We’re all damned in
The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths
By John Gray Allen Lane, 225pp, $39.99
IT’S hard to tell what John Gray wants. With every new jeremiad, the English philosopher’s take on humanity gets bleaker. His books aren’t palliative or suggestive. They aren’t even poetic. And there isn’t a genuine answer within their pages to the age-old moral question: What ought I to do? Perhaps he thinks we should just wait for death. Or even speed the process.
Gray’s new book, The Silence of Animals, is billed as a sequel to his bestselling Straw Dogs published a decade ago. That book was so grim, it was almost comic. But it was also a tirade against neo-liberalism, so maybe buying it was a silent protest. It’s telling that all the rave reviewers of it, quoted on the cover of his new book are novelists, not philosophers. Philosophers require carefully reasoned arguments to back a philosophical position, not bravura displays of disgust.
After swerving from the political Left to the Right to the Left again, Gray has settled this time on a directionless nihilism that makes the thundering predictions of churchmen and the depressive prowess of Dostoevsky, Beckett and the Sex Pistols combined seem vapid.
There is nothing good about the human race for Gray. Morality is an illusion. Science is mythology, and the myth of progress the most vicious — or clueless, depending on the page — strand within that modern mythology. And humanism is to blame.
If this sounds like a devoutly religious position, it’s not. Gray is an atheist. If it sounds like nostalgia — for classical Greece, say, a favourite of patrician conservatives — it’s not. Gray traces the rot right back to the great Socrates himself.
Gray’s schema is unusual. He barely mentions the 18th-century Enlightenment, the usual starting point for harrumphing reactionaries. He saves his ammunition for the Greeks and the early Christians who first exalted human reason and then claimed humans were made in God’s image and were especially beloved of his creations. This human-centred world view hubristically raised us over animals, vegetables and minerals.
Gray begins by quoting from the gloomiest literature he can find. The first is a no-brainer: Joseph Conrad’s fictional take on Belgium king Leopold II’s rapacious, genocidal rule in the Congo. ‘‘ The horror! The horror!’’, almost a cliche since its paraphrasing by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, could have been Gray’s epigraph. In fact, those words could have constituted his whole book.
Then there are two accounts of the depravity Naples descended into when mass starvation overtook the city in World War II Gray lingers on cannibalism and on the fruitless attempt by a desperate aristocrat to broker his honourable sister’s body into prostitution.
Then we step through Arthur Koestler’s serial disillusion. Gray ends with Koestler’s suicide, as though it were a nihilist statement. But the man was 77, dreadfully ill, and his voracious life of politics, writing and sex clearly was finished. Ever the control freak, he grabbed for death as he had grabbed life.
Then we have Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, both superlative thinkers and writers and brilliant chroniclers of their time. Zweig, appalled by the successes of fascism in Europe and Asia, killed himself in 1942. Roth, nostalgic for multi-ethnic Austro-Hungary in a gruesomely nationalistic world, committed slow suicide via alcohol poisoning, dying a year after the Anschluss. Gray’s invocation of these incomparably humane figures for his own nihilistic purposes is almost sacrilegious. They believed in humanity; what they couldn’t bear was its enslavement.
And so on. Gray could have found any number of counter-examples — Edmund Morel in the Congo, Viktor Frankl, Primo Levi, Jan Karski, and Albert Camus in and after the war — even Conrad’s purpose in writing Heart of Darkness — but he ignores them in his highly selective readings. These men of action, in word and deed, were humanists through and through.
Gray floats various definitions of humanism: the belief ‘‘ the human animal is the site of some kind of unique value in the world’’, that ‘‘ the human mind reflects the order of the cosmos’’, that ‘‘ history is the story of human advance, with rationality increasing over