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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 2 July 2013
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Like Straw Dogs this is a thought provoking but flawed analysis of the human condition and, basically, explores the possibility of human consciousness being stripped of all illusion and fanciful mythic cultural memory and practise, and what sort of human would we be if this was achievable.

It's an ambitious project and worthy of attention for the breadth of the literary aim although, predictably, it becomes impossible to sustain and any early gains in the book are eventually lost about half way through, by increasing levels of obfuscation and meanderings. It continues at times to fascinate though and Gray is always a delightful if sometimes frustrating writer.

There are some very dodgy assertions at times though that only serve to make this reader wary of the overall analysis and his comparison of Freud and Jung is particularly weak- his overall dismissal of Jung disappointing in both factual and contextual terms. For example there is no evidence at all that Jung was a Nazi sympathiser, in fact much of the evidence points the other way, and Gray's attempt to paint him as one is a cheap shot. In fact considering the subject matter, a more in-depth appreciation of Jung's psycho-analytical approach to the human psyche would have been useful, rather than taking the contemporary, chattering classes Freudian position, but there you go. Overall though a good, stimulating read- albeit not up with the authors best- but still at times very rewarding.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This has been a difficult review to come to, as much of Gray's book puzzled me. Not least, what exactly was he saying?

He is a brilliant stylistic writer - but sometimes, too much so, as his weary, epigrammatic style occasionally sacrifices clarity for a soundbite which is satisfying, but doesn't pick apart so well :

"Echoing the Christian faith in free will, humanists hold that human beings are - or may sometimes become - free to choose their lives. They forget that the self that does the choosing has not itself been chosen"

That last sentence has a beautiful structure to it which is typically Gray - but what exactly does it mean? I spent an age deciphering.

There are plenty of other places in this book where I found myself delighted by pithy, witty summings up:

"Like cheap music, the myth of progress lifts the spirits as it numbs the brain"

"When we discover something new about ourselves, we alter the person we have come to be"

However - and here is my problem, what exactly is the prophet of world weary doom actually saying:

1) The idea of human shaped progress is a myth. Faiths and their followers, humanists and science all are deluded because they live by this myth.

2) Anyone who says we can live without myths is foolish, and so the mythiest of myth makers (religions) understood our need to make sense of things through myth. Atheist scientists such as Dawkins may believe they are myth free but still subscribe to a myth - human shaped progress

3) Mankind is an animal, though curiously unwilling to try and see the world from outside a human perspective which would let him experience that other realities exist

4) There is no purpose, and the idea of spiritual progress, or the progress and evolution of humanity through science, or through philosophy is all foolish.

5) Learn to accept a pragmatic despair and be present in the world here and now

With the inclusion, admiringly, of writers who had spent time attempting to 'become one with an animal viewpoint' I did begin to wonder whether this was all, at root, coming from understandable discomfort with what it means to be Homo sapiens. I concur completely that our tendency to only see the world through our own perspective as the be all and end all is misplaced, and leads to barbarism, but is J.A. Baker's (one of the many writers Gray quotes) attempt to experience the world through the experience of peregrine falcon, any BETTER - it might be, for the peregrine - what of the lark?

Unlike an earlier book of Gray's, The Immortalization Commission: The Strange Quest to Cheat Death where he was clearly examining 3 very different approaches to the horrifying knowledge of our own - and everyone we love's, mortality, this book is much more confused and confusing. It is a bit of a scamper through patchwork of literary and philosophical writings, and for this reader, frustrating as I kept losing the way, forgetting where we were going and what exactly Gray was attempting to clarify for me.

In the end, my fairly permanent question became "And Your Point Is?"

A Patchwork Quilt. At times, a very beautiful patchwork quilt, but it had a very odd shape and I'm not quite certain what to do with it! I can't say 'not fit for purpose' or 'fits beautifully' - as I'm not certain what the purpose IS, or what it is supposed to be fitting.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 7 April 2013
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This book develops the ideas from John Gray's 2002 book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, although there is no need to have read the earlier book in order to understand or appreciate this book.

In Straw Dogs, Gray set out the notion that human beings differ only from other animals in that they convince themselves that they are superior beings destined to conquer the earth and rule over all other life forms. In The Silence of Animals, he delves behind this conviction, looking at the myth of human progress that supports our false hopes for ourselves - the hope of reaching some kind of utopian salvation. A key thread in the book is the religious nature of all movements and philosophies, with humanists coming in for a particularly heavy going over - "humanists believe that humanity improves along with the growth of knowledge, but the belief that the increase of knowledge goes with advances in civilization is an act of faith" - and atheists being asked to ask a much bigger question of themselves than those they ask of belivers: if God does not exist, why do so many people feel a need to have a faith in one? It is this idea of faith that Gray is really interested in, and he brands humanism and atheism as "secular faiths" that take humankind as their God, with the myths of progress as their testament.

The idea that we need a faith to soothe us through the thorny discomforts of life is nothing new - Marx said in 1843 that religion is the opium of the people - but what elevates this book to another plane is that Gray dissects why human beings are so reliant on myths in order to give their lives meaning - effectively reaching a conclusion that "a life without myths is itself the stuff of myth" - and why we feel the need to give our lives meaning at all. He quotes a plethora of poets, memoirists and thinkers along the way (most commonly Wallace Stevens, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche - although strangely Albert Camus does not get a mention, despite his The Myth of Sisyphus (Penguin Great Ideas) treading ground very close to that which Gray passes over here), as he pushes toward the idea that people "find meaning in the suffering that the struggle for happiness brings", that we are "attached to nothing so much as this state of happy misery". From this idea he picks up Freud, asking why we need to pursue an idea of happiness - fundamentally reaching the conclusion that we do so in order to distract ourselves from our lives ("from the internal monologue that is the dubious privilege of human self-awareness") - and then asking why we cannot simply be happy to exist and experience life.

The book then moves into its final part, where Gray joins hands with Samuel Beckett to question the use of language (how it gets in the way of our simply existing and experiencing life) and J.A. Baker, whose book The Peregrine (New York Review Books Classics) saw him attempt to understand the silent existence of a peregrine falcon. While animals appear content simply to exist, the human's problem is the constant quest to give meaning to existence - a meaning universally underpinned by the myth of progress.

Gray asks us to essentially take a step back from existence, to stop interfering with the world, to stop building false constructs within it and our minds, to "look with eyes that are not covered with a film of thought". It is thought, the one thing we think we have that makes us superior to animals, that is in fact our undoing - we think ourselves to death, or at least out of life.

Gray comes close to reaching the same conclusion in this book ("Contemplation can be understood as an activity that aims not to change the world or to understand it, but simply to let it be") as he did in Straw Dogs ("Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?"), but he adds a final kicker in this book: "There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed."

In the context of the book, this rings an optimistic note - that humans can reach this point of not feeling the need for redemption - but the more realistic conclusion seems to be reached 10 pages before the end: "Man, much more than baboon or wolf, is an animal formed for conflict; his life seems meaningless to him without it." After all, we attached to nothing so much as this state of happy misery.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
John Gray contests the "fantasy" that humanity is slowly ascending to a higher civilization and questions whether humans generally are moral beings that possess a special human uniqueness. He draws on examples ranging from sub-prime loans, slavery, the horrors of WWII, colonialism and Soviet communism by authors and writers such as Orwell, Conrad, Koestler, Lewis and more to prove that progress and civilization in many cases equals barbarism and savagery and that the myths we as humans have set up for ourselves about the better future or the superiority of the human race in most cases are wrong and more farfetched than the end-of-the-world myths by cults that we often laugh off.

I do think that he makes some interesting points and that we as humans definitely have a propensity for self-delusion and I agree that it would be worth stopping more often to consider what we are doing rather than just press on with whatever project we as a community are supposedly working for, but other than some well selected and thought-provoking stories that admittedly did hit home more than once, I am still not entirely sure what it is he wants to achieve other than to make us think - in that he did succeed for a while.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 24 July 2013
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
John Gray's Straw Dogs was an enormously valuable book - presenting a compelling but too-rarely-heard argument against our faith in human progress.

The Silence of Animals is the follow-up. The central thesis remains compelling - that our deeply rooted belief in progress may simply be a fiction that we use to give our lives meaning.

But The Silence of Animals doesn't seem to move thinking on from Straw Dogs. Instead, Gray uses a whole range of quotes from other authors, poets etc. to make essentially a similar point. Except that I regularly found it hard to understand what point Gray is trying to make in The Silence of Animals - it feels rambling and confused.

It's also really stretching the boundaries of what can be called a book. It's just about 200 pages, but the font is unusually large and the pages of text unusually small. It looks and feels as though the author wanted to put out another book without really having enough material to do so.

My personal conclusion? Read and treasure Straw Dogs for a fresh and valuable perspective on progress. Leave The Silence of Animals well alone.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 14 December 2013
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
To be honest I picked this up because I thought it would be about how animals communicate, but instead it is about how we as human animals view ourselves as above other members of the animal kingdom and the pitfalls of viewing our human history as a progression from the past to the present. Gray really made me think, about the basic assumption many of us hold that as time goes on and humans become more educated and exposed to 'civilization' that we naturally will become less savage and more altruistic, when all the evidence is against that thesis. He writes of the silence of humans and its qualatitive difference from the non-language and silence of animals, and why we search silence out. Challenging, difficult and rewarding.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 5 December 2013
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Go into this title expecting to be somewhat provoked, challenged, and to read opinions you may disagree with. An uncharitable reader would call the position set forth in this book as misanthropic. My more charitable interpretation is that Gray is making a valiant attempt to expose the smallness and hubris of our attempts to ascribe ourselves uniqueness in the world by comparing humanity's ceaseless endeavours with the supposedly absent, abstracted, automated mere being that is the existence of the other animals. If nothing else it is interesting, and whether you want to label it as inspirational or egregious is up to you.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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JG has written a number of influential books most notably "Straw Dogs".He is deeply cynical about human beings and the idea of progress which he regards as a myth and attacks humanism as a delusional secular faith, and believes there is no hierarchy of values with humans at the top. He is highly critical of ideologies and mythologies which have deluded people and led them to kill each other. The book is heavy with long quotations. It has met with a crtical reception and is not recommended with readers looking for something to cheer them up.

Rating 3 out of 5
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I had heard about John Gray because of reading Antifragile by Nicholas Taleb. Taleb sings his praises highly as one of the great current thinkers and so I decided to read his latest book to see for myself. This is actually a very short book, especially given the size and spacing of the font and the number of words on the page. For me it reads more like an extended essay or magazine article than a book and this is also reflected by it being a book of three chapters. All of this adds to the feeling that the author is writing because they have to write and get something out - it is writing to order and for this sort of book it is hard to justify the cover price of £19.

As regards to the actual content, the first chapter starts brilliantly using the literature to argue for the author's thesis that human society does not progress. There are dark stories from the Belgian Congo, post-war Naples and Nazi Germany to show how close supposedly civilised society is to barbarism. These examples show how widely read the author is and show his ability to build stories into a historical context and to view history as a living subject and not a dead collection of facts. As a secondary theme this also makes it clear that viewpoints in history are very relative and absolute knowledge is impossible because of the differences in views of witnesses because of their different perspectives (for example everyone denying the Ukranian famines caused by taking grain for export). This chapter is definitely worth reading again and again as a critique of rationalist utopianism. It cuts right to the heart of the problem that we cannot escape our evolutionary history to become this perfect rational being with an idealised humanist society.

The second chapter moves the argument to a psychological perspective looking at the use of myth and psychology to try and address these issues of rationalism. His account of Freud is useful in showing that he did not think we could perfect ourselves and anyway that should not be our goal. Even happiness is not a sensible aim. The only thing we can do is live a life. In this I would probably agree. Too many people spend their lives trying to perfect either themselves or the world (myself included). People tell themselves convincing stories about who they are and how the world should be. But in reality we have to take a more pragmatic approach. This is where the author then drifts into the mire of the last chapter. By not understanding that he is doing the same thing the rationalists do. He has created his own myth and way of thinking about the world and it is as flawed as everyone else's.

This takes us to chapter three where we go to Beckett and on a meander into meaning. This feels like it is written by some emo teen in the middle of their existential crisis. By now you will also have realised what many of the quoted authors have in common. They all committed suicide, assisted suicide in Freud's case or suicide by war in some of the others. For me this chapter has no merit at all. It is disorganised rambling and inconsistent and adds nothing to his central argument about humanism and progress. The authors is a bit old for all this teen angst or even a mid-life crisis.

If you are looking for a cheery optimistic outlook on humanity, this is not it. If you are someone who suffers from depression and suicidal tendencies then this book should come with a trigger warning, because it is not about the lack of progress, underneath it all it is about death. He has an obsession with Thanatos, which I had never considered as an interesting myth but which the authors seems to believe is fundamental.

So while his rejection of the Utopian rationalists and the current version of humanism is very important and valid there are much more optimistic alternate myths. So I would suggest reading Joseph Campbell, Walter Lippmann or William James if you want a contemporary to Conrad to get a different view of what the human animal is capable of. The 20th Century had the two world wars and murder on an industrial scale, but under this surface of darkness and the dark philosophy and artists it produced it also had a much lighter and more optimistic side.
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The Silence of Animals follows hot on the heels of the critically acclaimed Straw Dogs and is very much in the same vein. Except it seems to be more of a scolding for being a human being. Gray eloquently and astutely points out that humans are pretty much conning ourselves with our ideas of societal progress; recounting times where when the gloves are off, usually war, man is capable of some truly barbaric acts (cannibalism, torture etc) - Gray spends a long time dealing with authors that lived through some of the worst wars and the atrocities they had seen.

Gray introduces the concepts of 'Ichthyophils' - people are likened to fish in the sea and some fish point to stubs of bone and the ability to flap their fins as evidence that all fish should fly; in fact some fish do fly so this is held up as concrete evidence that we all should and cling to this romantic notion despite the evident situation where nearly all fish swim. He uses this metaphor for the concept of freedom in humans; we all point and yearn to the concept of freedom but the actuality is that very few us of are truly free ('fly').

Whilst this book is excellently written and presented (another stunning hardcover from Allen Lane - my personal favourite publisher) and introduced me to many philosophical concepts I was largely unaware of, the overall feeling is one of despair, that humans for all their innovation, are not worth a damn. This may be an aversion to facing the absolute truth head on for fear of it, but I thought this critique of societal concepts was a real downer.

Clever, but very bleak.
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