Dog Symphony by Sam Munson: La Cárcel de Alma
To walk down the dusty streets of Albuquerque’s low-income residential areas at nighttime is to experience the surreal illusion that the air is filled with dogs, that their barks have overtaken every other sense. In lieu of any wired alarm system, dogs hover around the neighborhood double-wides, some chained, some unchained. Barking, always, the air is barking. Some trail after you as you walk, and you are the only human out here, walking. No matter how quietly you keep your footsteps, each movement forward sets the ground into dissonant howls. Setting off the dog alarms is inevitable, and you wonder to what extent the neighbors are used to all the noise and to what extent they will be irritated by it. In the morning, the dogs are practically silent. They bake in the young sun. They know they have lost the threat of mystery they hold (they held) in the nighttime. It is not out of the realm of possibility that it is the people of Albuquerque themselves who inhabit the hysteria of the dogs at night and leave behind a hairy lethargy come sunrise. Dogs were once thought to be restless souls who accompanied the goddess Hecate, mistress of nighttime and necromancy. Were I without human companionship on my walk, I would have believed it to be a dream.
Is it a sin to betray the secrets of the dogs who watch over La Iglesia de San Antonio de la Ladera? The exact location of the church, if it even meets the standards for a church, is better left for discovery than pilgrimage. It is one of those sites which is holiest if stumbled upon, a place which must remain in the realm of surprise. This much about La Iglesia de San Antonio de la Ladera I can share, however: that you must climb up a rocky hill, that it is guarded by two dogs who are owned mostly by something cosmic, that the dogs will look you in the eye and test your ability to stew in something terrifying, and that after finding you worthy, they will flee down the rocky cliffside. Two dogs descending down the near-vertical slope is not unlike the biblical casting of demons into a herd of swine. Tensions and fears are not lifted, but yanked out, along with breath. To meet the dogs and transfer your human burden, to return to some primal emotion (how interesting that the primal and divine are both polarities of humanity!) is to prepare for La Iglesia de San Antonio de la Ladera. It is a tiny box upon the hill, never locked as you will find when you enter. La Iglesia de San Antonio de la Ladera is one of the densest concentrations of human emotion ever discovered--its single room, not more than 100 square feet in size, is more approximate to the interior chambers of a sorrowful heart than a building. I fear I cannot open up its doors any further; I must not let its contents out; there are not enough dogs in the world.
It is after walking through the howling streets and standing face-to-face with the dogs of La Iglesia de San Antonio de la Ladera that I began to read Dog Symphony by Sam Munson. It is a whirling text which instinctively launches itself down the streets of Buenos Aires, only stopping to ask questions about man’s inclination toward structure and the relationship between autonomy and reality. The text follows Boris Leonidovich, a professor of prison architecture as he uncovers a Buenos Aires in the midst of a conversion into a societal panopticon. Leonidovich, who alternates between referring to his intellectual self in the third-person as Pasternak and his primal soul in the first-person, finds himself integrated into a pack of dogs who take over Buenos Aires at nighttime and around which a cult reverence and power structure has emerged. As the protagonist discovers more and more about the mysterious dictatorial figure Sanchis Mira, head of the Department of Social Praxis for which Leonidovich-Pasternak has been invited to speak at a conference, he involves himself in a conspiracy not unlike that of Oedipa in Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, a complicated system for which parsing the line between fabrication and reality becomes more and more unclear. “The true sensitive is the one that can share in the man’s hallucinations, that’s all,” Pynchon wrote.
Munson, for his part, contemplates to what extent reality can be verified through individual experience and how facts can be reshaped through collective agreement. His protagonist struggles to obtain any indication that Buenos Aires was not always in the surrealistic state he finds it in, to find testimonies which align the history he thought to be reality. A song played immersively in the city, The Dog Symphony, has origins which are either not acknowledged or cannot be traced--in the denial of its history, it precedes history. The dogs are believed to be the souls of those who have died in an epidemic. One Argentine prison, the Carcel de Devoto, has been converted into a church to the dog-headed St. Christopher. Yet no one knows the details of the epidemic or when the epidemic began, nor when exactly the prison was converted into a holy site--for that matter, the history of St. Christopher is deemed unimportant. It’s a bit of an “if a tree falls” question--if everyone agrees that something is true, does it make it true? For Boris Leonidovich, the fabric of essential reality is bent by collective acceptance.
It is this conglomeration into structural hierarchies and collectives that blurs the line between man and dog. How easy it is to fall onto instincts, to join in with a crowd, to feel the comfort of assimilation. Leonidovich approaches his teaching with a hands-free method, requiring and expecting little of his students; they still aggregate into hierarchies of intellect and celebrate their “liberation” from their self-imposed structures. It is so natural when visiting holy sites to make a sign of the cross and an attempt to pray, however little you believe in the stuff. In these structures which arise, the self is lost and the self-disciplining panopticon arises. For Munson, there is not a large leap from man to dog, nor is there very far for man to travel to reach fascist state power structures.
Leonidovich, prison architecture historian, speculates that just as the individual may be detained into social “prisons”, the mind is a “prisoner” to the body. (I use quotations here because I believe the prison metaphor to be overused and demeaning to many individuals who are actually in prison--to be a human with a mind inside a body is incomparable to being an actual prisoner in prison.) Yet it is the body which is transient and the soul which is transcendent in this surrealistic text. Munson’s narrator paints a bleak portrait of how humans operate--that we are trapped in our own animalistic natures in a world where to live is to shun individual truth. Any embrace of primal reads more as defeat and collectivity is structured as a force of oppression for its human participants. The dogs are not so pitied; the dogs have transcended.