Last of the Grand Narratives, by Elaine Walker
artwork by Lucy Smith

Here is the world. See how it spins wildly. Humans have no control over its careering but, believing it spins for their benefit, the people gather. They drink wine and talk while the dog dies. And this is art and the world keeps spinning, but not at their behest.

Here is the Artist. He will document in pictures the slow death of the dog because he, only he of all humans, sees the filth and squalor of the streets. By witnessing this incidental demise, he will act as the conscience of the dizzy world. He will neither feed the dog nor seek the care of a veterinary expert. No, he will suffer to see the dog suffer. But he will not help, because that would not be art.

And the people watch and drink the wine. The scent of the delicate finger buffet prepared for their delectation reaches the nostrils of the skeletal dog, lying beneath the harsh lights of the gallery. Saliva runs into her dry mouth and her erratic heart beats a little faster for a few moments. But she is too weak to raise her head towards the art lovers, who applaud the artist and the brutal purity of his vision, but are glad the dog cannot meet their eyes.

There is a man in the crowd who stands apart. He does not drink the wine or partake of the delicate finger buffet, though he watches the faces of the art lovers and examines the images that track the slow decline of the dog. He has listened to the Artist rage against the abomination of death on the city streets and he has heard the world spin.

Now he watches as Monsieur René Descartes enters the gallery. Having been dead since 1650, Monsieur Descartes has never been to a gallery such as this before. But, an urbane man in his lifetime, he will not let unfamiliarity shake his composure. He accepts a glass of wine, looking closely at its ruby colour through the lead crystal which catches the lights and dazzles the eyes of the dying dog.

The dog interests him and he ponders its purpose in this strangely white room. ‘You will dissect this animal for the advancement of knowledge?’ he asks, and the Artist is appalled. ‘Certainly not. If this animal had been left on the street to die, no-one would have even known of its existence. I am not here to inflict pain but to bear witness to it.’

Monsieur Descartes smiles. ‘Pain, sir? I proved that only the thinking creature feels pain. Animals do not think. They are machines powered by instinct. My discovery shaped the world in which you live: I think, therefore, I am.’ He bows his head in elegant humility. ‘You are, of course, familiar with my work.’

‘Indeed,’ says the Artist, ‘but you were wrong: in the modern world, we understand that animals both feel pain and have some primitive thought process. Their suffering reflects on our misuse of the world.’ 

‘The world is ours, Sir,’ says the formerly great man, ‘to do with as we see fit - as ordained by God who gave mankind dominion over the animals.’

 ‘Dominion yes, but should there be no compassion for the resource?’

There is a pause while the living artist and the dead philosopher regard one another without comprehension. But they agree on the superiority of humankind. That, at least, they have in common.

The dog’s ears twitch as her sensitive instincts respond to the raised voices. She is uneasy in this strange place, with the polished floor wearing sores where her bones are pushing at her thin skin and the rope chafing her neck. But she is little moved by the wrangling. She carries on dying quietly, her fine ribs protrude from under her dehydrated skin, her liver turns her body toxic and her shrunken stomach shrinks from the cold floor.

The art lovers are impressed by the conflict. Some want the autograph of Monsieur Descartes because it is not often that a great figure from history returns to cast his eyes on the world he helped to make. Others turn away. Animals are only animals, after all, but being aware of their suffering is part of being human, like understanding their inferiority.

No-one has noticed that the quiet man has knelt down and laid a light hand on the skull clearly visible beneath the dog’s skin. No-one has noticed him dribble a few drops of water into the corner of the dog’s mouth. Carefully, he unties the coarse leash then coaxes and reassures the dog but, when he stands up with her cradled in his arms, there is an outcry.

‘Christ! Look what he’s done!’ cries one art lover, who earlier turned his back because the lolling tongue of the dog offended him.

‘You Philistine!’ complains another, but he is scribbling in a notebook, delighted at the unexpected copy for his column in tomorrow’s paper.

‘My work!’ The Artist is dismayed. 'You have ruined my work! How will the world know of suffering on the streets now?’

‘Your work is pointless.’ Descartes shrugs and pours himself more wine, ‘It is a dying dog. It feels nothing.’

‘Who wants to watch a fucking stray dog die anyhow?’ A woman tottering on spiky heels slurs her words a little. Earlier in the evening, when she was pretending she understood the exhibition, she would have been appalled to think she could forget that she is an art lover long enough to say such a thing. But four, maybe five, glasses of full-bodied red wine can alter one’s perception of art entirely.

‘You arrogant bastards! It’s a living creature – what right have you to use it like this?’ A young woman joins the debate. She looks out of place in her tie-dye t-shirt, a hippy tree-hugger with a bleeding heart perhaps, but could she be an art lover too? The dizzy world is a complex place – certainly she has an invitation in her hand.

A man behind her sneers, ‘There are people dying out there - children. It’s just a bloody dog!’

‘A man of perception!’ Descartes smiles, ‘It is merely an animal made by God for Man’s resource. We can dissect the creature and see how emaciation has affected its internal organs. We’ll do it now: a live dissection is far more revealing.’

‘Your callousness offends me!’ the Artist cries, ‘God made the world for us to use, not abuse.’ He waves his arms in an extravagant gesture and wonders how all this will look in tomorrow’s papers and if he can get hold of the man with the notebook before he leaves. ‘Guards, stop this idiot – he’s destroying my installation!’

But the security guards don’t move. One has a dog he is very fond of and the other likes a bit of a scrap, especially between these up-themselves art-types.

‘What if,’ the quiet man asks, his voice calm so that the others have to stop raging to hear him, ‘what if our lives are all built upon a mistake?’

‘Your reasoning, sir?’ Descartes is intrigued, and the wine is warm while the grave is cold, so he is content to debate with these strange people a while longer. He raises an eyebrow in a way women found fascinating when he was alive, hoping that the inebriated woman wearing heels like assassin's knives will fornicate with him before he returns to his tomb. ‘Your reasoning?’

‘My reasoning, Monsieur,' says the quiet man, smiling a little, ‘is that maybe God did not intend humankind to be greater than animal kind. Maybe among all those scribes and translators thousands of years ago, there was an error. What if, instead of “have dominion over” the text should read, “have responsibility for”?’

‘Nonsense!’ cries Descartes and the Artist joins his protest but they falter because the silence of the quiet man is like the silence between one moment and the next, and as troubling.

And in that silence they hear the burning world grating on its axis, while polar ice drips over their troubled faces and the heat of the unfiltered sun fries their skin.

And in that silence, they hear the crashing of ancient trees as they fall to the ground and the calls of the last tiger and the last whale, no longer two-by-two but one-by-one, balanced on their final precarious foothold in mankind’s shrinking dominion.

And in that silence, humanity closes its eyes because the vertiginous spinning causes nausea.

But the quiet man looks down at the dog in his arms and knows that he is part of a story, just a fiction, inspired by a newspaper report that may have been a hoax in the first place. He knows that the truth is a slippery thing to grasp.

He knows too, that while the earth groans and the tears of heaven rain hot and metaphorical over its tribulations, humans have not evolved sufficiently to resolve their dilemmas without resorting to violence - against children, against dogs, against each other.

In a fiction, he can step forward, a thinly disguised Christ-figure maybe, and gather up the dog to save her. There could be a happy ending whereby he inspires the Artist to go out and feed the strays and Monsieur Descartes to feel the reality of pain to a starving puppy. Together they could start a rescue centre for homeless dogs with the slogan, ‘I think, therefore I feel’, and they could change the world.

But the quiet man knows that this unlikely outcome would stretch the boundaries of magical realism and even fantasy, and that beyond the fiction, dogs and children will still die, and the crazily spinning world will one day gyrate off its axis and hurtle into oblivion.

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