Philosopher John Gray has written a sequel to Straw Dogs that is hauntingly beautiful, sometimes bleak and often admonitory. Certainly liberal humanists and Christians alike will feel challenged by Gray’s arguments, particularly the debunking of his opponents’ faith in the “myth” of human progress, which he compares to “cheap music” for its simultaneous spirit-lifting and brain-numbing effect. “There is only the human animal, forever at war with itself,” he writes, rejecting any demarcation between the savage and the civilised. The rational human is, according to Gray, a modern myth; he even questions the notion that humans desire freedom.
There’s a lyrical, discomforting quality to the literary quotations he deploys. J.G. Ballard writes of the sense that “reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment” when he recalled the abandoned casino he tiptoed through as a boy in wartime Shanghai. “Progress in civilisation seems possible only in interludes when history is idling,” notes Gray. The flood of quotations – from Norman Lewis and George Orwell, Joseph Roth and Ford Madox Ford, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Georges Simenon – sometimes makes The Silence of Animals read like the finest footnotes selection you’ll ever encounter. However, Gray’s own voice is just as quotable: he’s scathing about the “post-modern plantation economy” of the US, describes a perpetual search for happiness as like being burdened with a character in a dull story and regrets that “the pursuit of distraction has been embraced as the meaning of life”. The title alludes to the human struggle for silence as an escape from language. Turning outside yourself and contemplating the animals and birds, Gray writes, may finally enable you to “hear something beyond words”.