By Vikas Datta
Title: The Philosopher and the Wolf; Author: Mark Rowlands; Publisher: Granta Books; Pages: 256; Price: Rs 499
There are many things that distinguish human beings as a species — apart from an inclination for dazzling technological gizmos — but the most outstanding, as far as their survival and peace of mind goes, will be their habit of gaining knowledge from singularly unique experiences. Like this misanthropic academician did from an over-decade-long, frequently nomadic stint with a wolf.
Welsh-born Mark Rowlands was starting his academic career in the US in the 1990s when he made a purchase that would not only change his life but also give him a vivid insight into what it means to be human, appreciating nature — including from a non-human perspective — and our similarities and differences with other animals.
And as he shows us in this non-linear memoir-cum-extensive philosophical exposition, it also enabled him to gain an understanding of the evolution of intelligence and civilisation, good and evil, and heaven and hell, time and its course, happiness, memory, and even the creation of the universe, and the meaning and purpose of life.
It all began with an urge, in his second year as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Alabama, to get a dog, like he had in childhood when his “dysfunctional family” had plenty of big dogs around the house.
Scanning the classifieds, he found one that aroused his interest — a breeder offering “96 per cent” wolf cubs for sale — drove to his house and picked the second-biggest male out of the six-weeks-old litter.
On reaching home, he would have cause to rue his impulse for Brenin, as he named the cub after the Welsh for king, within two minutes, trashed the curtains, made his way out of the house and under it — the building was stilted — and “methodically, meticulously but above all quickly”, ripped all of the air-conditioning pipes.
Rowlands, now a Professor at the University of Miami and author of many specialised and general books on philosophy, goes on to offer a non-linear account of his life with the wolf — and what he learnt, and imagines what the wolf did.
Some parts are gripping — training the wolf, teaching him to leave pet dogs alone, making him a vegetarian, or piscetarian at least — and tragic (in the final years), but there is plenty of humour too: Having to take Brenin to his classes where the wolf howled during long lectures (“a habit that endeared him to students, who had probably been wishing they could do the same thing”) and stole their lunches.
The author notes that having the wolf alongside also attracted girls, who would come to praise the striking “dog” he had.
But it is not only him and the wolf — who would not only become a companion but his best “friend and brother” — for, Rowlands uses various experiences of their unique shared life to go into various philosophical issues and insights they give rise on various issues.
Among them one prominent one is about the difference between “simian” — which humans have followed — and “lupine” intelligence and how they differ in their whole thought process and approach to life. But as Rowlands asks, have we followed the better option?
And Rowlands, as he tells us with honesty, has, in all those years, also found himself, especially his flaws. “There is something lacking in me. And, over the years, it has slowly dawned on me that the choices I have made, and the life I have lived, have been a response to this lack. What is most significant about me, I think, is what I am missing.”
These insights are interspersed with passages of lyrical beauty about this wolf — and others in mythology and folklore — some not-so-complimentary ones about humans, and a great deal of philosophy, particularly in presenting practical applications of top practitioners from Plato to Nietzsche to Wittgenstein, as well as Albert Camus, Milan Kundera and more.
It is a rather hybrid book, much like the partnership it describes, but for all that a unique experience that might influence those who don’t have a wolf, or any as or less exotic a pet, to look at our life and world differently.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at email@example.com)