Philosopher or Dog?

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Andrew O’Hagan’s playful novel The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his Friend, Marilyn Monroe follows one terrier around the mid-20th century as he pontificates on Plutrach, Nietzsche, and acting.

This delightful picaresque is a portrait of the Cold Warring western world, as seen through the Maltese mind. Terrier, that is, one with a sense, from birth, of his historical place. “We Maltese,” our narrator informs us, “are suffered to know ourselves to be the aristocrats of the canine world… We have known philosophers and tyrants, dipped the pink of our noses in the ink of learning and the blood of battle…”

As though Maf’s testimony were not enough, our first glimpse of him is in a veritable hothouse of twentieth century culture, the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, in whose parlor Cyril Connoly sits grumpily awaiting his tea. Maf will soon go to America to join his “fated companion,” the book’s other eponym. Before he leaves, his literary provenance is stamped and sealed: Bell fastens about Maf’s neck a collar that once belonged to her late sister Virginia Woolf’s late spaniel. Maf is escorted to Hollywood by Natalie Wood’s mother, who hands him over to Frank Sinatra, who gifts him to Marilyn, who has just separated from Arthur Miller, and if you think those are some heavy names to drop, well, that’s not even the first 50 pages.

We see Maf (shortened from Mafia Honey, though he also answers to “Snowball”) consorting further with such Kennedy-era kulturatchiks as Lionel Trilling and Lee Strasburg, but the book’s point is that while epochs and their opinions pass, truth is eternal. And so, apparently, are dogs—in mind, at least, if not in body. Says the ever-pithy Maf, “The great comedy about most people is they think this life is the only one they’re going to live: they stock it up with panic, pain, worth, and glory… but they haven’t yet grasped the basic facts. God is not in his place of work and is not answering his phone – get it? You don’t get saved, brothers and sisters, you get reassigned.”

Everyone in this book is on a quest for meaning, but Maf puts it all in perspective because he has a direct line to the wisdom of the ages. How? There is some past-life recall, but it’s mostly sheer doggie intuition. He recalls “… the story Stanislavsky used to tell about the dog that came to his rehearsals. The dog would sleep through the sessions but would always wake up and appear at the door just as it was time to go. The Great Russian Ham said this was because the dog always responded to the moment the actors returned to speaking in normal voices. For all their truth-seeking, the players would always be something other than themselves while acting, and the dog could hear the change.” Maf’s own bullshit-o-meter occasionally hits the red (he would call it dark grey) zone in rooms full of the famous and opinionated, when he’s forced to stop philosophizing in favor of other dog behaviors such as yapping and biting. It’s tough, accompanying the long history of human folly while powerless to influence it. ”We allow the human story always to take centre stage: that is what makes a dog the perfect friend.”

Maf himself lays out the essential drift of the book early on, a scene where he’s in the back of a van with a bunch of other dogs emigrating to America:

A voice came from the other side of the bus, from a Jack Russell-style mongrel who had kept himself to himself in the quarantine facility. He seemed to know a thing or two about life, and he spoke, when he spoke, with a kind of plain honesty. … ‘The truth is people know we’re looking at them,’ he said, ‘and the smart ones know we’re talking about them. People aren’t stupid. They only behave as if they were.’
‘Golly,’ said the sheepdog.
‘I’m serious, man,’ said the mongrel. ‘They worked it out for themselves a long time ago. They just don’t listen to what they’ve already worked out. It’s us that got listening. It’s us that remember…
He paused to scratch his ear.
‘It’s there in Aristotle,’ he continued. ‘He laid it out about animal intelligence.’

Maf works up a response, which I will condense here, unfairly omitting a great deal of doggie shout-out as the atmosphere builds:

‘People lead the way,’ I said, ‘and we follow. But how we follow. The great leader in this respect was Plutarch not Aristotle.’ Some boos and low hisses and general disputatious hubbub and lots of ‘come on’ followed on from this… ‘You can say what you like. It was Plutarch who recognized our speech,’ I said. ‘He allowed us the power of ‘picturing.’ Isn’t that something? He has us talking and dreaming…”

After some further debate, the plain-spoken mutt who opened the conversation ends it. “’… nobody would be human if they had the choice to be something else,’ said the mongrel. He licked his paw. ‘Anyhow,’ he added, looking up at me with humor in his mismatched eyes. ‘You seem to have plenty of opinions.’ ‘Breeding, old cock. Breeding,’ I said.”

But it’s not only dogs whose lives human thought has filled with significance. It’s seemingly every creature with more than two legs. A fly in Marilyn’s soup denounces the restaurant patrons: “’They say of the world as it is, that it ought not to exist, and of the world as it ought to be, that it will never exist.’

“’I’m not doing Nietzsche tonight,’” Maf replies. “’There’s too much fun to be had.’

“’Schopenhauer, actually,’ he said. Then a spoon came down on top of him and that was the end of that.’”

Amorous butterflies speak “in the manner of Nabokov”; bedbugs have “… a perfectly Russian attitude, seeming to doubt the reliability of everything”; and cats are typically hated by dogs “not for the typical reasons, but because they show an exclusive preference for poetry over prose.”

Not every reader will be able to buy into the doggie psyche, let alone the canine cosmology, as O’Hagan has constructed it. One can imagine humorless objections that while the book purports to give voice to animals, it ultimately makes them little more than a projection of us. I’ll let Maf answer that objection: “That’s what humans do… they talk for you. And so they create a personality for you which is defined by the way they act you out…. I suppose it’s all acting. And I’m not going to pretend I don’t love that aspect of people, the part to do with acting. Other animals don’t have that capacity, and are all the poorer.” Many great novels in the animal genre do this, mostly because we could do worse than imagine how animals might see us, granted certain gifts we suppose only we possess. As I said earlier, this book defines and fulfills its brief. It is an astonishing feat of imagination, and this particular reader was hard-pressed to find a flaw.

So much for the animals. What to say about Marilyn herself? Is she no more than a vehicle for Maf’s aphorizing, a stage in his life cycle, much as a dog to a flea? Hardly. First, Marilyn is an emblem of her age in America, and Maf becomes wedded to that age via his dedication to Marilyn. Second, her aspirations to be taken seriously, to be a serious actor, perhaps even a serious person, dominate the years Maf spends with her, and his spontaneous, protective ruminations mount to deliver an intimate portrait so complex that one wonders how any prior Monroe biography, minus the canine insights, could be considered complete. “If she brought out the artist in me, I brought out the philosopher in her.” A dog without a human, after all, is like a human without a dog.

Padma Viswanathan's most recent novel is The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. More at her website: WWW.PADMAVISWANATHAN.COM More from this author →