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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.
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VINE VOICEon 31 December 2013
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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.
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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.
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VINE VOICEon 22 November 2013
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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
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VINE VOICEon 7 April 2013
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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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VINE VOICEon 18 August 2013
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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
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on 24 July 2013
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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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on 26 August 2016
John Gray is an excellent writer, erudite, a skilled wordsmith and very well read. Yet his books are, for me, spoiled by a deep misanthropy and cynicism about our species. To Gray we are braggarts ‘bigging ourselves up’ whilst shamelessly exploiting other humans and animals. We kid ourselves about being secular ‘humanists’ and unbiased by dogma, whilst our very thoughts and language are suffused with mythic and Socratic self deceptions.

The book starts with a withering reminder of human folly, cruelty and beastliness. In the Silence of Animals, as with his earlier ‘Straw Dogs’ we must deal with the most brutalising elements taken from both real history and creative writing. Sometimes these are merged, as if Winston Smith (Orwell’s broken hero from 1984) was as real as the brute facts of Auschwitz or the Gulag. This is a perilous technique to employ in a serious study but a powerful one, nonetheless.
What do we learn from Orwell’s novel? That Smith’s interrogators wished not merely to torture him into telling the truth but insisted that he should also willingly accept their perverse world view as ‘true’.
We then discuss the forces which might make us turn to cannibalism by studying the characteristics of Russian prisoners who survived Nazi prison camps. Next, Norman Lewis’s memoir of the amorality of post liberation Naples in 1943 is used to illustrate the shedding of any veneer of morality. We witness a zone of desperate need which led brothers to pimp-out their sisters in exchange for basic essentials. Humans do not ‘progress’ in Gray’s world, they merely lurch from feast to famine. In the latter state they have no more morality than a hungry lioness. This is grim reading.

The awful cruelties of the inquisition during which religious dogma was brutally enforced, have been replaced in the modern post-enlightenment world by a ubiquitous conformity to an inviolable ‘secular humanism’ which is crude, self congratulatory and misinformed. Gray correctly notes that Sigmund Freud’s atheism was more radical than most readers can acknowledge. Likewise, Gray restores Fritz Mauthner’s proper position in philosophy of language. Gray rates him as being every bit as significant as Wittgenstein. This part of the book is first rate.

But as the book proceeds I became aware that the passages of quotation (long borrowings from his sources dominate this text) were mostly from quite old writings in poetry and animal behaviour (Llewlyn Powys, J.A Baker). This gives the erroneous impression that modern science has ignored the questions that Gray poses. Gray might have a significant lacuna in his immense knowledge. He seems unaware that modern evolutionary biology, behavioural science, social psychology and neuroscience have recently made great progress in studying such complex interactions in the animal world that try to explain helping behaviours, altruism, cooperation, friendship, and even kindness.
His most recent citation from social psychology is Leon Festinger’s 1956 study, ‘When Prophecy Fails’. Gray was twelve when this was written, he is now retired. If he has read research in recent journals there is little evidence here. One important line of 21st century research, and a classic in the field, is the work of Ernest Fehr and Urs Fischbacher, “The Nature of Human Altruism”, (Nature, 425, 23 October 2003). This article demonstrates that a less despairing account of human social behaviour can be constructed within the constraints of scientific rigour. Gray taught at the LSE and a few years ago that institution used to run the ‘Darwin Seminars’. He would have been there while they were on. Yet the material discussed in those excellent and exciting meetings seems not to have reached Gray; at least he does not acknowledge it.

Studies of altruism, from both behavioural observation and MRI scans alike, show that for every sadist torturing a political opponent or ethnic enemy to death (Gray’s obsession) there are others queuing to give blood, offering their kidneys to unknown recipients, volunteering to help others or to tidy their communities. People value these acts, and those who perform them are celebrated and considered decent people.
Sadly, Gray’s clever arguments allow no space to celebrate such mundane acts of kindness.
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on 2 July 2013
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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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VINE VOICEon 12 June 2013
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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.
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