Are things getting better? In some ways, undeniably. Progress is not altogether a fiction, or ‘modern myth’ in John Gray’s terminology, if we focus on such ultimately important ideas as medicine or science. Has life progressed since the discovery of antibiotics? Definitely. Would one seriously wish to have lived before the discovery of anaesthesia? Certainly not. In such areas, the existence of progress is, surely, undeniable.
That isn’t John Gray’s focus, but the fact that progress certainly exists and is real in some areas of human endeavour makes one think that the evidence, in areas where he does address his attention in this interesting, original and memorable book, might be read in two ways. He is right to point out that social existence does not necessarily run along lines of improvement, and that within recent history a well-ordered and structured society has frequently declined into savagery.
In Gray’s view, this decline has, as in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, frequently been abetted precisely by those dreams of improvement that are supposed to have despatched butchery to the historical past. But, all the same, for many individuals, the change in social attitudes has led to a definite improvement in circumstances and in opportunity. If you were black, or gay, or even a woman 60 years ago in Britain, your circumstances and your opportunities were objectively inferior to what they probably are now. Progress here is not as simple and as uniform as in the case of medical advance, but it has happened, may be witnessed, may even be measured.
It’s right to comment immediately on the notion of progress, because Gray, in his starting point, dismisses it too readily. For him, Arthur Koestler’s excursions into mysticism and parapsychology are ‘not as fantastic as the idea that humanity is slowly ascending to a higher civilisation’. Is a society where every member has access to good health care, free at the point of delivery, free drinking water, comfort and warmth, clothing and food of incredible variety not, in an objective sense, a higher civilisation than a couple of hundred years ago? The most perfectly ordinary member of today’s society has access to food, in the most perfectly ordinary supermarket, which would have been the astonishment of a Renaissance prince; he can be cured within two weeks of the infection that killed Mahler only 100 years ago. In what sense is this not progress?
Gray’s subject is not, however, just the notion of progress, but the destructive capacity of ultimately unrealisable dreams in human society. His argument is discursive, focused on a succession of writers or episodes which at first view bear little relationship to each other; first a short story by Conrad about the Congo, ‘An Outpost of Progress’, then Norman Lewis’s experiences in Naples at the end of the war, Joseph Roth’s view of the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the invention of the ‘2 + 2 = 5’ line in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and what happens to cults when their prophecies of doomsday fail. What brings these topics together is a shared subject so large that at first it is difficult to see it whole: the idea that the image we form of the world as it ought to be, or as we dream of it becoming, is destructive of our idea of the world as it actually is.
There’s no doubt that social entrepreneurs have formed views of how society could be, and in the course of attempting one great leap have destroyed or made intolerable life as it is actually lived. This is not a particularly ideological point. Gray brings it into play while talking about the blindness of visitors to Soviet Russia as well as the uncomfortable point that for many people the experience of living in Nazi Germany was one of reasonable undisturbed happiness. He goes on to talk about the credit crunch and the sub-prime catastrophe; again, it shows a notion of what society could be like, spreading riches in the surprising form of immense debt unsustainably. In a curious way, the bankers who followed the gospel according to Greenspan were as irrationally optimistic as the operators of Mao’s Great Step Forward, and as briskly inattentive to human nature.
The consequences were different degrees of human catastrophe, but neither were remotely desirable for those at the blunt end. Were they the product of the same large-scale tendency in human thought, the temptation to reach for the unattainable? To say, as Rousseau does, ‘Man is born free — and is everywhere in chains’ is, as Alexander Herzen comments, absurdly out of touch with the reality of the situation. ‘What would you say to a man who, nodding his head sadly, remarked that “Fish are born to fly — but everywhere they swim.” ’ Gray draws not only on ideas of a possible future society, but on ideas of personal fulfilment — ‘Looking for your true self invites un-ending disappointment.’
Gray finds possible solutions to this often disastrous aspect of human thought in two things. The first, admirably, is the practice of imaginative writers. He praises authors like T.E. Hulme who attempted not to express the communal, inexistent thing with words, but an objective fact of the world, filtered through the individual consciousness — ‘the great aim is accurate, precise and definite description’. Ford Madox Ford is brought in, criticising Tennyson for describing a bat in flight in precise, detailed, zoological but indiscernible detail, when what he should have been doing is talking about the imprint a bat in flight makes on the individual observer. Tennyson, too, is idealistic, though less harmfully so. In one of several ultimate paradoxes, this truthfulness of observation is at its most acute in entirely invented circumstances — this is not a book in defence of truth in writing in a simple fiction-or-non-fiction sense.
The second solution is a contemplation of what it might be to look at the world as an animal might look at it. Conrad supplies an animal gaze in a mesmerising paragraph from ‘An Outpost of Progress’, as two Belgians exist detached from their culture:
They lived like blind men in a large room, aware only of what came in contact with them (and of that only imperfectly), but unable to see the general aspect of things. The river, the forest, all the great land throbbing with life, were like a great emptiness. Things appeared and disappeared before their eyes in an unconnected and aimless way.
This possibility of looking at, and registering the world without an interest in causes or a project of shaping the world to an ultimate destination might seem deplorable at the beginning of this book; by the end, it has taken on an interesting range of possibilities. One of Gray’s primary witnesses is a wonderful, little-known nature writer called J.A. Baker, who over ten years observed the peregrine falcon in a corner of Essex, and wrote a classic book which attempted to see the world as the peregrine saw it:
I heard and hated the sound of man…I felt the pull of the north, the mystery and fascination of the migrating gulls. I shared the same strange yearning to be gone. I sank down and slept the feather-light sleep of the hawk. Then I woke him with my waking.
The Silence of Animals is a beautifully written book, the product of a strongly questioning mind. It is effectively an anthology with detailed commentary, setting out one rich and suggestive episode after another, each of which becomes only more suggestive by the juxtaposition. I found myself making rather more marginal notes than usual, and was slowed down by going off to read some of Gray’s witnesses.
I’m not sure that he’s right, but he is, formidably, worth arguing with. The greatest paradox of the book is this: to suggest that a human being could develop the kind of animal, present-tense registering mind of silence that Gray explores may or may not be possible. But is it not rather like a myth of progress? Is it not another suggestion of how the mind of man might be improved?
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 23 February 2013