11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
I am an atheist and a humanist and this book slates both! It is great to have one's beliefs challenged. His basic thesis is that animals are content just to breathe, eat and defecate, whereas humans have to cause horrendous suffering by thinking too much, and hoping for an impossible utopia gained by 'progress.' The war in Syria would sum up his message, as all traits of human civilisation have broken down. The Geneva Convention is a joke in Syria. Snipers are shooting children and pregnant women. What can suicide bombers achieve but death and destruction? Their Paradise full of virgins is a myth. As the scope of the book is infinite, it hops about like a drunken pessimistic kangaroo from one opinion to another, but is thought provoking all the same. I found it very stimulating.
40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on 10 March 2013
John Gray, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths
John Gray maintains that science and myth are simply the human animal's way of dealing with chaos. His latest book strips away the comforts of science and religion, mere shelters from a world we can never know. In his latest book, Gray attacks the very notion of progress, a doctrine that cannot but fail to delude. As our forefathers put their faith in gods, modern man clings to science and technology. He cites a range of authors, from Conrad to Ballard who present worlds where chaos dominates over civilisation. If civilisation is natural, then so is barbarism.
Gray refuses to believe in so-called scientific advance, his mentors being Freud rather than Darwin, and Llewelyn Powys rather than Richard Dawkins. He quotes extensively from the little-known Powys, an atheist `adamant that rejecting religion meant renouncing any idea of order in the world.' Gray's bleak and nihilistic viewpoint echoes that of Beckett: God is a man-made phantom, a bastard who doesn't exist. Gray ends with a clarion call from Powys: `It is not only belief in God that must be abandoned, not only all hope of life after death, but all trust in an ordained order.'
This is a fascinating and wide-ranging account of myth in the comprehensive sense of the word. Gray cites a range of philosophers, economists, poets, theologians, anthropologists and social commentators, all of whom have found shelter in certainties. The fact is that man's dreams of progress are but makeshifts, stages in a perpetual cycle that has no purpose or meaning.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
I found this a difficult read, but then it presents an intellectual challenge for the reader.
To précis this right down to the essence of its effect upon me is that I feel less like throwing a brick at the television when I listen to politicians puffing up themselves in fighting their party political corners. The writing has given me words that have dragged up various uneasy feelings from my unconscious, and achieved some acceptance of the inevitable, that change and progress is indeed much of a myth. If such a text provides some meaning to that not quite known inside me, then it has to have proved successful in achieving some understanding. Throwing a brick is my frustration at not understanding that those in power just only want to hang on to it, and not for the concept of progress of humanity at all. My violence has turned to more of an inward sigh of acceptance.
Now I understand a little of where my feelings come from, I feel more stoic about it all, and somehow it validates a primal feeling I have as humans we are not that important as we might believe in the hierarchy of life.
Altogether a humbling read for me
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Despite the joyous and imaginative cover art work and the title that suggests a recent horror film (the previous volume "Straw Dogs rejoiced in its duplicity)inside I discovered the working essays combined to form a philosophy of an acknowledged pessimist, maybe this is not the technical term for his status but after reading the first half of the book (it is a rather indigestible tome and requires extensive rereading)with its references to Koestler, Orwell and the darker side of Joseph Conrad, I came to this conclusion.
It does take a prolific writer (often seen in the Guardian and Spectator) to be able to draw threads for his argument from as many sources as are available and Gray is obviously extremely well read.
He delivers a world where the torture of Winston Smith is as relevant today as it was back in the 1940s; the depressing message is that nothing really changes, that so called civilisation merely masks the truths (Is there such a thing as Truth?)in empty rhetoric, propaganda, political cant and The Big Lie i.e. that we are a civilsed animal
Gray's sources are impeccable and worth further research. The book is divided into three sections each one subdivided into almost meditative essays. Essays themselves are becoming a dying literary form and so, even though challenging, this collection here is both thought provoking and contentious. There is so much food for thought that a single reading will not do this book any jind of justice.
There is no doubt that Gray's voice is an important one even though what he is saying may not always be palatable
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
As a big fan of John Gray's earlier book Straw Dogs, I was predisposed to enjoy The Silence of Animals, and was not disappointed by this thought-provoking attack on the myth of human progress.
Based on the central concept that any belief in collective progress, whether this be religion, science or otherwise, is nothing but faith by another name, Gray builds up an argument by drawing upon the works of past philosophers, poets and artists. The effect is to illustrate recurring themes in human thought and the gap between expectation and reality, namely that humanity frequently aspires towards values that it has never achieved. This notion that we strive constantly to reach an end goal that has never been attained, and can never be attained, makes for fascinating reading.
Criticism of Gray's writing is that it is needlessly bleak and pessimistic, that he lingers too long on suicidal poets and the victims of past atrocities. I'd argue instead that Gray's writing is liberating and transcendental, freeing us from the preconception that we must strive to be other than what we are in order to be happy.
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on 10 March 2013
I'm a big fan of John Gray' s writing because he is not afraid to take on the big, 'macro' questions about humanity and he doesn't mince his words. I'm not sure that I always agree with his ultimately pessimistic outlook, but he does make a very convincing case that the possibility of salvation, in either a religious or a scientific humanist sense, is a fiction. Indeed, the author reserves particular ire for the atheists and humanists who believe that mankind can progress and perfect itself through the application of scientific reason. He explains his philosophy using examples from literature which help make this work an extremely erudite and rewarding read. I've lost count of the books and authors I've added to my 'wish list' as a result of discovering many of them here. Despite the scepticism and pessimism of his message there is also a degree of consolation on offer too. A book that both challenges and soothes.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
'The highly civilised apes swung gracefully from bough to bough; the Neanderthaler was uncouth and bound to the earth.'
Gray starts his thesis with a quotation from Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and immediately follows it with a passage from Joseph Conrad's An Outpost of Progress. He is laying out his views clearly - religion and humanism have created a delusion in mankind. We think ourselves at the top of a hierarchy of animals which in Gray' view is nonsense. "In a strictly naturalistic view -- one in which the world is taken on its own terms, without reference to a creator or any spiritual realm -- there is no hierarchy of value with humans somewhere near the top. There are simply multifarious animals, each with its own needs. Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science."
His vision is uncompromisingly pessimistic: man has not made progress; we have mythologized ourselves and the world through religion, science and fiction; we would be better off living more like animals, in contemplation of the present, letting things be rather than striving for change. Communication and language continue to create myths, and he argues that we "cannot help seeing the world through the veil of language,' and he sees it as inherently dangerous.
The book is a continuation of Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals and similarly shows respect for non human animals at the expense of the human.
Half of this book is made up of quotations and extracts from fiction, philosophy and history and in many ways they are the most compelling part of his argument - which to me seemed to run counter to his arguments re abstraction and language, or perhaps it is another reminder of the seductive nature of narrative and poetry.
I was engaged, intrigued and entertained by his arguments but ultimately found the pessimism of his views not compelling, partly because Gray seems to want to ignore evidence, however imperfect, that gives us cause for hope.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Fresh from reading `Straw Dogs' and greatly enthused and entertained by that book, I was looking forward to receiving the follow-up volume, `Silence of the Animals', and I feel bound to say at the outset, that a certain disappointment has ensued. It seems to me that the presentation of the material is somewhat labored, diffuse even, so that teasing out the main thrust of the book, it's ideas and themes has been less than straightforward.
`Silence of the Animals' appears to be divided into three parts, the first of which, "An Old Chaos" examines some of the writings of Joseph Conrad, Norman Lewis, Curzio Malaparte, Arthur Koestler, Stephan Zweig, Joseph Roth, George Orwell, Alexander Herzen, and Michel Montaigne.
What John Gray finds in their seemingly disparate stories, is evidence which supports his contention, already mooted in `Straw Dogs', that the widely held idea, that societies progress morally or in humanitarian terms, hand in hand with the acquisition of new knowledge and scientific and technical achievements, is in fact an illusion. As a corollary to this, Gray sees the idea of progress as being largely a western construct that has it's origins in Christianity, and linked to a linear concept of time, history and the development of new things, new ideas. This in contradistinction to early societies such as the Greeks, Egyptians and the philosophies and religions of the East, all of whom viewed things, when they thought about them at all, as being cyclic, that essentially there was nothing new under the sun and no expectation that things would be other than they were, either in the present or any foreseeable future. So far, so good.
A significant number of the authors he draws on have chosen to look at the fallout arising from the failed utopian social/political experiments of the 20th century, such as the Bolshevik revolution and the Third Reich, among others. What Gray clearly sees in these accounts is the solvent effects of terrible hardship on morality and behavioural norms, that manifest when humanity hits bottom, thereby supporting his thesis on the illusory nature of human progress, albeit somewhat tangentially. If there is a subtext here, it is that this is likely what awaits us in the not-too-distant future.
The second part of the book, "Beyond the Last Word" draws on some of the ideas of Freud, Jung, Santayana and Borges as well as several other writers, most notably one of the lesser known Powys brothers, Llewellyn.
Gray juxtaposes Freud and Jung, pitting the ideas of one against the other, and clearly favouring the former, in the process of dismissing the ideas around the concepts of happiness, the `true self' and self-realisation, concepts which Freud appears to have regarded as fictions, whereas Gray not only regards these as chimera's, but also essentially destructive pursuits, certainly for individuals and perhaps for society at large.
His treatment of Jung is cavalier to put it mildly. The imputation of Nazi sympathies to Jung is not new, yet now as then, such evidence as there is, is barely circumstantial, so that Gray's indulging in what is little more than innuendo, is an unacceptable slur that undermines him, rather than Jung. Gray acknowledges the significant influence of much fin-de-siecle thinking around occultism and related matters, on the European scientific community, of which Jung was a part. Jung however regarded much of Europe between the wars as being in a state of mass psychosis, a term he also applied to WW II. He was in any case a Swiss citizen, not a German and in any case some of the ideas espoused by Jung were by no means the sole province of the Nazi's.
Basically Gray's position on Jung and his Gnosticism, and their application in psychoanalysis, is based on his lack of an in-depth understanding of Jung's thought and ideas, and much as I'd like to open that particular box, it is not appropriate here.
Beyond this point, for this reviewer, the text becomes increasingly bogged down in the usual mind-numbing philosophical wise-acreing (to borrow Gurdjieffs term) and dreary forays into linguistic Impressionism and other `isms'.
The final part, `Another Sunlight' is by turns tedious and absorbing, most especially the chapter `The Silence of Animals', which looks at the need for silence felt by some people, but surprisingly without any reference to the widespread practice of meditation, pretty much everywhere, both in the past and now, though a brief introduction to the life and thought of Patrick Leigh Fermor, does go some way to make up for this. In a rather different vein we meet Llewellyn Powys under the chapter heading `A Churchyard Cough and a Green Coat' which is a great entertainment in an otherwise largely anodyne final section.
If I have misunderstood or in some way misrepresented what John Gray has gifted us here, it's because, as noted at the beginning of this review, he hasn't made it easy. As much as what is included, it's what's missing that makes this a less stimulating, indeed a less convincing read than it might otherwise have been. I'm personally obliged for his drawing attention to Stephan Zweig and several other writers with whom I'm not familiar, but who are clearly persons of interest and whose acquaintance I look forward to making in the near future.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
The Silence of Animals concerns the idea that progress is a much a myth as any other strongly-held cultural belief. Historical events, mostly from the darker days of the twentieth century, are provided as evidence alongside a series of longer quotations to back up this view. Not all the arguments convince: for instance, I'm not sure that the experience of Naples in 1943 is necessarily the model that all cities would follow when deprived of authority. There's no denying, though, that modern humans are the same creatures that have committed atrocities throughout almost all of known history and to argue that we have somehow progressed beyond that in our essence is mistaken.
Where the book excels it really is illuminating. The passages on Freud are enthralling, and the quotations from A. J. Baker live up the promise of the title in a thought-provoking and quite moving way, while the life of a lesser-known Powys brother becomes liberating experience. Readers who have spent time with other works by John Gray will, however, mostly find themselves on familiar territory: the idea of progress, especially as espoused by Secular Humanists, is as much a myth as those of the ancient Greeks. Indeed, it is worse, because we know those stories to be myths but continue to believe that human progress is true.
Erudite as the book is, it pulls away from naming specifics, and fails entirely to confront the notion that modern science is making progress of some sort, while certainly not changing human nature. Scientific studies are conspicuous by their absence - presumably because using "myths" like science would undermine the logic of the book - but there are several instances of neuroscience research that strongly suggest that action takes place before conscious thought occurs, and therefore actually support the main thrust of the argument.
Occasionally the tone can be slightly grating: "To be chronically unwell is part of what it means to be human" is announced with no justification or follow-up, and the idea that civilisation is at least as natural home for humanity as barbarism is only grudgingly admitted. A reader looking for comfort will not find much here except maybe in the third section of the book - the best part - where the meaning of the title is made clear. The entropy of society is emphasised, though John Gray is a rather circumspect Cassandra who resists clear prediction but seems to want to retain the right to say "I told you so" when things do fall apart.
Like Gray's other work this is full of human experience, very thought-provoking and in its lack of answers to the questions it raises somewhat unsatisfying. But that, I suspect, is the point.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
In 'Silence of the Animals', John Gray seeks to draw the reader's attention to the philosophical shortcomings of progressive rational humanism. Gray suggests that this position has in our time become a largely unargued default secular faith among atheistic humanists, most of whom have little patience with similar optimistic teleologies when they are advanced from religious positions.
Gray is a fluent writer, and this is a very literary book; almost a tapestry of quotations and references, primarily to twentieth-century writers and more frequently to novelists and poets than to philosophers or other thinkers. The first two thirds of this short book - the page count is rather misleading in this respect - make a convincing and highly readable case. I found that the book falters in the final third, in which I expected more substantial conclusions to be drawn: Gray seems to lose his way here, and the discussion rather peters out. Other readers have suggested that the book is best read as an extension of or addendum to the earlier 'Straw Dogs', which is more substantial and deals with many of the same issues.
Gray is never less than readable, and 'Silence of the Animals' may be useful for some as a corrective to the current over-optimistic strain of progressive secular humanism. It will not suit anyone inclined to interpret pessimism as cynicism, or seeking an ethical alternative to stoicism.