ISBN 1 86207 512 3
don’t believe in belief. If one aims simply to see, then
beliefs – especially spiritual beliefs – are
just an encumbrance. Best to have none, if you can manage
Gray, from an interview with author Will Self, September 3,
Gray is not a skeptic’s skeptic. He
might even be too skeptical for even the die-hard
and ashes skeptics. For
Gray, a professor of European Thought at the London School of
Economics, there is no real belief that can be
grasped, no center that can,
or even should, hold. The former Thacherite free-market proponent
and later critic of that same New Right movement in Britain is
most well known for his last book about the failures and follies
of globalization, False Dawn. Now in Straw Dogs he seems to be
attacking any sense of false hope, belief in human progress,
religious or mystical salvation.
When others would attempt to offer
comforting views of modernity and human progress in these times of stress,
war and uncertainty, the British public intellectual and philosopher
Gray attempts to lay bare the falsity, self-deception and optimism
of starry-eyed pundits left, right, center and all points between.
To him we are all too human, and in being human, we are all the
But in doing this as he does in his latest work, Straw
Dogs, it is hard to discern Gray’s intentions. For in laying
out his clear and stoic vision of the world as it is and not
what we would
wish the world to be, Gray mainly uses the words of others to
paint a portrait Hieronymus Bosch would smile at. It is an attempt
an atom bomb retaliatory strike at the last two-thousand years
of (mainly) Western thought, at a total view of the world. But
we must ask the question: Is there life after this holocaust?
of those words of others happen to be the usual subjects for
his treatise of selective natural selection. Aristotle gets a few
pages, capitalism six or so, Christianity quite a few, a bellyful
of Buddha, a healthy dose of Joseph Conrad, some Darwin, Descartes,
Gibson, Heidegger, Homer, Jesus, Kant, Lovelock, Marx, Nietzche,
Plato, Schopenhauer, E.O. Wilson, and all the way to Wittgenstein.
Among the unusual, Gray muses on Joseph Brodsky, Bruce Chatwin,
J.G. Ballard, Carthage (kind of you to remember us!), death,
eugenics, genocide, gorillas, halobacteria, Robinson Jeffers (another once-mislabeled
misanthrope), Esperanto, Maimonides, nanotechnology, the Pergouset
cave paintings, S-and-M parlors, seals, Socrates, Taoism, virtual
reality, the welfare state, all the way from Assyrians to Zarathustra.
Quite ambitious for a book of only 200 pages (the final 45 or
are devoted to further readings and the index).
The ambitious scope
and wide range of disciplines touched upon reminds one of a similar
text which came out in late 2001, Bjorn
Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist. Not
only are both books similar in attempting to cover so much ground
in so few pages,
they also rely mainly on bits and pieces cut and pasted from
the ideas of others to construct something of a coherent ‘skeptical’ worldview
or to knock those down a peg who have not lately been knocked.
There really is not much new that has been added here, only old
matter condensed into an easily accessible, easily read and easily
regurgitated form. Whether this is a statement about these authors
or about the publishing industry and what passes for works of philosophy … well,
perhaps they both are true. At least Straw Dogs is much
more intellectually stimulating than ninety percent of what passes
through the bookbinder
for public consumption these days. God forbid, if Gray were an
American philosopher tackling the same material, it would have
been called Human Non-progress for Dummies. Most likely it would
have never made it to the printer in this country.
The main problem
with the book is that so much is covered in so little time. Whole
books have been devoted to many of the subjects
mentioned above. But then those books do not reach a large audience.
In a way, Gray is doing a great service in providing a Cliff
Notes version of modern thought.
Other anti-reviews of this book have
made comment about Gray’s
misanthropic nature, have labeled him an anti-humanist, have compared
him to a ‘drunken and smug smart aleck at a dinner party’ (a
bit much, Ms. Guldberg), a defeatist, beyond even that fatal curse
of nihilism (except if it is apocalyptic), ‘somewhere between
Nostradamus, Pascal and the Unabomber (touché, Hargreaves!).
On the other side he has been proclaimed a ‘visionary,’ a ‘man
of our times,’ whatever those actually mean. It is often
too early to tell if anyone is a visionary, just as much as it
is to say someone is a defeatist nihilist.
What is refreshing is
that there are no sacred cows in the book. Anything is fair game – Christianity
as well as Atheism; Post-Modernism and Eco-Utopianism; Science
and Humanism. At times
he seems to lean toward teachings of Taoism, until, that is, we
hear him mutter ‘I don’t believe in belief.’ From
interviews we find that Gray intended to ‘write (Straw
Dogs) in a way that would be accessible to the average reader.’ This
he achieves with astounding success. Whether Gray is unconsciously
proposing a neo-anarchist philosophy, a brand-new-secondhand
version of Stoicism, or if in complete awareness he is about
to don steel-spiked
wristbands and snap slack-jawed balcony dwellers out of their
middle aged malaise is all very hard to say.
Whatever will be will be,
he might say (in perfect Graying tone). All we can possibly hope
for is that he doesn’t slip into
a Professor Timothy Leary phase. Then again, that might be fun,