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Reviewed: The Silence of Animals by John Gray

John Gray’s reckoning with our divided nature.

The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths
John Gray
Allen Lane, 240pp, £18.99

The first book by John Gray I read was his study of the thought of Isaiah Berlin, published in 1995. Reading it had a profound effect on my thinking about morality but I suspect that writing it had an even more profound effect on Gray and may have been a significant turning point in his philosophy.

Gray is one of the most controversial writers in Britain today. He has legions of ad - mirers and not a few detractors, but it is the complexion of his detractors that tells us most about him. Though he despises the lazy assumptions behind the labels we pin on each other, he would probably let the label “atheist” be fixed to his lapel if he had to make a choice; but he is an atheist who despises the evangelical zeal of the “new atheism” and has sympathy for the old religion it is trying to supplant. I’ll come back to that later in this review but let me return for a moment to Berlin and his influence on Gray.

What I got from Gray’s book on Berlin was a sense of the tragic and intractable nature of the human condition. Gray writes that the first implication of Berlin’s perspective is a rejection of any idea of a perfect society or a perfect human life. Its second implication is that a developed morality cannot have a settled hierarchical structure that solves our dilemmas by telling us how to act. In political and moral life, we are engaged in endless trade-offs between conflicting goods and evils and there is no infallible system against which we can measure these values against each other. That is why we often arrive at situations in which more deliberation will take us no further and we have no choice but to act.

As Denis Healey reminded us, though we never reach conclusions in politics we have to make decisions. The way I like to describe this approach to life is as a kind of flowing improvisation or existential jazz in which we constantly adapt to new circumstances in order to keep the music going. It is possible to understand the operations of natural evolution in this way and Gray believes that other animals are better performers than we are because they don’t get stuck on fixed scripts the way we do.

If Berlin’s insight into the irreconcilable ambitions of humanity helped to form Gray’s philosophy and make him one of the most probing and unclassifiable political scientists of our time, the other turn in his thinking was an increasing respect for non-human animals – a shift heralded in his great book of 2002, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. This new book is best understood as a sequel to that earlier work.

The central issue in both books is the struggle the human animal has with its hybrid nature. Quoting the founder of psychoanalysis, Gray writes that without surrendering the resolute nature of his atheism, Freud reformulated one of the central insights of religion, which is that: “Humans are cracked vessels . . . Along with every serious philosophy and religion, Freud accepted that humans are sickly animals. Where he was original was in also accepting that the human sickness has no cure.”

While religion views humans as special creations endowed by God with freedom of will –unlike the other animals that are driven by the impersonal force of instinct – the modern way of explaining the divided nature of human beings is to see it as a struggle between their evolved, rational consciousness and the turbulent residue of their animal past. Though different, both interpretations offer a not dissimilar diagnosis of our disease: the pull of our animal nature against our distinctive rationality.

Gray reverses that diagnosis and claims that the cause of our sickness lies not in our animal nature but in our attempts to deny it. In Straw Dogs, he identified this as the cardinal error of Christianity but he pointed out that the original mistake was made by Plato, one of Christianity’s early predecessors. He went on to suggest that Plato and Christianity were merely the instruments of a force that had captured humans centuries before when they invented writing.

Gray argues that it is not consciousness or language that distinguishes us from other animals. They are conscious, too, and they communicate with each other in subtle and complex ways that we are only just beginning to understand. No, the invention of writing was humanity’s real fall and the beginning of the knowledge of good and evil:

From its humble beginnings as a means of stocktaking and tallying debts, writing gave humans the power to preserve their thoughts and experiences from time. At the same time it has allowed them to invent a world of abstract entities and mistake them for reality. The development of writing has enabled them to construct philosophies in which they  no longer belong in the natural world.

That, according to Gray, was the beginning of all our woe. We invented abstractions that destroyed our peace by persuading us that we do not belong to this world. The great monotheistic religions were the original instruments of this illusion but he believes that the atheist secularism that claims to be supplanting them has fallen for the same illusion. This is where we come to the core of his attack on secular humanism.

Our capacity for language has prompted us to create myths that express the riddle of our existence. Myths are works of art and, like all true art, they are their own meaning. While myth cannot rescue us from our predicament, it does transubstantiate it into language – and that is a huge achieve -ment. I agree with Gray that language is our greatest danger because its hypnotic abstractions can drive us mad but I also believe it is our greatest invention because through it we can have communion with other troubled souls.

Artists are better at creating this than theologians and philosophers, which is why it is no accident that Gray’s new book is filled with poetry and the meditations of creative thinkers. Margaret Drabble said of Philip Larkin that he reconciles us to our ills by the scrupulous way in which he notices them. That is what all great art does, including myth: it inscribes our confusions and longings in forms we can all identify with. Like a great novelist, it presents the human condition before us and we say, “Yes, that is it; that is the way we are; that is our condition.” And we are strengthened to endure our sorrows more bravely or to enjoy our pleasures more gratefully.

Religion claims to do more than this. It turns honest fictions into dishonest facts and thereby renders them unusable by those of us who value them as art, not as science. Yet an interesting shift in the use of religion is happening in our time. Some of us have decided neither to abandon religion nor to allow its clerical interpreters to dictate its meaning to us. We are talking about stories here and humanity lives and dies by its stories.

The atheist Gray wants us to reclaim the stories we have told ourselves and to understand their true nature. What angers him is that today’s secularists refuse to acknowledge that they also live by their myths. The secular myth he most despises is the idea of progress and the belief that by purging ourselves of religion and committing ourselves to optimistic rationality, we will rescue ourselves from tragedy. Gray thinks this humanistic eschatology is more dangerous than its religious counterpart:

In comparison with the Genesis myth, the modern myth in which humanity is marching to a better future is mere superstition. As the Genesis story teaches, knowledge cannot save us from ourselves. If we know more than before, it means only that we have greater scope to enact our madness. But – as the Genesis myth also teaches – there is no way we can rid ourselves of what we know . . . The message of Genesis is that in the most vital areas of human life there can be no progress, only an unending struggle with our nature.

Gray believes that humanity’s obsessive search for a cure for its own ills is its most dangerous disease. Here, he both commends and condemns the religious approach to the problem. He commends it because, unlike the optimistic humanism of the new atheists, it understands the incurable sickness of the human soul and has been rich in stories that express it. Where he departs from religion is in its myth of supernatural rescue and salvation. Realistic in its assessment of the human condition as fallen and self-obsessed, Christianity pulls a metaphysical rabbit out of the hat by promising that, while we are unable to save ourselves, there is one who will rescue us from the bondage of our own nature and deliver us into a state of eternal bliss.

While Gray believes that life can be lived well without such metaphysical comfort, the gentle side of him has sympathy for those who find consolation in these myths of final redemption. The real illusion that Gray is trying to overthrow, in both Straw Dogs and The Silence of Animals, is what philosophers call “teleology”, which is the belief that there is a purpose to life that can be discovered by thought or mediated by revelation. In our determined pursuit of both religious and secular versions of this grand illusion, we have tortured and destroyed each other in unimaginable numbers throughout our history.

In the cause of our version of the purpose of life, we have destroyed the actual lives of countless human beings – 60 million in the Soviet Union alone between 1917 and 1959. Purpose and progress are killing us, writes Gray; why can’t we, like the other animals, just settle for life as it is?

Yet in this book, a new note has entered his writing. To his prophetic contempt for those who destroy others in the name of their theories has been added a lyrical new theme he calls “godless mysticism”, through which he calls us to an attitude of contem - plative gratitude for the only life we will ever have.

He writes: “Godless mysticism cannot escape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being. There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.”

Though there are lots of poems in this book, an important one is missing: Norman MacCaig’s “A Man I Agreed With”. I’m sure John Gray would like it.

He knew better than to admire a chair and say What does it mean?

He loved everything that accepted the unfailing hospitality of his five senses. He would say Hello, caterpillar or So long, Loch Fewin.

He wanted to know how they came to be what they are: But he never insulted them by saying Caterpillar, Loch Fewin, what do you mean?

In this respect he was like God, though he was godless – He knew the difference between What does it mean to me? and What does it mean?

That’s why he said, half smiling, Of course, God, like me, is an atheist.

Richard Holloway’s most recent book is “Leaving Alexandria: a Memoir of Faith and Doubt” (Canongate, £17.99)

Richard Holloway is a Scottish writer and broadcaster and was formerly Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis