John Gray: The Silence Of Animals


This is my current reading, and it’s really got my synapses firing. John Gray is often dismissed by his critics as being an anti-humanist misanthrope, and it’s easy to see why those critics might come to that conclusion, if all they do is go through highlighting the many striking aphorisms he offers up in his writing, like this one from his 2002 book Straw Dogs: “Humankind’s presence on Earth is nothing but a cancer.” That seems a fairly unequivocal statement but when you read his books you have to forestall any judgements until you’ve thought for a while about what he’s actually saying. I personally find his considered but unsympathetic observations about what might described as ‘the human condition’ to be useful input that cuts through the banal roar of the monoculture. The Silence Of Animals extends the case he’s already made many times before, but it’s been refined by fresh observations informed by his reading of literature and memoir, including Arthur Koestler, Joseph Conrad, George Orwell, Patrick Leigh Fermor and others.

One of the many questions he poses I found to be especially interesting:

When truth is at odds with meaning, it is meaning that wins. Why this should be so is a delicate question. Why is meaning so important? Why do humans need a reason to live? Is it because they could not endure life if they did not believe it contained hidden significance? Or does the demand for meaning come from attaching too much sense to language – from thinking that our lives are books we have not yet learnt to read?

This brings to mind Burroughs’ assertion that we need to “rub out the word” and reclaim intuition and understanding from the tyranny of the lexicon, purging our frontal lobes from the “word virus.” Having spent many years doing jobs full of utterly pointless tasks, I can attest to the negative effects brought on by the lack of meaning in our daily lives. ‘Meaning’ as an adjective is defined as: “intended to communicate something that is not directly expressed” and in the 21st century it’s a property that’s becoming increasingly hard to find, and the lack of it manifests in all kinds of disturbing ways throughout society. I don’t know why as a species we seem to need to find meaning in life, but I do know what happens when we don’t.

Gray also references a personal favourite of mine – J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine – noting that Baker achieved his unique perspective on ‘nature’ by narrowing the focus of his nervous system down to that of a beast in the field or, more specifically, a falcon on the wing. Gray’s the first reader of Baker’ work to really understand what the man was up to: “People who love other creatures are often accused of anthropomorphizing them. This was not true of Baker. Rather than anthropomorphizing other species, Baker tried the experiment of deanthropomorphizing himself. Seeing the world as he imagined hawks might see it, he was able at times to be something other than he had been. He too raced to oblivion, losing himself as he followed the peregrine.”

Overall it’s a highly accessible work of modern philosophy that has given me a lot to think and a long list of suggested further reading. Marketed as a ‘sequel’ to Straw Dogs, it’s really just a further extension of the argument he’s been making since he was first published – that we are a flawed and deluded species that insists on hiding in our own myths about ourselves so as to stave off the horrific fact of our insignificance to the universe. Not the sort of thing you want to read if you want cosy reassurances, but I find it a useful motivator and I’m not at all dissuaded from my quest for personal meaning. As Gandhi said: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it’s very important that you do it.” And, to quote another important philosophical observation, this time from National Lampoon’s Animal House:

This case I think we have to go all out. I think this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part. And we’re just the guys to do it!


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