"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

21 Mar 2012

On Dogs, Feral and Domesticated

As a newly retired person, one of my main recreational persuits will be taking regular walks either side of the river through my local park, from my house in the City centre all the way out to open countryside to the North. To the South lies the sea but the coast is urbanized. One of the things that interupts my tramping, apart from being mown down by sanctimonious cyclists and their earnest ringing, are that every other person I encounter on my travels seems to be accompanied by a dog, or several dogs, leashed and unleashed. 

There are few images more absurd in Western society than well dressed, well healed dog owners bending over scooping up the shit left behind by their pets. Even worse, you’re minding your own business taking a stroll in the park and, even if you’re lucky enough not to step in the stuff, someone’s pet will come bounding up to you and leave their frothy saliva all over your crotch. You are reassured that the beast is friendly, but what dog lovers just don’t get is that you do not share their obsessionone that often exceeds the adoration humans have for their own children.

But here, particularly on a blog concerning Cynicism, I need to distinguish between the domesticated pooch and the stray vagabonds who so inspired the ancient Cynics. As Yiannis Gabriel wrote, “Stray dogs (unlike well-groomed poodles) recognize no masters and no boundaries.” And a modern description by H. Peter Steeves of street dogs in Venezuela well describes the homeland of the ancient Cynics:

Along the city streets I see the dogs travelling. They stay on the sidewalks, in general, and cross at intersections. They trot with their heads tilted down, seldom looking around, giving the impression that they are headed somewhere important, that they know precisely where they are going and why. No mindless wandering; no stopping to beg. [. . .] There are lost dogs. There are wandering dogs. And anyone who has seen both knows there is a difference. [. . .] We think him homeless because he has no leash. His home is the neighborhood. It is not to say that all dogs belong outside, then, but it is to recognize that a neighborhood can be home, a place to belong. 

As already discussed elsewhere on this blog, the term Cynic is derived from the Greek kynicos, adjectival form of the noun for dog and literal reference to the dog-like appearance and behaviour of the followers of this sect: fornicating and defecating in public, scavenging for scraps of food, etc. Where others used it to deride the Cynics, they themselves embraced the term as a positive choice of lifestyle. But this self-characterisation as dogs should be viewed as an ironic strategy: a rhetorical device employed to expose the huge credibility gap in human behaviour between, on the one hand people’s appetite for instant gratification and hedonism, and on the other, their sham sophistication and moralizing idealism.  
     And so the wandering dog Cynics, in spite of their ideology about living close to nature, claimed the streets of the larger Mediterranean cities as there natural habitat, scavenging out an existence on the margins of mainstream societya society who they see as imprisoned by their own possessions. So Cynics, like the stray dogs they are, unencumbered by such trifles, are left free to claim their own sovereignty of the city’s streets. The detritus of other people’s lives are their inheritance, their kingdom.

And so we are left with two distinct images: 

civilised humans with their civilised (faithful) dogs  both domesticated and interdependent, the one upon the other
and vagabond humans who live independently alongside vagabond dogs in mutual respect

But of course these are generalisations and there are always humans and animals who defy any categorisation or are just confused about which camp they belong in. So to conclude this canine digression I must include a dog that my sons befriended in Spain this Christmas who minded the chickens in a yard opposite the house we occupied for a couple of weeks:
confused dog

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