This book, "The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Myths," is as wonderfully strange as its title. It was fitting that I was led to buy it in a strange way.
After reading a highly critical review of it by Thomas Nagel in the New York Times. Nagel started off his review in this fashion:
John Gray’s “Silence of Animals” is an attack on humanism. He condemns this widely accepted secular faith as a form of delusional self-flattery.
“In the most general terms,” he tells us, “humanism is the idea that the human animal is the site of some kind of unique value in the world.” “A related aspect of humanism is the idea that the human mind reflects the order of the cosmos.” “A third aspect of humanism is the idea that history is a story of human advance, with rationality increasing over time.”
Gray rejects all three of these beliefs, along with the pretension of humanism to offer a scientifically respectable replacement for religion: “In a strictly naturalistic view — one in which the world is taken on its own terms, without reference to a creator or any spiritual realm — there is no hierarchy of value with humans somewhere near the top. There are simply multifarious animals, each with its own needs. Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science.”
I was intrigued. I've sort of considered myself a humanist, now that I've rejected religion. But maybe Gray is right: humanism is just a way-station on the road to genuine irreligion. So I ordered the book from Amazon.
Finished it this morning. I found it fascinating. This is a book that is hard to encapsulate in a few pithy words, in large part because Gray doesn't believe reality can be encapsulated in words.
Hence, the appeal of the "silence of animals." Of which we humans are one... animals.
Maybe I'll take a shot at trying to explain how this book affected me in another post. For now, I'll just share some passages from the final chapter that I liked. The Silence of Animals has lots of quotations from a wide variety of authors. I've chosen passages written by Gray himself.
There is no mysterious essence we can call a "place." Place is change. Its motion is killed by the mind, and preserved in the amber of memory.
...The pursuit of silence seems to be a peculiarly human activity. Other animals run away from noise, but it is noise made by others that they try to avoid. Only humans want to silence the clamour in their minds. Tiring of the inner chatter, they turn to silence in order to deafen the sound of their thoughts. What people are seeking when they look for silence is a different kind of noise.
...Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves, other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming.
...Turning within, you will find only words and images that are part of yourself. But if you turn outside yourself -- to the birds and animals and the quickly changing places where they live -- you may hear something beyond words. Even humans can find silence, if they can bring themselves to forget the silence they are looking for.
...If Romantics turn from the things that humans have built in order to find something meaningful that humans have not made, Idealists return to the human world in order to escape the loss of meaning. Both are mistaken. Unknown to itself, the human mind creates worlds it cannot grasp. The places that are made by humans are as numinous and fugitive as those that appear in forest shade.
...Rather than perturbing him, the discovery that there was nothing beneath the surface of things made him all the more determined to enjoy life.
...But if there is an idea at work here, it is that the impressions through which we pass are more real than the selves we think are authors of our lives.
...The world in which you live from day to day is made from habit and memory. The perilous zones are the times when the self, also made from habit and memory, gives way. Then, if only for a moment, you may become something other than you have been.
...Godless contemplation is a more radical and transient condition: a temporary respite from the all-too-human world, with nothing particular in mind.
...Godless mysticism cannot escape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of any oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being. There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.