This has been a difficult review to come to, as much of Gray’s book puzzled me. Not least, what exactly was he saying?
He is a brilliant stylistic writer – but sometimes, too much so, as his weary, epigrammatic style occasionally sacrifices clarity for a soundbite which is satisfying, but doesn’t pick apart so well
Echoing the Christian faith in free will, humanists hold that human beings are – or may sometimes become – free to choose their lives. They forget that the self that does the choosing has not itself been chosen
That last sentence has a beautiful structure to it which is typically Gray – but what exactly does it mean? I spent an age deciphering.
There are plenty of other places in this book where I found myself delighted by pithy, witty summings up:
Like cheap music, the myth of progress lifts the spirits as it numbs the brain
“When we discover something new about ourselves, we alter the person we have come to be”
However – and here is my problem, what exactly is the prophet of world weary doom actually saying:
1) The idea of human shaped progress is a myth. Faiths and their followers, humanists and science all are deluded because they live by this myth.
2) Anyone who says we can live without myths is foolish, and so the mythiest of myth makers (religions) understood our need to make sense of things through myth. Atheist scientists such as Dawkins may believe they are myth free but still subscribe to a myth – human shaped progress
3) Mankind is an animal, though curiously unwilling to try and see the world from outside a human perspective which would let him experience that other realities exist
4) There is no purpose, and the idea of spiritual progress, or the progress and evolution of humanity through science, or through philosophy is all foolish.
5) Learn to accept a pragmatic despair and be present in the world here and now
With the inclusion, admiringly, of writers who had spent time attempting to ‘become one with an animal viewpoint’ I did begin to wonder whether this was all, at root, coming from understandable discomfort with what it means to be Homo sapiens. I concur completely that our tendency to only see the world through our own perspective as the be all and end all is misplaced, and leads to barbarism, but is J.A. Baker’s (one of the many writers Gray quotes) attempt to experience the world through the experience of peregrine falcon, any BETTER – it might be, for the peregrine – what of the lark?
Unlike an earlier book of Gray’s, The Immortalisation Commission where he was clearly examining 3 very different approaches to the horrifying knowledge of our own – and everyone we love’s, mortality, this book is much more confused and confusing. It is a bit of a scamper through patchwork of literary and philosophical writings, and for this reader, I kept losing the way, forgetting where we were going and what exactly Gray was attempting to clarify for me.
In the end, my fairly permanent question became “And Your Point Is?”
A Patchwork Quilt. At times, a very beautiful patchwork quilt, but it had a very odd shape and I’m not quite certain what to do with it!