Man and Animal

... in Sadegh Hedayat’s “Stray Dog” 1


Man and Animal
by Homa Katouzian

“Stray Dog” is one of Hedayat’s best psycho-fictions and one of the most moving pieces he ever wrote. It is tempting to say that it is a fictionalised version of his youthful essay, “Man and Animal”. Its text and outer layer certainly represent an authentic and unmistakable fiction by the author of that essay and its sequel, The Benefits of Vegetarianism.2 It is true that Hedayat never ceased to condemn cruelty and injustice to animals in every possible way: both by word of mouth and by the pen.3 In his fictional works, these sentiments find strong expression especially in “Stray Dog” and in “Alaviyeh Khanom”, here in the scene when the coach horses fall down. The difference however is that the latter short story is a comedy in the classical sense of this term whereas “Stray dog” is a psycho-fiction.4

Hence it cannot be regarded merely as the fictional expression of the sentiments expressed in “Man and Animal”, since there is another and much deeper dimension to it as a metaphor for outsider, alienated, rejected and persecuted human beings who are treated in the same way by their fellow humans, an example of the anti-heroes of Hedayat’s psycho-fictions from the animal world.

It is characteristic of Hedayat’s psycho-fictions that the fictional elements – it would be a little stretching it to call it “the plot” – are relatively simple. Even in the case of The Blind Owl, the complexity and ambiguity, and hence wide interpretability, of the story is due to the quality of subjective cloudiness, intermingled with the barrage of judgmental narrative, rather than to an elaborate plot. This being the case in general, the story of “Stray Dog” is still one of the simplest of the psycho-fictions. It is about a pedigree dog that gets lost in Varamin, near Tehran, and wanders around while being kicked and cursed by virtually everyone that it comes across. Only in one case does a man who happens to be stopping there for a few hours shows him kindness and sympathy, an exception that enhances the story’s sense of realism. But in the end he leaves, and leaves the dog behind even more lonely and desperate than it was before.

It is the description of the dog’s psyche while going through the trauma of alienation, helplessness and physical torture, and its feelings, desires, hopes and sense of nostalgia that make up much of the story, as well as the subtext, the anthropomorphic characteristics of the dog’s experience which make it accessible to human understanding as an instance of the tragedy of existence.

    In front of the baker’s shop, the assistant baker would beat up the dog; in front of the butchers the butcher-boy would throw bricks at it. Trying to hide underneath a motor-car, it would be greeted by the heavily nailed boots of the driver. And when all the others got tired of hurting it, it was the turn of the rice-pudding peddler boy who drew a special satisfaction from hurting him. He would keep throwing a brick at its back each time it moaned, and would then laugh aloud saying ‘You bastard’…They all beat the dog for God’s sake. 5

As noted, this reminds the reader of the author’s early essay, “Man and Animal”, long before he became a fiction writer. He had said in that essay that humans are cruel to the weak and have shown themselves to animals as the worst arbitrary rulers and the basest agents of injustice. They capture animals, cage them and treat them in such a way that they would rather die than stay alive. Here the condemnation of humankind in its behaviour towards animals is universal, but in the concluding part of the essay, the young author reserves some especially harsh words for the attitude and behaviour of Iranians in particular towards animals, which directly anticipates the drama of “Stray Dog”:

    In Iran the donkey is born for toil and torture. The dog is killed for God’s sake. The cat is thrown down deep wells alive, and the mouse is buried alive in the public thoroughfares…Even if killing animals is useful to humans, what joy could there be in torturing them. Till when must we turn a blind eye to this veil of barbarism? 6

And having condemned humans as the worst arbitrary rulers of animals, he goes on to express deep regret that, by the time he wrote the essay, no laws had been passed in Iran to protect animals from cruelty.

Hedayat’s “Man and Animal” was published in 1925. In the same year Vita Sackville-West, the famous British writer, member of the Bloomsbury Group, and one-time lover of Virginia Woolfe, visited Tehran where her husband Harold Nicolson was a counsellor in the British legation. By chance she also attended the coronation ceremonies of Reza Shah early in 1926. She had gone to Iran via Egypt, India and Iraq, and in her travelogue which she published on return in 1926 she spared many a word of praise and admiration about people and nature in Iran. But what she had to say about the plight of animals in Iran might well have come straight out of Hedayat’s essay, except that she expresses herself with greater circumspection. She wrote:

    Heaven knows…that Persia is no place for a lover of animals. Indeed I would rather witness a bullfight than some of the scenes I have been treated to in this country. To the skeletons one very rapidly grows accustomed; that is nothing; a skeleton is a clean thing. Even to the more recently dead one grows accustomed: to the mule or camel fallen by the wayside, still a recognizable object, with hairy coat and glazed eyes, the dogs from the nearest village gorging themselves on its entrails, while the vultures hover, waiting for a nastier meal. is only glad that the beast should be at last dead, insentient.

It is the cruel fate of living animals, she goes on to say, that is particularly distressing to the sensitive observer:

    It is the living that stir one’s horror, one’s indignation, and one’s pity. The white horse limping along an endless road; the team that cannot drag the wagon up the hill, piteously willing but underfed, overloaded, straining, stumbling, sweating…; the donkey dying under its load by the roadside, still struggling to rise and carry on a mile or two further; why should they serve men as they do serve them, anxious, faithful, wistful. I remember things that I cannot bring myself to write.7

But unlike Hedayat she attributes her observations less to the cruelty of Iranians, than to their ignorance of the suffering they thus cause to animals:

    It is not that these people are cruel, but that they are ignorant; this I do believe, for the Persians are gentle by inclination, fond of children, and easily moved to laughter in a simple way. But they seem to be ignorant of suffering…It is simply ignorance and lack of imagination, but the result is the same, and whoever is inclined to grumble against his lot would do well to remember that he was not born a beast of burden in Persia. 8

In Hedyat’s “Alavieh Khanom” – written nine years after “Man and Animal” and eight years before “Stray Dog” - the pilgrims’ caravan is moving towards Mashad when a horse slips on the snow. The scene is highly reminiscent of Sackville-West’s observation: “The team that cannot drag the wagon up the hill, piteously willing but underfed, overloaded, straining, stumbling, sweating”:

    They cut off the girth and whipped the horse so hard that it got up. He was shaking in agony. They had dyed the horses’ manes and tails with henna, and put blue talismans round their necks to protect them from evil eyes. The necks of the thin and consumptive horses were bent under the weight of the collar, and a mixture of sweat and snow dripped down their bodies. The strong black whip cracked up in the air and came down on their buttocks, each time making their flesh jump up. But they were so old and weak that they had lost all energy to revolt and rebel. By every blow of the whip, they bit and kicked each other. Bloody foam came off their mouths every time they coughed.9

Pat is a Scottish pedigree whose master stops for a short break at Varamin, being on a long journey. It follows a bitch and ends up by getting stuck in the drains which led to the garden of the bitch’s owners. By the time Pat manages to pull itself out of the drains, wounded, hungry and exhausted, its master has given up hope of finding it and driven off:

    It was midnight when the sound of its own moaning woke it up. Frightened, it roamed around a couple of alley ways, sniffed the walls, and ran around the streets for some time. In the end it felt very hungry. When it returned to the village square…someone carrying a loaf of bread called it, saying ‘come, come’, and threw a piece of warm bread towards it. After a moment of hesitation, Pat ate the bread and wagged its tail for the man. The man put the loaf on the bakery’s front bar, cautiously stroked Pat’s head, and gently opened its leash with both his hands…But as soon as Pat wagged its tail again and got closer to the shop-keeper, its side was visited by a hard kick, and it ran off crying…From that day onwards Pat had not received anything from these people except kicks, bricks, blows by wooden clubs, as if they were all Pat’s mortal enemies and took pleasure from torturing it. 10

Sometimes they just hit the dog; at other times they threw something for it to eat, but as soon as it had eaten it, they would exact the price from it by kicks and bricks. It was only on one occasion that someone was kind and gentle to Pat. A man driving through the village just like Pat’s master, clearly well-to-do or he would not drive a private car at the time. “The man dipped pieces of bread in yoghurt and threw them to Pat. The dog was eating the pieces of bread while fixing its hazel eyes, which reflected a feeling of helplessness, on the man’s face, wagging its tale to show its gratitude”. For once “it had a hearty meal without the meal being interrupted by beating”. Pat began to follow the man and he too stroked it from time to time. But in no time he got into his car and drove off.

Pat was devastated. It ran after the car with the whole of its existence; it ran and ran and ran until it fell down with total exhaustion. After “two winters” of wandering around, living with hunger, being beaten and, worst of all, loneliness and hopelessness, Pat had lost the will to live. It gives up, lying down in death agony, while three vultures hover over its head waiting “to pull out its hazel eyes”.

As noted however there is more to the story than a fictionalized account of the cruelty of humans to animals – in this case a stray and wandering dog who has lost its master. Pat’s tragedy is not just what it experiences but also the fact that the experience is entirely new, one that it had not known before. It is not a stray dog as they were in Iran at the time, even though it has been lost and gone astray. It has been uprooted from its home and has to face the inhospitableness of nature and cruelty of humans at one and the same time. Stray cats and dogs, i.e. those whose parents and ancestors as far back as the primeval chaos have been running from roof to roof belong to a different race. Not only are they used to being kicked, beaten and chased away, but from the moment of their birth they have been learning the technique of avoiding the worse and perfecting the art of managing to survive. They suffer nevertheless but they regard their fate as part of nature, of existence itself. They have no other criteria by which to judge their miserable lot. They have not had a home to remember its peace and security. They have never been stroked with kindness to feel its absence. They are born aliens; they cannot feel alienated:

    What tortured Pat most was its need for affection. It felt like a child that has been constantly pushed around and cursed but has not lost its sensibility. It was in need of affection especially in this new and painful existence. Its eyes were begging for it; it was ready to forfeit its life for anyone who would show it some kind of affection, who would care to stroke its back.11

Pat had seen love and affection all its life, yet all it faced now was hatred and hostility. It had both loved and had been loved. If life is painful without being loved, it is also painful without loving:

    It needed to show its affection to someone; show him selfless devotion; show him faithfulness, adoration. But no-one was interested. Every eye it stirred at, it saw nothing in it but anger and evil. Everything it did to attract the attention of humans, it looked as if it added to their hostility.12

This is a Scottish pedigree dog with a golden past: good home, good food and kind owners. It remembers its childhood playfulness, first with its brother, whose soft ears it used to bite, and they would jump up and down, get up and run; then, with its master’s son “whom it would chase to the end of the garden, bark and pull his jacket by its teeth”. Now times had changed, but there was dual suffering: once for hunger and persecution; twice for the nostalgia of the golden age.

The theme is familiar from other Hedayat’s psycho-fictions, except that in those other stories the stray and wandering being is not an animal but a human being. The narrator of “Buried Alive” says that while he was lying down contemplating suicide he wished he was a little child once again and his nurse was telling him the sweet tales which warmed up his eyes to sleep.13 In The Blind Owl, the nostalgia for a care-free childhood reveals itself on a few occasions. For example: “I wish I could go to sleep like when I was a little innocent child – well and trouble-free”14; “eternity had no meaning for me except to be able to play with the harlot on the banks of River Soren [just like when we were children] and just for one moment to shut my eyes and put my head on her lap”.15

But there was one nostalgic sense which for Pat outdid all the rest: the time when it was a suckling, when it was completely dependent, when it enjoyed the instinctive love of its mother:

    Among the various smells which Pat was sensing the smell of the rice pudding in front of the peddler boy gave it the highest sense of intoxication – this white liquid which looked so much like its mother’s milk. It suddenly felt a feeling of numbness. It remembered when as a child it would suck that warm and nourishing liquid from its mother’s breasts, and the mother’s soft and strong tongue would lick its body. The strong smell which it sensed in the bosom of its mother, next to its brother…As soon as it had had enough…a stream of warmth would run into its whole body. Its head would get heavy, its hands would let go of its mother’s bosom, and a deep sleep would follow – what more joy could it have than to naturally squeeze its mother’s breasts for milk which would come out without any trouble, any struggle.16

This is clearly a case of the wish to return to the safety and security of the womb. It is to be found, usually in tacit and allusive forms, in many if not most of Hedayat’s psycho-fictions. His short story “Dark Room” contains its most explicit as well as most impressive expression. The narrator meets the recluse in a coach bound for a provincial city and he tells him that his “biggest problem is to be with others” and that he has always felt he is an outsider everywhere. He is of noble descent and explains that he has been born lazy. “Effort and enterprise” he goes on to assert “belong to empty people who try to fill their own vacuum in this way. They belong to the miserable little lot who don’t know where they come from”. Being born to a high society, one does not feel a vacuum to fill, and so he becomes lazy and does not struggle for life:

    But my ancestors who themselves were empty people worked hard, thought hard and saw much, until they filled in their own vacuum and became lazy. And I have now inherited their laziness.17

He goes on to say that “in this environment” only a bunch of thievish, ignorant and shameless people have a right to live, reminding the reader of the rajjaleh-ha or rabble of The Blind Owl and other psycho-fictions, or, from the animal world, the tomcat of “The Three Drops of Blood”, which attracts Nazi, Siyavosh’s beloved she-cat. The recluse has built an oval room in his house which is decorated in red and is lit up by a red light, pretending that he has imitated the photographer’s dark room for printing photos. But its shape is oval and although this is in the subtext intended to be a replica of the mother’s womb. The narrator spells it out:

    What you’re looking for is just like the condition of the foetus in its mother’s womb who, without having to try hard and flatter others curls up in its soft and warm bed, and its needs are automatically seen to. It is that same nostalgia for the lost paradise which, deep down, you can find in every human being.

“That same nostalgia” now reveals itself in the story of a pedigree dog which has been uprooted from its origins, its paradise. It reminds the reader of Rumi’s line: This homeland in not Egypt, not Iraq, not Syria / This homeland is nowhere but Nolandia (Utopia). And it is this third layer or second subtext of the story of “Stray Dog” which makes plain its allegorical nature, pointing to a psychological as well as ontological problem that man and animal alike might come to face. It is not therefore accidental when in the description of Pat at the beginning of the story we read:

    In the depths of its eyes one could see a human-like soul…An endless something waved in its eyes, carrying a message which was not possible to discern… Not only could one see a similarity between its eyes and those of human beings, but also a kind of equality.18

And all this, nobility of the soul, alienation from the environment and nostalgia for a golden past make up some of the most basic elements and recurring themes of Hedayat’s psycho-fictions.

[1] This is chapter 13 of Homa Katouzian, ed., Sadeq Hedayat, His Work and His Wondrous World, London and New York: Routledge, 2008.

[2] See further Hushang Philsooph’s contribution to this volume.

[3] In his first encounter with his life-long friend Taqi Razavi at St. Louis school in Tehran he told him off for bringing a live lizard for demonstration to the natural history class. See Homa Katouzian, Sadeq Hedayat, The Life and Legend of an Iranian Writer, (London and new York, paperback edition, 2002), 2:20.

[4] For a definition and discussion of Hedayat’s psycho-fictions see the introduction to this volume.

[5] See “Sag-e Velgard” in Sag-e Velgard (Tehran, 1968): 13-14.

[6] See Sadeq Hedayat, Man and Animal (1925), Jahangir Hedayat (ed.) (Tehran, second edition, 2002): 82.

[7] Vita Sackville-West, Passenger to Tehran (London, 1991; first ed. 1926): 60

[8] Ibid: 60-61.

[9] See “Alaviyeh Khanom” in Alaviyeh Khanom va Velengari (Tehran, 1963): 23.

[10] Sag-e Velgard: 22-24.

[11] Sag-e Velgard: 25-26.

[12] Ibid: 26.

[13] “Zendeh beh Gur” in Zendeh beh Gur (Tehran, 1963): 11.

[14] See Buf-e Kur (Tehran,1972): 64.

[15] Ibid: 110.

[16] Sag-e Velgard: 17-18.

[17] See H. Katouzian, “Bazgasht beh Zehdan dar Tarik-khaneh-ye Sadeq Hedayat” in idem. Sadeq Hedayat va Marg-e Nevisandeh (Tehran, 4th impression, 2005):138. Emphasis added.

[18] Sag-e Velgard: 13.


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Katouzian's essay on man and animal

by Massive-Bruno on

Many thnaks for this superb essay inspired by Sadegh Hedayat!