Gods With Wet Noses
I do not know much about gods, but I think that my dog is a small, black god.
Faithful with a wet nose she prods me in the mornings, looking for a scratch and some scraps of food, to take a walk in the sensual heaven that is the out of doors. “A dog can never tell you what she knows from the smells of the world,” Mary Oliver suggests, “but you know, watching her, that you know almost nothing.” I can scarcely imagine a better spiritual discipline than learning from my dog, and each day I try to learn something of her world. She has proven a patient instructor.
As I’ve aged I’ve grown fatigued with the “God beyond which…” So much yada, yada, yada. Transcendence has twisted immanent for me. Some faithful have their “walk with the Lord.” For me, it’s a two-mile daily trek with a black mutt from the pound. She tells me when it is time to get up, when it is time to start walking, when it is time to stop working. She is ever caring, ever loving, ever knowing. I try to live up to her faithfulness.
Twenty years ago I visited Madrid and went to Museo del Prado, that great repository of quasi-sacred materials we tend to call art. Therein hang Francisco de Goya’s famed “Black Paintings,” the pictures he painted directly onto the plaster walls of his house, “Quinta del Sordo” (House of the Deaf Man). Goya was deaf by the time he painted them, around 1820, and as he went deaf, he painted monsters and mythical beasts on the walls of his house. Wandering in silence in this interior space, the seventy-four year old painter surrounded himself with images of Saturn devouring his children, giants fighting with cudgels, emaciated old men eating soup, and a ghoulish witches’ Sabbath.
Like a beacon in the midst of these dark brush strokes is a swath of golden color from one of the paintings. It shimmers. And on that day two decades ago it drew me into its space. When I arrived there I found the smallest of creatures, barely visible in a wave of water: a dog’s head, eyes upturned. Art historians have long been attracted to the image, but befuddled in attempts to describe it. Comments on the painting typically use words like “enigmatic” and “mysterious,” and rarely go further.
I was dogless at the time, living like a stray as I worked through a few grad schools, but Goya’s was a dog I would like to have rescued. Amidst a sea of gold, the dog’s head looks up. But there is nothing there. Nothing to save it from whatever danger it now seems to face. Goya himself didn’t even give his dog a name, but El Prado calls it “Perro semihundido,” Half-buried dog. The wall tag by the painting quotes a Prado curator saying, “there is no living painter who does not pray in front of The Dog.”
More than just “man’s best friend,” we hominids evolved alongside canines. Recent evidence suggests this occurred much earlier than previously thought, as in tens of thousands of years earlier. Usually the scientists tell us we humans domesticated the dog, but it seems obvious the change was mutual. We are human because they are dog. They found a useful companion, and then formed us in their image. At times they even look on us and see that it is good.
Their recognition makes us, keeps us, human. The late, great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas tells the story of his encounter with a dog in the midst of a prisoner of war camp during World War II:
There were seventy of us in a forestry commando unit for Jewish prisoners of war in Nazi Germany. . . . We were beings entrapped in their species; despite all their vocabulary, beings without language. . . . How to deliver a message about one’s humanity which, from behind the bars of quotation marks, will come across as anything else than the language of primates.
And then, about halfway through our long captivity, for a few short weeks, before the sentinels chased him away, a wandering dog entered our lives. One day he came to meet this rabble as we returned under guard from work. He survived in some wild patch in the region of the camp. . . . He would appear at morning assembly and was waiting for us as we returned, jumping up and barking in delight. For him, there was no doubt that we were [human].
Perhaps the dog that recognized Ulysses beneath his disguise on his return from the Odyssey was a forebear of our own. But no! There, it concerned Ithaca and the fatherland. Here, the place was nowhere. Last Kantian of Nazi Germany, not having the brains needed to universalize maxims out of one’s drives, this dog descended from the dogs in Egypt. And his friendly growling–the faith of an animal–was born from the silence of his forefathers on the banks of the Nile.
Forget Kant. Forget his god. Forget the universalized maxims. Transcendence, if it comes at all, comes through the nostrils. The recognition of the dog who senses that it is good. The sensual knowledge that surpasses rational understanding. Bodies sensing other bodies. There then, that is the heart of it all.
I live in some dyslexic world, where my dog is a god, where salvation is little different than salivation. Inverting god into dog inverts the transcendent into the immanent, the ethereal for a super-sensed now.
This year I moved to Madrid, which is marvelous, but I had to leave my dog behind. The dog and I took a cross-country trip last summer as I left her in the care of my mother, who is grateful for the company. Most mornings I miss her wet nose, my walk, the feel of her fur.
But I’ve rediscovered that other dog, hanging in the hushed halls of El Prado. I’ve gone back to the cathedral, navigated my way to the little capilla of room 67, and found the altar. This time my prayers are not for the gold-hued dog, but for my own, the one I had to leave behind.
 Emmanuel Levinas, “The Name of a Dog, or Natural Rights.” In Difficult Freedom. Trans. Seán Hand. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
S. Brent Plate is a writer, editor, and part-time college professor at Hamilton College. Recent books include A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual To Its Senses (Beacon Press) and Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World (Columbia University Press). His essays have appeared at Salon, The Los Angeles Review of Books, America, The Christian Century, and The Islamic Monthly. More at www.sbrentplate.net or on Twitter @splate1.