You can’t accuse John Gray of dodging the big questions, or indeed the big answers. His new book The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom isn’t really that short and certainly isn’t confined to a reflection on human freedom. As a reviewer you’re often faced with books that are so bereft of content, so painfully thin that they’re transparent, and you wonder why anyone would publish them. I can imagine Gray’s editor begging him to jettison some profundity.
The reader is bombarded with boulders of philosophy and politics. Religions are gobbled up. Whole civilisations whizz past. It’s the ontological kitchen sink coming atcha, or to paraphrase Joyce, Here Comes Everything. Not just the past, but the future too.
As you would expect from a former professor of European thought, Gray offers an urbane and learned account of man from the Garden of Eden to secret rendition. Gray, like Isaiah Berlin, that great tour-guide of ideas, is skilled at hijacking the writings of others, and cogently expounds the work of Heinrich von Kleist (whose essay ‘On the Puppet Theatre’ provides the theme of marionette freedom), Giacomo Leopardi, Bruno Schulz, Thomas Hobbes, Joseph Glanvill, Guy Debord, T. E. Powys, plus several science fiction authors such as Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem. Indeed I would characterise the book as Isaiah Berlin with a thing for sci-fi, occasionally lapsing into a Guardian op-ed. The erudition, and the range of the erudition, is frightening. Gray zooms from Zoroastrianism to the musings of those Russian science fiction lords the Strugatsky brothers.
One of the ironies of the whole edifice of philosophy is that it hasn’t come up with solid answers. How do we know anything? What makes us human? What separates us from the animals? There are some colourful attempts: Descartes coins the witty line ‘cogito ergo sum’; Plato wants to tell you a story about a cave. But, essentially, after more than 2,000 years of head-scratching, Socrates and Philip K. Dick are pretty much saying the same thing. Socrates said he didn’t know anything. Dick says we can’t know anything (probably because they won’t let us) or, at best, we can’t be sure we know anything.
Oddly, Gray doesn’t make reference to the novel that I consider to be Dick’s best, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This was the basis for the film Blade Runner. Ironically again, it’s the American science fiction writer with the most utility-bill prose who had the most unsettling ideas about how we know anything, and the book is more unsettling and weirder than the film, and also has a powerful subplot about a messiah that was completely dropped for the screen. I would have thought this would be Gray’s favourite novel.
The distinction between man and beast is something Gray is wary about. He sneers at the claim of consciousness being a solely human value (among the fun animal facts you can discover is that dolphins enjoy watching themselves in mirrors when they have sex, and, according to von Kleist, you can’t out-fence a bear). Gray considers the possibilities of machines achieving consciousness. For him, ‘what seems to be singularly human is not consciousness or free will but inner conflict… no other animal seeks the satisfaction of its desires and at the same time curses them as evil.’ Maybe, but can we categorically reject the notion of ambivalent aardvarks or guilt-ridden gulls out in the wild? Does a bear fret in the woods?
Gray’s sociological observations are less impressive than his literary and philosophical commentaries. He has a point about the creation of a lumpenbourgeoisie with a life of ‘precarious insecurity’ (at least in present-day London). He has time for Debord, a founder of the Situationist International, who wrote The Society of Spectacle, the rive gauche Marxist version of Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Image. Debord’s argument is that capitalism lies at the root of celebrity culture.
The idea that humanity was somehow more sensible before industrial capitalism just doesn’t stand up, though Debord’s assertion that ‘news of what is genuinely important, of what is actually changing, comes rarely’ may be right: but the idea it’s a recent phenomenon is ridiculous.
Nonsense has always been big. There has always been much more support for sports or chariot-racing than, say, philosophy. Celebrities, the rich, the powerful, the fashionable have always had licence. Think of Nero’s acting or Harold Pinter’s poetry. Read an 18th-century newspaper (or an early edition of The Spectator).
It’s odd that Gray as a sci-fi buff doesn’t pay more attention to Sturgeon’s law, perhaps the most important law to come out of that field, which states that 90 per cent of everything, whether science fiction, jazz, wine production or news, is rubbish.
Although sympathetic to many positions of the left, Gray is not a meliorist. His conclusion is that the only freedom you can hope for is an inner one. I was waiting for this Kant quotation, but it didn’t come: ‘Out of such crooked timber as that from which man is made, nothing entirely straight can be crafted.’