In his new book The Silence of Animals, the philosopher John Gray explores why human beings continue to use myth to give purpose to their lives. Drawing from the material of writers such as J.G. Ballard, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens and others, Gray looks at how we can reinvent meaning in our lives through a variety of myths and different moments in history.
Gray refutes that humanity is marching forward to progress, where utopian ideals of civilisation and enlightenment are the end goals. He sees human beings as incapable of moving beyond their primordial, animalistic, selfish instincts, particularly when factors beyond their control make them more fearful.
I spent two hours with Gray at his publishers’ office in London, drinking tea, discussing philosophy, history and literature. Our conversation covered a wide number of key thinkers, from both the ancient and modern world. He began by talking about one of his literary heroes, the late J.G. Ballard.
Why did you decide to include J.G. Ballard in this book, as an example of someone who uses myth as a central theme in his writing?
Well what I like about his writing is the lyricism: they are full of the most beautiful images. Ballard always said he wanted to be a painter, but didn’t have the talent. But his books are galleries of images. The way I talk about him in The Silence of Animals definitely reflects that. The ability he had was to turn scenes of desolation into beauty. When he walked as a child into a ruined and empty casino [in Shanghai in the 1930s], he said it was like wandering into something from the Arabian Nights. To him it was a realm of magic. What he was able to do from that experience was to conjure beauty out of it. That I believe is the power of myth.
In your new book you say: ‘to think of humans as freedom loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.’ Could you elaborate on this point?
Well there is a certain common view nowadays which says: what human beings have been until quite recently is different from what they really are. And only now do human beings have the chance to be what they are, which many people think is to be free. If we think of Homer; or the way things are described in the Bible; or medieval life: all these other ways of life are somehow today seen as not fully human. There is supposed to be a kind of essence to humanity, in which human beings want to shape their own lives.
So are you denying that it’s a natural human impulse to crave freedom?
Of course not. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the periods of freedom that we’ve had in human history. I’m just saying that it’s not the only human impulse, and rarely is it the most powerful one. You begin to see that when life becomes unsettled, when there are dangers, especially that people cannot understand. It’s then that human beings tend to look at solutions to these problems that typically involve restricting freedoms. In other words: when life gets rough, the need for freedom, or the impulse for freedom, which is real —it’s part of the human constitution you might say— tends very commonly to be eclipsed by other needs. These can simply be for security, or they can be darker needs to bolster up an identity to attack, marginalize, or even exterminate others. These are all classic human responses. The idea that humans are by nature free is one of the most harmful fictions that’s ever been promoted anywhere.
What is your own relationship with religion?
I don’t belong to a religion. In fact I would have to be described as an atheist. But I’m friendly to religion on the grounds that it seems to me to be distinctively human, and it has produced many good things. But you see these humanists or rationalists who seem to hate this distinctively human feature. This to me seems to me very odd. These evangelical atheists say things such as: religion is like child abuse, that if you had no religious education, there would be no religion. It’s completely absurd.
You also say that ‘atheism does not mean rejecting belief in God, but up a belief in language as anything other than practical convenience.’ What are you getting at here?
I was referring to Fritz Mauthner, who wrote a four-volume history of atheism. He was an atheist who thought that theism was an obsessive attachment to the constructions of language: that the idea of God was a kind of linguistic ideal. So that atheism meant not worshipping that ideal. But he took that as just an example of a more general truth: that there is a danger in worshiping the constructions of language. Of course religions like Christianity are partially to blame for this. But for most of their history, these so called creedal faiths didn’t define themselves by doctrine. Instead they had strong traditions of what’s called Apophatic theology: where you cannot use language to describe God.
Would you call yourself an existentialist?
No I think that carries too much baggage. I’m a sceptic, but in a positive sense. I don’t mean just standing back from belief, and not having any. But exploring different views of things that have been part of the human world: like the views of the pagan philosophers, with a view to seeing what benefit they can be to us.
Why do you dispute the notion that knowledge is a pacifying force?
Well there is this notion in some intellectual circles that evil is a kind of error: that if you get more knowledge you won’t commit the error. People often say: if we get more knowledge for human psychology won’t that help? No. All knowledge is ambiguous in this way. The Nazis were very good at using their knowledge at mass psychology. Or if you were a Russian revolutionary like Lenin, you might use the knowledge of the causes of inflation to take control of the central bank, create hyper-inflation and bring about your revolutionary project. So knowledge can never eradicate the conflicts of the human world, or produce harmony where there are conflicting goals to start with. Because knowledge is used by human beings as a tool to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve.
In one part of the book you ask why humans have such a need for meaning. You’re a philosopher: isn’t meaning important for you?
Well knowledge is important. But I’m not sure if finding a true meaning is. But one of the chief reasons humans need meaning — and I’m only speculating here — is that they are conscious of their own mortality. Even Epicurus said: When we exist death is not, and when death exists we are not. What he was getting at was that we have a different sense of time that other animals don’t have. If we have the idea of our mortality then we see our lives in a different way because we think we see them as a single coherent story.
You also argue that the need for silence is distinctively human. Why do other animals not need this silence?
What distinguishes humans from animals is precisely this need to tell stories. What people seem to want is not to be caught in the shroud of language. Silence for other animals means rest. But the noise that other animals flee is created by other animals. Humans are the only animals that flee internal noise. Humans throughout history, and prehistory, have engaged in all sorts of meditation, either to shift the way they perceive the world, or to produce in themselves, some state of silence, from which something else will come.
The Silence of Animals by John Gray is published by Penguin.
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