Book Review: The Silence of Animals
By John Gray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
John Gray’s writings differ from the customary twaddle of philosophy in two key ways, one incidental and one accidental: the incidental is the calm, readable clarity of Gray’s prose, forged not in soupy interdepartmental obscure-a-thons but in the realm of book-reviewing (a seedy, noble little craft of which Gray is a master). The accidental is more dangerous: his 1998 book False Dawn, in the process of predicting the collapse of damn near everything, seemed to predict the collapse of the subprime lending market, and suddenly Gray was pushed into the sunlight of bright buzz-media day like a blinking owl. He followed up that book with 2002’s Straw Dogs, in which, in the process of saying that everything is pointless, he said that humanism was pointless – and thereby got every pseudo-intellectual in Christendom about as angry as they’ve been since Frasier was cancelled.
It’s always a tricky thing for a philosopher, schooled in the circular gibberish and the deep irrelevance of his discipline, to be convinced – to convince himself – that he’s having a moment in the zeitgeist. It’s the pact we make with philosophers: if you stay in your academic compound playing your tedious word-games, we won’t force you to bag groceries for eight hours a day at the Piggly-Wiggly like productive citizens. Nobody wants to read the predictable Newstime article lede “It turns out we might have something to learn from philosophy after all…” We don’t; the whole point of philosophy is its pointlessness. Mix celebrity with that – even in limited doses – and you get disastrous results.
Hence Gray’s latest book, The Silence of Animals, a bungling hodge-podge of half-baked concepts, undigested factual digressions, and tag-line blurtations clearly designed to get people talking rather than to get them thinking. This is exactly the kind of frantically scatterbrained book philosophers always produce once they think normal people are paying attention.
Readers of Gray’s previous books will know the drill here: mankind is a hive of vicious, atavistic brutality, and any notion to the contrary – of ‘progress,’ say – is the worst kind of facile self-delusion. Our author purports to look around and see only the same old nasty world, perhaps cosmetically improved here and there but ultimately prone to all the same atrocities. “The crisis today resembles that of the 1930s,” he tells us, “it cannot be overcome by collective human action. It is part of the faith in progress that no human problem is in the long run insoluble.”
And when he mentions “faith in progress,” he’s really talking about faith of progress; one of the contentions of this new book – retread from earlier works and talks – is that Western faith in at least some vague notion of progress is in fact just a secular outgrowth of Christianity:
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. For the ancient Egyptians as for the ancient Greeks, there was nothing new under the sun. Human history belongs in the cycles of the natural world. The same is true in Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, and the older parts of the Hebrew Bible. 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.
Such a passage manages the chiropractically stunning feat of badly misrepresenting three ancient cultures and five major religions simultaneously, and The Silence of Animals is littered with such passages. “Modern thinkers tend to believe that human beings can decide their fates,” Gray writes, “which is much the same as believing that there is no such thing as fate” – but no serious ‘modern thinker’ believes the first part, and why is any serious philosopher characterizing ‘fate’ the way Gray does in the second part? It feels like half-improvised headline-baiting, and it gives itself away whenever this normally very acute thinker starts doling out blurry rants:
Nowadays myths can be practically momentary: transmitted throughout the world by 24-hour news and the internet, they spread virally, entering the minds of tens and hundreds of millions of people in minutes or hours. Are these true myths, or mass-manufactured fantasies? At times they can be both. In recent years images of resistance to tyranny have been relayed around the world by mass media, many of them captured on mobile phones by the resisters themselves. The myths of revolution that moved the resisters were reinforced, for a time, by the media that make the news. But myths survive for only as long as they are enacted by those who accept them.
Nobody – very likely including Gray himself – could possibly parse what’s meant there by ‘’true myths” or “mass-manufactured fantasies” (aren’t those two things the same? Wouldn’t Gray himself ordinarily say so, if he weren’t feeling momentarily disgruntled by the clips of Arab Spring he caught on TV one afternoon?), but even Mythology 101 undergrads will scratch their heads at that final assertion – they’ll know that Beowulf and Gilgamesh (not to mention Adam and Eve) survive just fine as myths even though nobody’s “enacting” them, for instance. Such students, and very likely most of Gray’s readers, will begin to feel something’s not right. They’ll begin to feel like the good professor is, maybe with the best of motives, making crap up.
Such a reaction won’t be helped any by the many boastful tautologies scattered throughout this book. And the worst of those tautologies are not only time-wasting but actively iniquitous:
In order to survive, humans have invented science. Pursued consistently, scientific inquiry acts to undermine myth. But life without myth is impossible, so science has become a channel for myths – chief among them, a myth of salvation through science.
“Salvation” is a conveniently wooly term, perfect for ham-fistedly toying with topics that actually matter (no accounting here for the 100,000 years humans survived before they ‘invented’ science). Gray is 65 years old; it’s an almost lock-solid certainty that he himself has benefited from a little scientific salvation in his day. A hundred years ago, he’d have faced the tooth abscess at 45, heart attack at 50, the thrombosis at 60 without any aid; a hundred years ago, he’d have spared no thought to earthquake victims in Karbala, much less had fourteen different nonprofit international channels through which to donate relief money; a hundred years ago, a hole in a child’s heart meant a dead child, not a morning’s challenge for Massachusetts General Hospital (or Bangkok’s Bumrungrad International, or Istanbul’s Anadolu Medical Center). Someone who claims the very idea of progress is a fallacy is someone who’s spent much too much time with Nietzsche.
The sole saving grace of The Silence of Animals can be found in the rest of the company its author keeps. Gray is a delightfully wide-ranging reader, and he gives us many long and fascinating digressions into works like J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, or Richard Jefferies 1885 novel After London: Wild England, and especially the works of 20th century naturalist and bird-watcher J. A. Baker, whose powerfully felt books The Peregrine and The Hill of Summer are quoted at wonderful length. Baker’s writing contains many allusions to the barbarity underneath the veneer of harmony, and he’s always bracing to read:
I shall try to make clear the bloodiness of killing. Too often this has been slurred over by those who defend hawks. Flesh-eating man is in no way superior. It is so easy to love the dead. The word “predator” is baggy with misuse. All birds eat living flesh at some time in their lives. Consider the cold-eyed thrush, the springy carnivore of lawns, worm stabber, basher to death of snails. We should not sentimentlize his song, and forget the killing that sustains it … So much cruelty is mercifully concealed from us by the sheltering leaves. We seldom see the bones of pain that hang beyond the green summer day.
In this latest work, John Gray is preoccupied with those “bones of pain,” but that doesn’t excuse its excesses of showboating self-pity. The world in 2013 is a better place to live in for more of its inhabitants than was the world in 1913, and more of those inhabitants are trying to improve it than were trying to improve it in 1913. And 1913 was a gated, pearly paradise compared to 1013, or 913, and Gray knows it. “Progress is hard work, and slow, but it’s happening” is a line mankind – in all its brawling self-destructive contradictions – has genuinely earned, and humanists are right to be proud of it. “Progress is a delusion; everything stinks and fundamentally always will” might get you more headlines, but it’s the worst, most flaccid kind of agnostic whining. John Gray should have a little faith.