Eine stinkende Hündin, reichliche Kindergebärerin, stellenweise schon faulend, die aber in meiner Kindheit mir alles war, die in Treue unaufhörlich mir folgt, die ich zu schlagen mich nicht überwinden kann, vor der ich aber, selbst ihren Atem scheuend, schrittweise nach rückwärts weiche und die mich doch, wenn ich mich nicht anders entscheide, 'in den schon sichtbaren Mauerwinkel drängen wird, um dort auf mir und mit mir gänzlich zu verwesen, bis zum Ende – ehrt es mich? – das Eiter- und Wurm-Fleisch ihrer Zunge an meiner Hand.
A smelly bitch that has brought forth plenty of young, already rotting in places, but that to me in my childhood meant everything, who continue [sic] to follow me faithfully everywhere, whom I am quite incapable of disciplining, but before whom I shrink back, step by step, shying away from her breath, and who will end up -- unless I decide otherwise -- forcing me into a corner that I can already see, there to decompose fully and utterly on me and with me, until finally -- is it a distinction? -- the pus- and worm-ravaged flesh of her tongue laps at my hand. [Hofmann]
This aphorism is omitted in Kaiser/Wilkins. Hofmann has translated schlagen, to beat, with the softer and more abstract word "discipline," and erht es mich? as "is it a distinction?" although I had to check the meaning of the verb before I could be sure it meant "honor" or "salute," not "difference" or "qualification."
Recoiling in hopeless passivity before the desecrated childhood companion and in particular the blind persistence of its love for him. The dog is importunate like the assistants in The Castle.
The aphorism is one drawn-out, breathless sentence like the culmination of a horror story. The horror seems to be all the things a child sees once it becomes an adult, and the trap that pity is, but, while he sees the corner he's being backed into, he doesn't have to enter it. This is often true of Kafka's characters.
Is this an image of death? It isn't like Kafka's typically statuesque depiction of death; it has a gross quality that reminds me of the tongues of the dead lapping at the river of death, and that seems to have more to do with still being alive than with being dead.
Is the problem that his pity isn't strong enough? Put the animal out of its misery, yes, but is he sympathetic to the dog? It's imaginable that someone might put an end to the life of a suffering animal selfishly, so he won't have to see it. Is it suffering that ineptly stalks after Kafka in the form of this dog?
The problem is not that he can't escape, that would be easy to understand; the problem is that he won't escape.
Escape what? The dog wants to lick him, maybe the way the dead want to lick the river of death, with its lingering savor of life. It will rot on and with him, but it's not a harbinger of death so much as it is coincidentally there with him in death. There is something deeper in this than mere uncertainty about death or wanting to live, because you live whether you want to or not. Not wanting to live is not the same as wanting to die. The doom in this short passage keeps steadily escalating and that licking is going on all throughout.
Animals in Kafka have a point of view that isn't low or high, they lose their point of view. The dog in "Investigations of a Dog" is devoted to empirical research, but he doesn't know anything, knows less and less.
Overall this aphorism is a description of a type of existential condition, rather than a lesson.