Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

The Silence of Animals. John Gray. Not on Our Books of the Year List.

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The Silence of Animals. John Gray. Allen Lane. 2013.

“If a lion could speak we could not understand him” Wittgenstein tersely commented.

John Gray claims by contrast that, “if you turn outside yourself to the birds and animals and the quickly changing places where they live – you may hear something beyond words. Even humans can find silence if they can bring themselves to forget the silence they are looking for,”(Page 165) What cannot be spoken if of the greatest significance. Max Picard, in the World of Silence (1948), described the importance of these moments. About them does The Silence of Animals have anything to say?

This tract praises the birdspotter J A Baker, who preferred “deanthropmorphising himself” in the study of peregrine falcons of the fields near Chelmsford – places he described as ancient countryside – to human society. It ends with an appeal to “godless mysticism”. Does it merit any attention? Or should we be like the apes that appear in its pages, who pass life, and obviously books, blithely by?

That the Silence of Animals figures on Books of Year lists indicates an audience for interested in sallies against the “unique value” of human beings. We are treated (if that’s the word) to broadsides against the illusions of progress (the title of a pre-Great War book by the syndicalist contrarian Georges Sorel that Gray, otherwise the literary magpie, seems to have passed over). There are lurid references to the mass murders, totalitarian dictatorships and capitalist crises, of the twentieth century, and beyond.

In what could be described as an extended exercise in logorrhoea, (a polite way of describing verbal incontinence),  the progressive claims of humanity, “highly civilised apes”, are torn to shreds. Progress, we learn is a legacy of Christianity, “a Socratic myth of reason and Christian myth of salvation,”(Page 80) Science shows that this is false, “Human knowledge increases, while human irrationality stays the same.”(Ibid)

From the Enlightenment onwards humans are wedded to an explicit  faith in progress and the growth of liberty. History shows however shows repeated “mass killing, attacks on minorities, torture on a larger scale, another kind of tyranny, often more cruel than the one that was overthrown – these have been the results. To think of humans as freedom loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.”(Page 58)

Progress as Flying Fish.

Gray cites Alexander Herzen (1812 – 1870), the 19th century Russian romantic socialist. Herzen, in his darkest moments, criticised the belief in ‘humanity’ (Consalito Paris. 1849). He described as ‘ichthyophils’ people who think humans long to be free. There can be no  deduction of the “possibility of a better world” from our potentials. This ponderous term – a reference to a drawn out analogy with those who deduce the possible capacity for flight in all fish from the existence of flying fish, is employed to dam all reformers, all Enlightenment hopes, and all of the Left.

Every one of the believers in these ideas is “devoted to their species as they believe it ought to be even not as it actually is or as it truly wants to be. Ichthyophils come in many varieties – the Jacobin, Bolshevik and Maoist, terrorising humankind in order to remake it one a new model; the neo-conservative, waging perpetual war as a means to universal democracy; liberal crusaders for human rights, who are convinced that all the world longs to become as they imagine themselves to be.”(Page 60)

Humanity, in short (or at length), is “a fiction composed from billions of individuals for each of whom life is singular and final.”(Pages 6 – 7). Or, rather later, after much pondering, humanity is a selection of “fragments”, which are “as unknowable to humans”. “The settlements they have made for themselves can be as impenetrable as the deepest forests.”(Page 168) Yet, we inhabit this world of our own “fictions”.

Gray thinks then that we are creatures caged by our own myths. Unlike Georges Sorel (cited above) this gives no emancipatory quality to our innate mythic projections of the better future. They are the bars that contain us. And the ‘us’ are “cracked vessels”. We are Devils, not even worth the effort, as Kant advocated, of Taming to bring out our innate rationality.

Gray’s reflections lead from recognition of absolute finitude and meaningless back to something “beyond”. “Admitting that our lives are shaped by fictions may give a kind of freedom – possible the only kind that human beings can attain, Accepting that the world is without meaning, 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 world that exists beyond ourselves.”(Page 108)

Negative Theology.

What this beyond is  the Grail of the Ontology that nobody has yet discovered, the Kantian Noumenal, that has driven so many, from Roy Bhaskar onwards, to the strangest sides of the flux of Being, is a matter of worship for Gray. He considers letting things go, letting the World Be.

Our most “precious possession” – this “Nothingness” is illuminated by Negative Theology. Yet such “Godless mysticism cannot escape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of any oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being, There us no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.”(Page 208)

Or, one would add, possible. We cannot possibly imagine what payment we could make to be liberated from what we are, and becoming what humans could be,  if our premise is that we want to consider what being free from our humanity could be.

Some might go further and say that it perhaps through science and its rationality that we can at least indicate something of the physical ‘beyond’ human culture.

But what of progress and emancipation?

Alexander Herzen’s comments, many will have noted, came in 1849, following the failures of the 1848 revolutions. Yet shortly after these doleful reflections he could assert, “There are periods when man is free in a common cause. Then, the activity towards which every energetic nature strives coincides with the aspiration of the society in which he lives. At such times, which are rare enough – everything flings itself into the whirlpool of events, and in it finds life, joy, suffering and death.”(Omnia Ma Mecum Porto. Zurich 1849).

Against Gray, we remain with Herzen on this.


Written by Andrew Coates

December 13, 2013 at 12:33 pm

5 Responses

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  1. This thing’s riddled with grammatical errors.

    Sam Astbury

    December 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm

  2. No it’s not.

    And you are not obliged to read it either!

    Mere human.

    Andrew Coates

    December 13, 2013 at 1:21 pm

  3. An excellent demolition of this most profoundly reactionary “philosopher,” whose attacks on enlightenment values and, indeed, the very concept of humanity are – amazingly – taken seriously in certain “intellectual” circles. And he’s on the staff of the supposedly “left wing” New Statesman.

    Jim Denham

    December 13, 2013 at 3:02 pm

  4. I had been preparing a much longer article on him Jim.

    This is just a short and a bit too quickly produced attack.

    Like yourself and I bet loads of others, Gray has annoyed me for a long time.

    As if people as humane and good as Diderot, as witty and as memorable as Voltaire, or as profound as Kant, not to mention brilliant thinkers like Marx and Engels, were behind the horrors of the twentieth century.

    No they were not – answer I.

    Anyway Gray has bitten off more than he can chew by trying to develop Wittgenstein’s famous aphorism, ” What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” ((„Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.“).

    If Gray thinks he has some answers to the centuries long problem of religious language then his vanity has reached the limits of what we can speak about.

    Andrew Coates

    December 13, 2013 at 5:16 pm

  5. I think this is very well written (better than I could have ever done, truly). I really enjoyed it. But I don’t think you’ve refuted Gray. Or even hurt his feelings. You’re simply playing a harmony to his already intoxicating notes and song. I don’t think Gray disagrees ever, as I am sure you’ll agree, that progress, freedom, common cause are impossible. They have to occur at some point for bad things to follow. Simply that the truth of our existence is cyclical. That life and joy lead to suffering and death.

    This is a profound thing to say. As difficult as it is to say and I think Gray comes closest to saying it for many people today. Btw, even Gray I have found in his writing has weak moments, a throwaway sentence or two where he almost fails in line with a “religion of humanity”. These are the best moments in his writings. Like abstinence, we are defined by what we deny.

    (But I could be wrong – maybe he is a show-off).


    December 18, 2013 at 4:35 am

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