What we can’t think about: We’re barking animals
Why it matters: We pretend we’re not
Case in point: the other night, when a thunderstorm broke over the house, Gracie the mini-dachshund responded with bellowing, explosive barking. Her noise was many times bigger than the pipsqueak dog herself: an outraged, alarmed, do-or-die protest. She threw her whole body into it, and the intensity of it was, well, electrifying.
Like the explosion of a bomb or an artillery shell, a thunderclap is terrifying not only because it’s destructive, but also because it engulfs us. The sound is omnidirectional, a rumble whose vibrations shake the earth under your feet. It demonstrates that the everyday world we experience is artificially sized to make us feel at home. Compared to the voltage splitting the sky, the world we know is the sort of model railroad town for sale in hobby shop kits as Plasticville.
So thunder disrupted the predictable boundaries of the dog’s world as it does a child’s. It punched a hole in the dog’s reality, and Grace reacted to the shock with a roar of protest. Most of us–dogs and humans–seek shelter from a thunderstorm. But the dog mixes flight with fight by rages against the storm’s attack on the tame everyday world.
In dog-terms, without being anthropomorphic about it, the storm assaults the dog’s expectations. It violates her sense of what is right. Shakespeare’s King Lear howls at a storm because his everyday world of family and law has broken down. The storm objectifies a terrific violation of what is right, and he reacts as the dog does, with threat-display, panic and defiance.
Thunder reminds us that reality is contextual. To the dog, the dog’s reality is complete and natural, thank you very much. It may change with growth and training, as our does, but it’s still what is. We too assume that our reality is the real thing, or at least approximately complete. Like the dog, we too show caution and doubt when things are unfamiliar, but we fill those blank spaces with theories or question marks.
But just as we know the dog’s reality has limits, so we can appreciate that our own does too. Thunder dramatizes those limits, reminding us that we’re puny creatures in a vast and strange field of play.
As brainy bipeds, we’ve worked out theories to explain thunder, and Ben Franklin has given us the lightning rod. So we reassure children and dogs when the sky shatters. We get control over our distress by turning anxiety into creative curiosity and technology. We organize.
But the dog’s response is revealing. The bark is a social act, an alarm signal. It’s also a threat display working to intimidate the “enemy.” Specifically, the bark enlarges the dog. Like the cobra’s hood or the warrior’s feathered helmet, the bark magnifies the appearance of power. It advertises danger and announces a willingness to fight over what is right. Yes, it’s a show. Fido is not about to go mano-a-mano with Thor. For one thing, there’s no one there for her to bite. For us too, the gods are only enabling fictions. Sacrificing a chicken to Zeus will give you less protection than a knowledge of electrical grounds and a surge protector.
Still, the bark is profound. It signifies the wish to be bigger than we are–a bigshot. Even the term “bigshot” suggests an explosion, as of thunder or gunpowder: the ability to command attention and control others through overwhelming shock. We hunt and go to war with “big shots.” We kill fish with underwater explosions, and humans with an arsenal of “shock and awe.” Nazis “storm ” troopers used Blitzkrieg–“lightning war”–to subdue stunned neighbors.
The links of course range far and wide. As a technology for dealing with cosmic threat, Christianity in early modern Europe took the storm to be the work of the Devil working through malicious, crop-destroying witches who could be detected, tortured into a confession, and burned alive. The churches saw the storm as personified demonic rage attacking life-giving, death-defying food crops, even as witches were accused of killing and eating babies: the living embodiment of human hopes to overcome death.
Not that the bark has to be cosmic. The urge to be a bigshot is the urge to be heroic, for better or perverse. As Ernest Becker has eloquently barked, the drive toward heroism is a core motive in the repertory of behaviors that we draw on to manage the terror of death and make the world fulfilling. But the bigshot bark also shows us that the wish to be bigger than we are can be unrealistic, false, all bluff and hot air.
In Beast and Man, the British philosopher Mary Midgley eloquently demolishes the arguments we use to separate us from the other animals. One after another she demystifies our claims to be elevated above other creatures.
Like the dog, we’re built to cringe and bark at thunder. But of course some dogs learn from experience that barking is pointless. And the tail wags most exuberantly when we create new ways to ground the exploding skies and our barking selves in a wider world.