John Gray – A Modern Prophet?
John Gray is a fearsome writer of formidable intellect. Just like a modern day prophet what he says is often gripping and unnerving. His latest book, The Silence of Animals, is typical.
This book is an extended meditation on the fallibility, if not gullibility, of the human search for meaning and redemption. What makes us a tragic species, and sets humans apart from other animals, is ‘the clamour in their minds’. Whereas the rest of the animal kingdom gets on with its life in silence this will not do for humans.
Curiously, the oldest piece of literature we possess – the Enumah Elish, written in Sumerian cuneiform – has the chief god, Enlil, complaining of the noise humans are making, which prompts him to plot their extermination with a great flood.
In a chapter entitled, ‘A Visit to the British Museum’ Gray stands among the images of gods and ways of life that have long since ceased to exist, relics which now exude a doomed poignancy for “there can be few who perceived that the gods were themselves human artefacts.” As a result of this changed perception humans are now on their own. But they still crave redemption! Perceptively, Gray writes, “Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves, other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming.”
The predicament for humans is that they have to know things, they cannot endure the brute silence of nature from whence they have come. In order to understand itself the human animal resorts to myths which are integral to being human: life without myth is like life without sex, “insipid and inhuman”. They allow us to locate ourselves within nature. In this sense both science and myth are ways of dealing with the chaos of sensation. In fact for Gray science is a form of modern mythological explanation of everything: “science and myth are alike in being makeshifts that humans erect as shelters from a world they cannot know.”
The opening sections of the book subjects our dependence on myths to savage scrutiny. In modern times this need has expressed itself in the tyranny of murderous ideologies which have claimed legitimacy through a sense of historical inevitability. For Gray such thinking is but an expression of an older form of thinking that emerged in Hebrew literature (the Bible) culminating in Christianity: “By creating the expectation of a radical alternation in human affairs, Christianity – the religion that St. Paul invented from Jesus’s life and sayings – founded the modern world.”
Gray presents his case through a series reflections on literary fragments from a range of writers such as Conrad, Kostler, Orwell, Borges and many others not so well known. He skewers popular illusions – none more so than the Liberal belief in progress – and ultimately discards the entire Western tradition of philosophy, reaching back to Socrates, with its ideas of a perfect spiritual reality. Instead, Gray takes us to a godless mysticism which does not attempt to dissolve inner conflict nor to change the world, “but simply let it be.”
So is this book a council of despair? Gray is advocating that we get beyond our attachment to belief – “the chief weakness of the Western mind” – and accept, with Wallace Stevens, that as we need to believe in something, “The final belief is to believe in a fiction…there being nothing else.” Fictions are not falsehoods, but things we create; that give pleasure. Creations of the imagination are neither true nor false – such as a piece of music, a picture or a poem: they can transform our lives for the better.
As Stevens wrote in the poem ‘Of Mere being’: “at the end of the mind,/Beyond the last thought…/The bird sings. Its feathers shine.” By accepting that the world is without meaning we are liberated from the meanings we have made. We can then begin to share, and understand, the silent contentment of the animals.