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The Silence of Animals: On progress and other modern myths

Nick Spencer

RThe-Silence-of-Animals.jpgJohn Gray
Allen Lane

Is there an irony in publishing a sequel to a book about the myth of progress? The sticker on my copy of The Silence of Animals, the latest offering from the prolific professor John Gray, tells me the book is 'the sequel to his bestselling Straw Dogs'. Straw Dogs was published a decade ago and in elegant, erudite, aphoristic prose repeatedly skewered liberal humanism, so that its bien pensant proponents ended up looking like so many latter-day St. Sebastians. The Silence of Animals is no less critical of received humanistic wisdom but it has moved on, and may be seen as an elucidation of the final, fragmentary chapter of Straw Dogs, which read simply, 'Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?'

The Silence of Animals eschews sustained argument. Indeed, the book feels more like an anthology of forgotten wisdom. It quotes frequently and extensively from other writers, many of whom will be unfamiliar, and is altogether about one part quotation to three parts Gray. Unencumbered by argument, it does, however, follow a faint path.

The first of its three parts, 'An Old Chaos', takes apart ideas of history and humanity, our sense of self, of control, of civilisation and, of course, of progress. By walking us through Joseph Conrad's Congo, 1940s Naples, Nazi Germany, and the Habsburg Empire, among other less than hopeful places, Gray draws out the profound ambiguity in the idea of human progress. Toppling tyrants all too often simply sets the people free to tyrannise one another. Ethnic cleansing was an integral part of building democracy in central and southern Europe during the 20th century. Inequality in the 21st century USA is ('according to some historians') greater than the slave-based economic of imperial Rome. 'Progress in civilisation,' he writes, 'seems possible only in interludes when history is idling'. The most serious problems facing humanity are not, and cannot be, resolved.

Part two, 'Beyond the Last Thought', takes the reader beyond the failed attempts to hold on to an untenable reality, towards what the final section in the chapter calls, 'godless mysticism'. Now in the company of Freud and Jung, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, TE Hulme and Fritz Mauthner, Gray observes that humans are animals 'that have equipped themselves with symbols', and who then, mistaking usefulness for reality, 'have an inveterate tendency to think and act as if the world they have made from these symbols actually exists.' We need to push through that illusion, he argues, by recognising that 'human ideas are temporary clearances in the waste', embracing a kind of atheism that is not simply an attempt to dig out the roots of Christianity while holding on to its fruits, such as we see in fashionable humanist circles, but rather one that sees humanity and language and thought as essentially accidents, brief patterns of order that emerge from, and will disappear back into, underlying chaos.

The final part, 'Another Sunlight' sketches what such an exit from the human world might look and feel like. Here we encounter JA Baker and his immersion in the world, life and mind of the peregrine falcon; the impressionism of Ford Madox Ford; Llewelyn Powys hearing a hare drink from a dew pond; a character from a George Simenon novel experiencing a meaningless 'negative epiphany', and the particular 'silence of animals' (the book's title is taken from a phrase used by the Swiss Catholic theologian Max Picard) that feels so elusive. 'Even humans', Gray writes in one of his typically elliptical sentences, 'can find silence, if they can bring themselves to forget the silence they are looking for.'

Gray is popular with Christians partly because he finds a profound truth in the idea of 'original sin' and party because he recognises that 'the unique status of humans is hard to defend, and even to understand, when it is cut off from any idea of transcendence.' Accordingly, The Silence of Animals reserves its deepest contempt for those who cling to groundless secular platitudes of humanity, progress and rationality. 'These enthusiasts for reason have not noticed that the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion.'

That recognised, his thesis is ultimately no more friendly to Christianity than to secular humanism. Moreover, it is, to be frank, thoroughly unconvincing and does not become more persuasive the more you repeat it. A misreading of evolution (it is not simply a 'random drift through genes', but set up to converge repeatedly on solutions, the most important of which lies in the human brain), combined with an unwillingness, which verges on the wilful, to recognise that human are fundamentally different from other animals (how many books by animals have you read on the noise of humans?) leave his arguments (such as they are in this book) eloquent, erudite but ultimately empty.


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