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What does Fifteen Dogs tell us about Canadian diversity?


What does Fifteen Dogs tell us about Canadian diversity?[i] Canadian universities are being asked to consider how the principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion are affecting our scholarship, research, and teaching. Here, I am wondering how these principles could change the questions we ask about literature. Fifteen Dogs, the site of a fictional experiment on the nature of what the text posits as “human intelligence” affords a good opportunity to ask this question. Does the text see human intelligence as singular or diverse? How does the plot depict it? First, the subtitle names the text an apologue, a moral fable with animals as characters. However, this fiction provides no clear resolution to the dilemmas it raises. If there is a message, it is that everyone mortal must die, and that fact makes life meaningful. The power of the text comes out of its working through  the details of seventeen deaths (fifteen dogs and two humans) and the questions they raise for readers about identity, community, grief and happiness, and the nature of a life well lived..

The “DRAMATIS CANES” (n.p. Capitals in original) at the front of the text carefully identifies each dog by name, sex, and breed. Is this naming meant to distinguish the dogs from the usual dramatis personae or to suggest that they may figure equally in their difference? That is, might they be considered persons in their own right? For the gods and humans in the text, sex and gender identities remain important, and ethnic identities are not addressed, although the species distinctions between the immortals and mortals is an important recurring theme. For the dogs, breed, sex and size matter, mainly for the way in which they and others perceive them. The sex of the dogs also matters, to the dogs themselves, to readers, and to the success of the experiment  because of the rapid way in which an initially sex-balanced sample for Hermes and Apollo’s experiment rapidly gives way to one conducted with male participants only. Scientists now recognize that women are not just hypervariant males and that experiments conducted on male subjects alone constitute bad science. There is no evidence in this text that the two male gods who launch this experiment recognize or care that their results may be skewed, nor is the supposedly omniscient narrator troubled by the rapid elimination of females from the experimental pool. Both gods interfere with the progress of the experiment in ways that obviously invalidate its conclusions as a legitimate experiment, but only the rapid elimination of the female participants is presented as a natural indication of the way things just are. There is no recognition that their elimination will affect the assessment of what happens to dogs when granted what the gods imagine to be “human intelligence.”

Given the results, one might conclude that there is something about “human intelligence,” thus conceived, that is fatal to females. Agatha unwittingly chooses her painful death through her soft-hearted dedication to her mistress. Lydia’s temperament responds to her new awareness of time by retreating into a catatonic state (19). The male dogs rationalize their need to eliminate the other females from their evolving understanding of their new pack. After the elimination of the females, the experiment proceeds with the male-only sample until Prince’s redemption in death after suffering his Job-like afflictions is represented as a triumph for all mortals in a world governed by capricious chance.  The role of gender in the text is thus both troubling and ambiguous. Although a reader such as myself may see this text as an implied critique of how scientific experiments have been conducted within humanist systems of science, I have not seen this element of the text mentioned in the reviews or in the single thesis devoted to it to date. Prince’s death is described in humanist terms, yet the fact that he is not a human implies a subtle extension of humanist values to include other earthly creatures, even encouraging the reader to “make kin” in Donna Haraway’s terms, with other species.

In this way, I see the book as staging an encounter between humanist and posthumanist thinking, and inviting further thought about assumed category distinctions, especially differences between male and female, and between gods, humans, and animals. It asks if human intelligence is singular or diverse, implying it can take many different forms: extending to encompass the creativity of Prince, the sagacity of Majnoun, the hierarchical orientation of Atticus, the cunning of Benjy (all males), and in a much more limited but importantly suggestive way, the emotional intelligence of Athena and Bella in their reciprocal partnership. In an unexplained switch from referring to human thinking to naming it primate thinking, the narrator notes: “Perhaps the most striking sign that ‘primate thinking’ could be useful, however, was in the relationship between Bella and Athena” (24). This idea is not developed, beyond the irony of the final exchange between the two: Athena says: “’’These males fight for any reason’;” and Bella replies: “’It has nothing to do with us’” (30).

Each manifestation of thinking exhibits both the strengths and weaknesses of traits that humans label as components of their intelligence. The novel’s focus on the development of a new language as the central aspect of “human intelligence” is only part of what constitutes the full range of the gift. However, along with self-consciousness, a capacity to question, and an awareness of the passing of the time, it is what drives the narrative forward and destroys the remnant community of twelve that choose to leave the clinic. In what follows, I will address how the novel presents the entanglements of intelligence, language, memory, community, mastery, and relationality.

I have already suggested that the text cannot be read as a simple allegory that uses animals to stand in for humans. Despite reviewers raising Orwell’s Animal Farm as an analogue, I argue the novel makes best sense when read within the tradition of Canadian animal stories as analyzed by Travis Mason. Mason argues that our interpretations of these stories benefit when formed through both literal and figurative reading. Even when gifted with the gods’ version of “human intelligence,” Alexis’s dogs are still first and foremost dogs, with their own dog language and understanding of the world, which does not disappear with the god’s gift, since they are allowed to retain their memories. The text requires readers to accept the fiction’s founding premise: that the gods have granted these dogs a gift of “human intelligence,” as they see it. That premise functions somewhat like what Darko Suvin, writing about science fiction, labels a novum, an intervention that enables readers to see their own world through a lens of cognitive estrangement. Everything in the text works to encourage the story’s plausibility, once the existence of the gods drinking and making a bet in Toronto is accepted.

Mason argues in a 2007 book chapter for reading Canadian animal stories through the emerging dialogues between postcolonial and ecocritical approaches. These days, more than a decade later, it seems helpful to bring insights from critical posthumanism into the discussion. The novel raises old questions in a new light. What is the nature of human intelligence? What distinguishes human from other forms of intelligence? Is human intelligence itself singular or multiple? Is this story reasserting conventional humanist values at a time when they are under critique by the theories just mentioned, or can it be read as a call to rethink humanist traditions along the lines called for by Edward Said in his Humanism and Democratic Criticism? I will work through the ways the novel raises these questions in what follows.

Greco-Roman gods start the action and meddle to keep it going but their Olympian distance, immortality, and absolute power mean that their fundamental difference from the world of humans and dogs remains their key feature. Humans are on the periphery but still powerfully present on the edges of the action. The dogs’ reflections on humans allow us to see ourselves from a disorienting perspective, in which we are not the centre of the world, not even for those animals closest to us, those judged to be “man’s best friend.”  I have suggested that the selectivity of what the narrator chooses to report enables readers to form contradictory assessments of the story’s biases. For example, is the ultimate effect of the book to reinforce misogyny or to critique toxic masculinity? My students have developed persuasive arguments in support of both these assessments. Viewed from the dog’s point of view, humans do not come off well. The male humans in the book, when dealing with dogs, confuse intelligence with slavish obedience and the performance of demeaning tricks on command. Miguel (the human who rescues Majnoun after the pack has left him for dead) links it to the ability to memorize and recite a passage from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, whether or not it is understood. Only his wife Nira eventually seems open to the possibility of a dog’s intelligence that is both genuinely different and also equal. Although she and Majnoun have many misunderstandings, their relationship is genuinely reciprocal and grows into love. In asking what makes a dog a dog, and what makes humans act as they do, the novel asks indirectly about the nature of humanity and community. Accepting that dogs and humans are both social and mortal animals, it asks what distinguishes them. The answers the book suggests trouble dimensions of both the humanist and posthumanist answers one might expect.

Each dog puzzles to a greater or lesser extent over the question of dog identity and the value of belonging. Male/female hierarchies are viewed as natural by the dogs, so that when they observe humans, they see the same hierarchies. Yet in other respects, the dogs are individualized. Each of Prince’s fifteen oulipo poems incorporates the name of a different dog. Even the dogs who disappear or are killed almost immediately are given some individualization. Atticus, Benjy, Majnoun, and Prince can be assigned to type: the authoritarian, the schemer/survivalist, the intellectual, the poet. But each is also allowed to speak and act for himself with greater complexity than what a conventional moral fable might deem necessary. Sympathy is created even for the vengeful Atticus and the vain Benjy.

Among the dogs granted much attention, there are different views on questions about what it means to belong to the larger category of the dog, on the one hand, and to belong to this particular pack, granted human intelligence, on the other. Members of this pack quickly learn that other dogs now see them as generically different, and either attack or fear them as a result. Yet far from unifying their sense of cohesion as a pack, this differentiating feature further divides them, as they disagree about how to deal with their difference. The gods’ decision to leave the dogs their memories is the key to their dilemma. The dogs remember a time before their change, and as time passes, their memories turn nostalgic and risk blocking their ability to change and adapt. Only Prince is able to draw on his early memories as a source of happiness at his death.

It is assumed that dogs have their own language appropriate for communicating and expressing their sense of their dogginess prior to the god’s intervention. That prior language does not disappear but becomes overlaid by an imposed bilingualism in which human patterns of thought interfere with what is assumed to be a more affect-laden dog language of feeling and sensing. Dog language is characterized as more immediate, a medium of basic communication and a sense-based way of smelling, seeing, and hearing the world. Human language is portrayed as a language of rational thought and creative possibility—at least for the dogs. The transformed dogs in the text are bilingual in human thought and dog language. Two (Majnoun and Benjy) even add English to their repertoire.

I am arguing that by combining gods, humans, and animals in a single narrative, the novel sets itself up as a place where humanism and posthumanism collide. Conventional humanist hierarchies of power and value, with gods at the top, humans in the middle, and animals at the bottom, are questioned in some ways. The gods, although presented as more powerful, are depicted as being just as petty, jealous, irrational, and irresponsible as any human or dog in the story. Once allowed the ability to think and learn as humans do, the dogs challenge some of the borders that conventionally separate human from canine intelligence. Yet the book’s narration continually falls back upon those terms, vacillating between reinforcing and blurring those borders between the human and the canine.

The initial debate that starts the novel has Apollo presenting a posthuman view, arguing that “humans have no special merit, though they think themselves superior” (13). Hermes expresses a humanist vision, arguing that “the human way of creating and using symbols is more interesting than, say, the complex dancing done by bees” (14). Yet they agree that human intelligence is somehow special, and potentially a cause of unhappiness, whether it is viewed as “a difficult gift” (15) or “a difficult plague” (16).  By crossing one form of species intelligence with another, they create what Atticus sees as a monstrosity, what Prince sees as an exciting opportunity, and what Majnoun sees as a reality that must be dealt with. Nira, the human who with her husband Miguel rescues Majnoun after he has been left for dead by his pack,  is initially fearful of Majnoun’s hybridity, thinking he must be possessed, but slowly learns to respect his dignity and autonomy. Each remains a mystery to the other, yet their reciprocal respect grows into love.

The novel proceeds through a series of debates between positions taken by different dogs on how to deal with their new situation. In his whole-hearted embrace of the new consciousness, Prince feels “as if he had discovered a new way of seeing, an angle that made all that he had known strange and wonderful” (27). His linguistic play and poetry divide the dogs into those who “learned to suppress thinking” (27), such as Frick, Frack and Max; those who learn to live with it, such as Majnoun and Benjy; and Atticus, the dog most tormented by it.  Atticus initially poses an important question, “how are we to live, now that we are strangers to our own kind?” (31). This is the question any modern community, and certainly any immigration-based community, must ask itself. It is a question our recognition of the Anthropocene is forcing on all humans. Atticus argues the answer is to “go back to the old ways of being” (31). Majnoun disagrees: “We have this new way. It has been given to us. Why should we not use it?” 31). Yet using it proves difficult in a world where humans have not evolved into a similar kind of awareness.

In this sense, Fifteen Dogs might be read in dialogue with the first question explored in Donna Haraway’s The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness.  Haraway asks: “1) how might an ethics and politics committed to the flourishing of significant otherness be learned from taking dog-human relationships seriously” (3). When the dogs converse and interact among themselves, they ask about what it means to be a dog, yet the very fact of their asking reminds them and their readers that they are no longer just dogs. Benjy suggests their choices are to be mimic humans or dogs performing as dogs. It is only when they are depicted as interacting with humans, that Haraway’s question becomes relevant. If the story of Majnoun and Nira seems to suggest the ethics of what Haraway terms “making kin,” then Benjy shows its limits.

Through the dilemma of dogs gifted with a puzzling change in their consciousness and their circumstances, Fifteen Dogs reflects allegorically on the resistance to change, the anti-intellectualism, and the desire for ideological purity that characterize many populist reactions to globalization today. Atticus has “a notion of what an ideal or pure dog might be: a creature without the flaws of thought” (95). In Atticus’s mind, purity of being and mastery are inextricably linked. Zeus approves.  Despite the violence and suffering that Atticus’s obsession with what he has lost costs the other dogs and even himself, the narrative suggests that there is a certain nobility to his devotion to this lost cause and to what Alexis Shotwell, in the Anthropocene context, aptly terms “a purity politics of despair” (195).

In Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, Shotwell suggests an ethos humans could use “to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene: roughly, the moment that humans worry that we have lost a natural state of purity or decide that purity is something we ought to pursue and defend” (3). Although she is addressing an environmental concern with a lost purity of the natural world, such an ethos of purity also seems appropriate to Atticus’s elegy for the loss of canine purity experienced by his new dog community. And there are resonances of such feeling in the novel’s ecstatic conclusion. Throughout history, such obsessions with purity have functioned to validate various forms of group identity, usually taking recourse in nostalgia for a lost past or a fall from grace. For Atticus, it comes in the form of seeking to protect the purity of the dog, something he remembers yet feels he is losing as the new language takes hold.  As Shotwell specifies, to be against purity, as she argues we should be, is “to be against the rhetorical or conceptual attempt to delineate and delimit the world into something separable, disentangled and homogenous” (15). To attempt to embrace purity instead of recognizing complexity and complicity is to misrecognize the way things are. One might argue, for example, that for many years, the fates of dogs and humans have been entwined. Fifteen Dogs recognizes these entanglements and shows that to seek such purity is a self-defeating endeavor, yet there is also an elegiac tone to the novel as a whole, which seems to lament the lost purity of a physical way of being in the world uncontaminated by self-consciousness and the awareness of time passing.

The novel also asks to what extent the drive to purity is linked to the drive for mastery. The gods are obsessed with mastery. The price for losing the wager is to serve as slave to the other god for a year. They struggle with the Fates over who has final mastery over the fates of mortals. Like the gods, the dogs are portrayed as dependent on hierarchy so that those who are dominant actually need those who are subordinate for the pack to function. This is portrayed as a biological and social need. When they purge themselves of the weakest members, the remaining dogs, eventually an all-male community, find their social cohesion weakened. The text argues that the desire to dominate is ingrained in these dogs: in Benjy, we are told it is “strong and instinctive and belonged to the unquellable depths of himself” (63-64). Even Majnoun assesses relations in this light. His most acrimonious disputes with Nira are about this matter. Yet the gift of human intelligence appears to free the dogs, at least potentially, from the need to dominate or be dominated. With Prince’s early invention of a word in the new language for human, “the dogs could now speak of the primates without speaking of mastery” (23). In other words, as Haraway suggests, and Alexis reinforces, there are other modes of relation possibly better suited to living in our world.

Julietta Singh locates the driving force of her book Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglement in the question: “What kind of subjects—and what kind of objects—can we be for ourselves and for others if we loosen the hold of mastery?” (94). Nira believes such loosening is possible. Majnoun is less sure, but his love and respect for Nira enables him to perform that loosening. Athena and Bella show how such reciprocity might work and are killed very quickly for the threat that others see in their cooperation. Prince is the dog who most successfully combines the best of canine and human ways of sensing and knowing the world. Significantly, he is also the only dog who does not see the world through the lens of mastery and who lives without a permanent master. He is the only dog not born in Toronto, depicted as already in exile from a prairie paradise and his first and only human master, Kim, before his second exile from the pack of transformed dogs. Unlike the other dogs, he moves from human to human, retaining his independence and taking equal pleasure from composing poetry in the new language and from the delights of his senses, until vindictive Apollo deprives him of these and he has only his thoughts and his poetry left. But that is enough for Prince. He is grateful that he was given this beautiful language, privileged to glimpse its depths, and hopeful that “it was a gift that could not be destroyed” (168).  Feeling pleased, Hermes grants Prince a final gift. Hearing the voice he loved, “Prince’s soul was filled with joy” (171). As he bounds toward Kim, the narrative concludes with the assurance that “In his final moment on earth, Prince loved and knew that he was loved in return” (171). Here Prince’s devotion to creation is linked to his capacity for cross-species love, and the combination creates a happiness that has eluded all the other dogs, yet which despite its uniqueness redeems Hermes’ belief that such human intelligence, for all its costs, is indeed a gift.

Although the novel ends with Prince’s joy, it is preceded by Hermes’s meditation on the divide that separates mortal creatures from the immortal power of the gods: ”On the one hand, power; on the other, love” (170).  From such a divine perspective, the shared mortality of humans and other animals delineates a border that cannot be crossed with mortal creatures on one side of the divide and gods on the other. Hermes’s thoughts, voiced by the narrator, muse: “Death was in every fibre of their existence.  It was hidden in their languages and at the root of their civilizations. … It darkened their pleasures and lightened their despair” (170). This humanist meditation, in so much as it is inspired by the death of a dog, both implicitly critiques the exclusions of conventional humanism and extends its values to include the creativity and originality of a dog. Or does it? The answer depends on whether one sees Prince as an ordinary dog, as he sees himself; as an extraordinary hybrid of the human and the animal as a result of the gods’ experiment; or simply as a stand-in, an allegorical figure, for the human. I am arguing that while the text does make it possible for readers to choose between these options, the most satisfying choice is to refuse to choose among them.


Works Cited

Alexis, André. Fifteen Dogs: An Apologue. Toronto: Coach House, 2015.

Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Planetocene, Cthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities. Vol. 6 2015. 159-65.

—. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003.

Mason, Travis V. “Lick Me, Bite Me, Hear Me, Write Me: Tracking Animals between Postcolonialism and Ecocriticism.” In Janice Fiamengo, ed. Other Selves: Animals in the Canadian Literary Imagination. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2007. 100-124.

Said, Edward. Humanism and Democratic Criticism: New York: Columbia UP, 2004.

Shotwell, Alexis. Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Singh, Julietta. Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglement. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1979


[i] The research for this paper was conducted, in part, with support from the Canada Research Chairs program. I am grateful to my doctoral research assistant, Melanie Dennis Unrau, for her research support and editorial advice.

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