Fifteen Dogs through a Philosophical Lens
Once given human consciousness, Prince’s journey works to answer many philosophical questions regarding what it means to be human as well as what a ‘good life’ really means through André Alexis’ novel, Fifteen Dogs. Prince’s relationship with language forms almost immediately, showing the innate relationship with communication that all of existence has. Prince also begins questioning the world around him, demonstrating a desire for knowledge and the inability to articulate the answers. Prince’s poetry showcases his need to attempt and make sense of everything around him through the means of language. His poems work as a method to try and make sense of the senseless and ultimately shows the paradoxical nature of language and raises the question of whether or not language hinders or improves a life. Prince eventually does die and, in his death, shows what is important in living a full and happy life: love. Despite his misfortunes, Prince remains optimistic and never gives up hope. He gives nothing but love to the world and in the end, receives love in return, making him the only dog to die happy. Prince, in André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs, answers many questions about the nature of existence throughout his life; his complex relationship with language and his relentless optimism and love work to demonstrate the realities of living and how one can experience a good and full life.
Language plays a central role in Prince’s life after being gifted with human intelligence. Once given this new intelligence, Prince is described as “constantly finding words within himself” (Alexis 22). Prince does not stop at creating this language, though; he even gets creative with the language when he uses a pun to describe the density of the bone he is chewing (23). To Prince, the use of language comes naturally to him and he does not feel the need to stop creating new words on the grounds that they are not “useful innovations,” unlike the other dogs (28). Prince finds it acceptable to use language for entertainment, leading him to recite poems. While the others struggle to accept Prince’s poetry against their natural canine instincts, Prince allows himself to embrace this new way of thinking.
Alexis describes his own belief regarding language in an interview. He is asked whether he finds human language to be superior to the communication of bees and replies with: “I find bees amazing; I think their language is fascinating. So I would never be so species-ist as to say that what we do is superior to what bees do. But what I would say is that I feel kind of innately that our production of language is something like the production of wax. It is a thing that we do as a byproduct of what we are. We don’t see it that way. We see it as something wonderful that is beyond us, magnificent. Maybe bees see wax that way, too. But I sort of think if you stand back objectively and you think: ‘well, why do humans talk’ … Ultimately, for me, we talk because of what we are, as creatures, as beings. And bees produce wax and honey because of what they are as creatures, as beings” (Mustafa). Alexis’ explanation on how he views human language, allows for further insight on how the nature of existence is demonstrated through Prince. If, as Alexis says, language is innate for humans, then it is important that Prince becomes enveloped in words once given human intelligence as it shows the true nature of existence. Prince directly showcases the relationship people have with words though his own use of them for both practical and entertainment purposes. It is also important to also note how this changes Prince in regards to his understanding of the world – or rather, his lack of understanding.
The formation of language fosters Prince’s ability to ask more questions about the world, but also leads to a lack of being able to answer those questions due to the fact that the means of communication is useless in attempting to articulate a true understanding of existence. The other dogs in the pack become irritated with Prince when he starts asking “endless questions about trivial things: about humans, about the sea, about trees, about his favourite smells… about the yellow disk above them” (27-28). The pack is enraged by Prince’s questions because, as dogs, they never experience such questions before being given human consciousness. Prince’s questioning nature comes immediately after his formation of language, meaning that his language is what gives him the means to ask these questions. Prince’s constant questioning reveals a deeper need to make sense of the world around him and also, an inability to communicate any answers. The ways of the world are too complex for Prince’s means of communication to translate and therefore, works to show how much of existence relies on the very means that is incapable of explaining it. Prince also finds language fascinating and “[begins] to think about [it], almost from the moment the change [occurs]” (152). Prince’s interest in the ways of life, accompanied with his abstract and thought-provoking questions, allows for a commentary on the actual nature of existence, showcasing the paradox of language; the discovering of language means the un-discovering of life. It seems, however, that Prince attempts to articulate his answers about the world within his poetry.
Prince’s poetry works as a tool to express the inexpressible. Robin Ridington describes Prince’s poems as “discovering something that is there but disguised and revealed only in the hearing of it” (Ridington). This refers to the Oulipo style poetry in that it both disguises and reveals a name when read aloud. More importantly, however, is the hidden meaning of the poems and how it expresses the inexpressible nature of existence. Though it is easy to pass off Prince’s poems as simply art, it is important to acknowledge that they are more than that: they are contemplations about life. A prime example of this is: “The lake comes to the fringe While lights go up around the bay. Somewhere near, cow flesh is singed. Smoke floats above the walkway. I’ve eaten green that comes up black, risen cold from torrid mud. I’ve licked my paws and tasted blood. What is this world of busy lies? Some urban genie feeding food to lies!” (Alexis 157). In this poem, Prince is making sense of the world and contemplating mundane activities while adding a sense of importance – of questioning. This is primarily seen in the line “I’ve eaten green that comes up black” (157).Prince is revealing the struggle to express the nature of existence within this poem by showing that there is something more to the activities he is presenting in this poem without actually stating it. Prince resorts to poetry to express what he otherwise is incapable of expressing. As Ridington states it, “the poems reinforce the importance of communicating meaning through the spoken word” (Ridington). Prince’s relationship with language becomes even more complex when the very subject he loves, forces him into exile.
The pack of dogs find themselves battling between the old ways and the new. Prince’s adoption and immersion into the new language is controversial to the other dogs, forcing Prince into exile. Prince then asks the question: “what am I without those who understand me?” (37). Prince’s exile into a world where no one understands him, relates to the human experience of immigrants entering a place with an entirely foreign language. In fact, Alexis also comments on this fact by explaining his own experience: “when I first came [to Canada], I spoke with a different accent. And so my sense of what words were was different because Trinis would say words one way and Canadians would say words another. The balance, the tone, the rhythm of speech is different. So there was a real problematization of how a word is actually said and how a word means, what kind of variation you can give it” (Mustafa). In essence, Prince feels what many humans feel: alone because of the barriers language innately has. Though language seems to come naturally to Prince, and thus, demonstrating how it comes naturally to humans, the knowledge of it is what makes Prince feel alone. Prince’s devastation over the fact “that [he has] lost almost all of those who [speak] his language” reflects the need for communication and understanding (103). Without anyone to fully understand him, Prince shows that life is simply not enjoyable. Language, despite it causing much grief to book’s Poet, also brings him joy – enough joy to make Hermes win the wager.
Poetry – and language in general – contributes to Prince’s success in life. In fact, “Prince’s relationship to the language of his pack so influence[s] his outlook and personality that… Apollo [grows] increasingly uncertain about how the dog’s life would end,” making him worried that perhaps this dog might actually die happy (154). Language is what makes Prince a prime candidate to help Hermes win the wager. Prince is even considered to be “fortunate,” despite his loneliness because “there [is] at least one thing he [loves], one thing that [is] with him always: his pack’s language” (154). Prince’s love for his language is enough to label him as ‘lucky,’ illustrating the need for love in human existence and shows that if one wants to live a happy life, one must hold onto what they love.
Prince never gives up hope. He remains optimistic throughout his tumultuous life in order to keep what he loves most: his language. Prince, having been faced with the task of navigating through the streets without his vision, “[ignores] his blindess – or, rather, [accepts] it – and [goes] on his way as deliberately as he [can]” (160). Though this is an exemplary instance of Prince’s optimism and perseverance, it is only one of many. Prince, as he comes to the end of his life, realizes that his language – what he loves most – is going to die with him. Instead of basking in his regret, Prince “[does] not despair” and instead, decides that it is his fate “to pass his work on to [his final owners]” (165). When Prince loses his hearing, it seems as though he loses everything, including his happiness. Prince, instead of despairing, recollects an old poem. This remembrance of his language evokes feelings of gratefulness and, even more surprising, hope. Prince, “against all expectations,” dies happy (168). Prince is constantly counting his blessings, rather than his devastations, though he does have many. Prince’s devotion to his language and his absolute love for it is ultimately what allows him to live a good life and die happy, answering the question of what makes for a truly full life.
Prince’s journey comments on many philosophical questions but, most importantly, demonstrates the ability to live a happily. Safa Jinje points out that “by the story’s end, Alexis makes clear that the virtues of love — of being in love and loved in return — is at the core of a good life” (Jinje). By acknowledging all of the insufferable events that Prince is put through, it is difficult to say that he is ever loved by anyone or anything. He puts all of his love out in the world and yet, he is exiled, and given blindness and deafness in return. Prince, as mistreated and unfortunate as he is, does, in fact, receive love. Prince, “[in] his final moment on earth… loved, and knew that he was loved in return” by his first owner, Kim (171). Prince, despite being separated from Kim for many years, never forgets him. It is clear, through Prince’s remembrance of Kim and his joy when finally seeing Kim again, that Prince loves him and, with his new understanding, is gifted with the knowledge that Kim loves him back. In ending Prince’s story here, it is clear that this answers the question: what does it mean to live a full and happy life? The answer is simple: as Prince shows, love is at the heart of everything good and with it, one can overcome anything, including exile, blindness and deafness.
Prince, after being given human intelligence and consciousness endures many struggles; however, he also endures, as this book claims, as many fortunes as he does misfortunes. Prince’s natural formation of language alongside his never-ending curiosity demonstrates the complex nature of existence. Prince is able to articulate the importance poetry has in terms of making sense of the world. Communication and the desire to understand the world is innate to existence, as is the depression and frustration that comes along with not being able to be understood. Though Prince loves his language, he still desires those who can understand him, showcasing the human need for companionship. In addition to this, Prince’s love for his language, his optimism and his reciprocated love is what ultimately allows for him to live his fullest and happiest life, despite all of his sufferings. Prince’s life in André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs answers the philosophical questions of existence, showing the innate nature of the world and how, exactly, one can live their fullest life and ultimately die happy.
Alexis, André. Fifteen Dogs. 1st ed., Coach House Books, 2015.
Jinje, Safa. “Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis: Review.” The Star. Toronto Star Newspapers, 2015. https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/2015/03/28/fifteen-dogs-by-andr-alexis-review.html. Accessed 5 April 2017
Mustafa, Naheed. “Q&A with Andre Alexis: Fifteen Dogs author talks about animals as allegory and his bond with words.” CBC News. CBC Radio Canada, 2016. 4 April 2017.
Ridington, Robin. “Reading André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs: An Apologue.” Canadian Literature. Canadian Literature, 2015. https://canlit.ca/article/reading-andre-alexis-fifteen-dogs-an-apologue/. Accessed 4 April 2017.