John Gray’s Godless Mysticism: On “The Silence of Animals”
By Simon CritchleyJune 2, 2013
The Silence of Animals by John Gray
Triptych image: Mariechen Danz, "Ye (3)," 2006
Photo: Andrea Huyoff. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Tanja Wagner, Berlin
HUMAN BEINGS DO NOT just make killer apps. We are killer apes. We are nasty, aggressive, violent, rapacious hominids, what John Gray calls in his widely read 2002 book, Straw Dogs, homo rapiens. But wait, it gets worse. We are a killer species with a metaphysical longing, ceaselessly trying to find some meaning to life, which invariably drives us into the arms of religion. Today’s metaphysics is called “liberal humanism,” with a quasi-religious faith in progress, the power of reason and the perfectibility of humankind. The quintessential contemporary liberal humanists are those Obamaists, with their grotesque endless conversations about engagement in the world and their conviction that history has two sides, right and wrong, and they are naturally on the right side of it.
Gray’s most acute loathing is for the idea of progress, which has been his target in a number of books, and which is continued in the rather uneventful first 80 pages or so of The Silence of Animals. He allows that progress in the realm of science is a fact. (And also a good: as Thomas De Quincey remarked, a quarter of human misery results from toothache, so the discovery of anesthetic dentistry is a fine thing.) But faith in progress, Gray argues, is a superstition we should do without. He cites, among others, Conrad on colonialism in the Congo and Koestler on Soviet Communism (the Cold War continues to cast a long shadow over Gray’s writing) as evidence of the sheer perniciousness of a belief in progress. He contends, contra Descartes, that human irrationality is the thing most evenly shared in the world. To deny reality in order to sustain faith in a delusion is properly human. For Gray, the liberal humanist’s assurance in the reality of progress is a barely secularized version of the Christian belief in Providence.
With the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt in mind, Gray writes in Black Mass (2007): “Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion.” Politics has become a hideous surrogate for religious salvation, and secularism is itself a religious myth. In The Silence of Animals, he writes, “Unbelief today should begin by questioning not religion but secular faith.” What most disturbs Gray are utopian political projects based on some faith that concerted human action in the world can allow for the realization of seemingly impossible political ends and bring about the perfection of humanity. As he makes explicit in Black Mass, he derives his critique of utopianism from Norman Cohn’s 1957 book, The Pursuit of the Millennium. What Cohn implied but Gray loudly declares is that Western civilization can be defined in terms of the central role of millenarian thinking. Salvation is collective, terrestrial, imminent, total, and miraculous. What takes root with early Christian belief, and massively accelerates in medieval Europe, finds its modern continuation in a sequence of bloody utopian political projects, from Jacobinism to Bolshevism, Stalinism, Nazism, and different varieties of Marxist-Leninist, anarchist, or Situationist ideologies. They all promised to build heaven on earth and left us with hell instead.
In Black Mass, Gray persuasively attempted to show how the energy of such utopian political projects has drifted from the left to the right. Bush, Blair, and the rest framed the war on terror as an apocalyptic struggle that would forge the new American century of untrammeled personal freedom and free markets. During the first years of the new millennium, a religious fervor energized the project of what we might call “military neoliberalism”: violence was the means for realizing liberal democratic heaven on earth. The picture of a world at war where purportedly democratic regimes, like the USA, deploy terror in their alleged attempts to confront it is still very much with us, even if full-scale, classical military invasions have given way to the calculated cowardice of drone strikes and targeted assassinations.
Carl Schmitt’s critique of parliamentary democracy led him towards an argument for dictatorship. Where does Gray’s loathing of liberalism leave him? He identifies the poison in liberal humanism, but what’s the antidote? It is what Gray calls “political realism”: we have to accept, as many ancient societies did and many non-Western societies still do, that the world is in a state of ceaseless conflict. Periods of war are followed by periods of peace, only to be followed by war again. What goes around comes around. And around. History makes more sense as a cycle than as a line of development or even decline.
In the face of such ceaseless conflict, Gray counsels that we have to abandon the belief in utopia and accept the tragic contingencies of life: there are moral and political dilemmas for which there are simply no solutions. We have to learn to abandon pernicious daydreams such as a new cosmopolitan world order governed by universal human rights, or that history has a teleological, providential purpose that underwrites human action. We even have to renounce the Obamaesque (in essence, crypto-Comtian or crypto-Saint-Simonian) delusion that one’s life is a narrative that is an episode in some universal story of progress. It is not.
Against the grotesque distortion of conservatism into the millenarian military neoliberalism, Gray wants to defend the core belief of traditional Burkean Toryism. The latter begins in a realistic acceptance of human imperfection and frailty. As such, the best that flawed and potentially wicked human creatures can hope for is a commitment to civilized constraints that will prevent the very worst from happening: a politics of the least worst. Sadly, no one in political life seems prepared to present this argument, least of all those contemporary conservatives who have become more utopian than their cynical pragmatist left-liberal counterparts, such as the British Labor Party.
The most extreme expression of human arrogance, for Gray, is the idea that human beings can save the planet from environmental devastation. Because they are killer apes who will always deploy violence, force, and terror in the name of some longed-for metaphysical project, human beings cannot be trusted to save their environment. Furthermore — and this is an extraordinarily delicious twist — the earth doesn’t need saving. Here Gray borrows from James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. The ever-warming earth is suffering from disseminated primatemaia, a plague of people. Homo rapiens is savagely ravaging the planet like a filthy pest that has infested a once beautiful, well-appointed, and spacious house. In 1600, the human population was about half a billion. In the 1990s it increased by the same amount. And the acceleration continues. What Gray takes from the Gaia hypothesis is that this plague cannot be solved by the very people who are its cause. It can only be solved by a large-scale decline in human numbers back down to manageable levels. Let’s go back to 1600!
Such is the exhilaratingly anti-humanist, dystopian, indeed Ballardesque, vision of a drowned world at the heart of Gray’s work: when the earth is done with humans, it will recover and the blip of human civilization will be forgotten forever. Global warming is simply one of the periodic fevers that the earth has suffered during its long, nonhuman history. It will recover and carry on. But we cannot and will not.
Where does this leave us? Although Gray is critical of Heidegger’s residual humanism (animals are poor in world and rocks and stone are worldless, Martin insists), he is very close to a line of thought in a collection of Heidegger’s fragments published as Overcoming Metaphysics. Written between 1936 and 1946, these are Heidegger’s bleakest and most revealing ruminations, in my view. At their center stands an all-too-oblique critical engagement with National Socialism filtered through the lens of his willful reading of Nietzsche. Heidegger concludes his meditations with the words, “No mere action will change the world.” The statement finds its rejoinder in the title of Heidegger’s posthumously published 1966 interview with Der Spiegel: “Only a god can save us.” For Heidegger and Gray, there is no god, unfortunately, and we cannot save ourselves. It’s the belief that we can save ourselves that got us into our current mess. If political voluntarism is the motor of modernity’s distress, then the task becomes how we might think without the will.
This takes us to the compelling critique of the concept of action in Gray’s work. Whether Arendtian fantasies of idealized praxis, liberal ideas of public engagement and intervention, or leftist delusions about the propaganda of the deed, action provides consolation for killer apes like us by momentarily staving off the threat of meaninglessness. The radical core of Gray’s work, unfashionable as it might seem, is a strident defense of the ideal of contemplation against action, whether the bios theoretikos of Aristotle or the ataraxia of the Epicureans. As Gray says in the final words of Straw Dogs, “Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?”
But Gray’s ideological masterstroke is the fusion of his quasi-Burkean critique of liberalism, underpinned as it is by a deep pessimism about human nature, with a certain strand of Taoism. More particularly, what engages Gray is the ultra-skeptical illusionism of Chuang-Tzu, magnificently expressed in the subtle paradoxes of The Inner Chapters. Chuang-Tzu writes, “How do I know that to take pleasure in life is not a delusion?” The answer is that I do not know and furthermore it doesn’t matter. Pushing much further than the furtive Descartes in his Dutch oven, Chuang-Tzu writes, “While we dream we do not know that we are dreaming, and in the middle of a dream interpret a dream within it.” He concludes, “You and Confucius are both dreams, and I who call you a dream am also a dream.” There is no way out of the dream and what has to be given up is the desperate metaphysical longing to find some anchor in a purported reality.
Homo rapiens must learn to give up the destructive and pointless search for meaning and learn to see that the aim of life is the release from meaning. What interests Gray in the mind-bending paradoxes of Chuang-Tzu is the acceptance of the fact that life is a dream without the possibility, or even the desire, to awaken from the dream. If we cannot be free of illusions, if illusions are part and parcel of our natural constitution, then why not simply accept them? In the final pages of Black Mass Gray writes: “Taoists taught that freedom lies in freeing oneself from personal narratives by identifying with cosmic processes of death and renewal.” Rather than seek the company of utopian thinkers, we should find consolation in the words of “mystics, poets and pleasure-lovers.”
Such is the consoling company Gray keeps in The Silence of Animals. There is much here that is familiar to readers of Gray, such as the critique of progress and the constant tilting at liberal humanism. There is also much that is welcome, such as the robust defense of Freud as a moralist based on Philip Rieff’s classic interpretation, which is wielded against Jungian obscurantism, the triumph of the therapeutic, and the desire to fill the Freudian void with grisly specters like the collective unconscious. But what’s new in The Silence of Animals is Gray’s argument for what he calls “godless mysticism” based largely on a reading of Wallace Stevens (it’s true that Stevens makes a couple of cameo appearances in Gray’s The Immortalization Commission from 2011). Stevens is the still point around which the world turns in The Silence of Animals.
Each of the three parts of The Silence of Animals is framed and guided by quotations from Stevens; what seems to draw Gray’s attention is the sheer austerity of his late verse, for example the 25 poems included under the title “The Rock” in the Collected Poems in 1954, the year before Stevens’s death. Stevens’s poetry self-consciously moves between the poles of reality and the imagination. In his most Wordsworthian mood, as in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” the two poles would appear to fuse or be held in a creative balance: imagination grasps and transfigures reality. But in the very late poems, a hard, cold, contracted reality takes center stage. The power of imagination appears to be impoverished. The season of these late poems — always important for Stevens — changes from the florid and Floridian landscapes of the earlier verse to the harsh, unending cold of the Connecticut winter.
In the final poem in The Palm at the End of the Mind, “Of Mere Being,” Stevens speaks of that which is “Beyond the last thought,” namely a bird that sings “Without human meaning, / Without human feeling, a foreign song.” Stevens seems to be saying that things merely are: the tree, the bird, its song, its feathers, the wind moving in the branches. One can say no more. For Gray, “The mere being of which Stevens speaks is the pure emptiness to which our fictions may sometimes point.” That is to say, in accepting that the world is without meaning, a path is indicated that takes us beyond the meaning we have made.
Paradoxically, for Gray, the highest value in existence is to know that there is nothing of substance in the world. Nothing is more real than nothing. It is the nothingness beyond us, the emptiness behind words, that Gray wants us to contemplate. His is a radical nominalism behind which stands the void. In this, as he is well aware, Gray is close to Beckett. We are condemned to words, but language is a prison house from which we constantly seek to escape. Rather than any comforting dogma of the linguistic turn, Gray is trying to imagine a turn away from the linguistic. Human language should be pointed towards a nonhuman silence.
In his very last poems, Stevens comes about as close as one can get to giving up poetry in poetry. It is poetry of the antipodes of the poetry; the hard, alien reality that we stare at, unknowing. All we have are ideas about the thing, but not the thing itself. Desire contracts, the mind empties, the floors of memory are wiped clean and nothingness flows over us without meaning. In a very late lyric that Gray does not cite but which he might, “A Clear Day and No Memories,” Stevens writes:
Today the air is clear of everything.
It has no knowledge except of nothingness
And it flows over us without meanings,
As if none of us had ever been here before
And are not now: in this shallow spectacle,
This invisible activity, this sense.
It is “this sense” that Gray wants to cultivate in us, this turning of the self away from itself and its endless meaning-making and toward things in their variousness and particularity. The point is to undergo a kind of movement from the limitations of the human towards a greater inhuman realm of experience that can be had in the observation of plants, birds, landscapes, and even cityscapes. Stevens continues, with another “as if” (and whole books have been written on his use of hypothetical conjunctions):
As if nothingness contained a métier,
A vital assumption, an impermanence
In its permanent cold, an illusion so desired.
Poems are words chosen out of desire, but words that don’t create anything permanent. In creating illusion, they assume impermanence. This is what Stevens sees as the métier of nothingness: its work, its craft, its supreme fictiveness. It is abstract. It must change. It must give pleasure.
Gray’s godless mysticism would retain the forms of askesis common to religious forms of mystical practice (fasting, concentration and prayer) that attempt to nullify the self. But this would be done not in order to attain a higher experience of “Self” [sic] or some union with god, but rather to occasion a turn towards the nonhuman world in its mere being. A godless mysticism would not redeem us, but would redeem us from the need for redemption, the very need for meaning. A redemption from redemption, then. Meaninglessness would here be the achievement of the ordinary, the life of the senses. This line of thought gets very close to what the philosopher Eugene Thacker has called a mysticism of the inhuman, a climatological mysticism expressed in the dust of the planet.
There’s an unexpected local hero in The Silence of Animals: J.A. Baker (1926–1987), author of The Peregrine, a book that, to my shame, I didn’t know prior to reading Gray. It is the record of 10 years spent watching peregrine falcons in a narrow stretch of Essex countryside between Chelmsford and the coast. I happen to know that landscape quite well, or once knew it. It’s a minimal, flat landscape of neat fields, mudbanks, estuarial systems, and vast skies with huge clouds shuttling from west to east. In intense lyrical descriptions, Baker sought to escape the human perspective and look at the world through the eyes of this predatory bird, “Looking down, the hawk saw the big orchard beneath him shrink into dark, twiggy lines and green strips […] saw the estuary lifting up its blue and silver mouth, tongued with green islands.”
Baker was not crazy. He knew that there is no way out of the human world, and no way he could become a peregrine falcon. What interests Gray is the discipline (for Baker, an askesis of time, place and repetition: many days, months, and years spent returning to the same small strip of countryside) involved in peeling enough of oneself away in order to try to look outwards and upwards. Contemplation here is not some Hamlet-like, inward-facing attempt at stilling the self’s commotion. It’s the outward-facing decreation of the self through a cultivation of the senses. What’s being attempted is a non-anthropomorphic relation to animals and nature as a whole, where the falcon cannot hear the falconer. Gray’s godless mysticism asks us to look outside ourselves and simply see. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds.
Schopenhauer, usually read in abridged, aphoristic form, was the most popular philosopher of the 19th century. Epigrammatic pessimism of his sort gives readers reasons for their misery and words to buttress their sense of hopelessness and impotence. Few things offer more refined intellectual pleasure than backing oneself into an impregnably defended conceptual cul-de-sac and sitting there, knowing and immovable. It’s the thrill of reading Adorno or, in a certain light, Agamben. Such is what Nietzsche called “European Buddhism.”
Sometimes I think John Gray is the great Schopenhauerian European Buddhist of our age. What he offers is a gloriously pessimistic cultural analysis, which rightly reduces to rubble the false idols of the cave of liberal humanism. Counter to the upbeat progressivist evangelical atheism of the last decade, Gray provides a powerful argument in favor of human wickedness that’s still consistent with Darwinian naturalism. It leads to passive nihilism: an extremely tempting worldview, even if I think the temptation must ultimately be refused.
The passive nihilist looks at the world with a highly cultivated detachment and finds it meaningless. Rather than trying to act in the world, which is pointless, the passive nihilist withdraws to a safe contemplative distance and cultivates his acute aesthetic sensibility by pursuing the pleasures of poetry, peregrine-watching, or perhaps botany, as was the case with the aged Rousseau (“Botany is the ideal study for the idle, unoccupied solitary,” Jean-Jacques said). Lest it be forgotten, John Stuart Mill also ended up a botanist.
In a world that is rushing to destroy itself through capitalist exploitation or military crusades — two arms of the same Homo rapiens — the passive nihilist resigns himself to a small island where the mystery of existence can be seen for what it is without distilling it into a meaning. The passive nihilist learns to see, to strip away the deadening horror of habitual, human life and inhale the void that lies behind our words.
What will define the coming decades? I would wager the following: the political violence of faith, the certainty of environmental devastation, the decline of existing public institutions, ever-growing inequality, and yet more Simon Cowell TV shows. In the face of this horror, Gray offers a cool but safe temporary refuge.
Truth to tell, the world of Gray’s passive nihilist can be a lonely place, seemingly stripped of intense, passionate, and ecstatic human relations. It is an almost autistic universe, like J.A. Baker’s. It is also a world where mostly male authors and poets seem to be read, although Elizabeth Bishop comes to mind. As Stevens writes in his Adagia, “Life is an affair of people not of places. But for me life is an affair of places and that is the trouble.” Gray, like Stevens, seems preoccupied with place but, unlike Stevens, appears untroubled. What Gray says is undeniable: we are cracked vessels glued to ourselves in endless, narcissistic twittering. We are like moths wheeling around the one true flame: vanity. Who doesn’t long to escape into an animal silence?
Of course, love is the name of the counter-movement to that longing. Love — erotic, limb-loosening and bittersweet — is another way of pointing outwards and upwards, but this time towards people and not places. But that, as they say, is another story.
Author’s Note: This essay builds from certain formulations that the reader can find in The Faith of the Faithless (Verso, London and New York, 2012). See Chapter 2, pp.109-117.
Simon Critchley's last book was The Mattering of Matter. Documents from the Archive of the International Necronautical Society (with Tom McCarthy, Sternberg, Berlin, 2012) and his next book is Stay, Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine (Pantheon, New York, 2013).
LARB Staff Recommendations
I. LET’S SAY YOU WERE GOD. How could you know this? How could you be sure that you weren’t rather a mad person, thinking you were God? You’d be omniscient of course, so you would ...
WHEN I FIRST BROUGHT a group of my undergraduate students to meet William Jordan III at Cafe Mozart in Evanston, Illinois, he told them that each year we should ritualistically destroy a small plot of virgin prairie, of which there is ...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.