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Book review: The Silence of Animals, by John Gray

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 4:46pm

The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths

by John Gray

Allen Lane

Every couple of years or so John Gray presents a new book in which he imparts to us many wise things we seem incapable of heeding.

He offers a negative dialectics that is wonderfully bracing if one is prepared to entertain it. "Accepting that the world is without meaning," he writes, "we are liberated from confinement in the meaning we have made. Knowing there is nothing of substance in our world may seem to rob that world of value. But this nothingness may be our most precious possession, since it opens to us the inexhaustible world that exists beyond ourselves."

For Gray, the so-called modern world has never managed to cast off the yoke of organised religion and its doctrine of means and ends. Most of us in the West imagine ourselves to be living in secularised societies, but the religious impetus towards the manufacture of meaning for human affairs underlies most of our assumptions about what we are, where we came from and where we are going. As Gray insists, we are going nowhere - and this is a good thing. The world is not a teleology; there is no grand end in view, just around the next revolutionary corner, just over the next mound of heaped-up corpses.

Gray has nothing against religion which he sees, rightly, as a poetic response to the world and our predicament in it. Like his friend and mentor Isaiah Berlin, Gray sets himself against all proponents of the grand idea - of progress, of perfectibility, of the right and only way to live.

The Silence of Animals is a new kind of book from Gray, a poetic reverie on the human state - on the state, that is, of the human animal, as observed by the author and others of a like and unlike mind. Much of the text is taken up with quotations from writers as varied as George Orwell and Georges Simenon, Wallace Stevens and Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Roth and Curzio Malaparte.

Gray's own, almost Nietzschean, gift for aphorism is in evidence: "If belief in human rationality were a scientific theory it would long since have been falsified and abandoned"; "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"; "Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science."

He blends lyricism with wisdom, humour with admonition, nay-saying with affirmation, making a marvellous statement of what it is to be both an animal and a human in the strange, terrifying and exquisite world into which we find ourselves thrown.

Guardian News & Media

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