In the seven months since my fiancée and I brought a little mutt named Micah into our home, I’ve spent countless hours looking at her. Watching Micah is the source of many varied pleasures: appreciation of her playfulness, laughter at her clumsiness, adoration of her cuteness. And then there is the stranger pleasure in relating to animals that Franz Kafka expressed on a trip to an aquarium. Gazing into a tank of fish, he said to them, “Now at last I can look at you in peace. I don’t eat you anymore.”
Like Kafka, I don’t eat meat, and I think I’ve felt this peace as I look at Micah. I mention this not to congratulate myself or condemn others, but rather to ask about how, as humans, our relations to animals—from those we admit into our homes and love as family to those we’ll never meet—have meaning for our own experience of ourselves.
Kafka is far from the only Jewish thinker worth consulting on this subject. The Brazilian Jewish writer Clarice Lispector, who often spoke of her love for her dog, Ulisses—so much so that his likeness sits beside hers in a statue honoring her in Rio de Janeiro—understood animals’ being as closely linked to the pure vitality of the divine. In her final, uncompleted work, A Breath of Life, a character named Angela (a fictionalized Lispector) declares:
Contact with animal life is indispensable to my psychic life. My dog reinvigorates me completely. Not to mention that he sometimes sleeps at my feet filling my bedroom with hot humid life. My dog teaches me to live. All he does is “be.” “Being” is his activity. And being is my most profound intimacy. When he falls asleep in my lap I watch over him and his very rhythmical breathing. And—he motionless in my lap—we form a single organic being, a living mute statue.
Like Kafka’s calm, Lispector’s reinvigoration, intimacy, and awe resonate with my experience of watching and living with Micah. I, like most pet lovers, often anthropomorphize the animals I love. But as Lispector illuminates, the joy of the human-dog relation depends upon the difference between the two species. Angela goes on: “My dog is as dog as a human is human. I love the doggishness and the hot humanity of both.” The difference between the two beings makes possible their remarkable togetherness, which brings them into a shared experience that overcomes but does not obliterate their separation.
But neither Kafka’s statement nor Lispector’s passage speaks directly to one of my most beloved experiences of looking at Micah: when she meets my gaze. In her book Inside of a Dog, cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz explains that making eye contact is one behavior that distinguishes dog from wolves. According to Horowitz, “dogs seem to be predisposed to inspect our faces for information, for reassurance, for guidance”; this endears them to us, because “there is a certain satisfaction in gazing deep into a dog’s eyes gazing back at you.” My experience when locking eyes with Micah across a room or staring into her eyes as we sit together on the couch attests to this satisfaction.
The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas helps me to more deeply understand this feeling as a fundamentally ethical encounter. Levinas famously conceived an ethics of responsibility rooted not in reasoned principles or sympathy, but rather in a “face-to-face” encounter with the Other in which the Other’s face places a direct ethical obligation on me. As he explains in an interview collected in the book Ethics and Infinity, “the face is meaning all by itself. You are you…the relation to the face is straightaway ethical. The face is what one cannot kill, or at least it is that whose meaning consists in saying: ‘thou shalt not kill.’”
Levinas’ analysis primarily concerns human faces; he did not believe non-human faces necessarily make the same ethical demands on us. However, he did consider the difficulty of separating humans from other animals. In another interview, asked about the application of his philosophy to non-human animals, he said, “One cannot entirely refuse the face of an animal. It is via the face that one understands, for example, a dog.” The pleasure I take in locking eyes with Micah now seems to take on an ethical dimension. I can’t know what she sees when she sees me, but what I see is certainly an Other constituted by dignity and for whom I feel a sense of responsibility.
But why is this face-to-face encounter such a pleasure for me? In a short, moving essay titled “The Name of a Dog, or Natural Rights,” Levinas recounts an encounter with a dog while he was imprisoned in a Nazi prisoner of war camp. One day, he writes:
a wandering dog entered our lives…we called him Bobby, an exotic name, as one does with a cherished dog. He would appear at morning assembly and was waiting for us as we retired, jumping up and down and barking in delight. For him, there was no doubt that we were men.
Levinas draws a heartbreaking contrast between his and his fellow prisoners’ dehumanization at the hands of Nazi soldiers and the dog’s affirmation of their humanity. Other human beings, he writes, “stripped [them] of [their] human skin,” yet for the dog—whom Levinas playfully calls “the last Kantian in Nazi Germany”—“[they] were men.” There is no comparison between the extremity of Levinas’ encounters with Bobby and mine with Micah. Yet his experience and analysis reveals a new layer to my meeting of Micah’s gaze, which now seems to affirm my own significance, just as it seems mine affirms hers. Part of this pleasure, perhaps, is this mutual affirmation of worth.
By considering how other thinkers have made sense of their experiences looking at animals, I can better understand the depths and contours of my own animal encounters. These encounters are fundamental to the relation to animals I determine with my daily choices, from my treatment of Micah to my abstaining from meat-eating. Looking at Micah with others’ words in mind helps me to better appreciate both my relation to animals in general and my relationship with this one specific animal—who brings me not only a wide array of joys rooted in her animality, but also a richer sense of my own humanity.
Nathan Goldman is a writer living in Minneapolis. His work has appeared in Literary Hub, the Kenyon Review Online, Full Stop, and other publications.