Giving Gray Some Shade

The political philosopher John Gray is known, among other things, for his iconoclastic and often brilliant review essays (we recently featured his takedown of Richard Dawkins here). Anthony McCarthy returns the favor by panning Gray’s recent book, The Silence of Animals, quipping that it “could equally well have been called The Silence of Turnips:

Things take a downward turn towards the end of the first part of the book, where at least the examples are engaging and concern recognisable human travails. At the end of this first section, there is the statement: ‘When truth is at odds with meaning, it is meaning that wins.’ What is this supposed to mean?

And is it true? Is it true but meaningless, or meaningful but untrue? Is it a statement whose truth could be ‘defeated’ by meaning? The relationship the book has with reality is tenuous at this point. Like Captain Ahab hunting the whale of progress, Gray ends up detaching himself from reality, and becomes far more unreal than those he sets out to confound.

This assertion comes after an excursus into the nature of myth and is followed by several pages of praise for Sigmund Freud who, Gray says, taught us to live without consolation, be it religious or a quasi-religious faith in ‘progress’. It is difficult to know what to make of this section in light of the words which end it, seemingly influenced by the poet Wallace Stephens: ‘Knowing there is nothing of substance in our world may seem to rob that world of value. But this nothingness may be our most precious possession, since it opens to us the world that exists beyond ourselves.’

Knowing there is nothing opens us up to… that same nothing? One does not have to hold that hope is a virtue – for some indeed, one of the great theological virtues – to see this as perverse. The idea that in our lives we can make rational choices which fulfil our nature and allow us to flourish as the kind of beings we are helps us to understand that we can also make choices which gradually reduce who we are and move us towards emptiness and nothingness –  evil choices, if you will. In the above passage, nothingness is embraced, being rejected, truth discarded.