Monday, September 22, 2014

John Gray and Straw Dogs: A Seeming Solidity

Today I finished reading John Gray's Straw Dogs, which turned out to be a somewhat different book than the one I thought I was reading when I got started on it. The subtitle, "Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals," is accurate in suggesting both the form and the general content of the book. Formally, it's a very loosely organized collection of "thoughts," ranging from one- or two-sentence riffs on the one hand to short essays (rarely more than five or six pages) on the other. Although all of the essays deal in one way or another with the human condition and how it has been variously interpreted (or misinterpreted) throughout history, there is not always a clear connection between one essay and the next. The are a lot of gaps and some overlaps. The lack of a coherent overarching narrative has apparently irked some readers, but I'm willing to give Gray credit for writing the book he wanted to write and not writing the book someone else might have preferred him to write.  In essence it is like reading a thematically organized notebook or journal; we get to watch Gray as collects his "thoughts" and tries them on for size. The resulting short essays are provocative by design. I found some of his critiques to be more persuasive than others, but I found that even the ones I was skeptical about got me thinking hard. There are many more ideas to write about here than I am ever going to be able to make the time to address. But here a couple of instances, by way of example.

There's a chapter toward the end of the book entitled "The Wheel," in which Gray develops the thread of an argument that he touches on elsewhere in the book, which is essentially that civilization is not all that it is cracked up to be, and that our assumption that we are better off with it than without it is open to question from various quarters:

There never was a Golden Age of harmony with the earth. Most hunter-gatherers were fully as rapacious as later humans. But they were few, and they lived better than most who came after them.

The move from hunter-gathering to farming has often been seen as a change like the Industrial Revolution of modern time. If this is so, it is because both increased the powers of humans without enhancing their freedoms. Hunter-gatherers normally have enough for their needs; they do not have to work to accumulate more. In the eyes of those for whom wealth means having an abundance of objects, the hunter-gathering life must look like poverty. From another angle it can be seen as freedom: 'We are inclined to think of hunter-gatherers as poor because they don't have anything; perhaps better to think of them for that reason as free,' writes Marshall Sahlins…

The move from hunter-gathering to farming harmed health and life expectancy. Even today, the hunter-gatherers of the Arctic and the Kalahari have better diets than the poor people in rich countries—and much better than those of many people in so-called developing countries. More of the world's population is chronically undernourished today than in the Old Stone Age. (156-7)

I don't know enough about conditions of life in the Old Stone Age to know whether John Gray is accurate here or whether he's just making up interesting stuff. But it's clear that he is phenomenally well-read. (He does provide a 30-page appendix of further readings for those who want to follow the breadcrumbs he's dropping.) I don't take everything he says at face value, but his intellectual authority inspires a certain degree of trust.

This passage was of particular interest to me at this time because I've recently been doing a lot of reading about the history of the interactions between European settlers and native Americans during the mid-1900s, and it is heartbreaking to experience even third or fourth hand the smugness and dismissiveness (and ultimately, the viciousness) of the missionaries and militarists who believed that all the Indians needed to do to become happy prosperous good citizens was to settle down on a reservation and learn how to grow corn. It was not within them to reflect on what wisdom or what happiness the Native Americans might have had access to on their own terms, and like the purveyors of so many faith-based initiatives throughout human history, they saw their attempts to civilize and save the savages—even if it meant extinguishing them— as their holy duty. Gray is making a case, implicit here and explicit elsewhere, for the value of intellectual humility. The consequences of self-righteous dismissiveness being evident everywhere around us.

Another passage that I found interesting was near the end of the book was in a section entitled "The Consolations of Action." In it, Gray writes

For those for whom life means action, the world is a stage on which to enact their dreams. Over the past few hundred years, at least in Europe, religion has waned, but we have not become less obsessed with imprinting a human meaning on things. A think secular idealism has become the dominant attitude toward life. The world has come to be seen as something to be remade in our own image. The idea that the aim of life is not action but contemplation has almost disappeared. (193)

I like that. I like the idea that as humans we might want to make it our business to preserve space for contemplation. Modern culture is based on the assumption that work creates value, and it's true, it does, at least some of the time. But that's not its only consequence:

Action preserves a sense of self-identity that reflection dispels. When we are at work in the world we have a seeming solidity. Action gives us consolation for our inexistence. It is not the idle dreamer who escapes from reality. It is practical men and women, who turn to a life of action as a refuge from insignificance. (194)

It seems to me that Gray is making an important point here, one which he comes at from various angles throughout his book. As humans, we tell ourselves stories about what we are doing. And as far as they go, the stories are true, and they help us to understand ourselves. But they only go so far, and inevitably, what they leave out is, inevitably, larger and more relevant and more significant than what they include. We need to keep reminding ourselves of that, and the only way to do that is to open up space for contemplation, and to re-teach ourselves what we know as children but soon forget: how to see. Gray closes his book with three sentences:

Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see? (199)

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