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The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness

The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness

From The Sunday Times

 A wolf-dog is fighting with a pit-bull, probably to the death.  A man, who has been pumping iron in order to keep pace with the power of his wolf-dog, grabs the embattled 120 lb animal by the scruff of the neck, lifts it off the ground so that they are eyeball to eyeball, and whispers, 'Do you want a bit of me, son?'

By way of full disclosure I should say that I am one of the older ladies with cats that Mark Rowlands refers to in passing in this memoir and meditation about himself as a young man with his dog.  Rowlands was in his twenties when he bought Brenin, a hybrid wolf-dog puppy.   He was lecturing in philosophy at Tuscoloosa, Mississippi. In his spare time he hung out with the students, getting through a bottle or two of bourbon a night, playing rugby and lending Brenin to his team-mates, turn and turn about, because of all their big, bold dogs, Brenin was the best 'chick magnet. In fact, they used a slightly different expression: more colourful, but not really repeatable here.' [p51]  There is a good deal more testosterone in this autobiography than an older cat-keeping lady can easily relate to.  The book is largely a distillation of Mark Rowlands' personal philosophy - evolved during his decade long relationship with Brenin -  but even the philosophy seems to drip with male hormone.

Rowlands' initial training of Brenin is a very serious business, which he justifies with Nietzsche's comment that those who cannot discipline themselves need someone to do it for them.  In this case, a puppy that will grow into a powerful and dangerous dog.  Choke chains and a knee sharply in his side when Brenin goes the wrong way show him 'the consequences of his actions' [p35], after which the wolf-dog is not enslaved, apparently, but ready to participate in the ancient man-and-dog pack relationship, so much better, more decent than our usual apelike human social contract.  Perhaps it is not a surprise to discover that parallel to the testosterone, misanthropy and hard-man philosophy in Rowlands' account, possibly even an essential part of them, lies a gross sentimentality.  The wolf, Rowlands believes, speaks to a part of the human soul that was been buried deep when mammalian evolution branched out to our own ancestral primates.  They are our ancient, noble-savage selves.

He proposes one of those great simplifying divisions people love so much (mars/venus, us/them) and pits our Machievellian simian intelligence against the way of the wolf. Apes:bad, wolves:good.  Human beings, being apes, suffer from the requirements of social relations which caused us to develop the capacity to deceive, the necessity to lie, an addiction to sex as pleasure, the compulsion to make alliances and to scheme with and against our fellows.  Yes, we have a well-developed moral sense and laws to go with it, but Rowlands explains 'Only a truly nasty animal would have need of these concepts' [p80] Wolves, conversely, don't require social contracts, they have pack loyalty, the philia of the Greeks, no need for deception, and a capacity for passion that might cause them to kill each other in a fight, but not to scheme against their fellows.  We humans make medical or social excuses for our wrong-doings (deprived childhood, mental disorder), while wolves commit only crimes of passion and take whatever violent punishment results.  These temper tantrums, claims Rowlands, deserve less condemnation than crimes of intention, though it's always struck me that the victim is just as dead or crippled whatever the degree of spontenaeity involved.

Rowlands' thesis is that the wolf exists solely in moments, while we are cursed by a knowledge of time and therefore of an awareness of inescapable death.  Withdrawing from society ('I was sick of humans. I needed to get their stench out of my nostrils.' [p142]) he went off with his wolf-dog and attempted to learn the lesson of the wolf.  I'm not unfamiliar with Rowlands sense of disgust for human beings - but the question is whether one can exclude oneself from the disgust by taking on the supposed way of the wolf.

Living in moments does not require the wolf or the wolf-living man to find an overarching meaning in life, unlike the rest of us human beings who search incessently for purpose, setting and trying to achieve goals which can only result in disappointment.  We know that in the end we will be extinguished.  This makes us weak: 'The ape that I am is a crabbed, graceless creature that deals in weakness; a weakness that it manufactures in others, and a weakness with which it is ultimately infected.  It is this weakness that permits evil - moral evil - a foothold in the world. The art of the wolf is grounded in its strength.' [p109]  If this has an übermenschian chill, Rowlands is clear that you must, when the chips are down 'live your life with the coldness of the wolf'. [p240]

 The passionate and unswerving pack-loyalty Rowlands learned from his wolf would mean, he tells his students, that if one of them found themselves in a two-person lifeboat with Brenin and his master, Rowlands would pitch the student overboard.  The students think he's joking.  He isn't, but the other possible solution, that he himself go overboard to save dog and student, doesn't seem to occur to him.

 Rowlands goes through a dark, epiphanic month of hell when Brenin gets an infection and needs constant care which still may not save his life.  This is what life is all about, apparantly.  Not the good moments, but moments when you are the best of yourself, regardless of hope for a desired outcome.  Brenin's moment was as a two month cub, when, pinned down by a full-grown pit bull ready to kill him, he growled his 'defiance' at being overcome and scorned death and its agent.

Maybe us cat-ladies just don't get it, but it does strike me that we might respect the dignity of animals more by recognising the fact of their otherness, than in romanticising and making morality out of them.  If we see animals as having lessons for us, or providing us with a way out of our culpability for overmastering the natural world, then aren't using them as surely as when we eat their flesh?