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  • True Stories about Dogs, Walter Benjamin
  • Ira Allen (bio), Robert Ryder (bio), and , (text translation)Anita Chari, (sound translation) (bio)

NB: The translators encourage the reader to engage the invitingly odd temporality of Benjamin’s radio programs for children, evoked here in sound translation, by clicking on the dog at the beginning of each section (while clicking, hold down the CTRL key on a PC or the Command key on a Mac, to open sound in a new tab). To hear and view the sound translation and its score alone, scroll down for video. Quality headphones or speakers are recommended.

Surely, you think, you know dogs. I suspect, however, that when I read for you now the most famous description of the dog, you all will feel just as I did when I first encountered it. Namely, I said to myself, if the word “dog” or “bitch” had not come up in the description, I mightn’t have guessed what sort of animal it was about. Things seem so new and strange when a great researcher turns his gaze upon them, as if no one had ever done so before. This researcher is Linnaeus—the very same person you learned about in botany and whose classification of plants we still follow today. Here is what he has to say about the dog:

“Consumes meat, carrion, starchy vegetable substances, no leaves, digests bones, regurgitates after grass; digests upon a stone: of Greek white, extremely corrosive. Drinks by lapping; makes water laterally, often hundreds of times in good company, sniffs his neighbor’s anus. Nose damp, exceptional sense of smell; lopes along a path, running on his toes; sweats very little, lets his tongue hang out in the heat; before going to sleep, he circles his berth; in sleep, hears fairly keenly, dreams. The bitch is cruel to overzealous suitors; over the lifespan, she does it with many; she bites these; intimately connected during copulation; carries for nine weeks, whelps four to eight pups, the little males like their father, the little females like their mother. Faithful above all else, domestic companion to the human; wags tail at the master’s approach, avoids blows; when the master walks, he runs ahead, looking all around at crossings; teachable, finds what is lost, patrols a beat at night, announces anyone who nears, watches over goods, fends off cattle from the fields, keeps running animals together, guards cattle and sheep from wild beasts, holds lions at bay, rustles up game, points ducks, sneaks up to spring on the catch, fetches the hunter’s kill without nibbling on it, pulls the spit along in France, in Siberia the wagons. Begs at the table; if he has stolen, he fearfully tucks his tail; eats voraciously. At home, he is master among his own. The enemy of beggars, he attacks unknown persons without provocation. With his licking, he heals wounds, gout, and growths. Howls along with music, snaps at a stone if it is cast at him; ill at ease and foul-smelling at an approaching thunderstorm. His misery is the tapeworm. Propagation of rabies. At the last, goes blind and gnaws at himself.”1

So much for Linnaeus. After such a description, the majority of stories told about dogs, stories told day-in and dayout, must strike one as a bit boring and ordinary. At any rate, those stories can’t compete with this portrayal for unusualness and memorability; least of all, after Linnaeus’ description, can we listen to most of the stories told by people wanting to prove the cleverness of dogs. Isn’t it absolutely an insult to dogs, always only to tell stories about them in order to prove something? Are they really only interesting as a species? Doesn’t each one, much more, have his own special way of being?

“Not a single dog is identical to any other in body or spirit. Each has its own good and bad habits. Often, these are the worst opposites—such that dog-owners have, in their dogs, irreplaceable material for social conversation. Each has a dog sharper than the last! Still, even as everyone tells of his dog’s hound-hijinks, so every dog offers...