Liberal humanism is a delusion, progress is a myth, and as for the efforts of humans to save the planet, you might as well ask bedbugs to save the apartment they infest. John Gray's back with another tank of cold water to dunk the deluded in, a category which can seem to include everyone but himself, Nietzsche, Freud, Norman Lewis, Robinson Jeffers and maybe Emil Cioran.
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Readers of Gray's "Straw Dogs" (2002) will find the terrain of "The Silence of the Animals" familiar. Humans are just a particularly murderous animal with a unique capacity for self-deception, a longing to discover meaning where there is only an interminable Werner Herzog voiceover. And history as a long march of progress toward more civilized forms of human being? A secular relic of Christian teleology. If there's one thing that unites humankind, it's irrationality on a mass scale: Morality is a wet tissue that tears at the slightest breeze. And then we revert to cannibalism.
The first part of the book is a series of case studies that Gray takes to support this perspective. From Norman Lewis' accounts of postwar Naples, we learn the gruesome measures to which Soviet prisoners of war resorted in order to survive the German camps. Conrad and Koestler, among others, are made to provide further anecdotal evidence that it is idiotic to believe that "humanity progresses to a better world in stages, slowly."
This is the weakest section, not because the material is uninteresting, but because it highlights Gray's chief limitation as a writer. He favors exemplification over argument, harangue over nuance. You could say the same of Nietzsche, of course, and when Gray's on, it can be thrilling. When he's not, it's slapdash. He lumps together the "overthrow of the ancien régime in France, the Tsars in Russia, the Shah of Iran, Saddam in Iraq and Mubarak in Egypt," noting that "bien-pensants will insist that revolt against tyranny has a different dynamic" than revolt against democratic regimes. Perhaps they will, but anyone willing to think about concrete situations concretely will insist that every revolution has its own dynamic, unique to its historical circumstances. To see no differences between the French Revolution and Operation Iraqi Freedom is to ignore the fundamental variables of power, class, development and ideology that enable an understanding of any political upheaval. If the Jacobins are the Bush Administration are the Bolsheviks, we are very far from a serious analysis. For Gray, history is an abattoir in which all cows are red. Or take the introduction to his otherwise astute account of neoliberalism:
In the past capitalism had recognized the danger of debt. Banks were limited in how much they could lend, so that the economy would not be based on too much borrowing.
Yes, the Banking Act of 1933 was the result of some magical "recognition" on capitalism's part.
None of this is to say that "The Silence of Animals" isn't a valuable book. In the book's subsequent sections, Gray is quite sharp on the delusions of contemporary atheism, the value of religious thought and the depredations of late capitalism. I can think of few sentences more necessary for contemporary Americans to take to heart than these:
According to some historians, inequality in America at the start of the twenty-first century is greater than in the slave-based economy of imperial Rome in the second century. Of course there are differences. Contemporary America is probably less stable than imperial Rome. It is hard to see how the volatile paper wealth of a few can be sustained on the basis of a decimated workforce in a hollowed-out economy.
Gray's is an old-school conservatism (which dovetails with emancipatory politics at a number of points — it's the emancipation part that he casts a cold eye on) whose principal tenet is that human beings require myth and illusion to live. In this respect, Stalinism is no more misguided than the Bush doctrine or liberal meliorism. This leads him to champion an anti-humanism whose adherents — Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Freud, "thinkers who were not afraid to doubt the worth of thought" — hold "that life can be lived well without metaphysical comfort." He is one of the few contemporary thinkers to get Freud right, to see him not only as the architect of a powerful mythology but as the modern thinker who best articulated an ancient point of view. Far from peddling "therapy" as a "cure," Freud knew that "there is something wrong with the human animal," that "in humans it is sickness that is normal." Psychoanalysis was not intended to heal that sickness, but to help people accept it.
What Gray calls "godless mysticism" has a similar aim. The only possible release from myth, he writes, lies in contemplation. Drawing on Wallace Stevens, Taoism and the Beatles — and sounding a bit like Thoreau — Gray recommends the traditional practices of askesis, but not as avenues leading to redemption or salvation: Contemplation "aims not to change the world or to understand it, but simply to let it be." This involves an emptying out of the self, as in several mystic traditions, but "not with the aim of entering any higher self — a figment left behind by an animal mind." Rather, we should pursue, in Simon Critchley's lovely phrase, "a climatological mysticism expressed in the dust of the planet." This is what the late poems of Stevens have to offer Gray and his readers: a vision of "mere being," "Without human meaning, / Without human feeling, a foreign song," "beyond the last thought."
It's an attractive philosophy — it might even be a true one. Certainly those who continue to hope that, as Marx put it in a passage Gray mocks, "humanity sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve" owe it to themselves to read this forceful repudiation of their faith. Even without signing on fully to Gray's contemplative pagan nihilism, we could all stand to be reminded that we are just, in Nietzsche's words, "clever animals [that] invented knowledge." The universe takes little notice of us, the earth will eventually shrug us off and meanwhile we're here for the duration of a handclap. As Gray asks at the end of "Straw Dogs," if we must have a purpose (and it seems we must), "can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?"
Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collection "Alien vs. Predator" and the forthcoming book of criticism "Equipment for Living."
"The Silence of Animals"
By John Gray, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pages, $26Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun