There is a particular line in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, John Gray’s 2002 blockbuster of bleakness, which on first reading so incensed my poor and simple sensibility that I was compelled to uncurl a clenched fist to better hurl the book across the room, a slew of furious invective pursuant in its papery wake. To this day there remains perched on a mantel a small black-beaked china swan whose chipped wing bears mute testimony to the despair and disgruntlement of that first reading. The line in question (“Gentleness flourishes in sheltered lives; an instinctive trust in others is rarely strong in people who have struggled against the odds”) irritated me like an indefatigably unswattable fly, determinedly gnawing away at my general good temper. And in some way, Gray’s newest offering continues in that spirit of insistently vexatious disillusionment. This seemingly effortless ability to inspire ire might perhaps in itself be enough to recommend the book, but The Silence of Animals is also, more soberly, a serious book whose determined wrong- headedness is profoundly invigorating, too. More unexpectedly (and movingly), the book points to a “new” Gray: mollified, curiously quieter and gentler, and most certainly warranting renewed attention.
One wonders if we ‘live with fictions’ not because we are too weak to countenance the brutality of human life, but simply because we can
Gray’s familiar line of lugubrious distemper with the prevailing optimism of liberal humanism is fully in evidence in these new essays, and the collection’s sub-heading, On Progress and Other Modern Myths, is nicely indicative of the extension of those earlier arguments. Those who flocked to Gray’s forthright down-thumbing of political optimism and ideals of advancement will find him here once again playing the part of a secular prophet, sensationally truth-telling, clear-sighted and unperturbed by the illusions under which the rest of us labour. There is something of a practised agility in the way that he so expediently tramples on belief and dispenses with idle idealisms: liberal humanism, he informs us, is a mass hallucination, a “willed psychosis” whose firm grasp on our collective consciousness must be loosened by a good dose of realist reassessment. To accept that our lives are shaped by fictions, like that of “progress”, he suggests, is to counter a pervasive culture of meliorism and so awaken from a stupor that denies the desperation of existence. So far, so Gray.
What’s more unexpected, though, is how beautifully the unbearable quality of that desperation is evoked in Gray’s thoughtful examples, including Joseph Conrad’s 1897 short story An Outpost of Progress, but more unusually, Curzio Malaparte’s 1949 collection of dispatches, The Skin. Malaparte’s distressing post-war realisation that whereas “before the liberation we had fought and suffered in order not to die. Now we are fighting and suffering in order to live…It is a humiliating, horrible thing, a shameful necessity, a fight for life”, is one of several searingly painful extracts judiciously selected. Gray’s wide and eclectic reading is informative and it leavens a heavy book, lending it a certain companionability.
The evident passion for late Modernism and contemporary American poetry is also surprising and heartfelt, Gray acknowledging without embarrassment a debt to Wallace Stevens, “whose poetry has stirred me in many ways”. Yet such expressions of quiet and personal gratification are hard to reconcile with the book’s more dogged asseverations. “Knowing that there is nothing of substance in our world may seem to rob that world of value,” he opines, before suddenly relenting: “But this nothingness may be our most precious possession, since it opens to us the inexhaustible world that exists beyond ourselves.” Perhaps. And yet at such moments one’s wearied scepticism surfaces between the islands of Gray’s disbelief and despair. This rather nebulous redemption of nihilism seems at best unpersuasive and at worst simply apropos of nothing, since a world that “exists beyond ourselves” could be intelligible only through our human sensibility. But it is precisely the sureness of Gray’s defeated humanism that might provoke in the reader an instinctive and passionate defence. This is a troubled and troubling book, whose determinedly anti-humanist turn inspires the very kind of engagement that could defeat it. Gray is right to grieve for the failure of human beings to live up to even their smallest ideals, and he is right, too, to upbraid that glib branch of modern liberal humanism for its blazing hypocrisies, but the notion that the experience of failure should consequently demand the relinquishment of all forms of belief (secular and non-secular) somehow misses the simpler insight that faultiness is humanness and therefore meaningful, even when the beliefs we cling to fail us - perhaps most profoundly when they fail us.
But what “exists beyond ourselves”, Gray muses, is a world of animal life. It is one that he struggles not to romanticise in ways contrary to his realist purposes in the last arresting chapter of the book. Previously, his roguish spin on the declaration of the death of God was to announce the death of humans, too, and in this book, the flip side of non-humanism is an aspiration to the transparency of animal life. Such an animal life must reveal to humans their own animality, exposing them to an existence as base as it is true. Here again there is rich source material, delightfully unsung voices, generously shared in ways that impart a sense of the slow pleasure of Gray’s deliciously haphazard reading: nerdishly avid, obscure and idiosyncratic. His rightly lingering citations of J.A. Baker’s book The Peregrine deserves a special mention here: “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. The woods and fields and gardens are places of endless stabbing, impaling, squashing and mangling. We see only what floats to the surface: the colour, the song, the nesting, and the feeding. I do not think we could bear a clear vision of the animal world.”
There’s a quiet irony here, perhaps not lost on Gray, that the brutally clear vision he seeks for humankind should be sought so passionately and found so beautifully in writing. His literary reading betrays a hungry scavenging for something like poetic restoration, and such moments are both a welcome relief to the book’s otherwise wearying long face and quietly subversive, too. In Baker’s natural history, Gray perceives a telling experiment in the de-centring of human beings, ruminating that to see “the world as he imagined hawks might see it, he was able to be something other than he had been”. And yet in reading Baker’s grave and graceful prose, we might say that one seeks to be him as much as the hawk.
The Silence of Animals is a good book, full of curious anecdotes, magpie- ish in its literary sources and ambitious in its array of neatly tessellated philosophers. But it is also a book that unravels at every turn the very argument it so doggedly asserts. In an odd way, it is a book that lacks the conviction of its despair. Reading it, one wonders if we “live with fictions” not because we are too weak to countenance the brutality of human life, nor only because we seek relief from it, but simply because we can. The faith we keep in the fictions we sustain is a lucid act of will as well as blind devotion. And listening to the “silence of animals”, we might want to speak volumes.
John Gray was born in South Shields, County Durham. “I feel fortunate in having grown up in the North East at the time I did. I like to think that I may have inherited a certain realism in my view of the world, which was then and remains a Geordie trait.
“In my teens I read a great deal, although I was never particularly studious. My grammar school had an outstanding history teacher who introduced me to the works of R.G. Collingwood, a highly original writer who is now largely forgotten. Much later, after I’d gotten to know Isaiah Berlin - the largest personal influence on my thinking, though I cannot claim to be a disciple - I was interested to learn that Berlin had himself been influenced by Collingwood.”
Latterly professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, Gray observes: “I’ve taught and lectured in many institutions. Not all of the most interesting have been academic.
“I decided to retire early from academic life some years before I actually did so in 2007. I’d been very happy throughout my 30-odd years in the academy and been part of wonderful institutions such as Jesus College, Oxford and the LSE. But as I approached 60 I realised it was time to move on and do something else.”
“Even at my most engaged I’ve always had modest expectations of politics, so I can’t say I’ve ever been greatly disappointed,” Gray says. “Politics are a bit like drains: terribly important in their way but not the sort of thing to which anyone should look for a meaning in life.”
The author of Straw Dogs and Cats, Birds and Humans confesses: “I don’t have a favourite species, though I love cats for their beauty, tranquillity and occasional ferocity. As I’ve grown older, music has become increasingly important to me. Among the composers I find congenial I’d mention especially the Catalan Federico Mompou, whose Musica Callada (Silent Music) is an endless source of delight.”
The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths
By John Gray
Allen Lane, 240pp, £18.99 and £10.99
ISBN 9781846144509 and 9780141969022 (e-book)
Published 28 February 2013