The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths
by John Gray
Published March, 2013
That the British philosopher John Gray shares his name with a US author of popular books on sex and relationships has always struck me as an unfortunate coincidence. Imagine a man who walks into his local bookstore looking for the latest offering from the author of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992) and walks out with a copy of Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2003). Returning home, he opens the book and finds not a prescription for a happier marriage or a quirky take on gender differences, but a strenuous and at times aggressive attempt to dismantle the idea of human uniqueness, replete with descriptions of violence and cruelty. What might be the effects – emotional, psychological, psychosexual – of such a misunderstanding? A certain guardedness at the dinner table would, I imagine, be the least of it.
For Gray – I mean the British Gray – is the antithesis of a self-help author. In recent years, many philosophers have taken a more populist approach to their discipline. Despairing of the epistemological corner into which postmodern theorists have painted themselves, they have rediscovered Cicero’s maxim that to philosophise is to learn how to die (and, by extension, how to live). But while Gray’s books are accessible, they are anything but therapeutic. In contrast to Alain de Botton and his cheery, media-savvy ilk, Gray offers us not the consolations but the disconsolations of philosophy, not counselling but a counsel of despair.
Gray was born in 1948 into a working class family in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, a coastal town in the northeast of England. Often to be found on BBC radio delivering a lecture on some topic of the day, or in the literary pages of the New Statesman wiping the floor with an author insufficiently alive to the miserableness of humanity, he is a minor intellectual celebrity in an age when intellectual celebrity is supposed to be a contradiction in terms. Admirers of his work include the late J.G. Ballard and the British novelists John Bailey and Will Self, and they tend to be, if not fanatical, certainly on the passionate side. When Self read Straw Dogs, for example, he was so impressed he arranged to meet Gray, and has since become one of his most dedicated spruikers. Clearly, the lanky, lugubrious author of The Sweet Smell of Psychosis (1996) and My Idea of Fun (1993) has found a philosophical soul-mate in Gray, or at any rate a fellow grumpy old man.
Gray’s early philosophical views owed much to Isaiah Berlin, whose ‘agonistic liberalism’ and anti-totalitarianism are still in many ways central to his work. But it was Gray’s shifting attitude to conservatism, or to the various policies pursued in its name, that caught the eye of the intelligentsia. An early supporter of Margaret Thatcher, whose political program seemed to offer a way out of the corporatist impasse of 1970s Britain, he was nevertheless among the first to recognise that neoliberalism was as utopian and delusional as the statist mentality it was supposed to replace. Contra Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis, Gray understood that the end of the Cold War did not mean liberal capitalism’s triumph and an end to international conflict, but would entail ‘a return to the classical terrain of history’ – to great power rivalries, secret diplomacies, wars, and ethnic feuds. Much of this was set out in his book on market globalisation, False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998), which enjoyed a period of renewed popularity in the wake of the global financial crisis. But False Dawn was not only prophetic in its conclusions; it also set the tone for Gray’s later work, which is dedicated to one thing above all: to exposing the power and destructiveness, and the futility, of human belief systems.
With Straw Dogs, Gray hit a rich philosophical seam. This is the book that made his name, and its blend of Schopenhauerian dejection, ‘deep’ ecology, Taoist thinking and gloomy futurology have appeared, in different ratios, in all of Gray’s subsequent titles, as have his eye for the revealing detail and his Nietzschean talent for aphorism. (‘Whatever they become, tyrannies begin as festivals of the depressed.’) In essence, it argues that while science progresses, the creators of science, human beings, do not. Indeed, Gray goes further and suggests that science gives human wickedness greater scope, not only through the ingenious ways it permits human beings to kill each other, but also in the way that human beings insist on reading the findings of science across to the non-scientific sphere. In particular, the theory of biological evolution has sanctioned an entirely mythical notion of political or ethical evolution – one that is found not just in theories of human perfectibility, such as Nazism and communism, but in meliorist concepts of progress as well.
It is not only scientific thinking that has found its way into modern politics. No less destructive, in Gray’s opinion, is the influence of Christianity, the eschatological aspects of which are reproduced in ‘secular’ ideology. Christianity introduced into the world the notion that salvation is open to all – a notion that has survived Christianity’s decline and is all the more powerful for going unnoticed. The result is a secular faith, not in God, but in progress and the future. Having lost sight of the fact that Homo sapiens (or as Gray prefers ‘Homo rapiens’) is an animal (‘an exceptionally rapacious primate’), we have replaced God with a divinised humanity, with calamitous results.
It is easy to see how these ideas chime with various intellectual trends in the early twenty-first century. Though Gray is no fan of postmodernism, he shares with its acolytes a certain moral relativism, and moral relativism was much in the air after the terrorist attacks of 2001. Not in the air of Washington, of course; nor in the air of Tora Bora. But for many liberals seeking to make sense of the terror attacks and their aftermath, a vaguely masochistic feeling that the West had it coming was in evidence. It is always pleasing to find Gray’s books stacked next to A.C. Grayling’s in the philosophy section of my local bookstore, for it is precisely the latter’s Whiggish attachment to a view of history as a directional process – of a journey out of darkness and ‘towards the light’ – against which Gray sets his grim visage. Indeed, Gray is the philosophical champion of those who characterise the ‘war on terror’ as a ‘clash of fundamentalisms’ and who are unimpressed by those commentators whose response to 9/11, and to Islamic extremism more generally, is to insist on (so-called) Enlightenment values and on the superiority of scepticism to faith. Accordingly, the New Atheists get short shrift from Gray, who in Straw Dogs describes atheism, with customary daring, as ‘a late bloom of a Christian passion for truth’.
The war on terror was, for Gray, the confirmation that the liberal West had failed to learn the lessons of the twentieth century. The idea that one can promote freedom by force is both wicked and impossible; indeed, it is wicked because it is impossible. ‘Like the utopian projects of the far left and right,’ Gray writes in the introduction to his essay collection, Gray’s Anatomy (2009), ‘the liberal ideal of a world of self-governing democracies has spilt blood on a colossal scale.’ There is, in essence, no difference between the war in Afghanistan and earlier experiments in imperialism: both bespeak a faith in progress that is as destructive as it is ill-founded. Many regarded the US administration’s claim to be fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan as a convenient bit of retrospective rationalisation, but for Gray it was the fact that Bush and his allies appeared to believe their own propaganda that made the enterprise so horrifying.
This stance found its most eloquent and audacious expression in Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007). Here the thesis set out in Straw Dogs – that belief in progress is a dangerous myth – is tested against the war in Iraq and the various ideologies that both fed into and bled out of it. In particular, Gray is concerned to expose the thinking of the neoconservatives, whose well-documented crab-crawl from left to right serves as a kind of paradigm for the way in which right-wing utopianism took over from communism after the collapse of the USSR. This break with the traditional narrative of conservatism, which in the Burkean tradition defines itself in opposition to utopian schemes, was fused with the religious evangelism of Bush and the arrogance of liberal interventionists to create a ‘millenarian outbreak’ and a bloodbath on the streets of Baghdad. In a daring synthesis, Gray suggests that one casualty of the war was the (liberal) utopia envisaged by the neoconservatives, and that it is largely from the ruins of that Just City that ‘apocalyptic religion’ in its Islamist form has emerged and spread across the globe. That the ideology of Al Qaeda and those who seek to emulate it also has some sturdy roots in the Western intellectual tradition – a claim explored in greater detail in Al Qaeda and What it Means to Be Modern (2003) – is the clinching irony. Human bombs explode in Baghdad, and the West is hoist by its own petard.
Intellectually, this is thrilling stuff. But for me there has always been something awry in Gray’s philosophy. I am not alone in this. In 2010, Gray took part in a debate about violence and literature with Martin Amis, in which the British novelist gently suggested that Gray’s insistence that humans were mere animals, no more or less dignified than llamas or dormice, overlooks the very thing that Cicero saw as central to philosophy: human beings’ consciousness of their own mortality. As Jorge Luis Borges put it, ‘except for man, all creatures are immortal.’ Gray took Amis’s comment in good temper, and even acknowledged that death had not been as central as it should have been in his books so far. But the more one looks at Gray’s oeuvre, the more his failure to confront this question in a philosophically rigorous way seems to undermine his conclusions. To take only the most conspicuous example: who among us would dissent from the view advanced by Freud in The Future of an Illusion (1927) that religion is a response to death? Not Gray, who describes the ‘faith’ of totalitarians and secular humanists alike as ‘a denial of their own mortality’. But the man who accuses humanists of reading science and religion ‘across’ to the political and historical sphere is guilty of a little cross-reading of his own. For why should a man bereft of religion, and thus of the promise of life after death, throw in his lot with Nazis or communists or indeed with secular humanists? In what sense, if any, is collective salvation analogous to individual salvation? Those who ‘work for world betterment,’ Gray suggests in Straw Dogs, ‘are not rebels against the order of things. They seek consolation for a truth they are too weak to bear.’ That ‘truth’ is their mortality. But in what sense does ‘world betterment’ speak to that?
In The Immortalization Commission (2011), Gray attempted to answer these questions by focusing on two very different milieus: a group of Edwardian ‘psychical researchers’ who attempted to prove ‘scientifically’ that death was a phase in the cosmic process and that there was indeed an afterlife in which human souls continued to evolve; and the ‘God-builders’ of the Bolshevik intelligentsia who believed that humanity may be able to conquer death – a belief metaphorically figured, for Gray, by the eponymous Immortalisation Commission set up to oversee the preservation of Lenin’s corpse. Obviously, both attempts to cheat death ended in failure, and that the second case entrained so much human carnage allows Gray to press his point about the futility and destructiveness of utopian hopes. ‘Aiming to create a new type of human no longer subject to mortality,’ he writes, ‘the Soviet state propagated death on a vast scale. Unnumbered humans had to die, so that a new humanity could be free of death.’ Thus Gray seeks to prove the connection between the belief in progress and the attempt to win immortality, and at the same time to emphasise the destructive potential of schemes for mankind’s improvement in general.
Different from anything else in Gray’s oeuvre, The Immortalization Commission is in many ways a fascinating book. The ideas of Bolsheviks such as Trofim Lysenko were as wacky as they were calamitous, and the way in which the Edwardian researchers contrived to combine science and the séance is a wonderful demonstration of how many fine minds were overthrown by the proof contained in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution that man is an animal and not a divinely appointed being.
But looking at Gray’s philosophy more generally, it is clear that the oddness of his examples presents a problem. For, once again, Gray attempts to ‘read across’ these schemes to the belief in human progress per se. And, once again, it is not clear in what ways this reading-across makes sense. ‘We take your point,’ say Gray’s critics: ‘utopia is unattainable and the attempts to tie science to its realisation are apt to end in madness and murder. But that does not mean that progress is impossible, and it does not mean science can’t be used to achieve it.’ The subtitle of The Immortalization Commission is Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death. But if the scientific quest to cheat death was ‘strange’, in the sense of being odd or eccentric, is it not the case that Gray’s philosophical point – that this temporary synthesis between technology and eschatology has a general resonance – is undermined?
Notwithstanding the occasional gnomic aside to the effect that no science is untouched by magic, Gray has hitherto upheld the distinction between scientific progress, which is a fact of history, and human progress, which is a modern myth. But in his new book, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, this distinction begins perceptibly to blur. In fact, Gray appears increasingly unsure as to whether the distinction holds at all. At one point, he suggests, not unreasonably, that ‘science has become a channel for myths’; but twenty pages later both science and myth are described as ‘makeshifts that humans erect as shelters from a world they cannot know’.
Gray’s vacillation is well founded. For if science is the manifestation of reason, then it must be the creation of reasoning animals. And if we are reasoning animals, why can we not apply our reason to the question of how to improve our lot and the lot of our species more generally? ‘Scientific inquiry may be an embodiment of reason,’ writes Gray in a revealing passage, ‘but what such inquiry demonstrates is that humans are not rational animals.’ Well, they’re rational enough to have science! And so the question becomes not whether we are rational, but to what extent we are rational and whether we can use our rationality to create institutions and political systems that favour and nurture that rationality and keep our irrational drives in check.
To say that The Silence of Animals doesn’t begin to answer that question would be to put it delicately. For Gray gives us an image of humankind as fundamentally and dangerously irrational. He gives us Man the Myth-maker. Turning to Freud, who in Gray’s estimation has been fundamentally misunderstood as providing ‘a therapy for modern ills’, Gray suggests that ‘the upshot of his work is that we are obliged to admit that our knowledge of ourselves cannot be other than highly limited.’ And so we tell stories about the world, and about our special place within it, and about how we are going to make it better; and in this way we avoid the truth that we are animals and that our lives are without meaning.
So The Silence of Animals finds Gray more determined than ever to describe human beings as self-deluded. But it also has another emphasis – not new, exactly, but newly prominent. An early clue to this renewed emphasis comes in the first of the book’s three sections, in which Gray does indeed go over old ground, providing his readers with tantalising examples of humanity’s progressive folly, as evidenced in the humiliations of empire and the catastrophe of all-out war. But the interesting thing about these examples is that all of them are taken from literature, from books by Joseph Conrad, Norman Lewis, Arthur Koestler, Curzio Malaparte and George Orwell, to name only a few. In a sense, this is unsurprising. Gray has always been a ‘literary’ intellectual – one for whom the canons of literature complement the canons of philosophy. But in The Silence of Animals it soon becomes clear that writers are being used not only as sources, but as exemplars of another way of thinking. Writers, Gray seems to want to say, are afforded greater insight into the world for precisely the reason that they are not philosophers.
There was a premonition of this attitude in The Immortalization Commission, in which H.G. Wells plays a prominent role – not least as a kind of ambassadorial link between the fusty Edwardian England of the ‘researchers’ and the revolutionary milieu of Lenin, et al. But for Gray, it is the tension between Wells’ political ideas and his fiction that is interesting. For while Wells was more than sympathetic to ‘scientific’ attempts to remake humanity (he was an advocate for world government and a keen student of eugenics), his fictions are steeped in an anxiety about science, an anxiety caught most memorably in the figure of the crazed vivisectionist Dr Moreau. Towards the end of his life, Gray suggests, Wells accepted what his fables had always intimated – that the attempt to use science to emancipate humanity from its animal condition is doomed to fail, and that en route to that failure much tragedy lies in wait. For Gray, this intellectual shift – and especially Wells’ fiction’s presentiment of it – is of deep significance. It demonstrates the dangers of ‘rational’ thinking.
And so, in The Silence of Animals, we find writers exploring human experience at its limits and discovering that their rational view of the world has begun to blink and blur, to break up. Here, for example, is Kayerts, a character in Conrad’s short story ‘An Outpost of Progress’, who is so convinced of the West’s imperial folly and his own essentially savage nature, that he resolves to crucify himself – a suicidal nod to the idea, so eloquently explored in Gray’s work, that schemes for humanity’s betterment are merely the myth of salvation in disguise. And here is Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962), whose protagonist, Kerans, is ‘able to reconnect with pre-human levels of his own nature’ as the world succumbs to climate change. As belief systems crumble, the animal emerges, brushing the millenarian dust from its shoulders: humankind in all its ingloriousness!
Plainly, Gray is reliant on a particular kind of subject matter and, as The Silence of Animals moves onto newer ground, it is clear that he is also reliant on, or enamoured of, a particular kind of writer: the kind of writer who focuses outward and attempts not to ‘find himself’ in the world, but to lose himself, to immerse himself, in the world. The poetry of Wallace Stevens is a particularly rich source of such immersion, as is the impressionism of Ford Madox Ford; Samuel Beckett’s attempt to dramatise the impossibility of attaining true meaning is also much in evidence. In general, Gray wants to foreground those writers for whom language presents a barrier, for whom language is part of the human problem – central to the ‘illusion of self’ and thus to the idea that the self can be saved. We need to get outside ourselves, to sink our sense of specialness in the world. And by doing that – by forgetting the self – we may also come to forget (or accept) death, and so stop killing and torturing each other in pursuit of heaven or its secular analogues. In short, we need to accept that human beings are makers of myths and that this is their problem. As Gray puts it:
Admitting that our lives are shaped by fictions may give a kind of freedom – possibly the only kind that human beings can attain. Accepting that the world is without meaning, we are liberated from confinement in the meaning we have made. 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.
A little later, Gray seeks to clarify, and to get his retaliation in first:
Philosophers will say that humans can never be silent because the mind is made of words. For these half-witted logicians, silence is no more than a word. To overcome language by means of language is obviously impossible. Turning within, you will find only words and images that are parts of yourself. But if you turn outside yourself – to the birds and animals and the quickly changing places where they live – you may hear something beyond words. Even humans can find silence, if they can bring themselves to forget the silence they are looking for.
Why bother yourself with ‘half-witted’ philosophers when you can experience ‘the silence of animals’ – when you can become a silent animal. Or as Gray puts it in Straw Dogs, ‘Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?’
Quoting T.S. Eliot’s line that humankind cannot bear very much reality, Gray thus invites us to cultivate ‘godless mysticism’, the aim of which is not some higher knowledge or even self-knowledge, but knowledge’s absence. ‘Godless mystics do not look to merge themselves with something larger they have imagined into being; they look to wipe away their inexistent selves.’ This ‘negative epiphany’ or ‘nullifying of the self’ is most likely to occur in moments of ‘contemplation’, by which Gray means not philosophical contemplation – far from it – but intense observation of the world, and of the natural (or rather non-human) world especially. As a guide to the kind of thing he means, he recommends J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine (1967), the quotations from which would appear to justify Gray’s estimation of it as a work of genius. But Gray is not only interested in the literary quality of Baker’s book – an account of a year spent following, observing, and indeed channelling, the peregrine falcon. He also wants us to understand how the author’s ability to lose himself in nature – even to the extent of seeing the world from the falcon’s point of view – is one that, if we could only emulate it, would make our lives much easier to bear.
In this regard, The Peregrine is an odd choice, for it is clear that Baker is some distance from putting humanity and its problems behind him. Take the following passage, for example, in which the author attempts to convey his affinity with the falcon through the use of the plural pronoun:
We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scissoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways, the tombstone whiteness of their faces.
This is not, Gray insists, anthropomorphism. Rather, ‘Baker tried the experiment of deanthropomorphizing himself.’ I think it would be more accurate to say that whatever the author thought he was doing, what he actually did was to use the falcon as a channel for his own misanthropy. Or perhaps what we have here is not quite anthropomorphism and not quite misanthropy but a combination of the two: an instance of what we might call ‘misanthropomorphism’.
‘I have always longed to be a part of the outward life,’ Baker writes, ‘to be out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence.’ The ‘human taint’ is precisely the thing that Gray, too, wishes to wash away and silence. And it is interesting, and not a little ironic, that the philosopher who affects to show his readers how ancient and ostensibly discredited ideas are mapped into modern notions of progress, and how even science can be a conduit for magic, should adopt the practice of ‘godless mysticism’ as a way of channelling his own distaste for humanity. One of Gray’s more strident critics has written of a ‘genocidal impulse’ in his work. At the time, I thought that was overstating it. But after reading The Silence of Animals, I’m beginning to wonder.
There has always been a misanthropic streak in Gray’s intellectual anatomy. In The Silence of Animals, this streak is conspicuous. Early in the book, Gray seeks to show us humanity at its most debased in the aftermath of the Second World War. But it soon becomes apparent that the scenes of devastation and human misery in Naples and Shanghai are more than illustrative of civilisation at its worst; they are offered as symbols of civilisation itself. ‘Civilisation,’ writes Gray, ‘is built on an ash-heap,’ while ‘human symbols are a scattering of dust.’ The Shanghai of Ballard’s childhood – a source of inspiration and dread that found expression in The Drowned World and other fictions – is for Gray a paradigm: ‘The collapse of Shanghai showed Ballard that everything in human life is provisional and temporary. It also showed him something that is permanent – the inhuman landscape in which humans enact their fates.’ And lest we think those fates are noble, or that they have the potential to be such, Gray furnishes us with an experience recounted in Norman Lewis’s autobiography I Came, I Saw (1994). Lewis is in a restaurant in post-war Naples when a group of girls appears in the doorway: ‘Noticing that they were weeping and realizing they were blind, he expected his fellow diners to interrupt their meal. But nobody moved. The girls were treated as though they did not exist.’ Thus altruism, too, is exposed as a myth.
It is here that we come to the real problem at the heart of The Silence of Animals, and of Gray’s philosophy in general. For in order to drive this point home, the author has to rely on the very emotions that are, according to him, absent. ‘They would never recover from their pain,’ writes Lewis, ‘and I would never recover from the memory of it.’ But why? Why would he ‘never recover’ if not for the sense of fellow feeling that was in this instance so conspicuously lacking? And why, for that matter, will I never forget the awful story of Mary Turner, a black woman in her eighth month of pregnancy, who was hanged from a tree by a racist mob, and whose unborn baby was cut from her womb and crushed underfoot by a member of the crowd? That story is recounted in Straw Dogs. When I read it, my daughter was three weeks old, and after doing so I had an epiphany of my own: saying that human beings are not special is like saying your own children aren’t special. But obviously my daughter is special to me.
This is the point Gray elects to miss and has elected to miss many times before. Human beings are social creatures whose sociability manifests itself in feelings of empathy and altruism. But these feelings are not always in evidence and sometimes they give way to hatred and to violence. Hatred and violence are not exceptional. History, as Gray never tires of reminding us, is strewn with the corpses of the murdered and maimed. But nor are hatred and violence the rule. And when we encounter them – sometimes, not always – our better selves are mobilised. Moreover, it is in this spirit – and not in any post-Christian attempt to take a lathe to the crooked timber of humanity – that we try to improve the lot of our species: so that Mary Turner’s descendants are not strung up and emptied of their progeny; so that orphans with tears in their unseeing eyes are taken in and given a bowl of soup; and so that our own children can have a decent education and the chance of a job at the end of it. Is this a hubristic belief in progress? The very suggestion dies on the lips.
Human beings may not develop but human institutions do. Sometimes they develop in good ways and sometimes they develop in bad ones, and whether the development is good or bad it is never irreversible. Of course such freedoms and rights and securities as we have won could all be swept away if another Hitler came to power. That is what makes the fight for justice not just worthwhile but necessary. Gray wants us to believe that this fight is no different from the one waged by Christians and communists alike. He is wrong. To seek to make things better is not the same as thinking that they can be made perfect. The problem we face – that humanity faces – is not faith in the future but indifference to it. Resource wars are already in progress and population growth is out of control. A catastrophic change in our climate, growing inequality, the prospect of a nuclearised Middle East: these problems are not on the horizon – they are upon us. In The Silence of Animals, Gray talks about the ‘current fad for evolutionary theories of society’. I don’t know what theories he means. But there is one thing I do know, or think I do: without a little ‘evolution’ or ‘progress’ in the political sphere our flawed and wonderful species is doomed.