Book review - John Gray’s Godless Mysticism: On "The Silence of Animals"

John Gray’s The Silence of Animals

reviewed by Simon Critchley

During the first years of the new millennium, a religious fervor energized the project of what we might call “military neoliberalism”: violence was the means for realizing liberal democratic heaven on earth...  human beings.. are killer apes who will always deploy violence, force, and terror in the name of some longed-for metaphysical project..

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. Counter to the upbeat progressivist evangelical atheism of the last decade, Gray provides a powerful argument in favor of human wickedness that’s still consistent with Darwinian naturalism. It leads to passive nihilism: an extremely tempting worldview, even if I think the temptation must ultimately be refused... The passive nihilist looks at the world with a highly cultivated detachment and finds it meaningless. Rather than trying to act in the world, which is pointless, the passive nihilist withdraws to a safe contemplative distance and cultivates his acute aesthetic sensibility by pursuing the pleasures of poetry, peregrine-watching, or perhaps botany, as was the case with the aged Rousseau... In a world that is rushing to destroy itself through capitalist exploitation or military crusades — two arms of the same Homo rapiens — the passive nihilist resigns himself to a small island where the mystery of existence can be seen for what it is without distilling it into a meaning. The passive nihilist learns to see, to strip away the deadening horror of habitual, human life and inhale the void that lies behind our words.
What will define the coming decades? I would wager the following: the political violence of faith, the certainty of environmental devastation, the decline of existing public institutions, ever-growing inequality, and yet more Simon Cowell TV shows. In the face of this horror, Gray offers a cool but safe temporary refuge...
What Gray says is undeniable: we are cracked vessels glued to ourselves in endless, narcissistic twittering. We are like moths wheeling around the one true flame: vanity. Who doesn’t long to escape into an animal silence? Of course, love is the name of the counter-movement to that longing. Love — erotic, limb-loosening and bittersweet — is another way of pointing outwards and upwards, but this time towards people and not places. But that, as they say, is another story.
HUMAN BEINGS DO NOT just make killer apps. We are killer apes. We are nasty, aggressive, violent, rapacious hominids, what John Gray calls in his widely read 2002 book, Straw Dogshomo rapiens. But wait, it gets worse. We are a killer species with a metaphysical longing, ceaselessly trying to find some meaning to life, which invariably drives us into the arms of religion. Today’s metaphysics is called “liberal humanism,” with a quasi-religious faith in progress, the power of reason and the perfectibility of humankind. The quintessential contemporary liberal humanists are those Obamaists, with their grotesque endless conversations about engagement in the world and their conviction that history has two sides, right and wrong, and they are naturally on the right side of it.

Gray’s most acute loathing is for the idea of progress, which has been his target in a number of books, and which is continued in the rather uneventful first 80 pages or so ofThe Silence of Animals. He allows that progress in the realm of science is a fact. (And also a good: as Thomas De Quincey remarked, a quarter of human misery results from toothache, so the discovery of anesthetic dentistry is a fine thing.) But faith in progress, Gray argues, is a superstition we should do without. He cites, among others, Conrad on colonialism in the Congo and Koestler on Soviet Communism (the Cold War continues to cast a long shadow over Gray’s writing) as evidence of the sheer perniciousness of a belief in progress. He contends, contra Descartes, that human irrationality is the thing most evenly shared in the world. To deny reality in order to sustain faith in a delusion is properly human. For Gray, the liberal humanist’s assurance in the reality of progress is a barely secularized version of the Christian belief in Providence.
With the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt in mind, Gray writes in Black Mass (2007): “Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion.” Politics has become a hideous surrogate for religious salvation, and secularism is itself a religious myth. In The Silence of Animals, he writes, “Unbelief today should begin by questioning not religion but secular faith.” What most disturbs Gray are utopian political projects based on some faith that concerted human action in the world can allow for the realization of seemingly impossible political ends and bring about the perfection of humanity. As he makes explicit in Black Mass, he derives his critique of utopianism from Norman Cohn’s 1957 book, The Pursuit of the Millennium. What Cohn implied but Gray loudly declares is that Western civilization can be defined in terms of the central role of millenarian thinking. Salvation is collective, terrestrial, imminent, total, and miraculous. What takes root with early Christian belief, and massively accelerates in medieval Europe, finds its modern continuation in a sequence of bloody utopian political projects, from Jacobinism to Bolshevism, Stalinism, Nazism, and different varieties of Marxist-Leninist, anarchist, or Situationist ideologies. They all promised to build heaven on earth and left us with hell instead.
In Black Mass, Gray persuasively attempted to show how the energy of such utopian political projects has drifted from the left to the right. Bush, Blair, and the rest framed the war on terror as an apocalyptic struggle that would forge the new American century of untrammeled personal freedom and free markets. During the first years of the new millennium, a religious fervor energized the project of what we might call “military neoliberalism”: violence was the means for realizing liberal democratic heaven on earth. The picture of a world at war where purportedly democratic regimes, like the USA, deploy terror in their alleged attempts to confront it is still very much with us, even if full-scale, classical military invasions have given way to the calculated cowardice of drone strikes and targeted assassinations.
Carl Schmitt’s critique of parliamentary democracy led him towards an argument for dictatorship. Where does Gray’s loathing of liberalism leave him? He identifies the poison in liberal humanism, but what’s the antidote? It is what Gray calls “political realism”: we have to accept, as many ancient societies did and many non-Western societies still do, that the world is in a state of ceaseless conflict. Periods of war are followed by periods of peace, only to be followed by war again. What goes around comes around. And around. History makes more sense as a cycle than as a line of development or even decline.
In the face of such ceaseless conflict, Gray counsels that we have to abandon the belief in utopia and accept the tragic contingencies of life: there are moral and political dilemmas for which there are simply no solutions. We have to learn to abandon pernicious daydreams such as a new cosmopolitan world order governed by universal human rights, or that history has a teleological, providential purpose that underwrites human action. We even have to renounce the Obamaesque (in essence, crypto-Comtian or crypto-Saint-Simonian) delusion that one’s life is a narrative that is an episode in some universal story of progress. It is not.
Against the grotesque distortion of conservatism into the millenarian military neoliberalism, Gray wants to defend the core belief of traditional Burkean Toryism. The latter begins in a realistic acceptance of human imperfection and frailty. As such, the best that flawed and potentially wicked human creatures can hope for is a commitment to civilized constraints that will prevent the very worst from happening: a politics of the least worst. Sadly, no one in political life seems prepared to present this argument, least of all those contemporary conservatives who have become more utopian than their cynical pragmatist left-liberal counterparts, such as the British Labor Party.
The most extreme expression of human arrogance, for Gray, is the idea that human beings can save the planet from environmental devastation. Because they are killer apes who will always deploy violence, force, and terror in the name of some longed-for metaphysical project, human beings cannot be trusted to save their environment. Furthermore — and this is an extraordinarily delicious twist — the earth doesn’t need saving. Here Gray borrows from James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. The ever-warming earth is suffering from disseminated primatemaia, a plague of people. Homo rapiens is savagely ravaging the planet like a filthy pest that has infested a once beautiful, well-appointed, and spacious house. In 1600, the human population was about half a billion. In the 1990s it increased by the same amount. And the acceleration continues. What Gray takes from the Gaia hypothesis is that this plague cannot be solved by the very people who are its cause. It can only be solved by a large-scale decline in human numbers back down to manageable levels. Let’s go back to 1600!
Such is the exhilaratingly anti-humanist, dystopian, indeed Ballardesque, vision of a drowned world at the heart of Gray’s work: when the earth is done with humans, it will recover and the blip of human civilization will be forgotten forever. Global warming is simply one of the periodic fevers that the earth has suffered during its long, nonhuman history. It will recover and carry on. But we cannot and will not.
Where does this leave us?.. read more:

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