Allen Lane, £18.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

The Silence of the Animals: on Progress and Other Myths, By John Gray

The heretic thinker rips into liberal and humanist delusions - but his pessimism needs a new focus

John Gray's The Silence of the Animals, like its thematic predecessor Straw Dogs, is a brief, bracing, impatient book, in which High Table material is delivered at saloon bar volume. It is the kind of book (like Colin Wilson's The Outsider or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, though superior to both) that makes adolescents feel as if they've been given the keys to the universe.

The pitiless tundra Gray depicts is adapted mainly for animals, the odd philosopher, and John Gray's readers. It is littered with the dinosaur bones of Socrates, Plato, Christianity, Humanism, Marxism, vulgar Darwinism, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, scientism and progressive liberal politics. The air is cold but clear, though in Auden's words there might be "nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down". The available reading matter consists largely of Schopenhauer, Freud and Wallace Stevens, though that may have to be burnt for warmth in order to contemplate the bare, beautiful, unaccommodating facts of the matter as darkness falls and the nocturnal animals come on shift and apply their unsullied consciousness to tearing each other to pieces.

This is not a new story, but Gray tells it with great verve and urgency. As in the wars of theory, which in literary studies have been quiescent for some time, the villain is logocentricity, the confusion of words with the world and the taking of ideas for things. The besetting assumption in Western thought is that our pattern-making is not simply an ad hoc construction but reflects the underlying order of the cosmos, so that we justify our conduct by reference to higher powers which we have in fact created for ourselves, fusing science and superstition and promulgating errors in philosophy, science and politics. We are always crashing in the same car.

Progress and its affiliates are the particular objects of Gray's wrath. There are, he argues, no grounds for believing that human nature can be improved: the basic human concerns are food and reproduction, and when the resources to sustain them are threatened there is no limit to the barbarism that will follow under the signs of race, nation, religion and tribe. Barbarism is not the opposite of ordinary human conduct but a propensity activated by environmental or economic conditions. Civilisations grow, decay and pass from the earth without changing the fundamental facts one iota. The strong pessimism of the ancient world, Gray contends, recognised that we are not going anywhere. Then Christianity and humanism brought us teleology, reification and a sense first of the divine and then of social purpose.

The reader seated in a warm, well-lit study with a glass of wine and a sandwich will nod appreciatively at this terrible vision, but will also wonder what is to be done about it. Even the most sedentary reader is likely to see the world as a place where, rightly or wrongly, things are not simply known but also done. Gray recommends developing the power of contemplation, and who would argue with that? Yet he seems to be assuming that people see themselves as isolated individuals, even though much of what they do and suffer happens en masse, as in the Holocaust or the Stalinist famines.

It may be true that in Conrad's phrase "we live as we dream, alone", but people also think of themselves (willingly or not) as members of families, communities, tribes, classes, societies and nations. At the individual level are relationships which lend significance to people's lives, through which they develop mutual obligations, sympathy and even that most loaded of terms, love, about which Gray has little to say here. Love may be a decoration of the bare facts of need; like progress, it may be an illusion; but its innumerable dupes find it to be real and necessary.

Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery and William Empson recur as sources of reflection, begging questions about the necessity of illusion. Empson, who hated God with a suspicious passion, wrote about the necessities of the imagination: "Imagine, then, by miracle, with me, / (Ambiguous gifts, as what gods give must be)/ What could not possibly be there / And learn a style from a despair." Let Gray turn to aesthetics next.

Sean O'Brien's 'Collected Poems' is published by Picador

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test