The current issue of New Humanist carries a very interesting interview with the philosopher John Gray. I am familiar with Gray’s work through his book reviews for The New Statesman and The Guardian. This time, though, the guns, or should I say, the mike was turned on him and the ensuing conversation was quite interesting. Especially when read and discussed on a Sunday morning with a cup of coffee in hand.
The interview was a tie-in for John’s latest book, The Silence of Animals, in which he explores man’s alleged slow self-annihilation. To Gray civilisation is a pretence which, when challenged by reality, falls away.
I confess to having felt somewhat uncomfortable at the beginning of the article. I’m a pragmatist with a 99.9% realistic view of the world. But that 0.01% left over counts for a lot. It counts for a romanticism and idealism that have kept me believing in my fellow humans for many years, atrocities notwithstanding. Gray’s initial comments were coloured by a pessimism which I’ve noticed is typical of certain Western authors. His notion that human beings will never be able to “progress beyond their primordial, animalistic, selfish instincts” is not an opinion I share. And yet, he does have a point in what he says. It’s just that the point is muddled up by so much negativity.
I agree with John that many of us, human beings, have for many years striven for a utopia-like state. This can be a collective, external experience brought about through a socioeconomic political system like communism or an internal one supported by performance-enhancing and recreational drugs. However, as Gray avers, there has been no utopian society and probably there never will be. Marx’s belief in the dictatorship of the proletariat as the solution to society’s woes and the neo-conservative vision of the free market as the answer to our straitened economic times are mere illusions.
This is a hard-to-swallow message because it goes against our idealism and idealism is a human trait. We need it to make sense of the world, especially in the face of adversity. John Gray’s response to this dilemma touches upon both meaning and why we, humans, need a reason to live. In his own words “One of the chief reasons human beings need meaning – which is different from knowledge – in a way that other animals don’t seem to is that humans are conscious of their own mortality. We have a sense of time that other animals don’t have. If we have an idea of our mortality, then we see our lives in a different way because we think we see them as a whole, and we want them to be a single coherent story.”
To me this is the reason why children don’t have a clear concept of time and space. Mention to a little one that in a week you’ll take him or her to the zoo and they will ask you again ten minutes later. The “are we there yet?” question that children ask on road trips constantly will be familiar to most parents and John’s theory is the basis for it, in my opinion. Same with teenagers, for instance, who lack that sense of mortality Gray mentions in the passage above. Adolescents’ reckless and erratic behaviour can be traced back to this absence of a single and coherent story, more specifically, one that has not got the word “future” in it.
This situation, however, changes in one’s 20s. Well, in most of us, anyway. We couple up, we settle down, we get a job, we start planning for the future. Suddenly there’s a “meaning”. There’s also an awareness of death. For the first time, our personal history is not a random collection of moments and experiences but a narrative with a beginning, middle and end. We might even experiment with the order, and yet there’s still a clear structure.
What this whole unconscious/conscious affair offers us, human beings, is a vast and rich field of possibilities. Unlike animals which have no self-realisation of their trajectory towards death, we use those interim years on Earth to tell our stories. By this I don’t mean the sitting-around-a-campfire-and-I’ll-tell-you-a-tale type of scenario, welcomed as it is. I mean it in the way we interact with each other and leave our mark (more often than not consciously) on places and people. Hence language and our ability to communicate with one another not just at a primal level, but also at a sophisticated one. Whilst animals’ communication acts on elements such as self-preservation, basic needs and danger, humans can include the intellectual aspect.
The upshot is a world that can combine at any one time both the creation of nation states and marvellous architecture. Although John Gray’s interview looked gloomy at the outset, by the end of it I was smiling.
Next Post “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 13th March at 11:59pm (GMT)