Canis Modernis Book Review

Book Review: Canis Modernis: Human/Dog Coevolution in Modernist Literature, by Karalyn Kendall-Morwick

–Reviewed by Courtney Wennerstrom

Courtney’s assessment of Kara’s book: 10/10

Courtney’s assessment of Kara’s book: 10/10

Full disclosure before I begin: Kara is one of my closest friends. She, her now husband, Joey Kendall-Morwick, and I met in graduate school at Indiana University, Bloomington, where we learned to teach, write, and research; hosted a ton of parties; and co-founded the first-successful animal advocacy organization on the Indiana University, Bloomington campus. We have supported each other as we cared for and lost several beautiful dogs and cats to old age and sickness–and she was right by my side at my wedding in 2016. In short, we have been learning from each other for nearly two decades…yet I remain in awe of her brilliance.

Given our history, I expected to like Kara’s book. But I can say–from the part of me that is still a literary critic and not simply a friend–Canis Modernis: Human/Dog Coevolution in Modernist Literature is a stunning, necessary read for anyone interested in the human-dog relationship. And while scientific research on the human-animal bond is often translated for non-academics by journalists, this is not often the case with literary studies.. Let’s change that…

Literature is Going to the Dogs: What fiction teaches us about the human-animal bond that science cannot

Science is just now scratching the surface of what has made human-dog coevolution possible–accounting for our astonishing partnership with the descendants of wolves. Institutes devoted entirely to understanding interspecies relationships–including HABRI (Human Animal Bond Research Institute); HABA (Human Animal Bond Association; and the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue, for example–are unlocking the fascinating secrets of the human-animal bond and canine cognition, revealing how dogs solve problems, communicate, and even perceive the world. As research unveils the mysteries of animal sentience and coevolution, literature–with its imaginative gaze inside the canine psyche–illuminates the philosophical and ethical implications of our relationships with animals in ways that science rarely can on its own. As a complement to empirical evidence and research, fiction dramatizes and wrestles with  traditional (and false) distinctions between humans and nonhuman animals–developing empathy and compassion. In short, literature asks us to rethink common ideas that harm animals and the planet, and to celebrate our mutual interdependence and interspecies entanglements instead.

In her stunning new look at dogs in modernist fiction (written in the first half of the 20th century), Professor Karalyn Kendall-Morwick shows how novelists as diverse as Jack London, Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Beckett depict dogs as subjects worthy of respect, rather than as objects or metaphors for the human condition. As Buck, White Fang, Tulip, Flush, and other canine characters prance and sniff their way through the pages of the literature she examines, they challenge Cartesian and humanist philosophies that have long positioned animals as inferior to humans. Under her thoughtful examination, we discover the many ways that literary dogs demand ethical consideration, not just for themselves or other canines, but for all animals. Modernism’s convincing arguments against speciesism–meaning outdated assumptions that humans are superior and have the right to exploit and abuse non-human animals–are timely and relevant, especially as dogs become more entrenched in our families and social structures in ways that highlight the exclusion of other animals from our love and respect.

Evolution is always coevolution…

Conventional narratives about evolution imply that domestication is something we do to animals to make them more useful to us. Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, researchers at Duke University, turn this notion upside down in an article for National Geographic news–arguing that wolves really domesticated us. Recognizing dogs as our true coevolutionary partners–who have actively created our bond and made us useful to them–is radical, forcing us to acknowledge the astonishing intelligence and versatility of our canine companions. Novelist Jack London, famous for the Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906), has long underscored such post-Darwinian understandings of coevolution, characterizing Buck and White Fang as resilient beings who can easily survive on their own but choose to cooperate with people. Their tameness, loyalty, and willingness to work with specific humans are represented as adaptive qualities that affirm, in Kendall-Morwick’s apt phrasing, “the co-constitutive and cooperative nature of the human/dog relationship” that place “interpretive and communicative demands on both partners that disrupt human self-absorption” (15). Put another way, London looks forward to recent scientific findings about coevolution, encouraging readers to let go of false beliefs that we simply control or coerce dogs and other animals to do our bidding.

London’s holistic approach to human-dog relationships–wherein both parties engage in meaningful communication and learn to decipher one another’s body language and emotions–anticipates Brian Handwerk’s explanation in Smithsonian Magazine of just how deeply they attach to us: “dogs hijack the mechanism in our brains that create the strongest social bonds, including those between a mother and child”. In other words, dogs live in the cognitive center of where we love hardest. It’s no wonder, then, that dogs and people get a rush of the love-drug, oxytocin, when we gaze into each other’s eyes. Through Kendall-Morwick’s careful analysis, we find sophisticated modernist correctives to attitudes that demean the human-animal bond–such as theorists Deleuze and Guattari’s views of dogs as “sentimental, Oedipal animals”–giving dogs subjectivity, agency, interpretive skills, and the ability to choose who they love.

Canine Sensory Experience May Just Be Richer Than Poetry…

While scientists focus on the physical characteristics that create dogs’ dazzling sense of smell— marveling at their 300 million olfactory receptors and vomeronasal organ (something humans lack) that detects pheromone molecules inaccessible to us–writers have long considered the ethical significance of possessing such a powerful nose. In her lesser-known biography of Elizabeth Barrent Browning’s spaniel–Flush: A Biography (1933)–Virginia Woolf imagines the poet’s beloved pet adventuring across Italy, luxuriating in “a rapture of smells” that exceeds our ability to articulate, as this passage suggests:

“Here, then, the biographer must perforce come to a pause. Where two or three thousand words are insufficient for what we see – and Mrs. Browning had to admit herself beaten by the Apennines: ‘Of these things I cannot give you any idea,’ she admitted – there are no more than two words and perhaps one-half for what we smell. The human nose is practically non-existent. The greatest poets in the world have smelt nothing but roses on the one hand, and dung on the other. The infinite gradations that lie between are unrecorded. Yet it was in the world of smell that Flush mostly lived. Love was chiefly smell; form and colour were smell; music and architecture, law, politics and science were smell. To him religion itself was smell. To describe his simplest experience with the daily chop or biscuit is beyond our power. Not even Mr. Swinburne could have said what the smell of Wimpole Street meant to Flush on a hot afternoon in June. As for describing the smell of a spaniel mixed with the smell of torches, laurels, incense, banners, wax candles and a garland of rose leaves crushed by a satin heel that has been laid up in camphor, perhaps Shakespeare, had he paused in the middle of writing Antony and Cleopatra – But Shakespeare did not pause. Confessing our inadequacy, then, we can but note that to Flush Italy, in these the fullest, the freest, the happiest years of his life, meant mainly a succession of smells….”

The lushness of the canine olfactory system–where everything, even love, can be inhaled–overshadows the expressions of the greatest poets in English, whose “words are insufficient” to translate the pleasures of breathing in the environment. Woolf’s “olfactory aesthetics” exemplifies what semiotic theorists call the umwelt–or the concept that every animal experiences a unique world shaped by its sensory abilities. Flush may not speak or write, yet he anticipates recent scientific estimates that dogs’ sense of smell is 10,000-100,000 times more robust than ours–proving Woolf’s assertion that “the human nose is practically non-existent” in comparison. Woolf here “breaks with an entire humanist tradition that prizes language as evidence of a human surpassing of the animal” (85), flipping a common narrative: because our sense of smell pales by comparison, we–not our canine companions–are the ones who live in an impoverished reality. In essence, Woolf shows just how much we can learn from dogs.

Dogs Demand That We Treat Other Animals with Respect, even though they help us exploit them simultaneously…

While dogs are incredibly smart and loving, they are not exceptional compared to other domesticated or wild species, who are equally (if not more) intelligent, social, and empathetic. The fact that we view our dogs as individuals with names, distinct personalities, bodily autonomy, and idiosyncrasies that make them unique and irreplaceable ought to help us embrace the fact that every animal on earth is equally sentient. Categorically, as representatives of all animals, our beloved dogs can teach us that other beings are worthy of respect and protection. Yet, because dogs have worked closely with humans to create hunter-gatherer societies, they are complicit in the exploitation of the animals we hunt and eat. Pigs, as a case in point, are smarter than any other domesticated animal, and are also the easiest to train–yet many dog lovers still consider pigs food: a paradox at the heart of Kendall-Morwick’s riveting chapter on Samuel Beckett and Emmanuel Levinas.

To love our dogs madly, only to turn around and treat the majority of animals as objects to use for our culinary delight, fashion, or pleasure–denying them both their individuality and right to exist freely in their own bodies–leads to an impossible desire to have it both ways: we want to feel good about our violence towards animals even when it is ultimately impossible to justify. In Kendall-Morwick’s eloquent estimation, “the elusive goal of humane slaughter” (162) is a futile attempt to avoid coming to terms with the fact that we oppress and kill animals who are just like our dogs every single day. In these ways, modernist writers offer a powerful critique of the fundamental beliefs at the core of the environmental atrocities and animal cruelty, inspiring us to embrace new stories about human-animal interdepdence that will ultimately help save the planet, our fellow beings, and ultimately, ourselves.

Genre: Academic literary criticism and animal studies/literary canine studies.

Who Should Read This Book: Anyone interested in how literature imagines human-dog coevolution; getting a fascinating historical overview of how the “human” as a category has been defined and has evolved overtime; or thinking about the modern period’s often conflicting views of dogs.

Who Should Not Read this Book: Anyone daunted by academic prose or bored by literature.

The Takeaway: Modernist fiction anticipates and complicates recent scientific discoveries about animal behavior, cognition, and sentience–helping to parse out the ethical conundrums dogs– as our closest coevolutionary partners–raise. In particular, modernist writers take to task outdated, dangerous presumptions of human superiority that lead to the exploitation of other animals.

Kara Kendall-Morwick is Associate Professor of English at Washburn University, where she teaches literature and writing. Her research focuses on representations of animals and human/animal relationships in 20th and 21st century literature and culture. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas with her husband, dogs Ada and Bijou, cats Vincent, Zora, Dorian, and Lemon, and an ever-changing roster of kittens she fosters for Lawrence Humane Society. She is also a board member for Topeka Community Cat Fix, a nonprofit dedicated to TVNR (trap-vaccinate-neuter/spay-return) of community cats.