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The myth of human progress

by Peter Conrad

The Observer

THE SILENCE OF ANIMALS: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, by John Gray. Allen Lane, 2013, 240 pp., £18.99 (hardcover)

“The more I see of men,” said Madame de Stael, “the more I like dogs.” Always excepting the pit bulls and Rottweilers that slather and snap at the heels of yobs, I agree with her. So does John Gray, who introduces this anti-humanist tract with a quote in which Arthur Koestler imagines some undescended apes swinging playfully through the trees while a brutish prehistoric man plods along the ground below, clubbing innocent creatures and gorging on their raw flesh. Rather than promoting evolutionary progress, our uncouth ancestor represents “a barbaric relapse of history.”

Gray later brings that primal scene up to date. Starving Neapolitans in 1944 hunt and consume alley cats, or feed on tropical fish scavenged from the city aquarium; Soviet prisoners interned by the Nazis gobble the corpses of other inmates like ravening hounds.

This is what happens when the pretenses of civilization and humanism fall away. For in Gray’s view they were never more than a conceit given sanctimonious support by religion. In Eden, God flattered man by electing him to lordship over the other animals; the truth is that our rational capacity has actually licensed us to behave like beasts.

“Barbarism,” Gray believes, “is a disease of civilisation.” All our institutions — “families and churches, police forces” — are incriminated by “human nastiness.” It’s absurd to place faith in the evolution of our species or in the progressive amelioration of society: In the Belgian Congo or Stalinist Russia or in contemporary Iraq, Iran and Syria, ideologues who rave about the regeneration of the world rely on mass slaughter to establish their personal version of heaven on Earth. In Gray’s reading of history, men are the playthings of a blind and amoral fate, which decrees that the same mistakes will be made over and over again. The fictions and myths we elaborate in order to feel at home in this inimical or indifferent universe are at best “a scattering of dust,” easily dispersed by the chilly blasts of Gray’s invective.

So what should a wise man do? Kill himself, probably. Gray admires the stoicism of Socrates who uncomplainingly swallowed his dose of hemlock, and he finds the same bracing despair in the cancer-stricken Freud, who refused to stop smoking the cigars that were killing him and waited for a friendly doctor to administer morphine and terminate his misery. Otherwise, the only nostrum recommended here is to take up ornithology. One of Gray’s heroes is the birdwatcher J.A. Baker, who rejected human company and spent a decade studying peregrine falcons in Essex.

As befits a book that scorns progress, Gray’s polemic is bluntly repetitive. He has expounded his theories often before, though this time there are a few asides that acutely target aspects of our current malaise. His mockery of our desperate belief in a better future recalls U.S. President Barack Obama’s victory speech last November, which ended, despite the evidence of economic collapse and social breakdown, by asserting that for the United States “the best is yet to come.”

Too much else is secondhand: The book is an anthology of misanthropy, amplified with endless quotes from Orwell and Ballard, Herzen and Borges, Ford Madox Ford and Llewelyn Powys. The citations start with an opening section on Joseph Conrad’s stories about the inhumanity of imperialists in the Congo. Gray mentions “Heart of Darkness” in passing, and later he takes up the dying lament of its hero. “The horror, the horror,” moans Kurtz, haunted by his reversion to cannibalism; echoing him, Gray says the human world was “the horror from which J.A. Baker was fleeing.”

Horror, however, is Gray’s meat and drink, and he often seems to be rerunning horror movies in his gloomy head. He titled a previous book “Straw Dogs,” alluding to Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film about a pack of feral thugs who maraud through a village in the West Country, and at first I thought that “The Silence of Animals” might be a riff on “The Silence of the Lambs,” in which Jodie Foster tells the liplicking man-eater Anthony Hopkins about a pack of squealing sheep bound for the abattoir. As it turns out, the phrase is taken from the Swiss Catholic theologian Max Picard, who bafflingly remarks that “The silence of animals is different from the silence of men.”

I’m puzzled by the Franciscan sentimentality Picard’s comment provokes in Gray. Despite his contempt for his own species, he’s a softie when it comes to our feathered or four-legged friends. Hasn’t he ever been kept awake by a barking dog or the rutting yelps of urban foxes? Quoting page after page of Baker’s rhapsodies about the peregrine falcon, he forgets that hawks are birds of prey, treading air while they prepare to pinion hapless rabbits and dismember them with their scything beaks.