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John Gray: Has he gone too far?

For nearly seven years now, Standpoint has been defending Western civilisation. As the threats have multiplied, so we try to broaden the spectrum of our alliance. However, there are writers who do more harm than good to our cause.

Among these false friends of the West is, alas, John Gray. A philosopher equally remarkable for the eclecticism of his tastes and the elasticity of his convictions, he has latterly forsaken more familiar terrain for the wilder shores of intellectual history. Now he may have gone too far. Gray’s latest book, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom (Allen Lane, £17.99), amounts to a repudiation of the West, in favour of a fatalism that is alien to the freedom he claims to hold dear.

Gray’s anatomy of modern man takes its cue from the essay “On the Marionette Theatre” by the Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist—whose double suicide with his lover is the subject, coincidentally, of a newly released Austrian film, Amour Fou.

Critics have puzzled over Kleist’s short text for two centuries, but Gray has no time for rival interpretations. Kleist’s observation that marionettes move with a grace to which no human dancer may aspire becomes the occasion for Gray to launch his own manifesto for the salvation of humanity from the illusions of modernity.

The design fault of Western thought, for Gray, is Gnosticism, the ancient mystical tradition which he (controversially) identifies with the idea that knowledge brings freedom. The whole of Western rationalism, he thinks, is vitiated by this “project of expelling mystery from the mind”. Gray himself wants more mystery, not less, because “belief in the liberating power of knowledge has become the ruling illusion of humankind”. And while he is rightly appalled by the modern “transhumanists” who dream of manipulating evolution and harnessing artificial intelligence for utopian purposes, Gray’s only alternative seems to be a regression to state-sanctioned ignorance and violence. He thinks the Aztecs, with their gory rituals of human sacrifice, were far wiser and less barbaric than the Spaniards who conquered them. Their wisdom apparently consisted in acknowledging the destructive nature of humanity: “they killed in order to create meaning in their lives.”

By contrast, Gray sees the United States as a diabolical force that has institutionalised “perpetual war” in the name of defending democracy. In Gray’s anatomy, the symbol of America today is not the Statue of Liberty but the jump-suited terrorists of Guantanamo: “Along with mass incarceration, torture appears to be integral to the functioning of the world's most advanced state.”

We can only guess at the perversion of logic that has led Gray, who has taught at Harvard among other universities, to bite the hand that feeds him. Still, his critique is not merely wrong, but perniciously so.

Kleist was no Gnostic. His essay has nothing to do with dualism, demons or demiurges, but is a product of the Romantic obsession with self-consciousness. Nor is there any connection between Kleist’s subtle reflections and Gray’s motley assemblage of conspiracy theorists, fantasy writers and computer scientists. Aesthetics is not cybernetics. Marionettes are not robots.

Gray concludes that, once one has rejected the “figments” of the Western democracies, the only hope is “inner freedom”. He finds the ancients “more intelligent” than modern man because they were indifferent to the rise and fall of civilisations—though his only evidence, supposedly from Caesar Augustus himself, actually comes from a modern historical novel by John Williams.

More to the point: Augustus was the first Roman emperor, i.e. a god. Gray seems to be advocating a return to a world in which everybody was, as Edward Gibbon wrote, “the slave of Imperial despotism”, for whom even to dream of freedom was futile: “To resist was fatal, and it was impossible to fly. On every side he was encompassed by a vast extent of sea and land, which he could never hope to traverse, without being discovered, seized, and returned to his irritated master.” Gray may affect a Stoic’s apathy towards the decline and fall of the West, as the likes of Leopardi and Spengler did before him. Most of us still cherish our hard-won liberties and way of life.

Human sacrifice, anyone? After you, Professor Gray.
 
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