… until you really see (this is one of my own recent drawings)
John Gray’s Straw Dogs was (and is) the most important book I’ve ever read. I read it at exactly the right time in my life, and it liberated me from the erroneous belief that our civilization culture could or should be saved, and from the erroneous belief that I have, or anyone has, the capacity to ‘save the world’.
John’s new book The Silence of Animals, billed as a continuation of the thinking of Straw Dogs, is to my mind nothing of the sort. It is a rambling and disjointed series of thoughts on the nature of the human animal. John presents us with miniature portraits of some of the people whose ideas and writings on this subject have appealed to him, and summaries of their ideas, and left us to decide which images in this gallery are worth our attention.
For the benefit of collapsniks reading this review, I should clarify that John does not use the term ‘civilization’ the way we do — to define our collapsing, globalized, devastating modern culture. He uses the term to mean the opposite of barbarism, and he believes that humans and their societies are at once civilized (peaceful, respectful) and barbaric (violent, cruel and destructive). He is nevertheless clearly a believer that our culture is in the process of collapse, though he doesn’t dwell on it in this book, probably because he doesn’t think it can be helped. Such is the nature of civilizations, he would have us believe, and of humans.
If you read The Silence of Animals you may be impressed by different parts of it than I was. This review will focus on the six parts of the book’s gallery of ideas that particularly resonated with me. [If you want a more objective and thorough review of the book, Liverpudlian Gerry has an excellent one].
1. The Myths of Humanism: From Joseph Conrad’s An Outpost of Progress:
Few men realize that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings. The courage, the composure, the confidence; the emotions and principles; every great and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowd; the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistable force of its institutions and of its morals, in the power of its police and its opinion.
Conrad, and John Gray, seem to believe our behaviour and much of our identity is a facade built behind the protection of our culture, that obliterates our real personality, if we have one at all. We live, John says, within three humanist myths: the myth of human uniqueness and transcendence (that we are uniquely rational creatures), the myth of human importance (that our minds reflect the order of the cosmos), and the myth of human progress (that history is a story of advance, with rationality generally increasing over time). But in reviewing the ghastly history of violence and suffering of the 20th century, he muses that “progress in civilization seems possible only in interludes when history is idling”. What are we without our culture?, he asks, and What delusion makes us believe we can be anything other than mostly barbaric?
2. Life’s Meaninglessness: “Natural selection is a process of drift. Evolution has no endpoint or direction, so if the development of society is an evolutionary process it is going nowhere.” This was the idea of Stephen J Gould’s in his book Full House that so rocked my worldview. Life is a random walk, yet we humans desperately pursue some meaning to our lives to the point that, as John writes,
… when truth is at odds with meaning, it is meaning that wins. 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 had 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?
My sense is that our search for purpose and meaning in our lives is a learned behaviour, one that seems more urgent and important as our time becomes scarcer and our struggles more intense (i.e. as we “grow up” in this culture). I can remember being five years old and feeling more alive than I have felt since, but I cannot recall any need for meaning in what I did then. Life was joyful, amazing, full of discovery and fun and aha moments, and that was enough.
3. The Nature of Human Struggle: John writes:
[Freud's Stoic worldview was] that there is something wrong with the human animal. Health may the natural condition for other species, but in humans it is sickness that is normal. To be chronically unwell is part of what it means to be human… Every culture has its own versions of therapy…. [Freud, like Schopenhauer, believed] it is not the conscious mind that shapes human life. Beneath what we imagine are our choices, it is the unconscious will that rules us…
[Freud believed] the world is an arena of unending struggle [but instead of] merging the self with some cosmic order [he counseled] a way of life based on accepting continuous unrest… [and asserted] that there is no true self [so] looking for your true self invites unending disappointment.
This is indeed a bleak view of our lot in life. I can accept that there is a constant struggle between what our genes and bodies want for their good (our “unconscious will”) and the desires of our culture for us to do its bidding to ensure its continuance (Conrad’s “every thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowd”). But I can’t accept Freud’s, or John Gray’s, belief that this struggle means we are doomed to be an unhappy and unwell life. Perhaps that’s because I was blessed with a childhood that was mostly trauma-free, so my case of civilization disease is less severe and overwhelming than most. And I’m perplexed that John seems to conflate the search for happiness, the search for self-realization or self-actualization, and the search to discover and be one’s true self. To me, the first of these is probably futile but perfectly understandable, the second is absurd and self-defeating, and the third is worthy and at least partially attainable.
4. Escape from Language: Citing Fritz Mauthner, against scientism:
The need for peace seduces the human mind into seeing the mirage of a resting-place in the desert of its striving for knowledge; the scholars believe in their linguistic roots. At all times and in all places, the science of a particular time is the expression of the poor human spirit’s wistful desire for rest. Only critique — wherever it is still alive in even poorer heads — may not rest, for it cannot rest. It must rudely awaken science, remove its illusion of an oasis, and drive it further along the hot, deadly, and possibly aimless desert paths.
Atheism, according to Mauthner, in John’s words
… does not mean giving up belief in god. It means giving up belief in language as anything other than a practical convenience. The world is not a creation of language, but something that — like the god of the negative theologians — escapes language. Atheism is only a stage on the way to a more far-reaching scepticism… a godless mysticism.
Dawkins and the believers in scientism would be appalled at this assertion, but it makes enormous sense to me. I think the idea that language is a vehicle for our cultural imprisonment is an intriguing one, one that is worthy of further, silent reflection. As is the idea of “godless mysticism”, which reviewer Richard Holloway summarizes as “an attitude of contemplative gratitude for the only life we will ever have”, and about which John says (with I think remarkable ambiguity)
Godless mysticism cannot escape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being. There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.
5. Being Animal: Citing JA Baker in The Peregrine:
This is now a different place from what it was two hours ago. There is no mysterious essence we can call a ‘place’. Place is change. It’s motion is killed by the mind, and preserved in the amber of memory… The hardest thing of all is to see what is really there.
John explains that Baker’s book is
… a record of the author’s struggle to see the landscape in which he pursued [a falcon, over a period of years] through the eyes of the bird itself. He followed the peregrine not in order to observe it, but in an attempt to escape the point of view of a human observer… by 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.
As a lifelong lover and studier of birds, biophilia and biomimicry, I am naturally intrigued by this approach to ‘godless mysticism’. I once wrote that if I had the opportunity to change places with a bird, even though it would mean a much-shortened life, I would do so in a heartbeat. I was immediately astonished at myself for having written it, and with my absolute confidence of its truth for me. My pursuit of ‘presence’ may be futile, but I am sufficiently intrigued by Baker’s story to explore whether the path to presence, that wondrous state of simultaneous relaxation and awareness, might be found, for me, in the pretence of being avian, imagining that possibility with all my heart. I recently described presence as “what is left behind when what you think is ‘you’, leaves”. I sense that that is what Baker found.
6. Contemplation: The second approach to godless mysticism John describes is contemplation, which he seems to describe as a combination of gratitude and a particular type of silence — the silence of animals:
Whereas silence is for other animals a natural state of rest, for humans silence is an escape from inner commotion. The human animal looks to silence for relief from being itself while othjer creatures enjoy silence as their birthright. Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves; other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming…
The distance between human and animal silence is a consequence of the use of language [though] it is not that other creatures lack language… Philosophers will say that humans can never be silent because the mind is made of words. For these half-witted logicians, silence is no more than a word… If you turn outside yourself — to the birds and animals and the quickly-changing places where they live — you may hear something beyond words…
The world in which you live from day to day is made from habit and memory. The ‘perilous zones’ [as Beckett calls the moments of true being and presence] are the times when the self, also made from habit and memory, gives way. Then, if only for a moment, you may become something other than you have been…
Contemplation… aims not to change the world, or to understand it, but merely to let it be… The wilful opening of the mind to the senses is a prelude to events that cannot be made to happen… Contemplation of this kind involves nullifying the self.
Perhaps. I am nervous when an admirer of Stoics begins to gush. But I have known such moments, and live to experience more of them. That is not a ‘purpose’, it is a yearning, a desire to know, to remember, who I think I was and am beneath this acculturated, disconnected, unconscious shell of identity that is definitely not-me.
. . . . .
I have lived a charmed life. I am, compared to most humans on this dreadfully crowded, suffering and desolated planet, relatively free of trauma. I am affluent, and retired from the tyranny of ‘work’. I live in a place that, at least at this time, is peaceful. I am, compared to most, quite knowledgeable of history and prehistory, geography, philosophy, different cultures and sciences, and have been blessed with relatively strong critical and creative abilities. I am therefore immensely grateful to be able to pursue, in my own skeptical and erratic way, an “attitude of contemplative gratitude for the only life we will ever have”, when almost all others are trapped in the frenzy of survival and the anguish and the pain of civilization disease that is their lifelong lot. Their burden, but not their fault. I am I think the world’s most blessed agnostic.
My desire to pursue that path, despite its unlikelihood of success and its long and winding and perplexing roads, is, I think, a wish to honour the rare privilege and good fortune I was born with and have been given, to express my gratitude by doing something with these gifts. Not to save the world, nor to proclaim any truth. Just to be able to lay a trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in case others may find my discoveries useful in their own lonely journeys. That’s what this ironically named blog, this chronicle of civilization’s collapse, has become, I think.
I thank John for this strange book that has reminded me of that, and which has suggested a few other ‘aimless’ but intriguing paths I might yet choose to explore.