Sunday 10 March 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

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.

© 2013

Next Post “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 13th March at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. I, too, think Gray is wrong. And I don't think it's about“progress[ing] beyond [our] primordial, animalistic, selfish instincts”.

    Sociologists of left and right have been fond of describing sociology as "a dialogue with Marx's ghost". His biggest legacy is, I think, the idea that whatever you think has always been and will last forever is just a passing phase. We're extraordinarily lucky to live in the phase known as Western Civilisation. What is interesting, I think, is that it never set out make us progress beyond those instincts Grey refers to - it's aim is to civilise them.

  2. Hi, Dominic, totally agree with that last sentence you wrote. Civilisation for me is not a utopia but a group of traditions, laws, norms and the like by which we abide together and that enable us to function as a harmonious social collective. That within this collective the individual must be acknowledged and encouraged is paramount, in my opinion. That's why Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao and all the other dictators of the 20th century failed. Because they wanted to impose their own idea of what this utopic civilisation should be without taking into account the individuals in these polities.

    Many thanks for your comment.

    Greetings from London.

  3. again, i'm pleased to visit on a Sunday morning,
    cup'a java in hand for an entertaining/thought-provoking
    read followed by your musical selection. not disappointed,
    confused, but in a good way.

    i have problem with folk, usually on the right, who focus
    on the selfish, "animalistic" tendencies with which they
    like to define us.
    i half expect them to drop trou and defecate on the spot
    anywhere they please. so much for them, and so much for that.
    i want to read The Silence of Animals before i digest
    what you've written.

    the musical selection was beautiful,
    yet seemed ironic within the context
    of what i'd just read. i'm not bright,
    or awake, enough to understand why this is
    the case.

    thank you for the post, though.

    oh, oh! i followed a back-link
    to your june 10, 2010 review of "Waltz with Bashir"
    and loved your "Jiminy Cricket" take on the film's theme.
    spot-on! it ocurred to me that there is a connection
    to today's article here, but again, java-deprivation
    has me blurry-eyed and more confused than usual.
    time for a wake-me-up dutchie.

    be well, brother.

    c'ya for now, 'til next time.


  4. Sounds fascinating -- and I found your commentary even more so! I have a difficult time reading non-fiction unless it's essays or memoir, but I try to keep one book going as I devour novels and short stories. I will add this to my list!

  5. i think i've heard someone talking about this book recently..remember it cause it rubbed me the wrong way that he was talking about the other animals.. i agree, we need to have meaning in life.. if a life makes no sense, then we can have fun and money and everything and still are the unhappiest creatures on the planet..surely food for thought in this..happy sunday to you..smiles

  6. A thoughtful piece.

  7. very interesting there a utopia...i dont think so...i think on some level we like to think we can move an nth degree that way but would it ever really satisfy? no not really...interesting thoughts as well in your comment on hitler..and scuh...we are studying him in world history right now...

  8. If we had not striven to achieve utopia, we could not have created civilized worlds, art, music, laws, institutions that defend and enhance man's better nature. Yet, as the children in Lord of the Flies showed us, we can all descend into our primordial state when fear and prejudice and scarcity take hold.

    A lot to think.
    Glad we both had a cup of coffee to help keep our throats clear.

  9. Thanks for your comments.

    Hmmm... I'm not too sure that we strive for utopias. I believe that our evolutionary process has conditioned us to strive for balance and where that balance is wanting, find solutions to fix it. A good example is how the concept of democracy was developed in ancient Greece. However it failed to include slaves and women. Fast forward a thousand years and we all have the right to vote and take an active role in our democratic process, flawed as it is.

    Gray mentions in another part of his interview that "natural selection has no goal (...) natural selection is purposeless, pointless and has no direction."

    I disagree with him. The point of the theory of natural selection and evolution as such was/is to give us a sense of space and time in which to insert ourselves. A yardstick, if you like. The process is by no means complete. This doesn't mean that we will, according to Darwin (and according to a quote John Gray uses) "progress to perfection". We're too human for that. Which means, we're too flawed. What it means, however, is that it gives us an idea about why we have, for instance, developed an aesthetic trait and other animals haven't.

    Interesting comments to read here tonight. I've changed from coffee to hot chamomile and green tea now.

    Have a brilliant week ahead.

    Greetings from London.

  10. So interesting. I tend to take your view rather than Gray's. k.

  11. lol, you have nice sunday mornigns. After breakfast I start weight lifting. I have a machine of my own. Have to do it for my back and neck.

  12. And sadly animals may not be aware but they treat each other and most people waaaay better than humans ever do. Interesting thoughts indeed.

  13. I so agree that as we age we surely think about our own mortality. It is tough sometimes to do so.

  14. I'm impressed with your parsing out of the subtleties here. Neither extreme--from humans as primordially stuck to humans as potentially utopian--strikes my gut as reflective of reality. One's too low, and the other's too high. Somehow, the best of our species' potential is more simple; it's something more like, "On a day-to-day basis, we can try not to be hateful. We can try to live with goodness. Sometimes we will fail. Mostly we will succeed."

  15. I think that Jocelyn was closest to the way I think. We do often seem to take a middle road. And, I would dispute animals not having an aesthetic sense - bower birds for example collect blue objects and arrange them in way which they believe will appeal to/attract a mate.
    A fascinating post - thank you.

  16. I agree that as we age, we begin to ponder our own mortality.
    As a teenager, I never gave it a thought...but now...well, it is almost my constant companion!

    You've certainly given me a lot to think of here, and the music selection was great!:)

  17. This resonates very much with me. Just recently the lens through which I view the reality of my sometime demise took on a wholly shorter focus -- and any anxieties I might have nursed about it before that, disappeared. At the moment it seems a natural continuation, though there is the inevitable sadness at the leaving of loved ones. I find it odd that at this time the picture should have changed in the way it has.

  18. A lot of think here and with all these comments
    what can I say?
    I think in my mortality all days the life go so fast and we cant do any.Only I try to live and enjoy life and love so much.

  19. your blog always makes me think I like it

  20. I didn't realize you were a philosopher too! Your review is as much a treatise with an alternative world view. I'm an optimist like you but that differs from an idealist who believes in utopia. Interesting music too, a blend of classic and folk that makes me think of travelers.



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