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