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on 22 December 2015
Relentlessly despairing view of humanity - and I've only got to page 53 so far. Gray seems to determined to convince us that progress is a construct, and that the human mind is essentially nihilistic and destructive. He seems to have taken the view purely to have an unusual standpoint. Will continue reading, but without being invested in it.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
On the penultimate page of part three, the final part of this brief and very thought-provoking book, Gray says 'There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.' Right... So, your point was? Well, I guess his point is that, in his view, progress towards a better humanity is a modern myth: rooted, so he argues, in an outgrowth of Christian ideas of end-times and redemption, it's an unattainable chimera, belief in and pursuit of which just causes us both actual and mental/psychological/spiritual anguish. I've not read any other Gray yet but, judging from this book, he appears to be a professional essayist in the poetic-philosopher mode, happiest when he is simultaneously displaying his erudition and making us all feel miserable. Towards the end of the book Gray quotes American poet Robinson Jeffers, who at one point defends his own philosophy as being 'neither misanthropic nor pessimist'. On the evidence of this slim volume Gray appears to be both.

Still, briefly changing tack for a bit: it seems silence is in the air, with this book of Gray's coming hot on the heels of Diarmaid McCulloch's Silence: A Christian History. Strengthening possible links between these two titles, and much to the chagrin of some, including several reviewers here, Gray casts humanism (and science) as the offspring of Christianity - 'the Christians and their disciples, the humanist believers in progress' - in a process whereby alleged former pagan visions of cyclic/seasonal time have been replaced by ideas of progress towards an 'end of time'. In many respects quite a lot of what Gray says makes sense, at least in places. For example, it seems quite natural that modern thinking would have, within its DNA so to speak, traces of the ideas and cultures that preceded it. But Gray goes well beyond this observation, evincing a visceral loathing of humanism, and it's this that lies at the root of my charge of misanthropy. His position, which I suppose may stem from an understandable distaste for the solipsism and self-regard of the human animal, leads him to make some assertions that I find plain bizarre.

Some of these assertions include: 'True myth is a corrective of fantasy'; 'Religion was a poetic response to unchanging human realities...'; 'the idea that Jesus returned from the dead is not as contrary to reason as the notion that human beings will in future be different from how they have always been.' The first two of these statements only address very partial aspects of what either myth or religion might be. Most of the time Gray doesn't support such statements at all, and where he does the bulk of the 'supporting evidence' for his ideas are quotations drawn from poetry and literature. So, for example, the legends of Icarus and Prometheus are invoked as evidence for myth as a corrective. In the third quoted statement above (and the second also, to some degree) Gray reveals himself to be remarkably ignorant of (or resistant to) the findings of evolutionary science: humans are not a static and unchanging entity. There was a time before humans, there will be a time after humans. And whilst we are around, we evolve, both physically and culturally. Who is Gray to legislate for closed parameters to either our physiology or our behaviour, within that unknown span of time?

I might go along with him inasmuch as the evidence of the last several thousand years of human life doesn't, at first glance, give immediate cause for optimism regarding the kind of ideas of moral progress which seem so anathema to Gray. But appearances can be deceptive, and science proves itself a very effective tool not just because it can replace wildly poetic myth with something much closer to reality, but because it's such a potent 'corrective of fantasy'. Perhaps Gray should dwell less on the horrors of modern times (the first part of this book - well, nearly all of it, actually - but the first part particularly, is a litany of recent calamities), read less poetry and literature by suicidal authors, and instead try, for example, Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity? But of course it's exactly such books and thinkers that Gray is attacking.

Pinker's book seeks to counter precisely the kind of resolutely pessimistic contemporary myth Gray appears to subscribe to, which says that humanity is currently more barbaric than it's ever been. When he fulminates against humanism for replacing beautiful old myths with horrible new anthropocentric ones, I just groan: except for those stages in our religious evolution that have dealt more with our relationship with raw nature (and even then, to some degree), the anthropocentrism of myth and religion has been at least equal to, or if anything then perhaps even greater than in the past, often because it was that way without much self-consciousness. Gray may feel that, as the pop band Blur once put it, 'Modern Life Is Rubbish', and that we're more repellently violent than ever, but that isn't what all the research into the subject necessarily suggests: per capita, Pinker argues (and this depends on whether his evidence is sound, and apparently there's much heated debate around this) humanity is now less violent than ever before (and most demonstrably since the advent of agriculture). Pinker backs his claims up with evidence, rather than poetry: where's Gray's evidence to support his Jesus claim, regarding the plausibility of the dead being brought back to life as greater than any changing of humanity?

Along the same lines, and equally egregious, is where Gray equates humanism, via the idea of a 'myth' of progress as embodied within modern science, with Genesis, implying that the Genesis myth is preferable! The only part of the Genesis myth that I find resonant with any profound meaning is the darkly depressive idea that consciousness might be some kind of curse. Having finished this book, the fact that such pessimism should be attractive to Gray is not the shock it was when I first read the relevant passage. But, like his 'true myth' and religion as 'poetic response' ideas, his approach to some of these ideas is spectacularly limited, skewed in numerous ways, and leaves out much that, if re-introduced, might bring significant changes of perspective.

Yes, myth can act as a corrective, and sure, religion is, in part, a poetic response to understanding human life. But myths and religions have also functioned as both literal explanations and harshly enforced rules, i.e. tools for control. Looking at both Genesis and the 'myth' of progress in humanism and science more broadly, which is the preferable delusion to suffer from: that we (well, rather one small tribe among us) are God's specially created and chosen people, and can do as he wills (or rather, as we see fit, but justified in his name), in a world he made for our usage? Or that that we are products of evolution and, endowed as we are with some degree of consciousness (however flawed and limited that may be), we might strive to live in better ways? I think the latter is both more realistic and, in every way (morally/practically) preferable. Only when presented in Gray's highly partial and selective terms - wilfully misrepresented I would say - could the reverse be made to appear even remotely reasonable.

Whilst The Silence of Animals is fascinating and very thought-provoking, I also find it massively irritating. I imagine he would dismiss my problems with his book as being those of a believer in the myth of progress. I think he's wrong: he continually tars humanism with the same brush as religion, equating ideas of progress with ideas of the Christian 'triumph over death' theme. But he's quite mistaken. Just as it would be wrong to believe 'that rejecting religion [means] renouncing any idea of order in the world' (in paraphrasing Llewelyn Powys Gray slightly skews what he says: Powys clarifies his own position by referring to an 'ordained moral order'), so to is it wrong to conflate the legacy of Christian ideas of triumph over death with all modern humanist ideas of progress.

These problems appear to stem from a combination of Gray's attachment to 'the old ways' (read Christianity) and his apparent inability to grasp fundamentals of evolutionary science: all life, vegetable and animal, never mind just human, is precisely the temporary imposition of both order and even increasing complexity (against an otherwise universal tendency to disorder and simplification), whereas the Christian idea of triumph over death - or, in other and more biblical terms, eternal life - is, as Addy Pross states in What is Life?, an oxymoronic concept. So, in fact, the sciences Gray attacks give constant and irrefutable evidence that, actually, order is everywhere apparent (and in no way based upon human religious systems as a fundamental footing), and categorical proof that one of the most central and cherished aims of Christian religion is a nonsensical impossibility. Failing to understand or address any of this, Gray gets nowhere near tackling the more interesting link, often dealt with around the 'natural fallacy' idea, of the kinds of order that just are (in nature at large), and the kinds we feel there ought to be (in our societies).

Just as he notes that evolution is actually a process of drift rather than directed change (Gray doesn't address the idea of constraints on pathways in evolution), one can conceive of our moral or ethical progress as a form of drift, but no less real for it. In terms of absolute values this can therefore remain 'random', but to us, as human beings embedded in the matrix of the moment - and that's why I'm what I understand to be humanist (we are all human after all, so what else can we honestly be, other than humanist?) - it is not random. Whilst we know that we are not, in point of fact, the centre of the universe, yet we are, each of us, as Gray himself notes in relation to animals, when he says 'every sentient creature is a world maker', still the centre of our own cosmos of perception and experience.

Gray has introduced me to some new writers and thinkers, for which I'm grateful. His ideas have also been something for me to work around, re-examining my own understanding, and I think this sort of process is healthy and useful. But, in the end, his overall tone is, like his name, rather Eeyore like. Several times I was put in mind of Woody Allen, in Annie Hall, where his character says "I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable." Woody Allen's brand of pessimism can at least make us smile, and perhaps even occasionally laugh out loud. Gray didn't have that effect on me, and, more to the point, I'm not even sure he's right either. In fact, in many fundamentals, I think he really and very clearly couldn't be much more wrong.

So, very annoying at times, but nonetheless - precisely because it challenges many of my own views - a stimulating read.
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VINE VOICEon 11 August 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I've never read any of John Gray's books before but I fancied reading this even by looking at the title and cover of the book; I'm glad I did read it. I realise that this is the sequel to 'Straw Dogs'; he obviously saw that previous book being a phenomenal success and decided to continue the theme! Gosh that sounds a bit cynical doesn't it? Gray draws on the work of great writers, theorists, poets, and all manner of fiction and philosophy in piecing this book together.

He looks at human existence and comparing it to that of other animals and what we are and what they lack etc. We as a species consider ourselves superior, but Gray challenges this and shows us through scientific and literary endeavours what we are and what we have achieved and what we think we are. Plenty of conundrums are thrown up and most people would glean something from this as it definitely makes one think about our existence and our place in the world.

This book is very readable and not too heavy for those with a less scientific slant. I enjoyed it very much and I know many others would, too.
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VINE VOICEon 20 July 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I have to admit, I do like John Gray's writing, and this book is no exception. The main thrust of his argument here seems to be that man has set himself up over all the other animals and uses both myth and science to bolster his argument. It is an elegiac, almost wistful piece of writing, sometimes veering towards being depressing (!) but at the same time full of insights and wisdom re: man's condition in this modern age. He quotes from a wide variety of philosophers, poets, psychologists, my favourite being Llewellyn Powys. Gray shows he is not afraid to tackle the big subjects that we all, to some extent, treat as if they are graven in stone. A humdinger of a book, it will give you plenty of food for thought and I can't recommend it highly enough. In fact, I am about to give it a second reading.
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VINE VOICEon 12 August 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Another anti-humanist polemic from John Gray, whose oft-expounded version of misanthropy this time shares a lot pagespace with citations and references to the likes of Orwell, Ballard, Herzen and Borges, Ford Madox Ford and the rest - fellow chronicler's of mankind's nastiness. If you listened to his recent run on R4 Point of View, where, say, he riffed on Gormenghast for one episode, it's not a million miles off that. Interesting, if a bit depressing.
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on 5 July 2015
The 21st century in the West - probably the Wettest Place and Time ever. All sensibility and no sense. One of the very few ways to get even halfway dry is to read John Gray. Including this one.
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on 17 April 2014
A very interesting book with much to say about our relationship to the natural world. Afterward, read, 'Conspiracy Against the Human Race' by Thomas Ligotti for the more extreme argument.
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VINE VOICEon 1 December 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
A curiously disjointed book that completely failed to grab my attention. I found it very difficult to read and couldn't get past the first couple of chapters. Very unusual for me.
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on 27 April 2014
As long as you won't let yourself become disencouraged about the nature and prospects of mankind, this is an enlightening read.
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on 29 May 2015
Good, readable, thought provoking but excuse me while I go and slit my throat.
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