Dogs and Language

Homo homini lupus is Latin for “man is a wolf to man.”  What is this supposed to mean?  Presumably that wolves kill each other exactly as do men.  Or that wolves kill humans as humans kill humans.  But wolves kill other wolves with great infrequency, and there are only 18 documented killings of humans by wolves around the world in the 21st century (300 in the 20th century).  I don’t believe anyone knows the figures of how many wolves humans have killed in that period, but it dwarfs the imagination.  Nearly all of the wolves who have ever lived near humans have been routinely slaughtered until very recently.

In spite of this, writers as diverse as Thomas Hobbes (in the dedication of his work De cive), Freud (Civilization and Its Discontents) Pasternak (Dr. Zhivago) (though he could be somewhat forgiven; Russians appear to have been targeted more than any other country, though I wonder how much of this is myth), have used the phrase as if everyone knew it was true.

Nowhere has it been more bluntly stated than here:

It disturbs me no more to find men base, unjust, or selfish than to see apes mischievous, wolves savage, or the vulture ravenous.

Jean Paul Sartre

I know this is part of a larger problem with our use of language when it comes to animals (the theme of Joan Dunayer’s excellent book of 2001: Animal Equality:  Language & Liberation).  Not a day goes by when I do not find something in the mainstream press that makes use of one or another cliché of language with respect to animals.

Today, (September 17, 2010) in The New York Times, Julie Myerson reviewing the new book by Joyce Carol Oates, Sourland, writes, “Though the men here are often described in an animal way (hairy and potent, oafishly predatory), still there is little disgust or recoil in Oates’s writing.  The other day, again in the New York Times, I read this by Robert Wright on “The Meaning of the Koran,”:   “Meanwhile, in the hadith — the non-Koranic sayings of the Prophet — the tradition arose that Muhammad had called holy war the “lesser jihad” and said that the “greater jihad” was the struggle against animal impulses within each Muslim’s soul.

Just which animal impulses are we struggling against, I wonder, when most animals rarely kill their own kind, and others mainly (in fact, pretty much exclusively) for food?

But I wonder why so much of this is directed at wolves, considering that humans have probably never had any reason to fear wolves (who are shy creatures, rarely seen, who run off immediately and wisely at the sight of a human)?  “The wolf is at the door,” we hear.  Really?  When was the last time anyone saw a wolf at their door?  The English writer Angela Carter claims,  “the wolf is virtually synonymous with ‘id’, and with a particularly bestial type of ravening lust.  All wolves do, to acquire this reputation, is simply be prone (if they get half a chance) to bite us.  If they are not quickly stopped, they will then, as will any dog whose teeth aren’t rotten, gobble you up.”  (Shaking a Leg, p. 308.).

There it is, recently and bluntly stated.  Dogs??  I have just written The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving, so you will have to forgive my indignation.  When was the last time you heard about a dog who had gobbled up a human person?  “Dog eat dog world?”  What on earth are people thinking?

About jeffreymasson

My new book BEASTS is out this March from Bloomsbury or the eBook
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1 Response to Dogs and Language

  1. Terri says:

    Perhaps it’s true that inner beauty shines through. I say this in the context of this discussion because it seems to me that all dogs, unlike most people you meet, are beautiful to look at. I cannot remember ever meeting one that was not, at least very cute. Am I
    just preoccupied with appearances ? Or is there more to this?

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