05 May 2013

Animal Thoughts

I worry about what the dog does all day. Not about whether she's destroying every object in our home with her typical attitude of a cheerfully undertaken duty, though that is always a possibility. It's something more metaphysical.

The hours simply seem too long for the range of pursuits available to a dog. She may sleep in various corners of the house; she may chew on one of the frayed ropes or deteriorating rubber things that are the only toys she can't destroy inside an hour; she may look out the window. But then what? Are the pleasures of merely circulating enough?

It is unnerving to imagine this alien but not unpersonlike consciousness drifting endlessly around the house. I worry that we have made for her a prison of boredom. When she sighs as if the last new thing under the sun had just withered away, pressing her chin to the floor between outstretched paws—is it our fault?

Clearly, the dog does want to be taken seriously as a person. Sitting tableside and staring up, she'll vary her exasperated groans and miffed little howls until we think she must have exhausted the repertoire of her larynx. But she methodically goes on, searching for the one phrase that will be correctly decoded by our limited ears. She disapproves greatly of our various indulgences: dancing, embracing, laughing at a movie. Her eyebrows, slightly redder than the rest of her head, furrow moralistically; she places on us one paw and then the other, as a door-to-door proselytizer might lay a hand on your arm while using the other to thrust a pamphlet at you. To her dismay, we do not convert.

Of course, it is all projection, we say to stay sane. Still, the irrational worry keeps coming back: can the dog feel okay about the shape her consciousness has taken? Isn't it the nature of consciousness, to struggle against its mute and bony ceiling?

If it is all projection, the dark little booth from which it beams is not so hard to find. For I feel ever more aware of and less okay with the particular sort of animal I am as the years go on. Having reached a state of abundant comfort, I realize with horror how painless it would be to continue in this fashion for decades on end, living pleasantly while getting nothing of consequence done—at only the bargain cost of being visited on the hour by the voice that intones: So, now you are closer to death. What have you accomplished?

To my animal brain it is about enough. I am fed, and loved, and entertained, and lucky—a better than expected outcome, all in all. What I am not is accomplished; what I am not is great. It seemed for twenty years or so that if I got the outward circumstances of my life in order the rest would follow. Feeling innately and inarticulately that I was a superior artist and an inferior animal, I put my energies into making a safe habitat for myself and expected that the art would come to fill it. But I may have gotten it exactly wrong. I am rather too good at being an animal, distracted into contentment by the slightest spring breeze, by minute gradations in the color of the lake from day to day. Ready to curl up and sleep in any patch of sun until it moves and I awake, dry-mouthed and desolated.  

Perhaps it will ultimately be good for the character, the tectonic shift in confidence that has occurred in the past year or so. Even more than before, I stand agape at the vast range of human endeavors in which I lack all skill, and at the vast-enough numbers of very talented artists—my contemporaries! As a child it was easy to believe they all lived unthreateningly in the past—afoot in those few fields whose corners I sometimes clumsily cross. I guess this is the task: to look on who they are and what they do with admiration, but save my envy and emulation for how hard they work. It may not be enough, but what else is there? Only to sit staring up beside the table, emitting a muttering whine of incomprehensible want. 

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