I enjoy books that present familiar ideas in a fresh way. I also enjoy books that, when I read the last page, leave me with as many questions as answers.
John Gray's "The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom" is such a book.
I finished it last night, having read the 168 pages in just a day and a half. Once I started Gray's book, I found it so fascinating, I felt compelled to get to the end as soon as possible -- so I could grasp its conclusions.
Problem was (if it is a problem, and I suspect it isn't), I read the final pages, closed the cover, and then felt a big ???????????... settle over my mind.
Meaning, I wasn't sure what the meaning of the book was.
But my next thought was: Gray's lack of evident meaning was the meaning of "The Soul of the Marionette." This fit with my reading of his previous "The Silence of Animals," which I blogged about here.
I'm tempted to share some quotes from his new book and leave blog visitors to figure out what they mean.
Resisting that temptation, I'm going to share my intuitions about "The Soul of the Marionette" in my own words -- which might, or might not, reflect Gray's intentions.
Gray starts out with a compelling tale of someone who wrote a story about marionettes, puppets. Puppets can dance about with amazing grace because they aren't bound by gravity as we are. They are controlled by the puppeteer, a "higher power" so to speak.
Likewise, humans have a strong desire to surrender themselves to some force greater than themselves. Gray speaks of how theists seek to know the will of God; Taoists seek to act in harmony with Tao; scientists seek to know the Theory of Everything that explains why things are as they are.
So the most intriguing aspect of Gray's book for me is how he persuasively argues that seemingly disparate aspects of human culture, such as religion and science, actually are bowing down to the same belief: that it is possible to eradicate mystery and ignorance, revealing the nature of the cosmos through a form of Gnosticism.
The original Gnostics held a view common to many religions and mystical teachings. This world is a reflection or shadow of a much more vibrant and real higher realm.
Either some malevolent force, such as the Devil, actively prevents us from knowing that reality, or ignorance is a passive block to this knowledge, or gnosis. Regardless, both ancient and modern forms of Gnosticism hold out the promise that we can know the puppeteer, so to speak.
This knowledge can bring us to a state where we willingly surrender our belief that we have free will, that we are independent actors on the stage of life, and accept that some power greater than ourselves is making us speak, dance, and do.
Again, this doesn't have to be a supernatural or divine power.
It can be nature as known by an all-knowing science that has revealed what lies behind the apparent reality of this world. Thus Gray argues that a form of Platonism, an assumption that it is possible to turn our gaze away from illusory shadows and see the light of Truth, pervades both theistic religiosity and secular humanism.
Scientifically-minded atheistic progressives like me, for example, consider that it will be possible to have a much better nation and world once certain political/cultural obstacles are removed. Progressives, not surprisingly, believe in progress.
So do Christians, who believe in salvation through adherence to Jesus' message. So do religious people of many other faiths, who similarly believe that following certain practices can elevate humanity to a higher level of, dare I say it, evolution.
Gray challenges these beliefs. He does so, though, not in a philosophical way, but in more of a literary manner. In most of his book he shares erudite descriptions of writings most people (certainly me) have never heard of.
The authors of these writings either share Gray's basic skepticism that humanity is on the upswing, and will remain on that elevated cultural platform, or are used to show the folly that it ever will be possible -- or even is desirable -- to "know the puppeteer."
In his closing pages Gray returns to the puppet analogy after a long absence. He speaks of the uber-marionette, "The human being that knows it is a machine. Must it envy the graceful automatism of the puppet?"
I now feel that I should break my previously mentioned intention of not sharing quotations from Gray's book. After all, I just did. Might as well dive deeper into the Quote Pool.
This passage is one of my favorites in the book, especially the final sentence.
In Kleist's essay humans are caught between the graceful automatism of the puppet and the conscious freedom of a god. The jerky, stuttering quality of their actions comes from their feeling that they must determine the course of their lives. Other animals live without having to choose their path through life.
Whatever uncertainty they may feel sniffing their way through the world is not a permanent condition; once they reach a place of safety, they are at rest. In contrast, human life is spent anxiously deciding how to live.
So true: Human life is spent anxiously deciding how to live.
We doubt ourselves. We doubt others. We doubt religion. We doubt science. We doubt government. We doubt nihilism. We doubt the wisdom of the ages. We doubt the newest knowledge.
We're continuously trying to find the Better, if not the Best. Even if we aren't hungry for material goodies, we're ravenous for other sorts of Goods -- political, cultural, philosophical, whatever.
Gray describes how the science fiction author, Philip K. Dick, came to believe in a paranoid form of Gnosticism.
Though it was marked out by his own traumas, Dick trod a path that has been followed by many before him. Like human beings in every age he wanted to believe that events of his life formed part of a pattern. So he created a story in which his life was shaped by secret agencies, some of them from beyond the human world.
But a world in which nothing happens by chance is an enclosed space that soon proves maddening. Dick found himself stuck in such a place -- not the radiant, meaning-filled cosmos he was looking for, but a dark prison.
...Dick summarized what his experiences had led him to believe:
1. the empirical world is not quite real, but only seemingly real;
2. its creator cannot be appealed to for a rectification of redress of these evils and imperfections;
3. the world is moving toward some kind of end state or goal, the nature of which is obscure, but the evolutionary aspect of the change states suggests a good and purposeful end state that has been designed by a sentient and benign photo-entity.
DIck, by Gray's account, was pretty much off his rocker psychologically when he wrote those words. But isn't this close to how most people view the world?
As having all sorts of problems at the moment, but moving toward a much more desirable end state -- perhaps not with certainty, but with a high degree of probability.
Again, most of us have an underlying, and largely unconscious, assumption that some "puppet master" is at work behind the scenes. Could be God. Could be Gaia. Could be self-balancing Laws of Nature that will restore equilibrium to a world gone bad.
Regardless, we like to tell ourselves stories about our own life, and the life of humanity as a whole, that make sense and have a happy ending. Underlying these stories is a belief that we know what is going on, and will steadily know more and more as time goes on.
Well, here's how Gray ends his book. Hang on for a wild ride, persuasive while perplexing.
In the story told by Herr C., human beings become free when they become fully conscious. For these godlike creatures, there can be nothing that is mysterious. Mystery fades away with ever greater conscious awareness, and true freedom means living by that inner light.
This is, of course, a very old faith -- the faith of the Gnostics, and also of Socrates. Both believed that freedom was achieved by the possession of a special kind of knowledge. Modern rationalism is another version of this religion.
Contemporary evangelists for evolution, trans-humanists and techno-futurists are also followers of this creed. All of them promote the project of expelling mystery from the mind.
The trouble with this project is that it has the effect of confining the mind within itself. In a world where there is nothing that cannot be explained, everything that happens fits into a hidden scheme.
In Gnosticism, the world is the plaything of a demiurge. For conspiracy theorists, history is scripted by occult agencies. For secular rationalists, enlightenment is thwarted by the sinister forces of superstition and reaction.
There is a pattern here: if you aim to exorcize mystery from your mind, you end up -- like Philip K. Dick -- locked in a paranoid universe and possessed by demons.
From being seemingly annihilated by Christianity, Gnosticism has conquered the world. Belief in the liberating power of knowledge has become the ruling illusion of modern humankind. Most want to believe that some kind of explanation or understanding will deliver them from their conflicts.
Yet being divided from yourself goes with being self-aware. This is the truth in the Genesis myth: the Fall is not an event at the beginning of history but the intrinsic condition of self-conscious beings.
Only creatures that are as flawed and ignorant as humans can be free in the way humans are free.
We do not know how matter came to dream our world into being: we do not know what, if anything, happens when the dream ends for us and we die. We yearn for a type of knowledge that would make us other than we are -- though what we would like to be, we cannot say. Why try to escape from yourself?
Accepting the fact of unknowing makes possible an inner freedom very different from that pursued by Gnostics. If you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all you need.
Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be content to let meaning come and go. Instead of becoming an unfaltering puppet, you will make your way in the stumbling human world. Uber-marionettes do not have to wait until they can fly before they can be free.
Not looking to ascend into the heavens, they can find freedom in falling to earth.