Dear loyal readers: the unannounced seven-week hiatus on this blog — prompted by the relocation of two of its authors from the United States to India and attendant distractions thereof — is now over. We're resuming the normal cadence of 6-10 blog posts a month.
For many years, I've read British philosopher John Gray with both interest and irritation. I like that he attacks many dominant secular faiths of our age — sometimes for the right reasons — but often, unfortunately, from a vantage point whose implications I find troubling. Few thinkers are as bleak and pessimistic towards the arc of modernity led by the Enlightenment, as lacking in sympathy for it, as wilfully blind and relentlessly negative. This was evident is Straw Dogs, which revealed to me the hollowness of his vision, based as it is on commitments no less questionable, even cowardly. Simon Critchley's thoughtful review of Gray's new book, The Silence of Animals, describes many of Gray's admittedly interesting forays into the world of ideas before repudiating the larger worldview of which they are a part.
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 ... 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.