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A sound of gulls, a sunlit port, human voices, barking dogs. In a city market, dogs are sitting, lying down, walking past. Dogs gather in the center of the screen. Night falls. A dog gives birth; she nurses her babies. A constable in sharp silhouette comes and looks on as, growling, she huddles over her young.
So begins Serge Avedikian’s fifteen-minute animated film Barking Island (originally Chienne d’histoire in French), which, in 2010, won the Palme d’Or as the best short film at Cannes. The images are paintings by Thomas Azuélos, made deep and weighty, contoured yet dissolving at the edges, almost palpable.
Once the music changes, the scene shifts to humans at a long table discussing how to eliminate the dogs. Newspapers announce that there are more than 60,000 dogs on the streets of Constantinople. The Turkish authorities appeal for an end to them. After exploring various options—gassing, incineration, turning corpses into meat for human consumption—offered by the Pasteur Institute in Paris and other European experts, the Turks decide to round the dogs up and abandon them on a deserted island in the Bosporus.
But we do not know this, not yet. We see the dogs and we hear growls. They sense the danger. Men arrive. The bitch tries to protect her young, as other dogs are grabbed, netted, and snared, dropped into wooden crates. A sputter of orange, splash of red, and dogs overlap, catch the light or obscure its glare. Dogs crouch, or bend into the upswing of their heads, mouths open, turned toward the men who have come to get them. Touches of white, yellow, light brown, black, even. It is difficult to watch this gouache of light and blood, presented against the sheer shape of dogs: their firm, jagged forms, the contours of bodies. Then we see crated dogs carried to a boat, and we hear the sound of gulls and the whimpering of dogs at sea. The whimpers become squeals as the boat nears the rock island. In a blaze of sun, in the yellow sky of the afternoon, the crates are thrown and crash against the rocks, as the dogs are left to die on crags that have no green, where nothing lives or grows.
Now, in the darkness, desperate cries are heard, while the forces of law and order, the Turkish officials, are shown in the city, sitting comfortably at their meal, these stern and approximate humans. Winds blow into the room, carrying howls and wailing. The men shut the window. In the last scene, spellbinding in its visual intensity, a cruise ship passes by the island of dogs. A painter sketches the desperate and the dying, the skeletons, the dogs. Some are still alive and barking. They jump into the water and swim toward the ship. A passenger hides her eyes. Another takes photos. The ship pulls away as the dog bodies become black specks in the water, and the sea soon covers them over. But suddenly we hear the barks and, again, the howls. Is this real or a haunting memory of what had been life? A shot of the rock island, the bones, the vultures. There is not even the shadow of a dog left. It is over. In 1910 more than 30,000 dogs were exterminated. Avedikian links the Armenian Genocide, carried out by the Turks beginning in April 1915, to these thousands of dogs cleansed from the streets of Constantinople and left to starve. Dogs were cast as perfect equivalents to those marked for displacement and death.
The film links the Armenian Genocide to the 30,000 dogs cleansed from the streets of Constantinople in 1910.
During the entire film we never hear a human voice, only the dogs. In every slaughter—and they continue today with increasing regularity—dogs alone seem prominent, present to our ears, or to our eyes. In Whistler, British Columbia last year, after the Winter Olympics, a hundred sled dogs who hauled tourists for a company called Outdoor Adventures were slaughtered execution-style by the person who raised and named them. In March dogs were shot by their caretakers on a shooting range across the street from the Chesterfield County, South Carolina animal shelter. And now, an estimated 40,000 dogs on the streets of the Romanian capital Bucharest face extermination if the country’s Chamber of Deputies approves a proposal to allow the euthanasia of stray dogs wandering in the city. Euthanasia is only one option. Marcela Pisla, president of the animal rights organization Cutu-Cutu, warns, “We have seen photographs as well as videos showing dogs being killed with metal bars, electrocuted and having their throats slashed.”
“Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine.” The pariah dog adds the finishing touch to the death of ex-consul Geoffrey Firmin in the fascist Mexico of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. In J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, all the dogs euthanized by Bev Shaw give sense and heft to David Lurie’s gift of honor, his service to dead dogs in post-Apartheid South Africa making him something more than human—“a dog-man: a dog undertaker; a dog psychopomp; a harijan.” What does it mean to live, to think, in Coetzee’s words, “like a dog”? Why does this question matter so urgently now? What does it mean to live in a world so depraved that to be like a dog is a compliment?
These questions come up unexpectedly. They intrude upon my teaching William Carlos Williams. Take Paterson, and imagine approaching Williams’s language experiment, his cult of particulars, with dogs on the mind. Perhaps it’s not too far-fetched, since he begins Book One with a preface that marks the terrain of the poem in a way that cannot easily be put aside: “Sniffing the trees, / just another dog / among a lot of dogs. . . . / Scratch front and back. / Deceive and eat. Dig / a musty bone.” This dog is assuredly not Eliot’s Jacobean dog, digging into Webster’s White Devil to introduce the dirge of The Waste Land. Instead, Williams’s dogs come in and out of the first three books of his long poem, scratching, peeing, and clambering at large in the park that prohibits their entry. How much can I make of these dogs? The dog is as crucial to the meaning of this epic as Argos is to the Odyssey. And the lines on a dead dog form the most Homeric part of the poem:
A dog, head dropped back, under
sticking up :
tense with the wine of death
on the swift current :
Something about death and dogs makes me think and teaches me about how humans come to know and when we ought to care. The involvement of humans in the death of dogs, stray or owned, is so persistent as to give us no way out. Reasonable slaughter, necessary removal, and enlightened euthanasia tell our history, and these dogs, judged errant and ordered dead, form the ugly reality beneath the veneer of civilization.
Colin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University. Her books include The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons, The Story of Cruel and Unusual, and Haiti, History, and the Gods. She has just published With Dogs at the Edge of Life, a fierce personal enquiry into canine profiling, preemptive justice, and extermination.
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