." The counters of will, affection, and knowledge. A trinity that captures the law of perfection and the rules of belief.
Can a person sin against animals? When animals stand in for our faults. When they alone can be used to atone for us. And, understanding, they know it all the while. They are brought into places, institutions where they cannot voice objection, or where their voices cannot be parsed. So grace comes upon them and gives them strength, a little unforeseen, more than a little exalting. I must be precise about the question of animals and redemption these days. President Bush pardons the Thanksgiving turkey named Liberty in the Rose Garden. The Senate approves a Puppy Protection Act. A year after 9/II, a September headline of the New York Daily News reads: "Bloomberg to City Strays: Tough Luck." A dog's face with pleading eyes nearly fills the front page. Cartoon bubbles come out of his head: "Say it Ain't So, Mayor Mike." Then, below, another bubble of thought: "No Money for All-Night Shelters to Rescue Dogs." The article features a portrait of a pensive Bloomberg, looking up to the heavens, with four dog heads around him, angels on high. The head of one dog lies on Bloomberg's left shoulder, another on his opposite shoulder, and then two more floating above, to the right and to the left of him. Below the photo, on the bottom of the page are four cages, each showing only the dogs' heads. The confined dogs are named Zack, Jake, Jade, and Kenny. I thought of these stray dog heads as substitutes for those imprisoned on the mainland or those blindfolded, hooded, ears muffed and hands in mittens in transit to Guantanamo. Dogs are offered up to us in exchange for humans. Why dogs?
In Kabul, Afghanistan, in the first days of the United States bombing campaign, hundreds of rabid dogs roamed the streets. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that bombs prevented the humanitarian aid groups from getting vaccines to the three or four people who daily reported to hospitals with dog bites. According to Muslim belief, the newspaper explained, dogs were thought to be dirty, and hence, rarely kept as pets. Later the choice would become to be kept as pets or killed as victims of Al Quaeda: images of dogs dying agonizing deaths in chemical tests appeared in August 2002 to the multitudes of CNN watchers. What does it mean to keep a pet? Isn't there something near to killing in the certainty of affectionate appropriation? The bad cat of the sweet film Babe gives the logic of use and value to the little pig. Dogs are there to help the boss, who loves the wife. Horses are used. Cats are cuddly. But pigs and ducks are useless. Their only purpose in life is to be slaughtered and eaten. To be kept or killed. A wager as close to the gist of human reality as to be saved or damned.
What does it mean to say that dogs are close to humans? The proximity between humans and dogs parlayed in stories about the oppressed gives us insight into the supernaturally tinged realm of relationships between value and insignificance. In Port-au-Prince, I often heard the proverbial "Haiti, where even the dogs commit suicide." As friends explained, "dogs jump out of windows, run under cars, and walk into the sea." When the Anthrax contamination spread in post offices in Washington, New Jersey, and New York, the mostly African-American workers in New York were never tested. One worker drew attention to the relation that recalled the taxonomic limits of personhood, bounded by the dog kind: "the reality is that when you have guard dogs in Washington, D.C. being tested and human beings in New York not being tested, something is seriously wrong."
Two years before the crises of definition inaugurated after September 11, harsher punishments for the increasing number of prisoners in jails and penitentiaries in the United States were the focus of media commentary. On May 15, 2000, the United Nations condemned the United States for torture and degrading treatment, especially in the new state-of-the-art solitary confinement units. At the height of the movement to "get tough on prisoners," Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa Country, Arizona invented a new form of punishment. Based on the unspoken analogy between dogs and prisoners, Arpaio converted a section of the First Avenue Jail in Phoenix into a kennel for abused and neglected animals. Arpaio probably never read Oliver Wendell Holmes's reflection on malicious intent in The Common Law(1881): "even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked." But he knew enough about the trade-off between dignity and degradation. Ten dogs who were victims of abuse remained in the jailhouse kennel while a criminal investigation into their owners was conducted. Cared for by inmates, they lived in air-conditioned cells, slept on blankets, and, as one news story reported, "were treated to good food and music specially designed to have a calming effect on animals." Arpaio explicitly contrasted his treatment of human inmates--tent cities, posses, "last chance chain gangs," foul green bologna, bread and water diets--with his care of dogs. In the many email exchanges that followed what one critic called Arpaio's "'dog' and pony show," some writers reflected on "poor dogs" versus "the dregs of society," others emphasized the "civil rights" of prisoners versus the "treatment" of dogs, and "victims" versus "predators."
Such apparent contradictions are easily negotiated. The two loci are only apparently distinct, for the roles can be reversed. "President Shifts Focus from Daughters to Dogs" read a recent New York Times headline. Such convertibility, between prisoners and dogs, dogs and slaves, a couple of wild nineteen-year-old twin daughters, an obeisant Scottish terrier and English springer spaniel, gives the correspondence its power. Only with dogs before us and beside us can we understand the making or unmaking of the idea of persons. Dogs. Because you look around and find them always looking at you. Then you become yourself to yourself. You exist. Your home has meaning. But what kind of meaning?
The dog becomes absolutely necessary not only to the pressures of personhood, but also to the demands of servitude. Miss Ophelia describes Stowe's good slave Tom, locked in the precincts of service and spirituality, lying supine on the veranda in order to be close to the dying Eva, as "sleeping anywhere and everywhere, like a dog." Captain Delano meditates on benign "naked nature" and Babo as loyal and affectionate Newfoundland dog in "Benito Cereno." And Melville undoes Delano's near sacred analogy in The Confidence Man. Der Black Guinea's crippled legs not only give him "the stature of a Newfoundland dog," but his "knotted black fleece" literally becomes the dog, no longer only someone else's icon of "good-natured, honest" affection. This iconography has a logic. The analogy is especially striking in an 1858 Virginia legal case that grants value to that unique slave who performs a job well, but ends up asking, "can this be considered a 'civil act'?" The answer again puts us in touch with a dog: "only if the service of "a well-trained and sagacious dog" in bringing his owner meat in a basket from a butcher could "in a legal sense" be understood as "the civil act of a dog."
"Dog love," one critic has written. An academic evasion of thought and will in dogs, with detours safely made through sentiment untested. Can we define "love" better if we consider what I'll call "dog mind"? Thought is a dog. It just so happens that dogs choose for their scene of thinking the habitat of humans. So we think we have thoughts for them. That is wrong, but dogs are too tactful to let us know. Instead, they act as if they are objects of sense, brute icons of sensation. Vicki Hearne, poet, dog trainer, and philosopher understood the dangers of coddling effortlessly exercised by those she, following the coining of Dick Koehler, called "humaniacs." As she never tired of saying, their rules for kindness reduced animals to objects of charity, or worse, to the grateful recipients of their masters' beneficence. Such ruses of sentiment fail to confront the alternately knowing and doubting relation that matters most between humans and dogs.
Vicki died on August 21, 2002. Her husband Robert Tragesser later sent me the notes to the preface of "Tricks of the Light," the forthcoming collection of poems that she worked on right up until her death. She felt the need to explain her change of muse from horses to dogs, writing:
But I have outlived and outwritten the ability to invoke exalted Horses who outlive or outwrite the ability to send a good or, if the gods should so will a great, dog out into the fields of the imagination, and its forests, its planets. It is not that no preparation is needed. I have put the supernatural, that is to say, great, dog in the place of the winged horse, and the good dog in the place of the serviceable word.
Her words return dogs to their rightful place as the materials of thought, and the criterion of utterance. And this thought is immersed in matter. Flesh and spirit join in a tension only smug Cartesians would deny.
Careful to describe the traces of knowledge found in this discipline, she had no truck with pleasing oversimplifications or pious surmises based on narrow judgments about victimization and mastery. The choke collar, used correctly just once, as Vicki explained, with the impersonality of a force of nature, gives a dog the space in which to focus, to know where and how he wants to be. The annoying sound of the clicker, on the other hand, crowds the dog into acknowledging what he would rather ignore. So one click usually won't do. The bribery of treats follows. These thoughtless insults require no intimacy between dog and person, no exchange of understanding. The dog obeys only because she has not been recognized as capable of intent or will. She must accept the characterization that remains: a creature with an insatiable appetite. In the remarkable story of her salvation of a dog sentenced to death, Bandit: Dossier of A Dangerous Dog (1991), Vicki described what happens when "positive reinforcement" such as biscuits are used to teach a dog to sit. Such rewards reduce "the complex of meanings" that a dog can give to the act of sitting. "Continual treat reinforcement of the puppy's sitting discourages the puppy from trying to mean anything but a treat.... Truth becomes a dog biscuit, an M & M, a sitcom, or cocaine ... whether or not the human beings know that in the process they and the dog have lost a language and thus a world."
We are really too much animal. The nearness, the absolute relation between animals and humans becomes imperative whenever civility, its costly and permanent rituals, are to be guaranteed. Circuits of pardon, rectitude, and retribution depend on an unspoken, secret intimacy with the animals we order, the objects of our discipline and our duplicity. In Exodus, the ox that gored a person must be stoned. In Plato's Laws, any beast or thing that killed a person must be sent for its "offense" beyond the boundaries of the country, "exterminated" in the literal and original sense of the term. The object of these measures was to appease the wrathful dead, since the claim of a soul hurried out of this world outweighed the claim of the dead man's kinfolk. Vengeance must be wreaked upon the object before the dead could lie in peace. But in English law this peculiar practice centered on forfeiture of the offending object. At one time, any personal chattel that caused the death of any reasonable creature was believed to carry homicidal taint and malicious influence. Later, in these deaths by misadventure, the sword, horse, cart, or tree that in legal language moved to the death of a person would be surrendered to the victim or his kin, not as a true restitution for the damage done, but as both expiatory offering and ransom by the owner of the wrong-doing thing.
Imagine the scene. If a man in a stiff drunk tripped over his dog, legally the dog would be judged as moving to the death of the deceased. Or if another creature supposed to be "reasonable" is thrown off his horse or falls off his boat, revenge is taken on the horse or boat. As Frederic Maitland elegantly puts it in The History of English Law (1898), "many horses and boats bore the guilt which should have been ascribed to beer." Known as "deodand," meaning "a thing given to God" (Deo dandum--that is to be given to God) in recompense for blood casually shed, this early modern ritual remained in practice in England until 1846 when its application to railway engines brought its irrational nature to public notice.
Maitland writes, in elaborating later mitigations of the deodand, when "the state has begun to punish the slave, it begins to excuse the master." Delivering the slave up to justice in the antebellum south, for example, freed the master from his chattel's sin; and often the master would receive restitution from the state for his loss. Lurking in the background of these barters is the sense of the "non-human." Shakespeare understood how dogs or other "brute animals" occupied a sacral place that Christianity could never wholly subdue. In rare moments, as in Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona, a dog could even introduce the idea of redemption that reversed the expected relation of domination. Lance, the rustic servant of Proteus appears on stage with his dog Crab standing before him or beside him. Lance explains to the audience how he takes on his back the burden of Crab's many sins: "How many masters would do this for his servant? Nay, I'll be sworn I have sat in the stocks for puddings he hath stolen, otherwise he had been executed. I have stood on the pillory for geese he hath killed, otherwise he had suffered for it."
Such a reversal of blame and relocation of sacrifice is rare. When an owner euthanizes a dog for not being house trained, when politicians use animals as objects of pathos and symbols of care, when drug companies test dogs for the benefit of human cure, dogs are still threatened with "noxal surrender," given up to ideas of privilege, right, and civility. Now in the twenty-first century, persons and dogs constitute a history in which resurrection of the body is no longer the issue: how does the person or dog come back, in the same husk as in death or in a different form, a new skin, bones realigned, and blemishes gone? Instead, what matters is just how persons and dogs occupy space, up or down, in or out. Even though questions about the body's return on the Last Day no longer concern us, tactics of judgment, retribution, and atonement remain essential to the stories we tell ourselves in order to manipulate and control.
In the Old Testament, dogs are always hungry. They eat Jezebel. They eat meat mangled by beasts in the field. They lick up the blood of evil doers or devour the kin of Jeroboam and Baasha. In one of Jeremiah's many curses, the Lord selects four kinds of destroyers: "the sword to kill, the dogs to drag away, the birds of the air and the wild animals of the earth to devour and destroy." Animals are not yet diabolical, truly bewitched by the devil, but they are common and contaminated. Only some are clean enough to be eaten by the Jews consecrated to God. Others are marked as outside the transactions of holiness and are forbidden in the elaborate dietary codes of Leviticus. Later, the criminal prosecution of animals, Jews, and buggers, taken together to the scaffold or burned alive qualified the meaning of the detestable and abhorrent. Jacobi Dopleri in his Theatrum Poenarum, Suppliciorum et Executionum Criminalium (1692) took Mosaic law and applied the vengeance of the Jewish Code against the unclean, the witch, and the sodomite to Jews themselves. Jean Alard, who kept a Jewish woman in his house in Paris and had several children, was convicted of sodomy and burned, together with his lover, "since coition with a Jewess is precisely the same as if a man should copulate with a dog."
What a load animals must bear. Recall the Roman anniversary celebration that customarily crucified dogs, who, unlike the sacred geese, did nothing to warn against the night-attack of the Gauls on the Capitol. Or Descartes' answer to Luther's belief that dogs would be admitted to Heaven: animals are machines, not only without immortal souls but without any mental experiences. In his Essay Locke worked hard to suggest that dogs, parrots, monkeys could be understood to be "corporeal rational creatures," even if their outward structure was not that of a man: "And who is it has informed us that a rational soul can inhabit no tenement, unless it has just such a sort of frontispiece.... ?" Rejecting the Cartesian immaterial soul, while giving a kind of sensuous reason to animals, Locke wrote: "For if they have any ideas at all, and are not bare machines (as some would have them) we cannot deny them to have some reason. It seems as evident to me, that they do some of them in certain instances reason, as that they have sense; but it is only in particular ideas, just as they received them from their senses." If God can add thought to persons, according to Locke, then He can also add the thinking principle to matter. Put simply: matter thinks in animals, and the differences between animal and human consciousness--both highly material--are only of degree.
Now, in our decent and all-too-human times, Peter Singer argues for the sanctity of animal life by making an analogy between animals and the incapacitated and insane. Since animals suffer and feel pain like these disabled humans but have the extra-added ingredient of reason, even if limited, they deserve to occupy a place of rights as "non-human persons." The horror of drug testing on dogs and cats, the care and stuffing of cows, chickens, pigs, or sheep for slaughter are not debatable. But Singer's argument seems close to the ethical pathos of abolitionists' arguing for the better treatment, indeed emancipation of slaves, granting freed slaves--as Frederick Douglass knew--some utility, even understanding, but never the privilege of possessing their own complete and independent thought. What, then, do these rights called for so urgently look like, and legally, how would they be constituted? The hunt is ended in England; foxes are saved from cruelty. But at what cost? Rural lives torn apart by unemployment. Thousands of hounds put to death. In this animal fable, who gets to determine who or what has rights? Which rights matter, and when? As Carl Schmitt recognized in The Concept of the Political (1932), given the concrete reality of the political, liberal aggression, under cover of "humanitarian" claims, might promise a new kind of annihilation.
In Leviticus, besides burnt offerings of bullocks, sheep, goats, turtledoves, there remains the central sacrifice of the Day of Atonement, the sign of true repentance: the goat set apart for Azazel. In the days of the Temple, the High Priest went before two goats, alike and equal. Two lots made of gold were thrown together into a casket from which he drew one lot as sacrifice on the altar for the "Name Most High, and one for the rocky steep," released into the wilderness to Azazel. He cried aloud, putting both hands on the goat: "A sin-offering unto the Lord." After confessing the sins of the people of Israel, he sent this goat, with a scarlet fillet around his jowls and the congregation's sins on his head, out beyond the city's gates and into the desert. "Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone appointed to the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region [or unto a land which is cut off]; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness."
Rituals of banishment, whether they sent animals defiled out into the wilderness or over cliffs, are crucial to cleansing and purifying a place of human holiness. Laden with sins, the goat is a terribly polluting force. Sometimes the goat tried to return to the camp, the place it had known for so long. In order to prevent that last romp, the appointed person pushed the goat into an "inaccessible area," long believed to be the place of evil spirits or demons. What happens to the goat? How is the expiation made? Wandering around in the wilderness, the goat died. Or led to a cliff and pushed over, more quickly plunged to its death.
Who or what is Azazel? Demon of the desert, satyr hiding out beyond the borders of the city. Or the goat itself. Or perhaps the place where the goat is sent. According to Rashi, writing his commentaries on the Old Testament late in the eleventh century, the sin-laden goat was delivered up to a mountain "strong" and "mighty." Rashi interprets "a land that is cut off" as "precipitous." Whether the goat walks in circles until he dies, exhausted, or is led over a cliff to his death matters little. For the ritual is less a sacrifice than a going away, for the animal is no more than a vessel for the refuse of the people of Israel: "it is being sent away for death," as Rashi stresses. Jumping off cliffs will become the ritual of choice in Mark's gospel. The unclean demons leave the man who called himself "Legion"; and, possessing a great herd of swine, rush down the cliffs and into the sea.
Out of the accursed islands of the Encantadas, where the tortoises drag under a weight of sun, Melville tells two stories of dogs. They are both in their different ways about loss. In the first case, loss of a war; in the second, loss of a beloved owner. In both stories the dogs die. "In no world but a fallen one could such lands exist." These lands are remnants so wrecked that they must be enchanted. Dog-King and Chola Widow. When the Creole whom Melville names "the Dog-King" takes over St. Charles's Island, he is accompanied by a "cavalry of large grim dogs." A mutiny occurs, and the rabble who had been kept in check by the "cavalry body-guard of dogs" fight to the death. The mutineers are victors, and "the dead dogs ignominiously thrown into the sea." The Chola Widow Hunila lives alone, stranded on the Norfolk island since her husband's death with "ten small, soft-haired, ringleted dogs, of a beautiful breed." Helped by mariners, she plans to return to her native Payta in Peru. Since all the dogs cannot be brought on board the ship, she takes only two and leaves the rest behind on the shore to die. "They did not howl, or whine; they all but spoke."
How much renunciation, finally, is necessary to get into the spirit? Dogs have eternally answered that question. They run after the residue and treasure the remnants. Perhaps they stand in for all animals in defying Nietzche's claim in "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life" that humans, though proud they are not animals nevertheless envy them "their happiness--what they have, a life neither bored nor painful." This renunciation is familiar. No one wants to be like an animal, and in this refusal, he loses the happiness he wants. But are animals 'happy'? And what does it mean to be like an animal?
Matthew tells an animal story that has not received much attention. It is repeated with some changes in Mark. A parable it is not, for it sets dogs in a precise relation to salvation in a way that is quite accountable, and not altogether unimaginable. Several chapters before this story, however, we read the famous passage most often recalled for containing the "don't cast your pearls before swine" admonition. The entirety of the warning reads: "Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you." Do we ever hear now "Hey, don't give what's holy to dogs"? And yet dogs are there, and constitute most likely the referent to "they" who will "turn" and "maul." Having domesticated dogs, we cannot reckon them as swine. Dogs are tame animals named pets in the Scottish Gaellic peata. There are pet loss hotlines, Christian counseling centers for animal friends, pet grief homilies, candle ceremonies. Animals can be buried in real cemeteries or in virtual memorial gardens and cemeteries, where grieving owners can post eulogies, prayers, and photos. Too sentimentalized to be cast out as unholy, dogs are diminished, their meaning trivialized.
Here, then, is Matthew's story of faith and service. A Canaanite woman from the district of Tyre and Sidon, in other words a gentile, shouts: "Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David: my daughter is tormented by a demon." As often when he is recognized, Jesus refuses to recognize the source of recognition. The Canaanite comes and kneels at his feet. "Lord, help me." Instead of immediately answering her plea, he responds: "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." Thus, with the call of substitution and justice, their exchange begins. "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." (In Mark, the dogs are positioned explicitly "under the table.") We are faced with the delicacy of subordination, both that of the woman and that of her dogs. Jesus answers her: "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish" (15:21-28). Her daughter is healed and no longer possessed. Not so figurative as throwing pearls before swine, but exacting and particular, throwing children's food before dogs. How has her answer proved her faith? According to Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible (1828), those whom Christ means most to honor, he first humbles. The gentiles, unlike the chosen, the children of Israel, come forth as unworthy as dogs. But so satiated are God's privileged children that they throw away both meat and sweetness, leaving the refuse as crumbs for those ready to receive.
The transactions that redefine power in Matthew's story of miraculous cure substitute an unruly Pauline materiality for the pressure of punishment in Jewish law. And dogs anchor us anew in a place we can inhabit, where memory of day, night, love, and hate, once pondered, soars in righteousness as real as light, the final grace of unarguable justice. Their presence gives renewed meaning to habitation, to what it means to abide in and with others, whether they assume the shape of animals or humans. No longer do we hear about death, now we hear of hunger and satiation. No longer about sanctification, but now about redemption. Jesus distinguishes between "whatever goes into the mouth" and "what comes out of the mouth." For what goes into the mouth ends up in the muck, but what comes out has its origins in the heart, and is thus all that can really defile: "evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander."
Are dogs really the least of all God's mercies? Here, perhaps for the only time in the Old or New Testament, dogs have something to do with salvation. As the most common thing, at the opposite end of holiness, they wait. They are the last to get the crumbs. And in that waiting, their still presence leads the way, thus becoming the medium for a new kind of sanctity. In a world where dogs and women and the poor and diseased together receive both what is thrown away and what is treasured, death no longer pollutes.
St. Paul knew that to serve in the spirit, to carry the law in the heart, meant that sins, worms, and pollution could no longer be sent away on the backs of animals or burned up in flames on the altar. Instead, filth becomes the gist of the identity of sufferers in Christ. Evil is not sweet in the mouth. But the calamity and affliction, the dead weight of matter borne lays the ground for the new life of spirit. And because of that bond in the flesh, ever more ecstatic in love. "We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day." Not holy, not pure or cleansed, but in their very persons filth and dross.
After Dogie died, I began to wonder about the thought of dogs and the life of the spirit. Surely, I wondered, in this new call of vile bodies rapt up in and riddled through with spirit, animals would walk differently on the earth. Surpassing the surrender of the goat to Azazel, Jesus' work on the cross, in breaking the power of sin, in atoning for us all by his blood, must mean that death would be different, even for dogs. "But someone will ask, How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?"
Spirits rise up as the dogs yawn, crack their joints and stretch. Dogs counsel us to learn that no thing, no one ever gives up the ghost, even when flesh and bone are consumed. In Luke, the resurrected Christ gets to keep his living body, encouraging his disciples in Jerusalem, "handle me and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones." But how to be resurrected from dry bones and putrid flesh into the spirit of God, before God, when the world is no more? "How are the dead raised?" "Stand and unfold yourself." Will the body be as it was in life, rising up without a leg, as a fetus, or with the neck marked by a hangman's noose?
I had a dream of Dogie, who returned to me in the night as ancestor spirit, speaking to me in dream, as do the gods in Haiti. He ran through green fields, as if through Elysium, though actually he romped through Sussex Park in Atlanta, across the street from my old house, the one I loved. We were all there, my parents, my vet from Tucson, and I. He looked beautiful. We acknowledged his presence with the words, "He's all right. He's all right." Dogie in the grass. Dogie dreaming himself home. He let me know that even though I did not have his ashes, I had him still.
As time passes, my other two dogs, Mehdi, the American Staffordshire Terrier, and Jesse, the Black Labrador, bring Dogie into my presence. At night they become Dogie. A consecration of times past in the instant. He enters their bodies. They look at me in peace. He stands up again, not just once and not as he died, but often, in the bodies of his companions. An intimacy of utter spirit embodied in the flesh. This possession occurred first late one night on the third floor in the Philadelphia house, where Dogie liked to sleep. Jesse lay on his bed, stretched out, her features turning sharp, her little eyes growing larger, working their way into her older brother's melancholy stare. Mehdi, who adored Dogie, came before me that same night, brought his lineaments into conformation with Dogie's thick but radiant disarray: one back leg stretched out very long, as he curled up on his side. Then he took yet another position, as he breathed out the sigh of an old dog. Front legs loosely encircling the back legs, which were straight, stiff, and parallel, pulled up under the chest. Mehdi and I lie down together on the sofa and bring Dogie back from sleep. I rub Mehdi's nose, and then, to my shock, he makes the churlish, clucking sound, something like a loud lick flexed into a gulp, tongue curled, eyes closed, that Dogie used to take me deeply to heart.
These dogs, often distant from Dogie during his life, become tender and close in his passing. Redemption is sure. The bargain has been made. Mehdi performs the logic of exchange in a ritual of memory and resurrection of times and places past that seemed irreplaceable. I am in the kitchen on a humid night in Philadelphia two weeks before the Day of Atonement. It is midnight. Mehdi sits down in front of me, soberly stares and brings Dogie back, as he was in Tucson seven years ago. Dogie takes up a position in space and time, bringing me back to a relation I had thought as dead as dust. Mehdi does the unparalleled "Up Simba" on the patio in the desert, a trick he never saw, done before he was born. The position required that Dogie sit with his back haunches on the floor, a normal sit. Then, at the summons "Up Simba," the body pulled up miraculously, and Dogie reared upright, vertical, as if standing sitting still, paws up like the lion in the circus.
In a flush of heat and wonder, everything came back to me. Mehdi filled out, enhanced by Dogie's body in its most complete and disciplined form. No waiting for the world to wear away, the moon to turn red, the whore of Babylon to ride forth. Instead, right here, right now, Mehdi grew into Dogie, and heard my voice. Dogie lost was now redeemed. And I watched in wonder, again, knowing that dogs never forget and never let go. Immersed in flesh, taking on Dogie's thought as his own, Mehdi proved how matter can think. As if listening for the pulse of the mind in him that is nothing other than Dogie's consciousness, both dogs become one and call upon me to know belief as real as a fist to the stomach, as palpable as an embrace.
JOAN DAYAN, author most recently of Haiti, History, and the Gods (University of California Press), is completing Held in the Body of the State (forthcoming Princeton University Press), and The Law is A White Dog, a series of stories on law and the supernatural. Her memoirs have appeared in the Yale Review and Threepenny Review. She teaches English and the comparative legal and religious history of the Americas at the University of Pennsylvania.