We’re all damned in

The Si­lence of An­i­mals: On Progress and Other Mod­ern Myths

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Miriam Cosic

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

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