Two Greek gods walk into a bar. This is not the beginning of a joke, but the premise of André Alexis’s brilliant novel, Fifteen Dogs. Ensconced in the legendary Wheat Sheaf tavern in the heart of old Toronto, Apollo and Hermes wager that another species, if given human intelligence, will be more tortured than humanity itself, each member doomed to an unhappy death. Language, as the shaper of our form of consciousness, is thus the first creation of the fifteen dogs in a nearby shelter who are suddenly and miraculously granted the self-awareness and rational powers of humans. It is both amusing and tragic to observe how the canine mind registers its characteristic outlook (its sensations and desires so deeply conditioned by smell) in words and sentences. Amusing because Alexis is so very good at finding linguistic analogues for doggy experiences, and tragic because language is power, and power exercised through speech is an alien and disruptive presence in the hierarchical and tribal world of dogs.
Fifteen Dogs is a philosophical work. It studies the foundations of society, the relationship between the individual and the collective, the nature of leadership, the tension between ends and means. But it is also a study in character: it traces the disparate ways in which individual dogs adapt (or fail to adapt) to the change that has come upon them. Between Atticus, physically the most imposing of the dogs, and Prince, a mongrel who discovers the aesthetic pleasures of language, a primal struggle between pragmatism and poetry plays itself out. Like many leaders, Atticus fears creativity. It is he who decrees that the dogs shall continue to live as dogs, to avoid language, to shun introspection, to maintain the old ways. Established in a remote corner of High Park, the pack attempts to sustain itself without human aid. But the collective cannot function as it used to: the possession of language undermines blind obedience, and order can only be maintained through violence. Under the dictatorship of Atticus, the dogs are “forced to perform a version of dogness convincing enough to please other dogs who had, to an extent, forgotten what dogness was. Were any of them actually barking or growling in the old way?”
In Homeric fashion, Alexis also portrays the response of the Olympian gods to the mischievous wager of two of their own. Eight separate interventions are called for, most of them to restore the balance of natural justice that has been so badly upset. Alexis suggests that the gods do care for mortals: they wish to prevent suffering; but they cannot protect us from death. One by one, the dogs die, each in a state of pain, sorrow, or outright misery—until only Prince, the poet, remains. As death approaches, much more than the outcome of the bet depends on his state of mind. What degree of awareness is compatible with happiness? Is language an artefact or a tool? Can poetry save us from inner darkness? With an insight that is arguably more Christian than Greek, Prince (now blind and deaf) dies in a state of wonder and gratitude, affirming the beauty of language. “He had not explored all of its depths, but he had seen them. And so it occurred to Prince that he had been given a great gift. More: it was a gift that could not be destroyed. Somewhere, within some other being, his beautiful language existed as a possibility, perhaps as a seed. It would flower again.”
The contrary proposition—that a human might refuse the benefits of language, might prefer to inhabit a bestial form of consciousness—is considered in Pauline Holdstock’s moving and inventive novel, The Hunter and the Wild Girl. Set in a remote region in Languedoc at an indeterminate point in the early twentieth century, the story is that of an enfant sauvage who comes into fleeting contact with the inhabitants of a small village. She cannot communicate in words, nor does she wish to; in something like a Rousseauvian state of uncorrupted consciousness, she sustains herself in the landscape, living wholly on the provisions of nature. To those who know of her existence, and have understood the implications of her rejection of civilized life, the girl becomes mythical, a blank screen onto which they project their desires. A village boy muses: “He has seen her, and now she is gone, an exotic to be hunted, to be outwitted, and at last to be entrapped.” A scientist remarks: “She is the original innocent. You know what that means for science. A human child developing in the wild, free of influence, free of society.”
The girl’s feral disposition is compared to the misanthropic outlook of Peyre Rouff. The one out of instinctual fear, the other in bitter knowledge of the human tendency to inflict emotional pain, both Peyre and the nameless girl have chosen solitude and exile. He was a hunter, is now a recluse, an initially benevolent man who has had the undeserved misfortune to kill his own beloved son. After a chance encounter in which he is able to help the girl, Peyre too develops a proprietary interest in her. Their paths cross in more than one sense, however. As Peyre inches grudgingly toward the recovery of his broken connection with humanity, the girl moves fiercely in the opposite direction. When at last she is tracked by dogs, captured, and incarcerated, these events compel Peyre to intercede on her behalf. His sacrificial bid to free her ironically wins him a new role in the social order.
Though they approach the matter from opposite directions, these novels probe the interwoven strands of consciousness, language, and social organization. Alexis and Holdstock equally recognize the burdens and the compensations of interactions in language, the ways in which those who can speak both create and destroy their own happiness.