The Myths We Live By

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August 1, 2014 · Posted in Commentary 

John Gray


The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. John Gray. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, 225 pp.

Leslie Evans

John Gray, 66, emeritus professor of philosophy at Oxford, is the great pessimist of Western intellectuals, the self-conscious inheritor of Schopenhauer. He has been all over the political map, from youthful leftism to Thatcherism in middle age, to New Labour and a current commitment to environmentalism. He is also a principal interpreter of British Jewish social theorist Isaiah Berlin, who was a staunch defender of liberal values against authoritarian currents, and, in consequence, a critic of the negative side of the Enlightenment, its spawning of schemes of generic social engineering to improve humanity by imposing Reason on the world, usually at terrible human cost.

This little book is unusual in Gray’s oeuvre. It is not a linear exposition but a series of comments on brief excerpts from novels and poems; works of nonfiction such as The Peregrine, an account of a year in the life of a Peregrine falcon; interspersed with an essay on Freud containing a sidebar on Jung. If there is a common theme it is that despite our technological prowess we humans are animals like all the others, not some special creation, with our animal nature unchanged since it evolved 50,000 years ago, all attempts to improve it to the contrary notwithstanding.

The myth that we are perfecting ourselves, central to the liberal ethos since the French Revolution, and which was in turn inherited from the Christianity of St. Paul, is Gray’s target:

“History may be a succession of absurdities, tragedies and crimes; but – everyone insists -the future can still be better than anything in the past. To give up this hope would induce a state of despair.”

The notion of human perfectability, he asserts, is largely absent from most intellectual and theological traditions. It was not part of the world view of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Hindus, Buddhists, Daoists, or Shintos, or even the Jewish Torah onto which Christianity was grafted.

He dismisses Marxism as a secularized version of Christian millenarianism:

“Explaining human nastiness by reference to corrupt institutions leaves a question: why are humans so attached to corruption? Clearly, the answer is in the human animal itself.”

Gray is interested in how thin the veneer of civilized behavior is and what happens to us when war or some other catastrophe strips it away. He spends some pages on Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44, an account by a British intelligence officer of life in the bombed-out city after the Allies drove out the Germans. People ate cats and the fish in the city aquarium. Freed Soviet prisoners of war released from Nazi camps arrived by ship. Lewis interviewed many of them. They had been told by the German camp commandant that there were 10,000 of them and food for only 1,000. As a man would die of starvation, the Russians freely told Lewis, his comrades would instantly in a screaming mass set upon the still warm corpse to eat as much as possible before the guards took it away.

A formerly vastly wealthy prince, now reduced to penury, visited Lewis in his office, bringing his sister. Both were fluent in English. The prince asked Lewis if he could find a place for his sister in an English military whorehouse. When Lewis told him the British had no such facilities the prince turned to his sister to say, “Ah, well, Luisa, I suppose if it can’t be, it can’t be.”

The Russian soldiers were repatriated to the USSR, where Stalin had them shot, not for cannibalism but for having been captured by the Germans.

One day while Lewis was eating in a café a group of girl children, some as young as nine, came and stood in the doorway. He saw that they were blind and were crying. He wrote later, “Forkfuls of food were thrust into open mouths, the rattle of conversation continued, nobody saw the tears.” It was a transfiguring moment that left him with a lifelong melancholy.

Gray turns to Arthur Koestler, author of Darkness at Noon. A Hungarian Jew, Koestler was briefly, 1931-1938, a member of the Communist Party of Germany and an agent of the Stalinist Comintern. Gray writes:

“Working for the Comintern Koestler travelled to the Ukraine during its man-made famine, when anything between four and eight million peasants (the numbers cannot be known with any precision) died as a result of the confiscation of grain for export. Witnessing mass starvation, he nonetheless used his journalism to debunk reports of food shortages: only a few rich peasants suffered in any serious way, he wrote. At times his ruthlessness was more personal. Travelling on behalf of the party in the Soviet Union he had an affair with an attractive young woman, a ‘former person’ from the old upper classes, whom he then reported to the secret police.”

John Gray has an unexpected take on Koestler’s choices. While not sympathizing with Communist and Nazi radical utopian leaps with their exterminationist consequences, he views the complacent liberal criticism that Koestler should have better devoted himself to piecemeal reforms as hardly more realistic. Liberal humanists, he writes, “believe that humanity advances to a better world in stages, slowly, in step-by-step increments: while an earthly paradise may be unachievable, incremental improvement is always possible.” In the social disintegration of the 1930s “it was the idea of gradual progress that was truly utopian.”

For Gray, Koestler had a more realistic view of the European cataclysm than did the liberals, but misread the Soviet project, which “was just another disaster.” After the war Koestler abandoned politics and devoted himself to mysticism and the study of the paranormal. Even here, Gray concludes, Koestler’s pursuits were “not as fantastic as the idea that humanity is slowly ascending to a higher civilization.”

In Gray’s next diorama we find Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Austrian Jewish writers and friends, born toward the end of the nineteenth century and, in their last years under the shadow of Nazism, nostalgic for the placid and creaky old Austro-Hungarian Empire of their youth. Roth is largely forgotten, but Zweig is experiencing a certain revival, as his work is the basis for this year’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel.

For John Gray, the old Hapsburg regime and its dissolution shed a mordant light on our notions about progress. For example, it was because it was not a democracy that the widespread antisemitism of the Austrians and Hungarians was held in check. (This is an effect we saw in more modern dress in Syria before the civil war and in Iraq before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but under far more tyrannical governments.) The appearance of nationalism and the creation of institutions of civil society, usually regarded as great achievements of modernity, opened the stopcocks on the gasoline that would burn Europe to the ground. Gray writes:

“The inhabitants of the empire were subjects rather than citizens – a status that deprived them of the pleasure of justifying hatred by reference to ideals of self-government. Only with the struggle for national self-determination did it come to be believed that every human being had to belong to a group defined in opposition to others.”

As nations came to form out of old empires and principalities, citizenship came to be defined in counterposition to national minorities, which commonly faced ethnic cleansing. (America has been somewhat of an exception to this process because of its multiethnic immigrant origin, but that is wearing thin, as a majority of those of white European stock today are recoiling from the growing demographic of Latino, Asian, and black ethnicities soon to constitute a new national majority.)

Progressives generally viewed the right of nations to self-determination as a major step on the road to human emancipation. For central and eastern Europe, Gray writes, Joseph Roth “had no such illusions. He knew the end-result could only be mass murder.” Roth died in Paris of alcoholism in 1939, at the age of forty-four. After Hitler came to power Stefan Zweig, with his second wife, emigrated to England in 1934, moved to New York in 1940, then to Brazil, where, fearing Hitler would win the war, they committed suicide in February 1942.

Another piece looks at George Orwell’s 1984 and Eugene Lyons’ 1937 Assignment in Utopia. Gray’s concern here is his firm conviction that while technology may advance, attempts to radically change or improve the human character not only are doomed to fail but they fail disastrously.

Lyons (1898-1985) was a journalist who became radicalized in 1920 around the Sacco and Vanzetti case. In 1922 he became a Communist fellow traveler, working for the then-underground American Communist Party’s pro-Soviet publications. He graduated in 1924 to a job as an American correspondent for the Soviet news service TASS, moving to Moscow in 1928 as correspondent for the American United Press. He remained in the USSR until 1934. While there he wrote dispatches, like Koestler, covering up the government-induced famine in the Ukraine. Finally, disillusioned by what he saw, he published his 1937 indictment.

John Gray cites just one aspect: the special shops where citizens with foreign currency or gold “valuta” slips could buy goods not accessible to ordinary citizens, such as white bread, butter, and cheese, or for the really wealthy, diamonds. The valuta slips cold be used in restaurants, where they were sixty times more valuable than rubles, or to pay whores. People came to the stores to sell gold watches, jewelry, and ornaments.

The shops were monitored by the secret police and people who were suspected of having more gold were arrested and tortured in “sweat rooms,” “lice rooms,” “cold rooms,” and other inventive methods. If there really wasn’t any hidden treasure but the interrogators didn’t believe the victim, their children were arrested and subjected to extended torture.

Lyons was briefly attracted to Trotskyism, but moved to the right by the early 1940s.

Gray concludes about the Soviet experiment:

“Contrary to generations of western progressives, it was not Russian backwardness or mistakes in applying Marxian theory that produced the society that Lyons observed. Similar regimes came into being wherever the communist project was attempted. Lenin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Ceausescu’s Romania and many more were variants of a single dictatorial model. From being a movement aiming for universal freedom, communism turned into a system of universal despotism That is the logic of utopia.”

He writes further:

“Millions died needlessly and tens of millions suffered broken lives, most leaving barely a trace they had ever existed. But under the surface powerful currents were flowing, which in time would wash away the pseudo-reality that enchanted western pilgrims. The Soviet dystopia ended by becoming just another piece of rubbish in the debris of history.”

Later in his text, looking more broadly at such presumptively emancipatory revolutions, Gray adds, “The overthrow of the ancien regime in France, the Tsars in Russia, the Shah of Iran, Saddam in Iraq and Mubarak in Egypt may have produced benefits for many people, but increased freedom was not among them. Mass killing, attacks on minorities, torture on a larger scale, another kind of tyranny, often more cruel than the one that was overthrown – these have been the results. To think of humans as freedom-loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.”

He is leading here into a disquisition not so much on the futility of efforts at political reform but efforts that aim at reconfiguring the human character. He quotes a dialogue written around 1851 by the socialist Russian writer Alexander Herzen in which Herzen’s protagonist replies to Rousseau’s aphorism that “Man is born to be free – and is everywhere in chains,” with the retort, “What would you say to a man who, nodding his head sadly, remarked that ‘Fish are born to fly – but everywhere they swim!’?”

Gray designates the cothinkers of the nodding man “Ichthyophils,” and adds his up-to-date addendum to the dialogue:

“Ichthyophils are devoted to their species as they believe it ought to be, not as it actually is or as it truly wants to be. Ichthyophils come in many varieties – the Jacobin, Bolshevik and Maoist, terrorizing humankind in order to remake it on a new model; the neo-conservative, waging perpetual war as a means to universal democracy; liberal crusaders for human rights, who are convinced that all the world longs to become as they imagine themselves to be.”

Sometimes Gray ventures from the abstract terrain of human ontology into the thickets of late capitalist economics and the environmental threats that face us. He charts no new ground here but tells us where he stands on issues being widely debated. Prosperity in America in the last decades of the twentieth century rested on ever accumulating debt for the great majority. With real income static or declining the debt could never be repaid, which marked the prosperity as short-lived. Growing numbers are in prison, permanently unemployed, down-scaled into marginal occupations, or into a shadow world of drug dealing and prostitution.

The emergence of the Tea Party “suggests a retreat into a kind of willed psychosis, with populist demagogues promising a return to a mythical past.” This multifaceted decline in turn rests on intractable ecological factors:

“The most likely scenario must be that a resumption of growth is engineered, only to be derailed at some point in the future by scarcities of oil, water and other natural resources.”

Interestingly he is not ready to say that these looming, seemingly existential physical limits, will produce a generalized social collapse. He does think that global power will shift to more statist forms of capitalism, in China, India, Russia, Brazil, and Africa.


Civilization and Barbarism

Frederick Engels famously wrote that the future confronted us with a choice between socialism and barbarism. As it played out over the next century, we mostly found that socialism was barbarism, so Engels’ advice proved to not do us much good. John Gray’s view that humans cannot be reengineered on morally superior lines is not the sum of his stance on the antipodes proposed by Engels. Science and technology “are cumulative” but civilized habits are easily disrupted and then hard to reestablish. Barbarism is as natural for humans as is civilization. Humans are only “intermittently rational.”

For modern humanists, he writes, “the solution is simple: human beings must in future be more reasonable. These enthusiasts for reason have not noticed that the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion.”

In fact, he argues, the secular humanist prospect presumes salvationist improvement of humanity that is derived more from Christianity than from any consideration of history or of the natural world.

“In a strictly naturalistic view – one in which the world is taken on its own terms, without reference to a creator or any spiritual realm – there is no hierarchy of value with humans at the top. There are simply multifarious animals, each with their own needs. Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science.”

Here Gray takes on the most common misinterpretation of Darwinism by its nominal supporters: that it prescribes an onward and upward progression in which humans are its apex. Nothing of the sort, except at the hands of those who illegitimately try to reconcile evolution with religion. All natural selection says about the natural world is that survival of individuals, not species, favors those best adapted to their environment. It does not predict any favoritism for complexity or for intelligence. The HIV virus and the liver fluke are as successful products of evolution as Albert Einstein. Evolution’s function is utterly distinct from our needs and values. For only a very small fraction of living organisms is intelligence or complexity of survival value. And the outcome of any branch of the evolution of physical organisms is completely unpredictable. There is not the slightest reason if the film were rerun from the beginning to expect that it would at some point produce intelligent apes who would conquer the planet, destroy most of the other species, and very likely drive themselves to early extinction through population overshoot and vast overuse of natural resources.

Which brings John Gray to myths. He has long argued that the Enlightenment in general and its left, Marxist, wing in particular, have been fundamentally wrong to believe and predict that religion and nationalism will fade away, to be replaced by scientific reason and world brotherhood. Here he sketches his views on myth, mysticism, and what might be termed a non-supernatural spirituality. We need myths to live, he says. He is not a cold scientistic rationalist. But not just any myths will do. The greater the cultural and historic resonance the better. Not so much that we take myths literally, but that they provide a familiar cultural matrix framing our lives in the world. “If there is a choice it is between myths. In comparison with the Genesis myth, the modern myth in which humanity is marching to a better future is mere superstition. As the Genesis story teaches, knowledge cannot save us from ourselves.”

The secular humanist myth posits the “realization of human potential as the goal of history,” when, Gray affirms, history has no goal. The fact that we never arrive at the moment when people have become exemplars of rationalism seems never to dampen secular humanists’ enthusiasm for their project. “Like believers in flying saucers, they interpret the non-event as confirming their faith.” Science progresses, civilization does not.

I will not spend time on Gray’s discussion of Freud except to note that Freud’s positing of the unconscious offers a counterpoint to the presumption that our actions are governed purely by Reason:

” [T]he id, Freud says, knows nothing of the law that forbids self-contradiction – and [is] indifferent to right and wrong.” This undoes the myth of progress, “the chief consolation of modern humankind.” Freud, he writes, despite the psychoanalytic movement that followed in his name, “never claimed to heal the soul. . . . A loss of instinctual satisfacation came with any kind of civilized life.”

Gray has a more interesting digression on Carl Jung. He asserts that Jung the famed psychotherapist took his signature idea of the collective unconcsious from an occultist movement in Germany founded by zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) that aimed at creating a science-based evolutionary religion. Haeckel in 1906 created the Monist League, which preached an esoteric version of Social Darwinism, a melange of eugenics, theories of racial hierarchy, pantheism, and hostility to Christianity and Judaism. Its members included prominent Darwinian scientists, occultist Rudolph Steiner, positivist physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach, the butt of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio Criticism, and numerous later prominent Communists and Nazis. This milieu sought to mingle modern science with archaic volkish cultures, in the process going beyond the notion of national character to the idea that whole ethnic peoples have collective souls.

From these beginnings Jung claimed to have discovered archtypes from the collective unconscious that appear to people in dreams or visions. In his later writings Jung said that the archtypes are universal, but Gray cites a Berlin lecture shortly after the Nazi seizure of power in which Jung said that “The Aryan unconscious has a higher potential than the Jewish.”

People need myths, Gray affirms, but ones that have resonance in their lives, either from an inherited culture or from recent experience, not the Jungian inventions or humanist wish fulfillment:

“Greek myth contains truths that modern myths deny, but not all true myth is ancient. Nowadays myths can be practically momentary: transmitted through the world by 24-hour news and the internet, they spread virally, entering the minds of tens and hundreds of milions of people in minutes or hours. . . . But myths survive for only as long as they are enacted by those who accept them. As popular uprisings go through their normal sequence of rebellion, anarchy and renewed tyranny, the myth of revolution dissipates to be replaced by new myths of conspiracy and betrayal.”


Godless Mysticism and the Silence of Animals

I found the last third of John Gray’s little book the most difficult. He presents a series of brief sketches inspired by, today, mostly obscure authors, I will touch on only some of these. He develops some theses on our animal nature and how we should best relate to nature and other animals. From T. E. Hulme (1883-1917) he adopts a preference for nominalism over realism, or in Hulme’s usage, Classicism rather than Romanticism. Nominalism has many usages and variants but the usage preferred by Hulme says that the world is made up of specific concrete objects, while terminology that groups these into universals is a human construct and we should be skeptical as to how accurately it reflects an external reality. Philosophical realism takes the contrary position, that humans are in process of perceiving large numbers of universals that accurately describe the external world. While science generally takes the realist side, I can see that a writer wishing to stress our similarities to other animals would want to oppose reifying our capacities for abstrct reason as making us something entirely different and superior to our fellow beasts. Gray summarizes:

“Human beings are animals that have equipped themselves with symbols. Helping deal with a world they do not understand, symbols are useful tools; but humans have an inveterate tendency to think and act as if the world they have made from these symbols actually exists. Their minds – they like to think – are built on the model of the cosmos. A great deal of philosophy and religion is not much more than a rationalization of this conceit.”

In Hulme’s definitions, Romanticism, a product of the era of the Enlightenment and its contemporary rival schools, holds that humans have infinite potential. His Classicism, based on the views of human nature of the Greeks and Romans, has us with quite limited and fixed potentialities, as do most animals, only surmounted to a small degree by our acquisition of abstract reasoning. Gray comments:

“People talk of humans evolving, as if the views of the world humans take up and leave behind are developiong towards one that will be all inclusive. But world views are like gardens, easily destroyed by bad weather.”

Godless mysticism is a bit more sticky to define. Gray attributes it loosely to Fritz Mauthner (1849-1923), a mostly forgotten Austro-Hungarian novelist and philosopher who was an influence on Wittgenstein. Mauthner himself calls this idea unsayable, but Gray cites Mauthner’s attempt to explain it:

“There is no God apart from the world, nor a world apart from God. . . . I can experience, for short hours, that I no longer know anything about the principle of individuation, that there ceases to be a difference betwen the world and myself.”

This sounds at first like pantheistic nature worship. That is not quite right. Mauthner was an atheist, but in the context of an extreme nominalism that treated virtually all abstractions such as “humanity” – God included – as linguistic conveniences rather than descriptions of reality. From this absolutist standpoint the holder of such a view, unlike Richard Dawkins and other contemporary atheist campaigners, simply has no interest in the subject of God, as the word refers to something inexpressible in language except by difuse analogies. This was not to say that the world does not exist or that universal statements about it might not be true, but that they were not expressible in meaningful ways in language.

So what, then, does Mauthner mean when he says that there ceases to be a difference between the world and himself? As Gray too briefly explains, it seems to be an interior quiescence closest to Buddhist negation of self. Gray writes:

“Godless mystics do not look to merge themselves with something larger they have imagined into being; they look to wipe away their inexistent selves.”


Imagining Oneself to Be a Hawk, and the Search for Silence

This brings us to The Peregrine and the silence of animals of Gray’s title. The author of The Peregrine was John Alec Baker (1926-1986), a native of Chelmsford, Essex, England. The book, based on observations between October and April, probably for 1962-63, summarized ten years of intense observation of the lives of Peregrine falcons. A high school dropout, Baker worked for the Automobile Asssociation, but never learned to drive, and for a soft drink company. As John Gray says, Baker was not a birdwatcher in any ordinary sense. He sought to understand the psychology of the Peregrine, to the degree that he could with great intensity imagine himself to be the bird. “He followed it,” Gray writes, “not in order to observe it, but in an attempt to escape the point of view of a human observer.” And from Baker’s text:

“Looking down, the hawk saw the big orchard beneath him shrink into dark twiggy lines and green strips; saw the dark woods closing together and reaching out across the hills; saw the green and white fields turning to brown; saw the silver line of the brook, and the coiled river slowly uncoiling; saw the whole valley flattening and widening; saw the horizon staining with distant towns; saw the estuary lifting up its blue and silver mouth, tongued with green islands. And beyond, beyond all, he saw the straight-ruled line of the sea floating like a rim of mercury on the surface of the brown and white land.”

Baker did not disguise the brutality of bird life. “The woods and fields and gardens are places of endless stabbing, impaling, squashing and mangling.” He did not anthropomorphize his subjects. Instead, “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.”

Our lives, Gray avers, are filled with commotion and distractions that fill our time, compounded by the mental monologue that makes true silence difficult for humans. Animals, though we don’t know what takes place in their minds, and most have a language-like repertoire of cries, spend far more of their time in silence. Humans, Gray comments, “seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves, other animls live in silence because they do not need redeeming.”

John Gray concludes his peripatetic survey with a few pages on nonreligious contemplation.

“Contemplation can be understood as an activity that aims not to change the world or to understand it, but simply to let it be. . . . Like that of religious mystics, contemplation of this kind involves nullifying the self. But not with the aim of entering any higher self – a figment left behind by an animal mind. God-seeking mystics want this figment to guide them in a new way of living. They are right in thinking that a life made up only of action is the pursuit of phantoms; but so is life passed on a fictive frontier between two worlds. The needy animal that invented the other world does not go away, and the result of trying to leave the creature behind is to live instead with its ghost.

“Godless contemplation is a more radical and transient condition: a temporary respite from the all-too-human world, with nothing particular in mind. In most traditions the life of contemplation promises redemption from being human: in Christianity, the end of tragedy and a glimpse of the divine comedy. . . . Godless mysticism cannot excape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of any oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being. There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.”

I am unable to give any credence to the myth of the Judeo-Christian God, and see Jesus as a misguided apocalyptic rabbi. Still, I am less certain than John Gray that there is nothing in our universe now dismissed as supernatural that may not with time prove to have more reality than scientific skeptics believe today. As for godless contemplation or mysticism, this seems to be a term invented to describe meditation, defensively assuring others that for this practitioner, at least, it carries none of the baggage often associated with it.



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