She comes to me both day and night, her habits forming with my own. When I go to my armchair, she knows that it’s time to work her way into the groove of the armrest, so that she can rest her head on my leg. From behind her black fringe, she sniffs the cover of my book, glances toward me, and wags her tail. Similarly, when I lie down and stare at the high ceiling in order to channel my thoughts, her own thoughts appear to be directed toward lying on my chest. The pattern is repeated day-in-day-out. Do I imagine this reciprocity that exists between us, the shared correspondence that seems to occur through eye contact and bodily gestures? Or have I become a part of her lifeworld just as much as she has become part of mine?
How to approach this relation? I am wondering if a phenomenology of being-with-Milly can be constructed, such that the tension between a sentimental and human (alas, too human) anthropomorphism and a broadly dualistic framework can be reconciled/overcome. As part of my world, Milly nevertheless remains incommensurable with my own experience. For instance, it would be a disservice to try and argue for her interior life in terms of analogical evidence. To what extent we interact through habit cannot be asked in relation to human affairs. At the same time, I am prepared to say that the relation between us is more than mere materiality and far more than a coincidence of being together. There is a bond that is enduring and outlasts any given spatial environment.
If we pursue a strictly phenomenological account of being-with-animals, then the animal in question already becomes a part of my intersubjective lifeworld through being an object of intentionality. Of course, it was precisely this tactic that Heidegger pursued in his attempt to overcome the problem of other minds. But applied to Milly, Heidegger’s emphasis on the stretching-forth of consciousness risks assimilating the dog’s lifeworld into my own. We know already that Milly is “here” before she is spatially present. We know, too, that this proximity depends upon the varying circumstances in which we both find ourselves: our distance recedes and exceeds depending on each of our levels of attention. Her engagement with trying to prise the toy apart becomes my equivalent of reading, each of which affects our experience of the environment accordingly. But in what sense is ours a “shared” understanding? Of what things do we both co-inhabit simultaneously?
I return to the grooves of the armchair. To phrase this dual existence in terms of her employing the chair one way and me another seems to reduce our differences to something based in geometry alone. I can say that she has her “place” and I have mine, but this too simply seems to be extending a language of perceptual differences, in which we both find our way. There is only thing to do: I must turn to Milly. I must see the animative and dynamic dimension of body in relation to my own. For when she joins me in the chair or on the floor, our interaction is primarily an embodied one. Our shared language is taken up through our bodies: but does my body speak to her independently of cognition? Sometimes when greeting her it will be the case that I will place my forehead against hers. I will do this with my eyes shut, and more in a quasi-Buddhist way than to intimidate her. Something is bridged through that silence that has less to do with training and more to do with a fundamental sense of “being-with” this dog.
But this is too vague, too esoteric in its dealings with the “ineffable” bond between man and dog. Not that I wish to underplay the emphasis on compassion for animals, of which Schopenhauer was clearly the exemplar. But in order to straddle the line between materiality and a Romantic treatment of animals in the “wilderness,” I want to place Milly somewhere between an alien and a human. In the moments when I catch myself aware of this dark mass of hair and movement before me (although the same description could also apply to me), then something is triggered that returns the dog to her non-human status. I would not describe it as “wild being” in the manner of Merleau-Ponty, but more in line with the raw phenomenality of a being before a thing subsequently termed “Milly.” There is much to say here about “aliens” phenomenologically. Bernhard Waldenfels’ treatment of the alien in Husserl is excellent, as is the discussion of alienworld and homeworld in Anthony Steinbock’s Home and Beyond. Too much to take on this evening. But one lingering thought.
Husserl characterises the alien as “accessibility in genuine inaccessibility, in the mode of incomprehensibility” (cited in Waldenfels). It seems to me that this tension between openness and closeness is played out on the one hand in terms of a language of the body shared by human and animal. On the other hand, the non-commonality of human and animal is rooted precisely in a modification of this body language. Something is absent, yet something remains. The glance between Milly and I is both knowing and opaque simultaneously. Her own language does not conflate with mine, even though there is an ambiguous space set out in the world in which both of our gestures meet. Some kind of alien-home hybrid is the result.