It’s not just that I don’t eat pork, I’m positively partial to pigs. If I lived in the country, which I don’t, I’d certainly be tempted to keep a pig rather than keep a dog.
Of course, there are really cute micropigs and mini pot-bellied pigs, but living in an apartment building in the city, I wouldn’t even want to keep a cat. But these little critters are smart, social, and surprisingly clean, they’re massively cute, and they get along well with dogs to boot. Here are some amazing shots from Daily Mail and The London Paper [Note: The London Paper and with it its website shut down a while ago] articles about a micro pot-bellied pig which, abandoned by its parents, was adopted by a Rhodesian Ridgeback. For two of the most adorable photos, click here and here.
About our relationships with smart, social, domesticated animals, I always wonder. How do all these stories we tell ourselves about them, and how they might relate to us, intersect with their actual existence? Is there really something “there,” or are animals rather like highly adaptive, flexible, responsive canvases onto which we scribble little shards and slivers of our own mind, of our own stories? As on the side of the human mind, it’d surely be more complicated than that. Whatever we “write” on these moving canvases certainly isn’t “fixed” like words on paper (and even words on paper are not really “fixed” at all). And since humans are obsessively good at pattern recognition, even if there happen to be no consistent patterns in the first place, feedback loops will soon kick in that, subjectively, exponentially, enrich the original pieces of the story over time. And there I’d locate the real difference between humans and animals in this model. Because, after all, we are all canvases to each other exactly in this sense—highly adaptive, flexible, responsive. The difference in this model would be that the “story” animals tell themselves about us, and how we relate to them, is enriched in a more linear fashion instead of exponentially, as it is with humans.
Whereby “linear” by no means equals “shallow.” With increased duration and depth of a human-animal relationship it becomes quite obvious, I would think, that animals grieve over the loss of their human partner—or it can at least be said that they start to act differently and consistently in such a manner that their behavior becomes indistinguishable from what we call grief. (A behavior, it should be added, that can be found elsewhere in the animal kingdom, not only in domesticated animals or human-animal relationships.)
I have been thinking about that quite a lot lately; the year before last, my father’s dog had died. For at least fifteen years my father’s lived in Spain and most of the time comparatively secluded in the country. Although I never had a dog, and I’m not sure whether I’d actually get along with a dog (or a pig, for that matter), and visited my father on his finca only about once, maybe twice a year, I was incredibly sad when my father’s dog died and at the same time very happy that the person I love most had been able to meet the dog in the years before. Why the latter? In his latest book I Am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter connects grief and the idea of living on in someone else’s mind with the kind of feedback loop I referred to above. Lev Grossman in Time Magazine:
In 1993 Hofstadter’s beloved wife Carol died suddenly of a brain tumor at only 42, leaving him with two young children to care for. Hofstadter was overwhelmed by grief, and much of I Am a Strange Loop flows from his sense that Carol lives on in him—that the strange loop of her mind persists in his, a faint but real copy of her software running on his neural hardware, her tune played on his instrument. “It was that sense that the same thing was being felt inside her and inside me—that it wasn’t two different feelings, it was the same feeling,” Hofstadter says. “If you believe that what makes for consciousness is some kind of abstract pattern, then it’s sort of a self-evident fact that whatever pattern exists in my brain could exist in other physical structures in the world.” I Am a Strange Loop is a work of rigorous thinking, but it’s also an extraordinary tribute to the memory of romantic love: The Year of Magical Thinking for mathematicians.
But it doesn’t stop there. The stories about the stories about grief are even more powerful, in that they extend a singular, unverifiable story into the world—as a story that, suddenly, becomes generalizable and effects us in profound ways. A case in point: In his blog post “Zeke” over at Coyote Crossing [R.I.P.] by Chris Clarke, you’ll find the final piece of his book Walking With Zeke, which not only made me cry but very much made me want to see and talk to my father. That’s one of the things storytelling does, one of the things storytelling is for. And for a very long time now, the most powerful stories have been written texts, and literature, and why that is still the case, movies and other media notwithstanding, I will explore in later posts.