When Virginia Woolf published Flush: A Biography in 1933, she feared her experiment in canine fiction would be ridiculed. Casting the affair between the Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning from the perspective of Barrett’s Cocker Spaniel, Flush asks the reader to imagine the world from four paws, to reconceptualize human identity in such a way as to see our subjectivities as intermingled with those of our four-legged friends.
Absurd? I, for one, do not consider Woolf’s adventure in canine biography to be far-fetched. But then, like Uncle Matthew, White Fang is one of my favourite books. Having had dogs all my life, I rely on their wider webs of sensation to enlarge my life. What is a walk, after all, without a dog? What is a sofa, if not an unofficial dog basket covered in mud and hair? What is a lunch without a snout opportunistically placed at your knee?
Before the world turned upside down in March, I accepted that I was simply a member of the doggish classes, parodied in lists of national stereotypes, secretly reviled by hygiene enthusiasts. Fine. But then lockdown happened and my German Shorthaired Pointer, Percy, suddenly became the object of a bidding war on the dog-sharing app, BorrowMyDoggy. Like Tinder, but for dogs, BorrowMyDoggy works by connecting dog-owners to dog-walkers in your vicinity.
The app itself, founded in 2012, isn’t new but like most digital “experience” providers, has morphed into something different since Covid struck. Once Boris had loosened our harnesses in June, my phone buzzed late into the night with individuals offering their dog-walking services. The twice-daily dog walk, previously a task meted out in marital point-scoring between my husband and I, became a thrice-daily whirlwind of doorstep introductions, poo-bags, and frantic yelping as Percy amorously leapt into the arms of a wide variety of suitors.
This being Oxford, I feel obliged to conduct brief entrance interviews before admission. The candidates variously include – but are not limited to – a monetary economist, an historian of early-modern childhood, an associate professor of Nigerian economics, an oncologist and an archeologist. The standard is high, and competition is intense.
As Percy’s “agent”, I spend a vast amount of time corresponding with these people over scheduling, replying to their messages with jaunty exclamation marks and paw print emojis, thanking them for their photos of Percy, and apologizing to those who have missed out on a slot. Sometimes I wake in the night frantically remembering to reply to the next day’s tranche of volunteers like some harried Hollywood go-between working the phones in a back office.
Yes, Percy had proved “pupular” (to use BorrowMyDoggy vernacular) before, but this appears to be something else, some deeper desire to connect to another, more primitive, world of sensation without fear of contagion or protocol. Through Flush, Woolf understood how dogs act as co-conspirators in what she called our “play-private life”, how canine experience brings us closer to the truth when human systems of signification fail or confuse, when the “deformity of words” is simply too much.
In these times, when we find ourselves deprived of the familiar aesthetic of our everyday lives, perhaps a reminder that the perceptual world of dogs (what animal theorists pleasingly call umwelt) remains the same, is just what we need. Heidegger famously said that the animal was “poor in the world”, but how wrong he would have been proved now as dogs get at least four times their recommended daily exercise.
Needless to say, I am talking about the British. On the Continent, they may have entirely different means of locating their umvelt in ways that don’t involve scraping excrement off the ground and flailing after a Pointer in the rain. Is there, in fact, something peculiarly British about searching for affirmation and intimacy through the canine world in the midst of an affective crisis? Almost certainly. I feel sure the late, great Brian Sewell would have had much to say on the matter. Or maybe, we beleaguered Brits just want to have an afternoon without facemasks and hand sanitizer to recalibrate (or even relocate) our stiff-upper-lips. Whatever your motivation, one thing is for certain, we are living in the golden age of dogs.