Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Gray: The Silence of Animals

John Gray (2013) The Silence of Animals, On Progress and Other Modern Myths Allen Lane, London; 240 pp.; ISBN 978-1-84614450-9

This new book by John Gray is a meditation on how we deal with the world when our faith in progress and human betterment deserts us. It explores the theme through the prisms of literature, art, philosophy, and to a lesser extent, psychology rather than being a scientific or historical study. As with all of Gray’s work, it has some telling insights and observations, and ranges over a fascinating mix of the familiar and obscure to give depth and substance to his ideas.

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 canap├ęs 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.


  1. I admire you for reading such a challenging book. I used to read books like this but now I find it increasingly difficult to maintain concentration. I know of the writer and he has a very good reputation. I sometimes think I should stop book-blogging and settle down to some serious reading like this - you can't get through a book like this in three days can you.

  2. Tom, I certainly hope you don't give up book blogging! That would be a great loss - A Common Reader is one of my regular ports of call. While this was a challenging read, the fact that Gray approached it largely through literature made it engrossing - a bit like browsing through a forgotten library with an erudite companion. Still, I spent quite a while reflecting on the ideas before I was able to attempt the review.