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Does Your Dog Really Love You and What Does That Really Mean? A Journey in Cognitive Science and Moral Philosophy

“Our inability to read dogs’ emotions well probably begins with our inability to understand our own emotions well.”

Does Your Dog Really Love You and What Does That Really Mean? A Journey in Cognitive Science and Moral Philosophy

That humans love their dogs is a fundamental fact of our animal heart, as indisputable and irrepealable as gravity — just look at Lord Byron’s leaden eulogy for his beloved dog. But whether our dogs “love” us and what that really means is a question that hurls the human heart into perennial restlessness, oscillating between absolute, arrogant certainty and endless, insecure doubt. Its answer hints at the elemental nature of all emotion, at the central puzzlement of consciousness, at the very meaning of love, and at the unnerving fact that we can never fully know the inner life of another, be they human or other animal.

That question is what cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz, director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, explores in a chapter of her altogether fascinating book Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond (public library).

Horowitz notes that, both in her lab and while observing dogs in the urban wild, she constantly sees behaviors from which we instinctively infer human-like emotions — curiosity when a dog faces a dancing robot, surprise when a hidden researcher emerges from behind a door — and yet she is frequently asked whether dogs are really capable of the most sweeping human emotions: love, anger, ennui. Are we right to imagine “If I could I would bite every sorrow until it fled” into a beloved dog’s mental monologue? Framing these questions as “a testament to both the ardor of our interest in our dogs, and our uncertainty about the dog’s experience,” Horowitz writes:

As our own days may be colored with anxiety, anticipation, or foreboding — are dogs’ days so colored? As we respond to events and people with empathy, sarcasm, or incredulity — do dogs tend toward such sentiments?

Many of these questions boil down to whether dogs have feelings or emotions at all. But of course they do. Look at it adaptively: emotions are messaging to the muscles and response system to circumvent the closed-door discussions between the sensory organs and brain. I see a tiger; I know that tigers are predators and this one is coming toward me . . . and Hey!, chimes the brain emotively, Be afraid! Run!

Look at it neurologically: the areas of human brains that are active when we feel, sigh, yearn, and despair are also found in dogs’ brains.

Look at it behaviorally: though we are not always great at naming which behavior indicates what emotion (as we will shortly see), the wide array of different behaviors and postures of dogs tells us about their internal states.

Look at it sensibly. The alternative to having emotions — having undifferentiated experience — defies reason, defies Darwin, defies continuity. Human emotions did not emerge mysteriously and fully formed out of unfeeling automata. Keep in mind that the last popular advocate of the latter belief, Descartes, lived in a time when bloodletting was still considered salubrious.

Art by Maira Kalman from Beloved Dog

But while the question of whether dogs feel is a fossil of hubristic medievalism, the question of what and how dogs feel remains just on the cusp of our ability to answer — for our answers are mired in our own projections. After all, the qualia of any conscious experience is singular to the consciousness having it and impenetrable to other consciousnesses — Nina Simone serenaded the impossibility of precisely knowing the qualia of another human animal when she sang “I wish you could know what it means to be me,” let alone the qualia of a non-human animal.

And yet we presume to easily read a dog’s feeling states. A century and a half after Darwin wrote that “man himself cannot express love and humility by external signs, so plainly as does a dog, when with drooping ears, hanging lips, flexuous body, and wagging tail, he meets his beloved master,” Horowitz pulls into question the plainness of emotional inferences drawn from behavioral cues. Having previously written beautifully about how a walk with her own dog ignited an awareness of the myriad different ways of experiencing the same reality, she considers the difference between description and emotional diagnosis:

As shorthand, it makes good sense to me to use emotional terms to describe what I’m seeing. In the lab, I would more likely say, The dog’s head extends forward, leading the body by an extra half-step; the ears are perked into their full height (read: curiosity). A dog jumps back, preparing the body for escape; a “rurf” sound slips out (surprise). Retreating, the dog’s body shrinks down and back (anxiety); on approach, a dog pulls away her head, lifts her paw, curls her lip (disgust); with a high, loosely wagging tail, the dog leaps with two or four legs and attempts to lick every nearby face, dog or human (delight).

I don’t use those shorthand words as my first descriptions of what they are doing — because I hesitate to assume that a dog’s experience of what looks like curiosity or delight is precisely like mine. While the similarities across mammalian brains make it highly likely that all mammals have diverse emotional experiences, we all also have very different lived experiences, based on, for humans, our cultures, where we live, and the people we meet. So, too, for dogs. My own guess is that, planted into a dog’s body, we wouldn’t recognize the feelings we’re flooded with as being just like our own. But that there are feelings, I’ve no doubt.

In this way, I inhabit the territory between the presumptive granting of subjective experience just like humans — and complete denial of any experience. Not presuming to know the dog’s subjective experience is not at all the same as denying them any experience at all.

Art by Maira Kalman from Beloved Dog

Paradoxically, she points out, denial has been the crucible of the scientific study of animal consciousness — with strikingly cruel consequences that gnaw at the foundations of morality:

Without definitive evidence of an animal’s fear of pain, researchers say, how can we be sure that the animal feels fear — or pain — at all?

Weirdly, most of the history of medical and psychiatric research has also seemed not to doubt the reality of animals’ feelings. In fact, it presumes feelings in its very premise. To prove the efficacy of an anti-anxiety drug for humans, the drug first has to be roundly vetted on an “animal model”: essentially, lab animals have to be made anxious, then given the test, and have their anxiety dissipate (while no other ill effects arise). A history of this kind of thinking is written between the lines of every medical study using animals: they are so similar to us, thus they are a good model for humans.

[…]

Should someone make the claim to me that a dog definitely can’t be “depressed,” or benefit from anti-depression medication, I’ll take their hand and walk them back in time. Several decades ago, depression research took a step forward with the development of the “learned helplessness” model, made famous by Martin Seligman. He and his colleague came up with a scheme to see if helplessness could be induced by circumstance. Brace yourself: it involved dogs.

In a passage difficult to read without growing heavy-hearted and fiery with anger, Horowitz goes on to summarize the classic behavioral psychology study — an experiment that involved thirty-two “adult mongrel dogs” who never smelled the outdoor air and lived enslaved in the lab, where they were strapped down and assaulted by electric shocks and 70-decibel noise until they “learned” that they were utterly helpless. Horowitz confesses in a footnote that she had to read the study in three harrowing sittings, punctuated by slamming her computer shut and leaving the room. (Her own lab keeps no live animals, though there are two stuffed toy-dogs, both affectionately named by the researchers. Volunteer subjects come from the “real” world, including one human-canine duo who traveled 210 miles to participate in a 30-minute study.) She reflects on the grim morale of Seligman’s study:

Dogs were shocked, driven to depression and passivity and impotence, to prove that we could feel passivity and impotent in depression. Dogs are still widely used in medical research, make no mistake: this is happening now. Also now. And again.

[…]

To watch struggling animals without working to relieve their struggle demonstrates the great dissociation we condone with animals. Our society’s attitude toward animals is thus mismatched. We grant them feelings when it suits our testing needs, but grant them no feelings when it would not suit our testing needs. The human behavior in these test settings — electrocuting; near-drowning — is considered animal cruelty anywhere outside of the test setting.

So why is the question of animal emotions still posed? We are trapped on the far reaches of the pendulum’s swing: either assuming dogs are entirely unlike us or assuming dogs are just like us. As wrongheaded as it is to presume dogs to be unfeeling, it is no more correct to presumptively grant them a humanlike emotional life. (Nor must it be somewhere in-between: for all we know, dogs’ emotional experience is far more elaborate than ours.) We glance at dogs and conclude we know what they’re feeling, but our haste to make such conjecture on little evidence — and inability to read a dog’s emotions when they are displayed — is profound.

Curiously, while we are poor readers of a dog’s emotions, dogs seem to be excellent readers of ours. One of the fascinating findings of Horowitz’s lab is that the familiar “guilty look” we so often perceive in dogs — tail tucked, head lowered, eyebrows slightly knit — is not an indication of a dog’s guilt over a misbehavior but of having registered that the owner is angry or about to get angry, independent of whether or not the dog has done something guilt-worthy. Similarly, Horowitz’s lab found that what classic behavioral studies of fairness perception — one dog is given more treats, another fewer — have interpreted as “jealousy” is simply a dog’s “reasonable refusal to work for nothing.” Her experiment also illuminates the lovely eternal optimism of the dog’s nature:

Against expectation, they preferred to hang out with the unfair person. Again, it seems like they are motivated less by the kinds of feelings of unfairness or jealousy that humans have than by pure optimism that maybe this time, some of those treats will be tossed their way…

Lurking beneath all the ambiguity, affect-blindness, and projection is a testament to the great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s assertion that “understanding is love’s other name.” Horowitz considers the intimate crux of our difficulty in discerning dogs’ emotions:

Our inability to read dogs’ emotions well probably begins with our inability to understand our own emotions well. Though perfectly accessible to us — and only to us, truly — our society is constantly putting us to work to “get in touch with” our emotions. And that’s when they are right there for the touching. Given our difficulty, it’s no wonder we are ill-equipped to figure out the emotions of the four-legged creature beside us. So we default to granting dogs emotions, but of the most human sort. We assume dogs are not only in the room with us, but sharing a kind of hive mind with humans.

[…]

Does your dog love you? Watch them, and you tell me.

Art by Maira Kalman from Beloved Dog

Caroline Paul, writing about another beloved four-legged species of companion, summed up the central paradox of human-pet emotional understanding — and of any emotional understanding — perfectly: “You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better.”

Complement the thoroughly wonderful and revelatory Our Dogs, Ourselves with artist Maria Kalman’s illustrated love letter to dogs and John Homans’s beautiful and bittersweet canine-inspired meditation on love, loss, and the art of presence, then revisit Horowitz on how dogs actually “see” the world through smell and what they can teach us about accessing the hidden layers of reality.

BP

Through the First Antarctic Night: A Poetic Tribute and Testament to the Human Spirit from a Pioneering Polar Explorer

“There was a naked fierceness in the scenes, a boisterous wildness in the storms, a sublimity and silence in the still, cold dayless nights, which were too impressive to be entirely overshadowed by the soul-despairing depression.”

Through the First Antarctic Night: A Poetic Tribute and Testament to the Human Spirit from a Pioneering Polar Explorer

One of the strangest paradoxes of life is that our most intimate knowledge of things often comes from their opposites; that presence is most sharply contoured by the negative space of absence; that busyness reveals the value of stillness, loss the magnitude of love. Contrasts are how we orient ourselves and calibrate our feelings, the height of our fears fathoming the depth of our hopes. Thoreau knew this when one cold winter day he filled a diary page with his recipe for kindling inner warmth: “Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.”

Half a century after Thoreau, half a world away, the explorer, physician, and ethnographer Frederick Cook (June 10, 1865–August 5, 1940) composed a stunning study of contrasts through a winter of a different order in Through the First Antarctic Night (public library | public domain), subtitled A Narrative of the Voyage of the “Belgica” Among Newly Discovered Lands and Over an Unknown Sea about the South Pole — a forgotten masterpiece kindred and in many ways superior to Thoreau’s famed journals, for it chronicles, in lyrical prose and with immense psychological insight, the triumph of the human spirit over circumstances infinitely more trying than the tranquil contemplative life on the shores of Walden Pond.

Frederick Cook in his polar garb.

American by birth, Cook joined the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897 as official surgeon and anthropologist. When the ship was trapped in pack ice just before the descent of the endless polar night, he toiled with the other men to free it — a Sisyphean ambition for these tiny human ants against the frozen colossus. They failed. Seeing that they would have to winter in polar captivity, Cook took it upon himself to save the crew’s lives from scurvy, venturing onto the otherworldly icescape to hunt for fresh meat. He was only thirty-three. (A decade later, in April of 1908, he would become the first explorer to believe he has reached the North Pole — a year before Robert Peary. Both explorers’ claims of discovery would be disputed for years.)

The Belgian expedition became the first to winter in the Antarctic — a feat previously thought unsurvivable. All the while, Cook recorded the experience — soul-straining, superhuman — in his journal. With a naturalist’s curiosity and a poet’s sensitivity to the changing appearances of light and darkness, external and internal, he chronicles the eternal tug of war between our capacity for despair and our capacity for transcendence, between absolute desolation and almost unbearable beauty, as the crew surrender their survival and their sanity to the unfeeling icy grip of nature.

Photograph by Sandy Nicholson from The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning.

In an entry from January 1898, when the ship first became locked in ice, Cook laments the lack of time for writing, then describes — still with the jocular tone that is the privilege of the hopeful — the Herculean efforts the men are exerting on freeing themselves:

Eight hours daily with a heavy saw, and the spine twisted semi-circularly, is not conducive to literary ambitions. It is, however, a capital exercise. Everybody is being hardened to the work and developing ponderous muscles. Our skin is burnt until it has the appearance of the inner surface of boot leather… We eat like bears the meat of seals and penguins twice daily, disposing of three, four, and five steaks each. We find time and gastric capacity for no less than seven meals daily… In one spot we sawed eight hours and cut less than five feet.

All they manage to do is drift a little between the icebergs before becoming trapped again. As they toil, they watch helplessly the approach of the long polar winter-night:

Now the sun is low on the horizon. The darkness, which is soon to throw the icy splendours into a hopeless, sooty gloom, is gathering its hellish fabric to cover the laughing glory of day. The sunless winter of storm, of unimaginable cold, of heart-destroying depression, is rapidly advancing. We are hoping to continue our voyage of exploration as long as possible, and when the darkness and cold become too great we expect to steal away and winter in more congenial latitudes.

“Forms of snow crystals” from a 19th-century French physics textbook. Available as a print.

By March, it becomes crushingly clear that they might not escape their “icy imprisonment” for months. Upon coming to terms with their fate — “how utterly we failed to gain freedom from the icy fetters of this heartless Frost King” — the crew enter a sort of forced meditation state. All they can do is observe the changing flow of sensation, the undulating currents of hope and despair. In a journal entry that would later become part of a chapter he titles “Helpless in a Hopeless Sea of Ice,” Cook writes:

We are now doomed to remain, and become the football of an unpromising fate. Henceforth we are to be kicked, pushed, squeezed, and ushered helplessly at the mercy of the pack. Our first duty is to prepare for the coming of the night, with its unknowable cold and its soul-depressing effects… Outside there has been a rapid transformation. The summer days of midnight suns are past, and the premonitory darkness of the long night is falling upon us with marvellous rapidity, for in this latitude the sun dips below the southern skies at midnight late in January. This dip increases, and sweeps more and more of the horizon every day until early in May, when the sun sets and remains below the horizon for seventy-one days.

[…]

We are at this moment as tired of each other’s company as we are of the cold monotony of the black night and of the unpalatable sameness of our food. Now and then we experience affectionate moody spells and then we try to inspire each other with a sort of superficial effervescence of good cheer, but such moods are short-lived. Physically, mentally, and perhaps morally, then, we are depressed, and from my past experience in the arctic I know that this depression will increase with the advance of the night, and far into the increasing dawn of next summer.

Days melt into weeks melt into months as the ship remains frozen and their spirits plummet deeper and deeper into despair. One man — the ship’s magnetician, Lieutenant Emile Danco — dies of heart failure. One of the sailors goes “to the verge of insanity.” But somehow, amid the icy blackness, they begin to do what the human spirit is made to do — find glimmers of hope, footholds of transcendence. In June, on the Southern winter solstice, Cook writes:

It is midnight and midwinter. Thirty-five long, dayless nights have passed. An equal number of dreary, cheerless days must elapse before we again see the glowing orb, the star of day, the sun has reached its greatest northern declination. We have thus passed the antarctic midnight. The winter solstice is to us the meridian day, the zenith of the night as much so as twelve o’clock is the meridian hour to those who dwell in the more favoured lands, in the temperate and tropical zones, where there is a regular day and night three hundred and sixty-five times in the yearly cycle. Yesterday was the darkest day of the night ; a more dismal sky and a more depressing scene could not be imagined, but to-day the outlook is a little brighter. The sky is lined with a few touches of orange, the frozen sea of black snow is made more cheerful by the high lights, with a sort of dull phosphorescent glimmer of the projecting peaks of ice. The temperature has suddenly fallen to -27.5 C. at noon, and the wind is coming out of the south with an easy force which has sent all the floating humidity of the past few days down, leaving an air clear and sharp.

And all the while, adrift in this cosmos of ice, they have no sense of where they are. So a wave of cheer sweeps over the men when the industrious captain sets out to observe a predicted eclipse Jupiter’s moons, by which he would set the ship’s chronometers and thus determine its position in this disorienting unexplored world.

The planet Jupiter, observed November 1, 1880, 9:30 P.M.
One of Étienne Trouvelot’s stunning 19th-century astronomical drawings. (Available as a print.)

By July, as the sun’s return approaches, the fringes of elation begin to tickle the mariners’ despairing souls. A subtle undertone of humor returns to Cook’s journal as he chronicles the renaissance of light and color to the world — those immeasurable glories we daily take for granted, but which shape our entire perceptual experience and much of our emotional reality:

After so much physical, mental, and moral depression, and after having our anticipations raised to a fever heat by the tempting increase of dawn at noon, it is needless to say that we are elated at the expectation of actual daylight once more. In these dreadful wastes of perennial ice and snow, man feels the force of the superstitions of past ages, and becomes willingly a worshipper of the eternal luminary. I am certain that if our preparations for greeting the returning sun were seen by other people, either civilised or savage, we would be thought disciples of heliolatry.

At eleven o’clock, every single man aboard the ship stakes out a position from which he is to greet the long-awaited light — some climb to the top of the masts, others perch on the ropes and spars, and the most adventurous set up hammocks on the surrounding icebergs. Cook describes the otherworldly spectacle of returning color, saturated by their months-long anticipation:

The northern sky at this time was nearly clear and clothed with the usual haze. A bright lemon glow was just changing into an eve glimmer of rose. At about half-past eleven a few stratus clouds spread over the rose, and under these there was a play in colours, too complex for my powers of description. The clouds were at first violet, but they quickly caught the train of colours which was spread over the sky beyond. There were spaces of gold, orange, blue, green, and a hundred harmonious blends, with an occasional strip like a band of polished silver to set the colours in bold relief. Precisely at twelve o’clock a fiery cloud separated, disclosing a bit of the upper rim of the sun.

All this time I had been absorbed by the pyrotechnic-like display, but now I turned about to see my companions and the glory of the new sea of ice, under the first light of the new day. Looking towards the sun the fields of snow had a velvety aspect in pink. In the opposite direction the pack was noticeably flushed with a soft lavender light. The whole scene changed in colour with every direction taken by the eye, and everywhere the ice seemed veiled by a gauzy atmosphere in which the colour appeared to rest. For several minutes my companions did not speak. Indeed, we could not at that time have found words with which to express the buoyant feeling of relief, and the emotion of the new life which was sent coursing through our arteries by the hammer-like beats of our enfeebled hearts.

Color classification wheel from a 19th-century French physics textbook. Wellcome Collection. Available as a print.

On July 25, as the kaleidoscopic halo of the approaching sun finally crests into full sunrise, a kind of euphoric gladness washes over everything:

For three days we have had a glimpse of the sun, but it has appeared a thing of unreality. To-day we have seen the normal face. The sun at noon sailed along the northern sky above the horizon, a distance nearly equal to its own diameter. We thus have the actual sunrise, since heretofore we have only been able to see it when aided by the high polar refraction by which the sun is apparently lifted above its actual position, a distance equal to about three quarters its diameter.

What a peculiar effusion of sentiments the welcome face of the sun draws from our frozen fountains of life! How that great golden ball of cold fire incites the spirit to expressions of joy and gratitude! How it sets the tongue to pleasurable utterances, and the vocal chords to music! The sun is, indeed, the father of everything terrestrial. We have suddenly found a tonic in the air, an inspiration in the scenic splendours of the sea of ice, and a cheerfulness in each other’s companionship which make the death-dealing depression of the night a thing of the past.

Illustration by William Grill from Shackleton’s Journey — a picture-book about another heroic polar explorer of Cook’s generation.

In October, looking back on the harrowing experience, Cook composes a stunning passage that marries the poetic and the philosophical, using his icy entrapment as a lens on the universal human capacity for transcendence. He begins with a summation of the physical and psychological struggle:

The human system accommodates itself sluggishly and poorly to the strange conditions of the polar seasons, and we, too, are slow in adapting ourselves to the awful despondency of the long winter night. It is possible to close your eyes and befog your brain after a time, when all the world is enveloped in prolonged darkness, but this is not physiological adaptation; it is abnormal education. We have all felt the effects of the night severely. The death of Danco, and also the insanity of a sailor, are due to this withdrawal of light.

Echoing Keats’s views on depression and the mightiest consolation for a sunken heart, Cook adds:

Now that the light is brightening every day, we are as backward in recuperating as we were in establishing a balance of living comfort during the vanishing dawn of the early night. The present cheering influence of the rising sun invites labour and frivolity. The soothing light of the long evening twilights invites repose. The change from day to night and from night to day, so long absent from our outlook, is now beginning to lighten the burdens of the weary mind and the aching muscles; elevating the depressed spirits of hope, augmenting the dwarfed courage, and raising the moral perceptions to the great life battle of work before us.

A generation after Tchaikovsky wrote so beautifully about finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, Cook takes care to celebrate the elemental core of resilience that carried the crew to survival, bodily and spiritual — the refusal to let even this extreme bleakness of their surroundings and circumstances blind them to the beauty of the natural world, that ancient and limitless wellspring of the beauty of life itself:

We have talked only of the discomforts of the night, and of the misery. The long unbroken darkness has not totally blinded us to its few real charms which are strikingly brought out by the awful contrasts of heat and cold, of light and darkness. As lovers of Nature, we found many pleasures for the eye and the intellect in the flashing aurora australis, in the play of intense silvery moonlight over the mountainous seas of ice, and in the fascinating clearness of the starlight over the endless expanse of driven snows. There was a naked fierceness in the scenes, a boisterous wildness in the storms, a sublimity and silence in the still, cold dayless nights, which were too impressive to be entirely overshadowed by the soul-despairing depression. The attractions of the polar night are not to be written in the language of a people who live in a land of sunshine and of flowers. They are found in a roughness, ruggedness, and severity, appreciated only by men who are fated to live in similar regions, on the verge of another world, where animal sentiments take the place of the finer, but less realistic human passions.

Complement Through the First Antarctic Night — some of the most stunning nature writing ever composed, and a buoyant testament and tribute to the human spirit — with Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd’s masterpiece on mountains and Olivia Laing, one of the most poetic and insightful writers of our own time, on the wisdom of rivers, then revisit The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning — part scientific serenade, part feminist manifesto, part ecological clarion call to humanity, drawing on the world’s first collaborative environmental initiative to clean up the garbage that besmirched the polar wonderland so soon after Cook’s pioneering generation of explorers first set foot on it.

BP

Art, Atheism, and the Freedom of Expression: Frida Kahlo’s Searing Protest Letter to the President of Mexico

A spirited defense of “public freedom of expression and opinion, the means of progress of every free people.”

Art, Atheism, and the Freedom of Expression: Frida Kahlo’s Searing Protest Letter to the President of Mexico

“Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’ are not being honest,” Chinua Achebe observed in his superb forgotten conversation with James Baldwin. “If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.” A generation earlier, W.H. Auden distilled this abiding truth by asserting that “the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act.” This has been the eternal gauntlet of the artist in every country, culture, and civilization since the human hunger for truth and beauty first collided with the craving for power.

In 1947, some twenty latitude degrees south of Auden and 108 longitude degrees west of Achebe, the artist Diego Rivera (December 8, 1886–November 24, 1957) began painting what would become one of his most beautiful and elaborate murals, Dreams of a Sunday in the Alameda, in the dining hall of the Hotel del Prado — a new government establishment in Mexico City, set to open the following spring. The building was to be dedicated with a traditional sprinkling of holy water, complete with the great honor of a blessing by the archbishop of Mexico.

Diego Rivera. Dreams of a Sunday in the Alameda.

But just before the June ceremony, pious panic erupted over Rivera’s depiction of one of the historical figures populating the mural — the 19th-century Mexican poet, journalist, atheist, and progressive politician Ignacio Ramírez, portrayed holding a sign inscribed with his credo, Dios no existe — “God does not exist.” Catholic crowds mobbed the hotel and demanded that the text be removed. The archbishop refused to perform the ceremony unless this be done — a lamentable testament to Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that “faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly [while] the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself.”

Rivera, an uncloseted atheist himself, resisted the bullying and refused to disfigure his art with dogma-driven censorship. “I will not remove one letter from it,” he declared, perhaps hinting at the absurdity of such panic staked on a two-letter word and the basic civil liberty it denotes.

The controversial detail of Rivera’s mural.

Newspapers saw an opportunity to cater to the blamethirsty masses and launched a vicious attack against Rivera. A mob of thirty broke into the hotel and vandalized the mural, scraping the words no existe off with a knife, leaving Dios conspicuously unscathed, and indulging in the extra malignity of defacing another character in the mural — Rivera’s self-portrait as a young boy.

In that vicious cycle of the media feeding the masses feeding the media, newspapers applauded the assault.

The very evening of the attack, two blocks away, some of Mexico’s most eminent artists, writers, and intellectuals — including Rivera himself — were attending a dinner honoring the director of the capital’s Museum of Fine Arts, Fernando Gamboa. Just as Gamboa was delivering an address on the importance of protecting the freedom of expression from onslaughts of intolerance, word of the mural assault reached the gathering. About a hundred of these intellectual and creative visionaries rose and marched to the Hotel del Prado, then into the posh dining room, where some climbed on the tables with battlecries for the freedom of expression. Rivera himself stood up on a chair to ask for a pencil and, as soon as one was in his hand, simply began rewriting the inscription with absolute composure.

Still, the masses and their media handmaiden continued the attacks. Eventually, hotel management caved and boarded over the mural.

Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954), who had been united with Rivera in love, art, and politics for two decades, and who held such strong political ideals of her own that she changed her birthday to coincide with the start of the Mexican Revolution, was furious and determined to raise her country’s conscience.

First, she wrote to the director of the National Institute of Fine Art. When he failed to intercede, she sent a searing letter to the President of Mexico himself, Miguel Alemán Valdés, who had once been her high school classmate. The letter, composed on October 20, 1948, and included in Martha Zamora’s altogether wonderful little collection The Letters of Frida Kahlo: Cartas Apasionadas (public library), is a sublime model of an artist unafraid to use her personal voice for political change and a supreme testament to Kahlo’s character.

Frida Kahlo by Nickolas Muray (Brooklyn Museum)

With her characteristic impassioned directness, Kahlo forgoes any formal salutation and addresses the president bluntly by name, before launching straight into the heart of her protest:

Miguel Alemán:

This letter is a protest of just indignation that I want to communicate to you, against a cowardly and humiliating crime that is being perpetrated in this country.

[…]

I want to communicate to you the tremendous historical responsibility that your government is assuming by letting a Mexican painter’s work, renowned worldwide as one of the highest examples of the Mexican Culture, be covered up, hidden from the eyes of this country’s people and from the international public because of SECTARIAN, DEMAGOGIC, AND MERCENARY reasons.

That type of crime against the culture of a country, against the right that every man has to express his ideas — those criminal attacks against freedom have only been committed in regimes like Hitler’s and are still being committed under Francisco Franco, and in the past, during the dark and negative age of the “Holy” Inquisition.

Lewis Thomas, champion of conscious punctuation, would have appreciated Kahlo’s exquisite placement of quotation marks to make her own views on religious dogma unambiguous.

She goes on to appeal to Alemán’s patriotic duty, exhorting him not to succumb to the pressures of corporate interests more interested in profit than in democracy:

It is not possible that you — who represent at this moment the will of the Mexican people, with democratic liberties gained… through the bloodshed of the people themselves — can allow a few investors, in complicity with a few ill-willed Mexicans, to cover up the words that tell the History of Mexico and the work of art of a Mexican citizen whom the civilized world recognizes as one of the most illustrious painters of our times.

Frida Kahlo. Self-Portrait as Tehuana: Diego On My Mind. (Brooklyn Museum)

Alemán had had a lustrous legal career before becoming the first civilian president follwoing a revolving door of revolutionary generals. Kahlo appeals to his background as a lawyer in recognizing that under no legal code can the vandalism of an artist’s work be allowed, reminding him that only recently he himself had issued a decree protecting artworks in public spaces. She then heightens the stakes of justice:

There is one thing that is not written in any code, and that is the cultural conscience of the people, which will not allow Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel to be converted into an apartment building.

For that reason I am addressing you, speaking simply and clearly, not as the wife of the painter Diego Rivera, but as an artist and citizen of Mexico.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair. (Museum of Modern Art)

In a passage of grave historical irony, for women were still not allowed to vote in Mexico and wouldn’t be until the first election after Kahlo’s death, she continues:

With the right that such citizenship grants me, I will ask you: Will you allow THE PRESIDENTIAL DECREE THAT YOU YOURSELF ISSUED to be stepped on by a few sectarian, clerical merchants? … As a Mexican citizen and, above all, as President of your people, will you permit History to be silenced — the word, the cultural action and the message of the genius of a Mexican artist to be silenced?

Will you permit public freedom of expression and opinion, the means of progress of every free people, to be destroyed?

All this in the name of stupidity, narrow-mindedness, chicanery, and the BETRAYAL OF DEMOCRACY?

I beg you to give yourself an honest answer about the historical role you have as the leader of Mexico in an issue of such significance.

I am laying forth this problem before your conscience as a citizen of a democratic country.

Frida Kahlo by Lucienne Bloch (Brooklyn Museum)

By standing up against this injustice, she tells him, he would be sending a strong democratic message not only to his people but to the rest of the world — proof that Mexico is a free country and “not the ignorant and savage nation of the Pancho Villas.” In a sentiment the poet Wendell Berry would echo with chilling poetic precision in his poem “Questionnaire” many decades later, Kahlo follows the inescapable causal thread from the smallest failures of tolerance and justice to the grandest and grimmest crimes against humanity:

If you do not act as an authentic Mexican at this critical moment, by defending your own decrees and rights, then let the science- and history-book burning start; let the works of art be destroyed with rocks of fire; let free men get kicked out of the country; let torture in, as well as prisons and concentration camps. I can assure you that very soon with very little effort, we will have a flaming “made-in-Mexico” fascist regime.

Alemán, having built his campaign on the importance of education and the arts but having made his fortune from corporate interests, chose not to intervene. Newspaper attacks continued with mob-inspired ferocity. Holding fast to his integrity and leaning on Kahlo’s unfaltering support, Rivera refused to back down, telling a reporter:

To affirm “God does not exist,” I do not have to hide behind Don Ignacio Ramírez; I am an atheist and I consider religions to be a form of collective neurosis. I am not an enemy of the Catholics, as I am not an enemy of the tuberculars, the myopic or the paralytics; you cannot be an enemy of the sick, only their friend in order to help them cure themselves.

A year later, Kahlo would write in her stunning word-portrait of Rivera:

His words make one tremendously uncomfortable because they are live and true. His raw concepts weaken or disorient those who listen to him because they don’t agree with the already established morals; thus, they always break the bark to let new blossoms come out; they wound to let new cells grow.

The hotel was destroyed by the massive 1985 Mexico City earthquake, but Rivera’s mural was salvaged. It now lives in a dedicated museum across the street, next to Alameda Park.

Complement with Iris Murdoch — another woman of rare vision and courage — on art as a force of resistance to tyranny and Albert Camus on the courage to create authentically despite policing forces, then revisit this lovely illustrated biography of Kahlo and her touching letter of solidarity and support to the discomposed Georgia O’Keeffe.

BP

I Like You: An Almost Unbearably Lovely Vintage Illustrated Ode to Friendship

A touching serenade to the little things that add up to the bigness of a true platonic love.

I Like You: An Almost Unbearably Lovely Vintage Illustrated Ode to Friendship

“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship,” Seneca counseled two millennia ago in his timeless meditation on true and false friendship, “but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul.”

I often ponder friendship — that crowning glory of life — and the strain of protecting its sanctity from the commodification of the word “friend” in this age of social media. Adrienne Rich exposed the naked heart of it in her bittersweet assertion that “we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.” I side with astronomer Maria Mitchell in that the few who do accompany us intimately along the walk of life shape who we become, and with poet and philosopher David Whyte in that “all friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness.”

But what, really, is the meaning and measure of friendship? Like most things of beauty, it is slippery to define yet deeply felt. Paradoxically, devastatingly, it is often recognized most acutely through its sudden loss. It lives most intimately not in the grand gestures but in the littlest things that add up, in the final calculus of life, to the bigness of any true bond.

That is what children’s book author Sandol Stoddard and illustrator Jacqueline Chwast explore with immense sweetness and sensitivity in the 1965 gem I Like You (public library) — one of the tenderest and most touching presents I’ve ever gotten, from one of my dearest friends, and the platonic-love counterpart to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s classic romantic-love sonnet “How Do I Love Thee?”

Stoddard — who wrote more than twenty children’s books and the first major book advocating for human-centric end-of-life care, lived to be 90, and died the mother of five children, ten grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren — was once asked to identify the underlying theme across all of her books.

She answered simply, “Love.”

And love — that sweetest, most knotless and untroubled kind — is what radiates from these simple, surprisingly profound verse-like meditations on friendship, illustrated with the kindred sensibility of Chwast’s simple yet richly expressive black-and-white line drawings.

Published the same year as Love Is Walking Hand in Hand — that charming catalogue of little moments that define love, channeled by Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the rest of the Peanuts — the book confers upon friendship the delight and dignity we tend to reserve, foolishly so, for romantic love only.

More than half a century later, I Like You remains a timeless treasure, as delicious to give and as it is to receive. Complement it with Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on losing a friend and Kahlil Gibran on the building blocks of meaningful connection, then revisit two other charming picture-books about friendship from the same era: Ruth Krauss’s infinitely delightful I’ll Be You and You Be Me, illustrated by the young Maurice Sendak, and Janice May Urdy’s clever reverse-psychology gem Let’s Be Enemies, also illustrated by Sendak, just as he was beginning to dream up Where the Wild Things Are.

BP

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