He has been Professor of Politics at Oxford University, Visiting Professor at Harvard and Yale and Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, but John Gray now writes full-time. So the labour of love involved in producing these 200-odd pages of reflection on life and literature was not squeezed in between lectures, tutorials and admin meetings.
And somehow the dedication shows. It’s there in the author’s attention to presenting as vividly as possible his case against the foolhardy belief that man is always progressing incrementally towards better things, in control of his destiny.
Not so, argues Gray, who cites fascinating examples from recent history to show how quickly the animal beneath the skin will rear its head. He quotes from Norman Lewis’s vivid account of his meetings with Soviet prisoners interned in Naples, all of whom he found had resorted to cannibalism in Nazi POW camps.
He finds correspondences between disparate examples in 20th-century literature to illustrate his point, quoting from the work of figures as diverse as Koestler, Orwell (1984), Sigmund Freud, the poets Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery and others.
Some of his statements quoted baldly and out of context are provocative: “Health may be the natural condition of other species, but in humans it is sickness that is normal... to be chronically unwell is part of what it means to be human."
The humanist belief in the all-powerful god of science is no less faith in a myth than belief in religion is, Gray argues. “Science and the idea of progress may seem joined together, but the end-result of progress in science is to show the impossibility of progress in civilisation.” Shortly afterwards, he writes: “If there is anything unique about the human animal, it is that it has the ability to grow knowledge at an accelerating rate, while being chronically incapable of learning from experience.” Ouch.
For all the so-called shows of resolve on the part of our politicians, say, man has little control over his fate at the end of the day. The problems facing the world today will not be overcome by any kind of decision, Gray writes. “Instead there will be a shift of scene, an alteration in the global landscape that no one can foresee or control, as a result of which difficulties that are presently intractable will be left behind.”
Unlike Richard Dawkins, for instance, he readily accepts the need for myth, be it of a secular or religious kind: “Rational or not, life without myth is like life without art or sex – insipid and inhuman.”
Although apparently not religious himself, he engages fairly and realistically with the religious and the mystic impulse: “The message of Genesis is that in the most vital areas of human life there can be no progress, only an unending struggle with our own nature.”
Gray readily acknowledges the conversations he has had with a variety of people to help him tease out the ideas for the book, including the psychiatrist Adam Phillips, the novelists Will Self and John Banville, and the former Anglican bishop and writer Richard Holloway. Self and Banville are big fans of Gray anyway, and Self’s book of the year in 2002 was Gray’s previous work, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals.