Some writers appeal to one or another of our vanities — good taste, superior intelligence, deep insight, clear understanding, high morality. We may know what they’re doing, but we agree so readily with their assessment of us that we let them get away with it. Their books are very popular, but they’re not often very important.
A few writers are different. They are contrary, curmudgeonly, and confrontational. They challenge our assumptions and ridicule our illusions. We may suspect that they’re telling us at least some of the truth, but we don’t like hearing it put quite so bluntly. Their books are less popular, but they’re often very instructive.
John Gray belongs to the second group. He may be the contemporary leader of this smaller, more annoying cohort.
As he did in the terse Black Mass and the flamboyant Straw Dogs, in his latest work Gray doesn’t proclaim that the emperor of rational humanism has no clothes. Rather, he repeats that humanism’s new clothes look uncomfortably like religion’s old ones. The cloth has been rewoven, but the vestments are still recognizable in their new style.
The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths is a journey through the ideas of modern humanism, and Gray is our grumpy tour guide. Under his direction, we wander purposefully through literature, psychology, and philosophy. At each stop, we find a thinker whose writing provokes Gray, sometimes negatively but often positively.
Writers and their characters who embrace the death of meaning, the myth of human progress, the essential aloneness of each life, are held up as shining examples of clear thinking, of existence without illusion. Those others who cannot shake the myths of meaning and significance serve as cautionary tales of people who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) accept the stark dignity of nothingness.
The book’s title shows the way. Gray writes; “Whereas silence is for other animals a natural state of rest, for humans silence is an escape from inner commotion.” In the context of the book’s disdain for meaning, “the silence of animals” is a state of being, a simple acceptance of the moment. Only humans look for purpose or significance. Only we are driven nearly mad by the conflict between reason and emotion. For Gray, reason is not a gift but a curse. Our singular achievement means that we alone are mired in an endless contest between being and understanding.
Many people think humans are unique in possessing something called consciousness. At its most refined, thinking in this way is like thinking that the universe has come up with humans so that it can look at itself: Humans are the void looking at itself. It is a lovely image. But why privilege humans in this way? The eyes of other creatures may be brighter. Humans cannot help seeing the world through the veil of language. When they run after silence they are trying to leave behind the signs that make their world. This struggle is as universally human as language itself.
Gray analyzes material by major writers like Conrad and Freud, Koestler and Nietzsche. His “minor” selections are perhaps more engaging, for most of these passages will be new to the casual reader, who, like me, will be reading them for the first time.
Many of the book’s ideas surface again and again, as Gray works his way through his pantheon of modern thinkers who struggle with the nature of existence. Most sections of the book focus on a single part of a single work. In these narrow recesses we find always someone either fighting the contradiction of seeking meaning in a meaningless world or throwing off the myths and illusions that cloud his vision.
In all of these pieces, Gray emphasizes and re-emphasizes his central message: “An anxious attachment to belief is the chief weakness of the western mind.” And, in a notion that will be familiar to anyone who’s read any of Gray’s other works: “Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science.”
Progress is a myth of rationalism, and rationalism is itself an illusion. In a phrase from Black Mass so trenchant that Gray uses it again in The Silence of Animals, rationalism is “split religion”:
But the idea that human possibilities are unbounded has also been promoted by rationalists, including enthusiasts for science who think the growth of knowledge enables the human animal to overcome the limits of the natural world. So it is not only in Romanticism that a view of humans as being able to transcend their nature has spilled over from Christianity. … rationalism is also spilt religion.
Gray is relentless in his degradation of the rationalist’s belief in progress:
‘Humanity’ is a fiction composed from billions of individuals for each of whom life is singular and final. But the myth of progress is extremely potent.
Faith in progress is a late survival of early Christianity, originating in the message of Jesus, a dissident Jewish prophet who announced the end of time. … By creating the expectation of a radical alteration in human affairs, Christianity – the religion that St Paul invented from Jesus’ life and sayings – founded the modern world.
The myth of progress casts a glimmer of meaning into the lives of those who accept it.
The myth that human beings can use their minds to lift themselves out of the natural world, which in Socrates and Plato was part of a mystical philosophy, has been renewed in a garbled version of the language of evolution.
And so on and so on, throughout the book.
Considering both the book’s title and the thinkers whose work he praises, Gray seems to be promoting a particularly ascetic kind of mysticism without spirituality. He praises Eastern religions in passing, noting with approval that they avoid deviating into the mythology of progress. They reject redemption, while both Western religionists and rational atheists embrace it as the superstructure on which we construct our worldviews.
It’s a curious position, one that must be hard to keep hold of. To balance insight with pointlessness seems an impossible task on the face of it, but it seems to be what Gray urges. The Silence of Animals is not for the Pollyannas among us.
Indeed, it’s so stark, its philosophical posture so demanding, that, in the end, it might not be for anyone.