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The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths Paperback – June 24, 2014
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“Gray's godless mysticism asks us to look outside ourselves and simply see. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds . . . Sometimes I think John Gray is the great Schopenhauerian European Buddhist of our age. What he offers is a gloriously pessimistic cultural analysis, which rightly reduces to rubble the false idols of the cave of liberal humanism.” ―Simon Critchley, The Los Angeles Review of Books
“[Gray's is] a powerful message, and not without elements of profundity. And it is conveyed with eloquence of language and dignity of thought.” ―Robert W. Merry, The National Interest
“Gray's fans should find much here to please them. The range of literary, historical and philosophical extracts--from Conrad and Zweig to Borges and John Ashbery, and from Nietzsche and Freud to Robinson Jeffers and Czeslaw Milosz, to name only a few--is broad and deep. Gray's own utterances are by turns characteristically dark, audacious and outrageous.” ―Caspar Henderson, The Telegraph
“Silence of Animals is a beautifully written book, the product of a strongly questioning mind. It is effectively an anthology with detailed commentary, setting out one rich and suggestive episode after another, each of which becomes only more suggestive by the juxtaposition.” ―Philip Hensher, The Spectator
About the Author
John Gray is the author of many critically acclaimed books, including The Immortalization Commission, Black Mass, and Straw Dogs. A regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, he is the emeritus professor of European thought at the London School of Economics.
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The Silence of Animals is arranged in three parts. The first looks at the idea of progress and how people's belief in it has disintegrated when faced with human barbarity. The two world wars left ruin in their wake and Gray looks at the reactions of writers such as J G Ballard, Norman Lewis and Stefan Zweig to the rapid disappearance of civilised behaviour in the brutality of war. Barbarism can also emerge from economic crisis: the Great Depression and the inflation in inter-war Germany, and the financial crash of 2008, each destroyed the wealth of countless families. They rendered years of faith in saving and building a future utterly meaningless, even as the alchemists of finance breathed a sigh of relief over their canapés at finding their own fortunes unscathed.
Gray was previously an academic political theorist and he sees authoritarian politics, whether of the left or right, as an attempt to deny the chaos of reality and to fake a sense of order. People like certainty and the dream of a better day to come, and therein perhaps lies the appeal of those charlatans who would have us believe that they can plan and control our future.
In the end, progress is a myth because evolution is about survival, not about constant improvement. Gray characterises evolution as a process of drift rather than a rise to ever greater heights of rationality, peace and order.
In the second part of the book Gray looks at the ideas of Sigmund Freud and in particular his views on myth creation. Freud saw the internal self as forever at war between the forces of Eros (love, creativity) and Thanatos (hatred, destruction). Psychoanalysis can be seen as a process of coming to terms with this perpetual disorder. We might be driven by unconscious forces over which we have no control, but by accepting and trying to recognise them we can attain some degree of autonomy in our lives.
All our constructions of the world are myths of one kind or another. Gray rejects Jung's idea of universal myths and notes that museums are full of old gods that people once thought were eternal and immortal. Our stories about the world change all the time, as do we, and part of Freud's work was to reconcile us with our ever-emergent selves.
Science appears to be different and Gray makes a neat distinction between scientific method, which tests our beliefs against facts, and the way we usually operate which is to select the facts that reinforce our beliefs. We are an incorrigibly irrational lot. But even science is myth-like: any scientific theory only works for a certain period of time before being replaced by another or being rendered irrelevant by a new paradigm. Our understanding of the world is thus made up of changing theories and stories, often inconsistent and sometimes plain barmy, and none of them ever fully explains everything. Spending your days searching for a theory of everything? Get a life.
Given that the world is chaotic and that our stories and theories about it are patchy and ephemeral, how can we best engage with the world? This is the theme of the final section of the book. Here Gray investigates how people have sought to look at the world from different perspectives and analyses two extraordinary books by J A Baker, who tried to see the world through the eyes of animals. He also looks at how people have pursued silence and used meditation, exercises that try to take us out of the hubbub of the world and the manic chatter in our heads. The value of these activities is that they change us and our perceptions of (and enjoyment of) the world.
The world view depicted by Gray might seem to presume pessimism and often Gray's thoughts appear this way, but accepting the chaos of the world and our inability to fully grasp it can also be refreshing and liberating, and can heighten our enjoyment of ourselves, other people and the world about us. Being alive becomes interesting in itself.
There is no discussion of the French existentialist philosophers, and surprisingly no discussion of Buddhism, even though these two have a lot in common with Gray's perspective. The final section of the book felt incomplete as a result. There is also far too little about the human need for certainty in life and how this blinds us to the greater joys of the world. In the first part of the book he consigns the progress myth to the rubbish bin, but if we have to live by myths is the progress one so bad? Public policy, education systems and charitable aid are all built on the lie of progress but they have produced some positive social results. Gray never considers whether some myths might be preferable to others and how we might decide that.
There is a wealth of engrossing detail in this book, supplemented by extensive notes. His exploration of some of the lesser known byways in literature whetted my appetite to pursue them further. Even if you find Gray's views unconvincing, the journey with him is well informed and never dull. This work will inspire you to reflect on how you understand yourself and the world in which you have randomly arrived.
I love this book. To be fair, I'm a huge John Gray fan, so I pretty much knew I was going to love it from the outset. I was right. By using the lives and words of others to build his arguments and illuminate his world view, Gray creates a haunting, moving dreamscape of thought, a ghostly fortress of logic, that carries readers along to his inescapable conclusions: progress is a myth, humans are animals (and unexceptional animals at that) and we do ourselves a disservice by hiding behind religion and other myths which prevent us from just being ... and therefore being happy.
It's not for everyone. If you enjoy having your belief systems shaken like a martini, or relish in seeing atheism called into question for falling short of the mark, or wonder if faith in science and progress is really just the recycled and misguided faith of the religious, this short, epic, sad, funny, tragic, exasperating, ultimately uplifting book is for you.
Some of my favorite lines:
"According to some historians, inequality in America at the start of the twenty-first century is greater than in the slave-based economy of imperial Rome in the second century. Of course there are differences. Contemporary America is probably less stable than imperial Rome."
"Denying reality in order to preserve a view of the world is not a practice confined to cults. Cognitive dissonance is the normal human condition."
"If there is anything unique about the human animal it is that it has the ability to grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience."
"A type of atheism that refused to revere humanity would be a genuine advance."
"If you admit your need for silence, you accept that much of your life has been an exercise in distraction."
"Every sentient being is a world-maker."
Don't be fooled by the slender nature of the book, it's packed with enough insights and a-ha moments to remake a dozen worlds, but certainly (hopefully) not in our own image. After all, "there is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed."
Gray urges us to look past our mistaken belief in exceptionalism, and past our mistaken certainty that things will get better in some mythical afterlife or in some mythical, distant and never-realized point in the future when science and society finally amend away the bad habits that prevent a utopian existence. The secret, he thinks -- and I agree -- is that those bad habits, and the good ones, ARE us. Always looking to the future prevents us from living fully here and now. Better to understand who we are than to dream impotently about who we could or should be.
A side note: for someone who so ably and vigorously denies the existence of meaning outside of our own existence, his use of and reliance on literature stretching back to early Greek philosophers creates a sort of enveloping sense of meaning that exists outside of and above our own miserable, glorious meaningless lives -- art.
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This book is what gives higher education its general derogatory, as in over –valued/bloated...Read more