Straw Dogs – John Gray

28 January 2014
Foreword and 1 – The Human
First published in 2002, this series of linked essays feels less contentious now than it must have seemed then. The foreword to the paperback edition is a kind of reply to those critics who found Gray’s assertions too problematic to be acceptable on its first publication. But as far as I’m concerned he’s pushing at an open door. Perhaps, in the decade or more since it was published, books like Gray’s have moved things on. Whereas in 2002 it might have been controversial to assert the fundamental incorrigibility of the human race, now, in the circles I move in, it’s a given.

The names cited most frequently both in the foreword and the first section are Charles Darwin and James Lovelock. Gray’s main point in connection with the former is that modern ‘humanist’ thought – I’ll come back to his use of what he calls humanism – takes on board all of Darwin’s findings except one: we – he is talking about all of us – can’t bear the idea that we are as circumscribed by our genetic evolution as every other creature. We can’t help believing that, unlike every other organism on the planet, we can think our way out of the messes we’ve caused. As for Lovelock… Gray uses his Gaia hypothesis, first posited in the 1970s, as a central metaphor of how things really are. We aren’t the possible saviours of the world, we’re a species that has become a contagion on the face of the earth.

As I said, this is all pushing at an open door as far as I’m concerned, so quite a lot of ‘The Human’ feels rather repetitive. The main thread is that in a post-religious world the idea of scientific progress has replaced religious belief as the accepted, consensual view. But according to Gray, this ‘humanist’ idea is based on the religious, human-centred world-view it is supposed to have ousted. Ever more frequent new discoveries and technological advances make it easy to believe in progress, but it is a chimera. They are not the same thing at all because, as he seeks to demonstrate, technological advances always lead to more efficient ways of waging war and lead to our ever-faster ruination of the world.

But just because I’m on Gray’s side doesn’t mean there’s nothing unproblematic about this book. It’s written in bite-sized pieces that Gray suggests ‘might be dipped into at will’. That’s ok… but sometimes he suggests that a case is proven after what is little more than a few contentious sentences. Socrates’ interior ‘voices’ put him in a shamanistic tradition, and Socrates led to Plato, who led to Christianity. So the founders of rationalism and the founders of religion aren’t so far from the animism that pre-dates them all…. Well, maybe. What I suppose Gray is doing is throwing contentious ideas into the mix, and we aren’t supposed to take his assertions as proofs at all…

…which is a possibility that is supported by his use of emotive language to harden his case. Sometimes he is happy to use ready-made concepts like Lovelock’s mock-scientific categorisation of mankind as ‘disseminated primatemaia’. He gives us Lovelock’s list of possible future scenarios for the human race and, finally, plumps for one of them: after reaching a tipping-point that might be cataclysmic, the population will eventually stabilise at around half a billion. But Gray goes further, coining a different mock-scientific name, homo rapiens. He has already slipped the word ‘rapacious’ into the mix, to soften us up for this. But he hasn’t proven the case that mankind really is rapacious. He seems to be doing what he criticises in others, ascribing characteristics to a species based on outcomes which, mostly, come about because intelligent primates seek the easiest way to achieve a comfortable life. I see damage of the world in the same way that I see the self-damage arising from obesity: ‘humans’, as Gray likes to call us, go for the easy option. It doesn’t make us ravening beasts.

In other words, this book is written to be controversial and to raise hackles. That’s ok. But not every reader is likely to be such a pushover as I am.

29 January
2 – The Deception
Is this book becoming annoying? Yes. It’s to do with Gray’s not-quite staccato delivery of his contentious aperçus – you can see why he suggested that readers might like to dip into it rather than read it straight through – but it’s also to do with the ‘I know more than most people’ tone. The ‘deception’ of this section’s title is, basically, the self-deception at the centre of, as far as I can tell, the life of every person on the planet. Except one, of course. But I won’t say another word about either of these little affectations, honest. (Although, according to Gray and the neurological researchers he likes to quote, I won’t actually have much choice about it. So don’t blame me if it happens.)

In the first four or five mini-chapters of this section, Gray takes us on a jog to the main tourist destinations of 18th-20th Century philosophical thought in order to show – guess. Kant? Wrong. Schopenhauer? Not quite as wrong as Kant, but still wrong. And so on. They are all guilty, of course, of the age-old error of placing mankind at the centre of everything, even those who pretend not to. He starts with Schopenhauer’s joke about Kant eyeing up a woman at a masked ball – and the woman turns out to be his wife. It’s a metaphor of Kant’s inability to get away from Christianity despite his best efforts, and it serves as Gray’s own metaphor for the ‘deception’ from now on. Schopenhauer is, at least, able to avoid this trap, by substituting ‘Will’ for what he recognises as the illusion of free will. Will is the urge simply to live, and accounts for what appears to be a kind of collective unconscious. (His ideas influenced Tolstoy, among others, which goes some way towards explaining why, in War and Peace, he always insists that the idea of the ‘great man’ driving history forward is an illusion.)

Who next? Nietzsche. (Sigh.) He might have gone mad eventually, but before that he never gave up his core belief in Christianity and the significance of human history. Idiot. Next, Heidegger. ‘Like Nietzsche, [he] was a postmonotheist – an unbeliever who could not give up Christian hopes.’ All his new categories of thought, according to Gray, derive directly from Christian ideas and he ‘showed no interest in traditions in which the human subject is not central.’ Fool. Anybody else? How about Wittgenstein? He might develop his ideas ‘with power and subtlety’, but they still depend on Idealism founded on the centrality of human perception. Buffoon.

Gray dispatches the ideas of these men in only a few pages each, and then changes gear. He turns his cold eye on what we all know about: human consciousness. If there’s one thing we can all be sure of, it’s – guess, again. Actually, you don’t need to guess, because if you were paying attention to the research in the 1990s, you’ll know all about the doubts being cast on this feature of humanity that marks us as separate from all the animals. It does no such thing, obviously, as Gray gleefully demonstrates, because a) animals are clearly as conscious as we are, b) the kind of workaday consciousness needed for most things in our life can be reproduced in machines and c) our image of a central, control-wielding ‘homunculus’ is entirely illusory. Our brain activity is a rag-bag of essentially independent functions that shows no more unity than a colony of ants. (In a mini-chapter called ‘Lord Jim’s jump’ he uses the crucial incident in Conrad’s novel to illustrate the impossibility of making so-called ‘conscious’ decisions. Our brains get there before we do – as if ‘we’ even existed.)

Did I know this? Yes. I remember reading Daniel C Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (the title is a misnomer, by the way) and Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works in the 1990s, and Gray covers the same sort of ground. But that’s ok, because he adds something else to the mix: the growing recognition that Western neuroscience has a lot in common with some Eastern philosophies. Not all, obviously – Buddhism is as fixated on the individual as the rest of us – but some. If you feel a need to get in touch with your mystical side, have a look at the Chuang-Tzu and you’ll not go far wrong. ‘There is no self and no awakening from the dream of self.’ Alleluia.

30 January
3 – The vices of morality
‘Humans are weapon-making animals with an unquenchable fondness for killing.’ (Mini-chapter 3) You don’t like this idea? Even after Gray has told you all about a fictional porcelain collector who doesn’t mind who is in power so long as he can feed his collecting habit, and a non-fictional concentration camp prisoner (citation provided) who, when faced with a choice, lets another prisoner die in his place (mini-chapter 1)? Even after being reminded of the indigenous Tasmanians and the other 35 genocides perpetrated by humanity between 1492 and 1990 (mini-chapter 3)? What’s the matter with you?

The first five mini-chapters are all like this. He offers example after example of human cruelty and, as he does so, he unknowingly fixes his own writing in its historical context. The example he cites of the lynching of a pregnant woman in Georgia had received a lot of publicity in the late 1990s, because that was when the consensus amongst liberals had reached a point when it became possible for such atrocities to be publicised in the same graphic detail that Gray goes in for. (Literary novels at around this time also became much more graphic in their presentation of violence.) He’s part of the Zeitgeist – which, I suppose, is why I disagree with so little in the book. He quotes from the account of another concentration camp victim, testimony Gray presents as incontrovertible that in times of terrible suffering and deprivation there is simply no room for what we think of as morality. It’s a short step from this to the next assertion, that morality as it is thought of in the west is a contingent thing, dependent on what is culturally acceptable at the time. I’m ok with this sort of relativism, up to a point. Gray cites homophobia as an attitude that was perfectly acceptable among supposedly right-thinking people only a few decades ago…

…but, of course, he goes much further than this. By way of some half-baked thoughts on the true nature of tragedy – in ancient times it had everything to do with fate and nothing to do with moral choices, so don’t look for answers to moral questions within it, he advises – morality as we think of it in the West is a figment of our collective imagination. He does that Socrates-Plato-Christianity thing again, suggesting that Socrates’ original thoughts, upon which our modern concept of morality is based, might well have been satirical.

Again, it’s ancient Eastern philosophy that has it right, and again he cites the Chuang-Tzu and related texts. Morality shouldn’t be an internal wrestling match between our desires and what we ‘know’ is right, an endless battle with moral choices that are of our own making. (You should just hear our man go on about so-called choices.) Our behaviour should be based on what are essentially animal virtues. Do animals endlessly wrestle with their consciences? No. Do they indulge in genocide? No. What they do is what is right in the moment for their own survival, ‘without intention’. Time for some advice from the East, I think: ‘I enter with the inflow, emerge with the outflow, follow the Way of the water, and do not impose my selfishness upon it. This is how I stay afloat….’

Again, I’m ok with this up to a point. But, somehow, Gray’s men – they are all men – whether he is on their side or not, seem to be making pronouncements at a personal rather than a social level, in what feels like a vacuum. He doesn’t have advice about particular situations, the kinds of dilemmas faced by people all the time. ‘What should I do?’ is often a very genuine question, and going with some kind of flow that will show the Way (note the capital letter) isn’t necessarily going to lead to the best outcome. ‘The Way’ is a metaphor, and it can only be a metaphor for something within us, or that society has inculcated. Otherwise… what? An army of sociopaths, all doing what feels right to them, but might not be helpful to others? Or is there some inbuilt sense of community that would prevent such a thing? As if.

By the end of this section Gray writes as though he has proven his case. ‘Morality is a sickness peculiar to humans, the good life [i.e. the Way] is a refinement of the virtues of animals. Arising from our animal natures, ethics needs no grounds.’ I just wonder how this would have helped the indigenous Tasmanians, or the pregnant Black woman in Georgia. I can appreciate why he considers the history of Western moral philosophy to be moribund, but I think he needs to take on board the social nature of the Middle Eastern religions. At their best they sought to offer guidance about how we might live without killing one another and ripping each other off. What does the Way have to say about these things? Gray doesn’t tell us – because, presumably, if we follow the Way we’ll just know.

30 January
4 – The Unsaved
(Sigh.) In ‘The Deception’ Gray had it in for the post-Enlightenment philosophers. Now he has it for the founders of religion and the salvation they say they can offer. I’m not sure why he’s bothering, because he must know that none of the readers who have made it this far have any time for organised religion anyway. What was I saying about pushing at an open door?

But anyway. Gray uses the Buddha as an archetype of ‘would-be deliverers’. They offer human beings salvation from what they, the saviours, tell them they need saving from. With the Buddha, as Gray clarifies later on, it’s the eternal toil of seeking a salvation that will only come by living right. With Jesus Christ it’s sin. In other words, they set up hoop for humanity to jump through, but who needs them? ‘Average humanity takes its saviours too lightly to need saving from them.’ (As so often, Gray seems to be referring fairly specifically to ‘average humanity’ in his own neck of the woods, possibly North London. I’m guessing.) Later in the section Gray has a go at atheists – ‘the last consequence of Christianity’ as they engage with the concept of God in order to reject it – but, so far, he is only saying what the average 21st Century atheist takes for granted.

This isn’t the last time that Gray fights battles which, for most secular Westerners, were won long ago. He tells the story from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in which Christ returns and the Grand Inquisitor rejects him. The Church has sorted out what people need: ‘miracle, mystery and authority’. Of course, Gray intones wisely, the Inquisitor has got it wrong as well. He isn’t helping mankind, but exercising power because, ‘like those who served the church in the past, its servants are all too human.’ (Gray seems to have forgotten that the Inquisitor is a character in a satire on the clergy. His oleaginous tones conceal a self-serving purpose, whatever he might say. In other words, he hasn’t got it wrong at all; he’s spouting the standard hypocrisy we would expect.)

Next. What about polytheism? A good thing, Gray suggests, for its rejection of the single, all-deciding God. Atheism we know about. And, via a quick diversion to celebrate the playful, amoral gods of the Homeric epics, we’re back with the Buddha. This is where Gray explains the absurdity of Buddhism, in which deliverance is offered from the thing invented by the religion itself, the eternal death and re-birth of the soul. Who needs it, when we can be like ’Dying Animals’, the title of mini-chapter 7? And not at all like Krishnamurti, the subject of mini-chapter 8, whose ‘self-deception’ was to advocate a rejection of man’s animal nature and seek a higher consciousness, whilst spending his free time seeking ‘secret sexual relationships’. Silly old Krishnamurti.

There are more diversions – Gudjieff, Stanislavski, and the fictional fascists in a forgotten wartime novel – before we get to the seekers of immortality through science. Most of the ideas Gray deals with in this thread have already found their way into science fiction. But the search for a different kind of consciousness through science, as originated by the 19th Century Russian Nikolai Federov, is based on the same old ‘ancient error’. Humanity, still, is the ‘chosen species, destined to conquer the Earth and mortality.’ And so on. Gray alleges that most Soviet policy derived from ‘Federovian’ concepts, and maybe they did. But soon he is on safer, more familiar ground. The folly of cryogenics, even if the science were sound, is that it depends on a society like our own surviving into the far future – something which, Gray is confident of having established beyond dispute, never happens.

And we’re into the ‘Artificial Paradises’ (mini-chapter 12) of mind-affecting drugs and virtual reality. Societies hate drugs because their use ‘is a tacit admission of a forbidden truth, [that] for most people, happiness is beyond reach.’ The war on drugs is a war against this truth, because societies are based on ‘a faith in progress [and] cannot admit… normal unhappiness.’ Doesn’t Gray just love truths like this, that he holds some kind of key to? As for how much truth they actually contain… I couldn’t possibly comment.

Gray’s other ‘artificial paradise’ is virtual reality, and the ground he covers has been so well trodden in science fiction it’s hard to detect anything new. Gray’s own starting-point is the fictional hero of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and he takes us on a stroll around the idea of leaving the body for a different place. As you might expect, he links Gibson’s cyberspace to the way that shamanistic out-of-body experiences seek to leave the physical body behind, and he also takes in the forgotten ‘Extropians’ – where does he find these people? – who imagined that the body could be cast off entirely. (He contrasts Jesus, who ‘promised a resurrection of the body, not… disembodied consciousness.’ It might account for the tiresome materialism of pre-Reformation Christianity.)

He finally comes clean: ‘The disorienting effects of virtual reality have been explored by a number of writers and film-makers…’ (mini-chapter 14). You bet. So what’s a guru to do? He takes in some of the neatest ideas, including the ‘Phantomat’, a kind of technological lucid dream in which the consciousness can experience whatever it wants. It sounds wonderful but, Gray intones in that way of his, ‘No technology can create a world that matches human desires.’ You just can’t create the algorithms… so, having killed off all the other species, we’ll be stuck with an inadequate reality of our own making. We’d be better off, in terms of the quality of experience – and I’m not making this up – visiting a zoo while we still have the chance. As if that’s going to happen. And when we’re all extinct, ‘the Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.’

Yes, John, we get it.

31 January
5 – Non-Progress
What John Gray really likes is a seer, a prophet. It goes some way towards explaining why he writes as though he is seer himself: he identifies with them. Like them, he can see what is going on beneath the flashy, alluring surface of our lives. Like them, he makes declarations that brook no argument. Like them, he is male: he doesn’t cite the work of a single woman in a book in which he quotes from at least one man on most pages. He cites their words, and makes his own pronouncements as though, cumulatively, they amount to an incontrovertible case. It’s a style I’ve found more and more tiresome as the book goes on.

But anyway. What self-deceptions are left for our tame Tiresias to rail against? He doesn’t deny progress – we don’t have to endure the toothache that De Quincey pronounced formed 25% of human suffering – but humanity went wrong when it gave up hunter-gathering in favour of agriculture. It had probably run out of creatures to hunt, as Gray happily admits, but that doesn’t stop him imagining a contented pre-Neolithic life. He cites ‘Arctic and Kalahari’ hunters, and earlier he has cited the leisurely existence of the now almost disappeared pygmies of Africa. We were fools to give up that life, because we’ve been on a treadmill ever since.

Next. Industrialisation created a working class that post-industrialisation is rendering obsolete. He writes as though all manufacturing has been exported to the developing world as he imagines and economy based on ‘psychotherapists [etc.]… drugs and sex.’ This is the dystopian vision of a J G Ballard, a writer Gray likes to cite as having got it more or less exactly right. We’re in the realm of the biggest social issues imaginable, as ‘social democracy has been replaced by an oligarchy of the rich as part of the price of peace.’ And we’re into a world, with Ballard as our guide, of ‘a billion balconies facing the sun.’ But in 2002, Gray was prescient about the way digital technologies fill the boredom gap.

But Gray is on the lookout for diversions of his own. I can think of no other reason why he might choose to resurrect the memory of the Situationists, a cult based on the idea that capitalism was simply unnecessary, or of Anton Mesmer, whose main function in the book appears to be to allow Gray to joke that markets are governed by such forces that Mesmer and his followers ‘would be better guides to the new economy than Hayek or Keynes.’ Maybe Gray had promised a certain number of words, and any old crackpot will do.

‘Memories in Stones’ – someone else’s idea, again – has it that, for the first time in history, cities are now more ephemeral than the people in them. (Where does he get this nonsense?) ‘The Myth of Modernisation’ speaks for itself. In ‘Al Qaeda’ he plays about with the idea of modernity a bit more. ‘The Lesson of Japan’… isn’t really a lesson at all, more a description of how Japan’s 300-year isolation didn’t prepare it for a modernity it still, in a weird way of Gray’s devising, has not caught up with. Contrast Russia, which in its ’anarcho-capitalism’ is ahead of the West. ‘Future War’ and ‘War as Play’: you ain’t seen nothing yet, as we ‘may well look back on the 20th Century as a time of peace.’ The idea of war has become a branch of the entertainment industry, a more extreme form of the release from tedium that can be found in those ‘prophylactics against the loss of desire’ that are a feature of so much of our leisure time. ‘As for real war, that is like smoking, a habit of the poor.’ It’s fashionably cynical, like so much of what he writes.

Nearly there now. Gray allows us to imagine a utopia of co-operative humans… but it isn’t going to happen, not with homo rapiens in charge. (I wonder why, after all that’s gone before, Gray needs two pages to say this,) And then there are a couple of mini-chapters on the well-worn idea – one that Gray buys into gleefully – that humans are only a stage in evolution. He makes no attempt to find fault with those prophets who can envisage a future in which machines are in the ascendancy and we are their servants. ‘As machines evolve they will come – in a way that pre-dates Christianity – to have souls.’ I love that little parenthesis. Gray is telling us that we won’t catch him thinking in post-Christian terms like everybody else, no sirree Bob.

1 February
6 – As It Is
Is that title definitive enough for you? It has the ring of Beethoven’s ‘Es Muss Sein’ in that late quartet of his… but, in fact, there’s a note of questioning hesitancy. Of technology he asks, ‘Can we play along with it without labouring to master it?’ Of the unnecessary searching for a purpose in life: ‘Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?’ Maybe the title of this final short section should have been ‘Isn’t this as it is?’

Maybe. But Gray is as assertive as usual in most of these six pages. A life of action? Evading the issue, seeking ‘consolations’ through keeping busy. A life of work? Slavery. And then, in a quotation from George Santayana, he offers for the first time – this is only a little over a page from the end – a vision of a non-striving society that might actually work. Santayana first takes it as a given that even for animals there is a social principle ‘by which to distinguish good from evil.’ (Let’s not worry for now that Gray has previously been happy to cite Bernard de Mandeville, who had no such faith in humanity.) Santayana continues: ‘Self-knowledge, with a little experience of the world, will then easily set up the Socratic standard of values natural to any man or to any society.’

There are caveats: this depends on the society’s ‘intelligence’ and its ‘vitality’ – its ability to fight for its principles. And, I suppose, there’s the rub. But let’s not worry about the rub for now. Let’s go along with Gray’s happy vision of a possible life in which ‘immortal longings’ and ‘incessant activity’ are seen for what they are, and in which contemplation is ‘a willing surrender to never-returning moments.’ I suppose this is what he means by ‘as it is.’ Not as it should be, or as we would like it to be, but as things really are.


2 Responses to Straw Dogs – John Gray

  1. Brett says:

    Very interesting. Thank you for the summary! I’ve been looking for a website like this that gives me a relatively in-depth overview of books like this.

  2. The parts about technology never curing the flaws of human nature are very accurate.

    A good example is the proliferation of climate-futile, countryside-destroying wind turbines as “green.” It’s the same old story of greed and avarice with politically correct branding now. Most people just want to make money and concoct excuses for it as nature gets ransacked.

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