Tuesday, 21 July 2015

John Gray – The Silence of Animals, On Progress & Other Myths

I am so glad I read John Gray's The Silence of Animals. If I hadn't, I might never have discovered the chilling Conrad short story An Outpost of Progress, nor Ford Madox Ford's The Soul of London, nor Simenon's serious, non-Maigret works. I might never have known about Joseph Roth's The Emperor's Tomb, nor learnt of Meister Eckhart, let alone Fritz Mauthner, (who influenced both Wittgenstein and Samuel Beckett – Beckett apparently liked to read his notes on Mauthner out aloud to James Joyce, which suggest to me that Joyce really was a very kind and patient friend).

Without Gray's book I'd never have discovered the source of Orwell's 2+2=5 formula, (Assignment in Utopia by Eugene Lyons), nor learnt of the existence of The Peregrine by JA Baker, which sounds as if it is a precursor to the currently much discussed H is for Hawk. I'd also have remained ignorant of Llewelyn Powys, (who produced the rather lovely phrase, “beyond the margin of our own scant moment”), not to mention the almost equally baffling Robinson Jeffers who, Gray tells us, “reworked Greek drama, intimating that tragedy goes with being human and yet there is something beyond tragedy … Instead of thinking of the universe as emanating from God, he saw the universe as a purposeless purpose – but one that still had to be worshipped.”

Without Gray's book I'd never have encountered Alexander Herzen either, most particularly his writings on John Stuart Mill. Gray quotes Herzen describing Mill as someone “horrified by the constant deterioration of personalities, taste and style, by the inanity of men's interests and their absence of vigour”, a person who saw “clearly that everything is becoming shallow, commonplace, shoddy, trite, more 'respectable', perhaps, but more banal ...” and exhorted “his contemporaries [to]: 'Stop! Think again! [demanding] Do you know where you are going? Look, your soul is ebbing away!”

Reading Herzen's words, I realised that, just as the author of H is for Hawk is following a well-worn literary path, so Theodore Dalrymple is part of a tradition, joining a long line of writers who feel a missionary zeal to point out the foolishness of their fellow humans.

Sadly, in his own way, Gray is another. Thus, instead of merely producing a very interesting anthology, Gray harnesses all his reading to a purpose. That purpose is an attack on what he terms the “modern myth of progress” and a demonstration that all existence is meaningless chaos and everything humans tell themselves, including all of science, is a comforting myth, because everything is “composed of symbols”.

My first problem with all of this is that I believe Gray is setting up a straw man. “The myth of progress is the chief consolation of modern humankind”, he tells us, without providing any evidence for his assertion. Had he been writing before the outbreak of the First World War, I admit that his statement would have been unarguable. Faith in progress at that time was intense. However, following that war, and the one that came after it - plus the various horrors that filled so much of the twentieth century – the belief that we are moving consistently onwards and upwards has pretty much been snuffed out. Most of us now are horribly aware of our capacity for barbarism rather than for progress – and we receive daily reminders of this, should we occasionally forget.

But Gray is not one to let facts get in his way for a moment. He also does not appear to feel the need to define his terms – at no point in the book does he bother to explain what he means by “progress”. Instead, having based the book on an unsupported generalisation, he proceeds to pepper his text with countless more. “Pointing to the flaws of the human animal has become an act of sacrilege”, he tells us, adding, “When truth is at odds with meaning, meaning wins”. “No-one in polite society dares speak of instincts today”, he declares, without providing any evidence, (and my experience provides plenty to the contrary). 

“At bottom the world itself is will, a field of energy that finds expression as bodily desire”, he insists, adding, “If we know anything from the history of science, it is that the most severely tested theories still contain errors”, (so how is it exactly that aeroplanes fly and medicines cure diseases? Surely both these achievements depend upon severely tested scientific theories?).

I could go on – there are so many examples of unsupported generalisations in the book. Suffice to say, a lot of Gray's thesis rests on assertions about a body of people called 'they' who are passing “their lives in a state of hopeful turmoil”, thinking that “their minds … are built on the model of the cosmos”, having interminable conversations about “humans evolving”, exalting nature and using the “myth of progress” to lift their spirits “like cheap music”.

Given that Gray's argument is clearly so flimsy, it is legitimate to ask why it is worth wasting any time or thought on either the book or Gray himself. My answer is that, for all Gray's incoherence and confusion, (*see note 1 below), he has become remarkably prominent and influential recently. In fact, it seems to me that the mantle of chief advocate of bleakness in our culture has passed from the shoulders of Richard Dawkins to John Gray, and Gray, being far more charming than Dawkins, is likely to be much more persuasive in the role.

In his frequent radio appearances, Gray never sounds rude or aggressive, let alone obviously contemptuous, (mind you, his self-satisfied elitism does peek through in The Silence of Animals sometimes, together with his conviction that, unless publicly successful, a person cannot feel fulfilled * see note 2 below). Thus, even though Gray's vision is infinitely bleaker than Dawkins's – what Gray is determined to persuade us of is that everywhere and always we are all engaged in a collective illusion about everything – if his views are not questioned, I suspect he will successfully convert large numbers of vulnerable people to his miserable view of existence.

Gray would probably respond to this criticism by saying that his is not a bleak message, that he is merely pointing out a) that none of us will ever be able to know certain things and b) that meaning is an invention we need in order to comfort ourselves in our ignorance. While at moments he seems to be edging towards a mystic or Gnostic viewpoint, as when he writes, “Knowing there is nothing of substance in our world may seem to rob that world of value, but this nothingness may be our most precious possession, since it opens to us the world that exists beyond ourselves”, ultimately he baulks at the humility that is central to a belief that there might exist anything beyond what we are capable of understanding. “Science and myth are alike in being makeshifts that humans erect as shelters from a world they cannot know”, he explains, adding, “An anxious attachment to belief is the chief weakness of the Western mind”, (once again making a statement of opinion rather than an evidence-based argument).

Similarly, Gray feels impelled to attack Christianity, describing it as “a life-denying religion”, which, given that the central tenet of the faith is love, seems an extremely unfair characterisation. He goes on to drag out JG Ballard, making much of Ballard's insight that everything is a stage set that may vanish quite suddenly. While this is unarguable, it has always seemed to me that Ballard's apercu is actually no different to the one offered by Shelley in Ozymandias, except that Ballard's reaction is to believe in nothing, whereas Shelley hints at the possibility that,while the achievements of man may be puny, the universe itself is vast and mysterious and deserves a bit of awe. But Gray doesn't do awe.

Perhaps it is because of this that Gray chooses to ignore huge and important areas of human activity, notably music and the visual arts. If he were to acknowledge that some humans have been capable of extraordinary achievements, he would have to admire them. He would also have to forsake his simplistic thesis. “Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science,” he argues. Were he to mention the achievements of, say, Beethoven, this statement would collapse and Gray would have to concede that things are much more complex than he insists. The actuality is that, while many humans may only exist at the same level as their fellow animals, (and some of us, possibly, do not even reach that level of evolution), there have always been a few who have transcended the capacity of our fellow creatures. But, to acknowledge that, while many humans are capable of terrible things, a few are capable of the sublime would be to dismantle the very foundations of the book.

Most disappointingly, Gray ignores the biggest, most difficult question, the one that hangs behind everything he says: “What is existence and where did it come from?” While admitting that we do not understand the universe, his arrogant conclusion is that our lack of understanding indicates it is meaningless. Unlike Gray, I am sure of nothing, so I can't come back at him with an array of bombastic statements. All I can do is repeat Descartes's famous question: “An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out?”


*Note 1: To pick just a few examples of Gray's incoherence: in the course of one page, he refers to the fact that the core of Christianity is a recognition of human imperfectibility and in the following paragraph he argues that Romanticism's view of humans as transcendent is a spillover from Christianity; in a section on Weimar economics, he argues that hyperinflation brought unreality to Germany, when in fact what German citizens were confronted with as their currency became worthless was the reality that money is actually an illusion; using language, he argues that language is not superior to the various noises made by animals and does not put humans on a higher plain than other living creatures, which brings into question the act of writing a book – and indeed brings into question the validity of books themselves, I'd have thought.

*Note 2.: Gray tells us on page 110 of the book: “Looking for your true self invites unending disappointment. If you have no special potential, the cost of trying to bring your inner nature to fruition will be a painfully misspent existence. Even if you have unusual talent, it will only bring fulfilment if others also value it. Few human beings are as unhappy as those who have a gift that no one wants.”


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you. I'm going to look for his books as well. I just read another in the same sort of vein - human experience of birds. It is called Corvus by Esther Wolfson