Like "The Burrow" and "Josephine the Singer," this story deals with an animal that finds itself in a world beyond the empirical one. Unlike Gregor Samsa in "The Metamorphosis," the animal is not abruptly torn out of a concrete situation and plunged into a conflict with the universal sphere; instead, it is encompassed by this sphere from the very outset. This immediate confrontation with the whole universe is a characteristic of the later Kafka and may serve as an indication of his own increasing aloofness from "real life" concerns. He, the investigating dog of the story, is not "different from any other dog," and yet he asks if it is possible for a creature to be "more unfortunate still" than he is.
Looking back on his investigations, the old dog admits he has always asked the most baffling questions rather than trying to adjust to the ways of his fellow dogs. The result is that his boundless thirst for knowledge has forced him out of his "social circle." The event which set him on this path was his encounter with seven dogs that turned out to be excellent musicians. Although that happened when he was young, he distinctly recalls being overwhelmed by their performance in spite of his attempts to keep his wits. Most significantly, the appearance of the seven dogs was really his doing, at least indirectly, because he had harbored a "vague desire" for such an event. It also follows from the text that the light into which the seven dogs stepped was by no means light in the empirical sense of the word. Both the music they played and the dazzling light were really conjured up by him whose "premonition of great things" had kept him blind and deaf. This explains why the music tears him away from his routine reflections and even robs him of his power of resistance.
The paradoxical nature of these remarkable dogs, the apparent "dumb senselessness of these creatures" which have "no relation whatever to the general life of the community," is an illustration of the inexplicable forces alive within man. Defying all clear-cut classification and behaving in a multitude of contradictory ways, these dogs are nevertheless most "real" in all their seemingly absurd "unrealness." As are the sciences of music and nutrition later on in the story, these beings — or imagined beings — are symbols of the futility of the dog's attempts at explaining empirically the reason of his existence. No wonder he thinks it possible that "the world was turned upside down." Again, the dilemma is Kafka's own: the insistence on the use of rational and empirical means beyond their legitimate range.
The music which the seven dogs play "appeared to come from all directions . . . blowing fanfares so close that they appeared far removed and almost inaudible." In his state of alienation, man is further removed from his innermost self than from anybody else. The ubiquitousness of this music seems to symbolize the totality of all things within which there are no barriers between the individual and the universal, between question and answer. Their refusal to answer any question strikes the chief dog to be "against the law"; in the sense that their music suspends the traditional order of things, this is correct. There can be no answer to any concrete question because this totality is the ultimate answer: the antithesis of question and answer, like every other one, recedes in one blaring sea of sound.
Kafka has attempted to describe this totality elsewhere. In The Castle, for instance, the protagonist K., as well as the people of the village where be performs his work, hears only indistinct murmuring over the telephone connecting them with the castle; this murmuring is said to sound as if it originated from countless individual voices merged into one single sound. Later on, K. learns that this vague, drawn-out singing sound is all the people can rely on because all other "messages" are deceptive. It so happens that he learns this as he complains about the contradicting bits of information he gets from the castle officials. In other words, no single piece of information can amount to more than a fraction of the truth; also, our limited mind is necessarily partial and uncertain. In The Trial, Joseph K. does not understand the people talking to him in the courthouse; he merely hears a monotone noise permeating everything. It, too, remains open to a bewildering array of interpretations. "Truth," as Kafka put it, "lies in the chorus of the whole."
The annihilating quality of this music is, at the same time, the dog's safeguard for breaking out into freedom and toward a total view of things. His further investigations bear him out: at the end of the story, as he wants to die because he has not succeeded in leaving this "world of falsehood" for that of "truth," a strange hound appears to save him by chasing him away. He comes as a "hunter." (Compare this incident with "The Hunter Gracchus.") Exhausted and desperate, the chief dog does not understand and resists until he is again smitten by "irresistible" music. It threatens to destroy him, as did the music of the seven soaring dogs in his youth, but it enables him to "leave the place in splendid condition." As a puppy, he begged the seven dogs to "enlighten" him who "had roamed through darkness for a long time" and "yet knew almost nothing of the creativity of music." Now he detects a new life through the overpowering melody that "was moving toward only him." Now he has found "the law" of all creation in its application to himself. It is important to realize that it is only after his senses have been sharpened by fasting that he is rescued by the hound. "If it is attainable at all, the highest is attainable only through the greatest effort, and that among us is voluntary fasting."
The tragic realization remains, as it does elsewhere in Kafka, that this "law" and its liberating effect — here in the form of music — cannot be told." His speedy recovery and liberation is his own new reality. Even more tragic, however, this new state is also "delusive," not merely in the eyes of his fellow dogs, but also in his own mature judgment: "Certainly such freedom as is possible today is a wretched business."
The question of sustenance runs throughout the story until the investigating dog seeks to combine the science of music with that of nurture. When he asks himself if such a combination is possible, fully aware that he is moving in a "border region between sciences," he expresses Kafka's favorite theme of spiritual nourishment versus physical nourishment. In "The Metamorphosis," Gregor Samsa believes he has found his "unknown nourishment" in music, and the hunger artist sets his all-time record of fasting because he has not been able to find the right food to live on. Here, the dog has found out in earlier experiments that the earth does not merely supply all food by making it grow, but that it also calls down the food "from above." This is why he believes that not merely the indispensable task of working the soil is important, but also believes in "incantation, dance, and song," designed to attract food from "above." In other words, his concern is not with spiritual or physical food but with a synthesis of both.
This concern for the right food reflects Kafka's harsh criticism of traditional science as being preoccupied solely with working the soil. Though "to the best of my knowledge science ordains nothing else than this," the chief dog's investigations have shown time and again that "the people in all their ceremonies gaze upwards." Here Kafka criticizes both the scientific thinking that disregards the "upward gaze," as well as the quasi-religious stance which makes people "chant their incantations with their faces turned upwards . . . forgetting the ground." Despite his repeated professions to be a dog like all others, our chief dog differs from other members of his race in that his tremendous curiosity does not permit him to accept certain discrepancies. These pages show the dog (Kafka) pondering the fatal rupture between faith and reason (and between religion and science) that has run through our civilization since Descartes. To a large extent, the dog argues, a perverted science with a fixation on the measurable and statistical is to be blamed for the frightening success of so many pseudo-philosophies and surrogate religions in our time. By not taking into account man's need for food from "above," this notion of science has aided the confusion of minds.
Although the "theory of incantation by which food is called down" is a basic experience of all dogs, it is also an experience each one has to make himself Therefore it eludes translation into the language of scientific proof. This is what Kafka means when he writes at the end of the story: "To me, the deeper cause of my lack of scientific abilities seems to be an instinct — and not at all a bad one. It is an instinct which has made me prize freedom higher than anything else — perhaps for a science superior than today's." Freedom is indeed the basis of the "science of mail," even though its existence cannot be proven within the framework of conventional scientific methods. By deliberately risking his life, the investigating dog has shown that this freedom exists nevertheless.