Book review: The Silence Of Animals by John Gray

ALTHOUGH it is billed as the sequel to Straw Dogs, John Gray’s 2002 “break-out” work of philosophy and a trenchant critique of the presuppositions of liberal humanism, The Silence Of Animals is as much a continuation of his thought as it is displayed in Black Mass, Heresies and the revised ­edition of False Dawn.

The Silence Of Animals by John Gray

Allen Lane, £18.99

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Here, as in those works, Gray is deeply sceptical of any rhetoric about human pro­gress, whether it comes in the form of communist Utopia, capitalist “End of History”, science edging inexorably towards its Theory of Everything or the religious trudging ­hopefully or hopelessly towards Apocalypse or the New Jerusalem.

The Silence Of Animals is not philosophy in the traditional Anglo-Saxon sense; rather, it is a series of readings of passages from writers as diverse as Conrad, Borges and John Ashbery and thinkers such as Freud and Fritz Mauthner.

Quoting Alexander Herzen at the beginning gives Gray’s problem with humanism in brief; in the quotation one character mocks Rousseau’s famous phrase “man is born to be free and is everywhere in chains” by ­rephrasing it as “fish are born to fly but everywhere they swim”.

Gray is with Kant in his belief that from the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing may be made. But for Kant there was a divine shaper to solve this; no such metaphysical master-builder is offered by Gray. Yet this leads to some of the most provocative parts of the book. “Atheism and humanism,” he writes, “may also seem to be conjoined when in fact they are at odds… the decline of religion has only stiffened the hold of faith on the mind.” Setting himself against Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists, Gray offers instead an even more unsettling proposition; that a true atheism would question secular nostrums.

Although in previous books Gray has seemed profoundly ill at ease with the concept of narrative – a deliberate, fallacious teleological shaping of inchoate events – in this book he rehabilitates the idea of fictions, especially myths, in providing us meaning-making animals with a way to exercise our need for structure but unyoked from the agenda of progress or human triumphalism. As such, he sees the poet Wallace Stevens’ idea of the “Supreme Fiction” as an aspirational stance.

If one accepts Gray’s view of both humanity and history, it is difficult to factor out from it a moral philosophy that would not be partial, contingent or emotionalist. (It would be astonishing to see Gray debate ethics against, say, Alasdair MacIntyre).

The final section of the book goes some way towards redressing this, offering case studies based on JA Baker’s The Peregrine, Llewellyn Powys, Simenon and Robinson Jeffers. Increasingly, there is a vein of negative mysticism in Gray’s work (he cites Eckhart with something approaching approval). There are quibbles one might raise: Gray dismisses Heidegger on animals saying “this dreary old story is best forgotten. Every sentient creature is a world-maker”. But what counts as sentience here? If the dog and the cat, why not the nematode and the bacteria? The dismissal raises more questions than it solves.

From an fascinating archaeology into the origins of ­Orwell’s “2 + 2 = 5” to a wonderful cadenza on Imagist poems, this is a gallimaufry of insights. Some readers may prefer more sustained arguments, but few would fail to be beguiled by the misanthropic gleefulness of this. «