ivantohelpyou via email  · ivantohelpyou on Twitter · ivantohelpyou on LinkedIn

"Narrative Complexity in the Talking-Dog Stories of Cervantes, Hoffmann, Gogol, Bulgakov, and Kafka"

Barking Humans (c) 2010 Taelyen LLC


A Thesis in the Field of Foreign Literature, Language, and Culture for the Degree of Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies

Harvard University, March 2012



Chapter VII: Conclusion –The Music of the Pack


In the preceding chapters, I have examined the narrative complexity of selected talking-dog stories relative to the authors’ other works and described the combination of effects using narrative time, narrative voice and narrative mood. I have also examined the role of the dog within each story and examined concordances with other animals in the authors’ respective works.

The intent of this thesis has been to come up with a method of identifying the salient features that set apart talking-dog stories of critical interest from the banal variety. The works considered, as minor works of renowned authors with widespread critical acclaim in world literature, are of critical interest by definition. Thus, this has not been a comprehensive survey of the talking-dog story with evaluations and assessments of major works by minor authors. Rather, the approach has been to identify and highlight that which is novel about the talking-dog stories of canonical authors; that is, how the talking dog and its historical antecedents have borrowed and transformed elements from prior genres, and reworked them into contexts conversant with contemporary events and literary styles. Such an approach led to the observation regarding the presence of narrative complexity in each of the stories, and indeed, the textual evidence shows that the talking-dog stories employ narrative devices at a level of complexity that matches and often exceeds the narrative complexity of the author’s stories from the same time period. This is not as strong a statement as I would have liked to make regarding this correlation, but the absence of metrics for assessing the degree of narrative complexity make it difficult to make a more definitive pronouncement.

We can expect to see a more rigorous examination of such phenomena in the future, as we are on the cusp of a revolution in the “digital humanities.” [128] One can imagine an effort to annotate texts based on the classification schemata of Genette, Barthes, Bal and other narratologists, using a hypertext markup language that identifies structuralist features in the text such as analepses, prolepses and frame narratives using a common data dictionary of narratological features. The same text could be layered with multiple schemata, and even multiple markups using the same schema based on how a reader/coder interprets the text. In the way that Barthes unpacks “Sarrasine” in S/Z and Genette examines portions of À la recherche du temps perdu in Narrative Discourse, a broader project might involve large numbers of narratological analysts creating metatext notation for a corpus of works in the humanities. With such an approach, it might be possible to index the relative narrative complexity of a large number of works in a consistent manner, using data analysis tools to make explicit any correlation between, say, talking animals and narrative complexity, across a broader range of authors and texts at a higher level of statistical confidence. In the meantime, the anecdotal approach taken here will have to suffice.

In summarizing the relationship between narrative complexity and the talking dog, we come across a “chicken-and-egg” problem; that is, which comes first, the narrative complexity or the talking dog?  Does the use of a talking dog within the context of novelistic literature necessitate the introduction of complex narrative devices, which the most experimentally-minded authors accentuate through even greater complexity? Or does experimentation with narrative complexity somehow summon up from antiquity the motif of the talking dog? We shall explore both of these possibilities in turn.

The first possibility is that the introduction of talking animals requires additional narrative apparatus by necessity. Whether it’s an intradiagetic or extradiagetic narrator, it takes a human intermediary to bridge the communication between animal and human, and the narrative complexity becomes a means to an end. 

The time-honored role of talking dogs in fiction places them as silent observers of private spaces. As a parodic device, the animal as silent observer has a lineage going back to The Golden Ass of Apuleius, about which Mikhail Bakhtin writes: “The position of an ass is a particularly convenient one for observing the secrets of everyday life. The presence of an ass embarrasses no one, all open up completely.” [129] The same can be said of the dog in post-agrarian societies, as we see in the talking-dog stories of Cervantes, Hoffmann, Gogol, and Bulgakov, which use the dogs’ status as work animals, household pets, or research subjects to provide readers with access to private lives. The ability of a dog to cross boundaries allowed Cervantes to revisit a wider range of social classes, professions, and people in the Exemplary Novels, it gave Hoffmann’s Berganza entrée into the salon, it gave Gogol’s madman a glimpse of the life of his beloved, and it enabled a street dog to witness the struggle between the proletariat and the upper class. Even Kafka’s story follows this model in a sense, as the researching hound believed that it had invaded the privacy of the musical dogs during their “entirely private” meeting (137).

We may also consider the talking dog as a representation of the writer, either as an autobiographical stand-in or through their depictions of the creative act of writing itself. On a thematic level, the talking-dog stories seem to comment on various aspects of the writer’s creative art, from the elevation of poetic genius in Hoffmann to its counterpart in madness in Gogol; from the freedom and isolation that comes from being a solitary writer/investigator in Kafka to the desire for two-way dialogue through language and communication in Cervantes; and through the perils of creativity insofar as it affects other creatures in Bulgakov.

On a biographical plane, we can also consider such things as correspondences between the writers’ lives and those of the dog. The Cervantes talking-dog story exhibits similarities between the lives of Berganza and Cervantes’ father.  Rodrigo de Cervantes moved with his family several times during fifteen years of “vagabondage”; [130] he worked as a barber-surgeon in Alcala de Henares during a time when competition for work was intense; [131] and he is thought to have taken a job in hospital administration. [132] This parallels the life of Berganza through multiple masters, his portent about the excess of medical students, and his eventual job accompanying the guard making the rounds outside of a hospital. Campuzano’s written recounting of the dogs’ dialogue could then therefore represent the oral tradition overheard during Cervantes’s own upbringing, transformed in his imagination into talking dogs.

Kafka conceived as “Researches of a Hound” as a deconstructed autobiography, as described in a 1922 letter published in the 1954 Dearest Father collection:

Hence plan for autobiographical investigations. Not biography but investigation and detection of the smallest possible component parts. Out of these I will then construct myself, as one whose house is unsafe wants to build a safe one next to it, if possible out of the material of the old one. [133]

Given that Cervantes and Kafka wrote their talking-dog stories later in life, we would be more likely to expect autobiographical parallels to appear in their later retrospective works. Even so, Bulgakov compared himself as a dog in his autobiographical works, as noted earlier; and Gogol’s Arabesques contained autobiographical elements, as described by Fusso:

Arabesques is itself a chronicle of Gogol’s indecision in the early 1830s over what was to be his proper field of activity, scholarship or art. By the time it was published, Gogol was no longer wavering between history and art: he had embraced art decisively. [134]

Hoffmann, too, placed autobiographical elements in his “Berganza.” The author had “a guilty, or least embarrassed and despairing, adulterous infatuation” with his voice student, Julia Marc, [135] and his unhappiness with the circumstances of her marriage to a merchant was retold through the eyes—and teeth—of Berganza. 

To employ a talking dog as an autobiographical stand-in, a symbol of creativity, or a silent observer is to begin the writing project from the standpoint of a symbol. If the impetus to write starts with a talking dog in mind, the choice of narrative structure becomes secondary, a technical matter to be grasped with the writer’s full range of powers. To avoid having to use the trite formula of the talking dog, the authors of critical interest would seek, in Ziolkowski’s formulation, “inversions of the conventional form.” [136] To do otherwise would be to become generic rather than novelistic, imitation rather than homage.

Alternatively, we might suppose that the act of introducing narrative complexity into a text calls forth the suggestion of talking animals, rather than the reverse. That is to say, a novelist that experiments with narrative by shifting between homodiegetic and heterodiegetic voices within intradiagetic and extradiagetic levels, or with variable focalizations through internal characters and external narrators, will perhaps inevitably come across the idea of focalizing through an animal or using an animal narrator. Although most authors will reject this temptation on the grounds that animals neither speak nor write, some will take up the narrative challenge despite the weight of historical precedent, and a few will succeed at creating something truly novel.

If we recall the definition of the arabesque as having heterogeneity and fragmentariness, what can be more heterogeneous than a non-human character? In addition to the non-human voice, we can identify fragmentary aspects and incompleteness for each of the talking-dog stories considered: Scipio never gets the chance to tell his story; Hoffmann’s Berganza ends his encounter with the Traveling Romantic on a highly enigmatic note; Gogol’s diary contains fragments and scraps from selected days; Bulgakov’s story is told with ellipses between chapters told from divergent narrative perspectives; and Kafka’s dog story ends suddenly and elliptically. Just as heterogeneity suggests non-human voices, the act of including non-human voices ordinarily inaccessible to us suggests fragmentariness. Just because we are provided with a glimpse of animality does not entitle us to completeness in our ability to hear their thoughts. Our fascination with animals, according to Erica Fudge, stems from the human desire to communicate with animals, combined with “fear of being recognized by them through contact,” which would uncover our own animality through kinship. [137]   The literary representation of animal speech through fragments feeds our desire to communicate with animals, even as the fragmentariness denies the possibility of doing so.

What we hear as animal sounds can be interpreted either as a form of communication made literal through an approximation of speech, or as a form of music, turning barks, grunts and howls into expressive, non-verbal instruments and vocals. For humans, the closest approximation to animality is through musical expression, which “resonates between the registers of a sophisticated artistic form and a simple display of sentiment and emotion,” [138] writes Akira Mizuta Lippit.

The music motif can be found throughout all of the works considered to varying degrees, most obviously with Hoffmann. If Hoffmann aimed to write his stories in a manner analogous to the way composers write music, it would follow that he would employ innovative narrative devices and multiple voices in different “registers” (i.e. species) as the literary equivalent to counterpoint and polyphony. This fusion between music and literature is present in Hoffmann’s Serapiontic Principle, which according to Hilda Meldrum Brown considers “two major ways in which music can achieve its potential as the most expressive of all art forms: the first…is in the hybrid form of opera, the second in the form of church music […] Both forms, significantly, involve the interdependence of music and words (or texts).” [139] Narrative complexity in Hoffmann, in this estimation, stems from his attempt to reach a higher plane of existence through poetic literature inspired by music and approaching the musical ideal, which is a realm that animals in the Romantic conception inhabit through their very nature.

Cervantes’ Berganza knows the musical scales and contrasts the stories of musical shepherds with the reality of their savagery, and we can also detect a musical approach to the narrative within the work itself and in the collection. Aylward cites Joaquín Casalduero’s description of “a fugue-like movement in the Coloquio,” and also relates Alban K. Forcione’s definition of fugal technique made in reference to Exemplary Novels as “one which ‘enunciates a dominant theme and restates it continually in innumerable episodic variations, all of which are held together by a recurrent narrative rhythm and a carefully patterned repetition of symbolic imagery.’” [140]

With Gogol’s dogs, music is notable for its absence—these are dogs as philistines, motivated by smell and taste rather than sight and sound. Yet the original title of the work was “Diary of a Mad Musician,” [141] which tantalizingly suggests that Gogol might have made a stronger contrast between the philistine dogs and a Kreisler-like figure stalking them from Nevsky Prospect to the Zherkov Buildings. Even in its current form, the story is part of a literary arabesque that both suggests the arabesque as a musical form and provides a definition of the power of music. Gogol personifies music in the essay with which Arabesques begins, “Sculpture, Painting and Music”:

She is exhausting and rebellious; but beneath the endless dark vaults of the cathedral, where thousands of genuflecting pilgrims are found, she, powerfully and rapturously, attempts to induce harmonious movement; she reveals their innermost thoughts, which combine with spinning, eddying grief, and leaves behind her a protracted silence and lingering sound trembling in the depths of the sharp-pointed tower. [142]

Tellingly, it is “Diary of a Madman” which reveals the innermost thoughts of its diarist. Poprishchin is caught in a vortex of powerless grief and, ultimately, he is silenced with his institutionalization at end of the diary, which also marks the end of Arabesques in its original printing. The first piece in the collection prefigures the last, and it is Gogol’s musical metaphor that defines the fate of the madman.

In Bulgakov, the main musical motif is the contrast between the high culture of the opera-singing Professor Preobrazhenski and the low culture of the balalaika-playing Sharikov. However, this example operates on the level of the story rather than that of the narrative structure. The musical elements in Kafka’s dog story would probably also fall under this rubric, with music a dimension of the animal motif rather than a motivating factor for the narrative structure. Lippit writes:

Music, or the artifice of animal sound, appears in Kafka’s texts as an ambiguous representative—somewhere between technique and noise—that marks the shift from words to sounds, intellect to affect, and human to animal being. As a literary motif, animal noises indicate a place of communication beyond the limits of language. [143]

While Lippit’s observations enrich our understanding of the interplay between music and the animal within Kafka’s texts, they do not directly support the idea that the narrative complexity of “Researches of a Hound” was an imitation of a musical form that suggested or demanded the presence of a talking animal. However, for both Kafka and Bulgakov, a case can be made that their impulse toward narrative complexity drove their respective works as much as their specific placement of a talking animal.

For the works considered, it is unanswerable as to which is the dominant direction for this correlation—whether concepts of the arabesque or musical structures motivated narrative complexity, which in turn summoned forth the motif of the talking dog; or whether the desire to incorporate a talking dog in a story required the author to build a sufficiently complex narrative structure to accommodate the animal.

With this in mind, we can discern the dogs of critical interest using the benchmark of whether there is a bidirectional relationship between the presence of the talking dog and the motivation for narrative complexity within a story. Absent this bidirectional relationship, we may see talking dogs of the generic or bizarre variety, neither of which have the critical interest to hold the attention of generations to follow. Alternatively, as part of the trend toward environmental criticism we can expect to see authors continuing to use the talking animal for the purposes of elevating the status of animals in human eyes, using imagined speech to speak for the voiceless. We can certainly assess this trend as part of an emerging genre, and yet it is a bounded genre limited to the extent that it repeats existing narrative forms, set apart from the boundless form of the novel.

The strongest talking-dog stories, as with those considered in this thesis, allow us to make a case both ways, where the talking dog has been incorporated into the story in an original way through the narrative apparatus, and where the narrative complexity makes a talking dog an organic part of the story. It is the presence of both of these elements that makes talking dogs sing.

Yet even this formulation is too simplistic, as a complete work of art must also engage with the philosophical and intellectual questions of the age. A work that merely closes the loop between form and content remains a gimmick until invested with broader meaning. We can find such meaning in each of the five talking-dog stories, with each author using the talking dog to reflect the idea of the animal in contemporary philosophical thought.

The concept of the humanities itself is based upon the idea of the human, and thus one of the central philosophical questions of the humanities is the definition of its central term, typically in opposition to the non-human animal. The historical definitions range from Aristotle’s formulation of “man as political and rational” [144] to the definition of “human” in Charles Winick’s 1956 Dictionary of Anthropology including physical characteristics such as brain size along with nonphysical characteristics including “educability, toolmaking know-how, symbolic expression, and cultural achievements.” [145]

Yet these definitions have repeatedly proven to be problematic, with exceptions standing in the way of a clear and accurate definition. Even “the last boundary standing between man and beast,” [146] the capacity for language, is being attributed to animals based on their ability to communicate specific messages and warnings to each other, with the music of animal song regarded by some as “a good candidate for being a true animal language.” [147] Even if obliquely, talking-dog stories wrestle with this fundamental question of the humanities, and each of the authors considered approached the topic in a different way.

Descartes’ Discourse on Method formulated animals as soulless machines lacking reason and language. [148] Although “The Dogs’ Colloquy” predates Descartes, Cervantes nevertheless anticipates the Cartesian demarcation of humanity. Berganza and Scipio agree that the miracle of their speech goes beyond the speech itself, but that “not only are we speaking but we are speaking coherently, as if we were capable of reason, when in fact we are so devoid of it that the difference between the brute beast and man is that man is a rational animal, and the brute irrational.” The comic irony of Scipio’s statement is heightened by the subsequent brutality of the “rational” humans whom Berganza serves. When Cervantes uses the talking dogs to probe the boundaries of humanity, he is classifying certain humans as beastly animals rather than suggesting that animals have human intelligence. It is a miracle—or witchcraft—that enables the dogs to talk, and this same power enabled the dogs to have the perception, wisdom and memory to amass the stories shared. As seen in the episode with the shepherds killing the sheep, Berganza possessed the reasoning capacity to uncover the scheme before gaining the power of speech, unlike the other dogs presumably untouched by witchcraft or miraculous portents. The miracle started with reason itself, and language followed on the night of the colloquy.

Like Cervantes, Hoffmann’s talking dog had more of an artistic than a scientific function. As outlined in “Jacques Callot,” the non-human has a pivotal role within Fantasy Pieces. Hoffmann concisely states why and how Callot used animal imagery in his sketches: “Irony, which mocks mankind’s wretched endeavors by juxtaposing the human and the animal, resides only in a profound intellect. To serious, penetrating viewers of Callot’s grotesque man-beast figures, irony reveals all the secret meanings that lie hidden beneath the veil of farce.” [149] Hoffmann escalates the artist making such juxtapositions as “a profound intellect,” while flattering and encouraging the reader to become a “serious, penetrating viewer” of the sketch. As discussed earlier, this is Hoffmann’s challenge to the reader.

Thus, the juxtaposition of human and animal was done in the service of Romantic irony rather than as a practical exercise in zoology. Hoffmann’s Weltanschauung separates human and non-human, with the animal bridging the worlds of the fantastic and that of the real. In describing the characteristic of irony in “Jacques Callot,” Hoffmann conflates the non-human terms “animal,” “beast,” and “devil” through the examples of the man-beasts pantomiming human activities in The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Through these associations, the depiction of the animal carries mythic qualities, perhaps best characterized as a form of Orientalism directed at animals.

In the preface to Fantasy Pieces, Jean Paul criticized Hoffmann’s exaltation of the musician by commenting upon the universality of music: “Music is actually the most universal art and folk-art, and everyone at least sings, as church-goers and beggars illustrate. Music is the only art that crosses over to the animal realm.” [150] This was intended as a criticism “for the distance between author and public that [Hoffmann’s] brand of irony created,” [151] and with that criticism, Jean Paul counters Hoffmann’s mythic conception of animals with a more prosaic approach. The conflict parallels the eroding definitional distinction between humans and animals in 19th century thought, concomitant with the classification of nature and the industrialization of society. [152]  

Keith Tester writes that the shift toward urbanization in the 19th century marked the end of the symbolic relation between humans and animals. [153] As cities absorbed populations from the countryside, human relationships with animals became both detached in terms of animals as raw materials, and more personal in terms of pets. Steve Baker describes John Berger’s view of the institution of the “pet” as “the living epitome of the animal reduced, the animal drained: mere ‘mementos from the outside world.’” [154]

In Gogol, the talking dogs are pets that have absorbed the class consciousness of their owners. While still exhibiting doggish behavior, Madgie has a preference for “grouse and gravy or the roast wing of a chicken,” [155] and separates herself from the lower-class Poklan in the kitchen. Gogol sets the lapdogs in opposition to the Great Dane just as Hoffmann’s Traveling Romantic contrasts the mastiff Berganza with the insipid lapdogs; the difference being that Gogol shows the viewpoint of the lapdogs.

Within the bounds of the city, the general maintains control over nature through his “memento,” but even at his window there lurks a more powerful avatar of nature, the “terrifying Great Dane” in Madgie’s account, who appears in the window, “such a country bumpkin,” who “if he were to stand on his hind legs, which I expect the clod could not do, he would be a whole head taller than my Sophie’s papa, who is fairly tall and fat too.” [156] Madgie’s dismissive and insulting tone belies the danger of an animal towering even over the most powerful human in the story save the Czar. Even as Gogol’s madman fancies himself an outsider King with power over the society that rejects him, he transposes a similar relation to the Great Dane looming over Madgie’s household. The memento of nature has the power to mock its larger counterpart, but not even the memento’s master can control it.

The conception of the animal changed irrevocably with The Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin viewed evolutionary continuity as “a sufficient basis for concluding that the only barrier to fully developed language in animals is the degree of brain function.” [157] From this, the conception of a talking animal went from being the province of a madman in an 1835 Gogol story to the subject of a 1925 Bulgakov science-fiction novel. Rather than attribute the idea of a talking dog to a miracle or witchcraft, to mythic qualities, or to insanity, Bulgakov posited a non-human animal that could process language, infer meanings from signs, and intuit social cues. His medical training not only gave the story verisimilitude in the operation scenes and in the style of the laboratory notes, but the various characters themselves may have represented points of view in a contemporary debate on human behavior. Yvonne Howell writes:

…Heart of a Dog is Bulgakov’s response to one of the most exciting, intellectually stimulating, and politically complicated issues of his day: He devises a plot that centers around a eugenic experiment; he places his main protagonists at different points of the contemporary spectrum of biosocial thought, and he deploys four narrative points of view, each of which embodies voices that were important in the nature-nurture dialogue of his time. [158]

Parallel to Bulgakov’s exploration of how animals might be transformed into humans, we can interpret Kafka’s 1922 “Researches of a Dog” as exploring the question of how animals have adapted to modernity. Yet in Kafka, it is not an overt force that transforms a single dog into a new being, but rather, perhaps, the inexorable effects of evolution. Evolution works through mutation, one generation acquiring a trait that confers an advantage in survival. Although the detachment of the researching dog may have placed the researcher himself into an evolutionary dead end, we might see the inquisitive animal as being in the vanguard of a new type of dog, requiring different kind of survival skills than had been necessary in the past.

If we consider, per Eric Williams’ interpretation, that the walking dogs were apparitions on the cinema screen, then the episode in question becomes the dog’s encounter with technology. Similarly, if we interpret the flying dogs as lapdogs, they too become a symbol of modernity and industrialization, the descendants of the pet dogs in Gogol. In a post-industrial society, watering the ground is no longer sufficient for ensuring the ready availability of food, despite the accumulated wisdom of dogdom.

The researcher realizes that he is not a scientist: “Faced with even the easiest science test administered by a genuine scientist, I would do very poorly.” [159] Yet he knows enough to seek answers through science. The elegiac ending has the dog clinging to a possession of freedom, with the ability to recognize it as freedom but lacking the power to retain it as more than a “stunted growth.” [160] In the industrial age, evolution favors the malleable walking dogs and the tame air dogs over the hounds of the field embracing their freedom. Language and freedom, even if it may have once marked an animal as human, may not be enough during the transition to modernity, and this is the tragedy of Kafka’s researching dog.

Continuing to the present, writers have continued to engage with questions of the relationship between animals and humans using the device of the talking dog. The greatest talking-dog stories break new ground both thematically and formally, but even the imitative examples tend to grapple with important questions about the limits of humanity and the fate of animals. The potential for the form will not be exhausted as long as evolution, industrialization and technology continue to redefine the human-canine interface. The continued relevance of the talking dog illustrates its symbolic power above what might be considered at first glance a trivial, or even banal, device. We have not heard the last of the talking dog, and the best dogs may be yet to come.



NEXT: Bibliography




[128] David Zax, “Visualizing Historical Data, And The Rise Of ‘Digital Humanities,’” Fast Company 9 Jun. 2011 <http://www.fastcompany.com/1758538/the-rise-of-digital-humanities>.

[129] Bakhtin 122.

[130] McCrory 30.

[131] McCrory 27.

[132] McCrory 32.

[133] Corngold 2.

[134] Susanne Fusso, “The Landscape of Arabesques,” Essays on Gogol: Logos and the Russian Word, ed. Susanne Fusso and Priscilla Meyer (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1992) 124.

[135] McGlathery 3.

[136] Ziolkowski 121.

[137] Fudge, Animal 7.

[138] Akira Mizuta Lippit, Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000) 148.

[139] Meldrum Brown 72.

[140] Aylward 239.

[141] Robert A. Maguire, Exploring Gogol (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994) 49.

[142] Gogol, Arabesques 28.

[143] Lippit 149.

[144] H. Peter Steeves, “The Familiar Other and Feral Selves: Life at the Human/Animal Boundary,” The Animal/Human Boundary: Historical Perspectives, ed. Angela N. H. Creager and William Chester Jordan (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2002) 231.

[145] Steeves 234.

[146] Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2005) 272.

[147] Grandin 279.

[148] Gary Steiner, Anthropocentrism and its Discontents: the moral status of animals in the history of Western philosophy (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005) 132.

[149] Hoffmann 3.

[150] Chapin 57.

[151] Chapin 56.

[152] Baker 12.

[153] Keith Tester, Animals and Society: The Humanity of Animal Rights (London: Routledge, 1999) 18.

[154] Baker 13.

[155] Gogol 248.

[156] Gogol 249.

[157] Steiner 193.

[158] Howell 549.

[159] Kafka 160.

[160] Kafka 161.