The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths


A searching, captivating look at the persistence of myth in our modern world

“By nature volatile and discordant, the human animal looks to silence for relief from being itself while other creatures enjoy silence as their birthright.”

In a book by turns chilling and beautiful, John Gray continues the thinking that made his Straw Dogs such a cult classic.

Gray draws on an extraordinary array of memoirs, poems, ...

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The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths

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A searching, captivating look at the persistence of myth in our modern world

“By nature volatile and discordant, the human animal looks to silence for relief from being itself while other creatures enjoy silence as their birthright.”

In a book by turns chilling and beautiful, John Gray continues the thinking that made his Straw Dogs such a cult classic.

Gray draws on an extraordinary array of memoirs, poems, fiction, and philosophy to re-imagine our place in the world. Writers as varied as Ballard, Borges, Conrad, and Freud have been mesmerized by forms of human extremity—experiences that are on the outer edge of the possible or that tip into fantasy and myth. What happens to us when we starve, when we fight, when we are imprisoned? And how do our imaginations leap into worlds way beyond our real experiences?

The Silence of Animals is consistently fascinating, filled with unforgettable images and a delight in the conundrum of human existence—an existence that we decorate with countless myths and ideas, where we twist and turn to avoid acknowledging that we too are animals, separated from the others perhaps only by our self-conceit. In the Babel we have created for ourselves, it is the silence of animals that both reproaches and bewitches us.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Gray (Straw Dogs), emeritus professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, carves a winding path through 20th century intellectual history to build an attack on liberal humanism, and questions the assumptions that humans cling to as proof of our inherent goodness and perfectability. Drawing on a history of atrocities, Gray asserts that “civilization is natural for humans, but so is barbarism.” He suggests that modern society’s vehement belief in historical progress comes from the pairing of a Socratic faith in reason with a Christian notion of salvation. To counter these myths, Gray constructs his own pantheon of “thinkers who were not afraid to doubt the worth of thought,” drawing upon philosophers and poets who point to how “life can be lived well without metaphysical comfort.” The result is a constellation of ideas that resist order, salvation, and the primacy of rationalism. Although his vision seems closer to some thinkers than others—he returns repeatedly to Wallace Stevens and spends a great deal of time reenvisioning Freud—Gray describes each of his guiding lights, addressing his or her conceptual limitations before moving on. The result is a work of modern philosophy that is no less readable and compelling for being rigorously bleak. Agent: Tracy Bohan, the Wylie Agency. (June)
From the Publisher
“Gray’s godless mysticism asks us to look outside ourselves and simply see. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds . . . Sometimes I think John Gray is the great Schopenhauerian European Buddhist of our age. What he offers is a gloriously pessimistic cultural analysis, which rightly reduces to rubble the false idols of the cave of liberal humanism.”—Simon Critchley, The Los Angeles Review of Books


“[Gray's is] a powerful message, and not without elements of profundity. And it is conveyed with eloquence of language and dignity of thought.”—Robert W. Merry, The National Interest


“Gray’s fans should find much here to please them. The range of literary, historical and philosophical extracts—from Conrad and Zweig to Borges and John Ashbery, and from Nietzsche and Freud to Robinson Jeffers and Czeslaw Milosz, to name only a few—is broad and deep. Gray’s own utterances are by turns characteristically dark, audacious and outrageous.”—Caspar Henderson, The Telegraph

Silence of Animals is a beautifully written book, the product of a strongly questioning mind. It is effectively an anthology with detailed commentary, setting out one rich and suggestive episode after another, each of which becomes only more suggestive by the juxtaposition.” –Philip Hensher, The Spectator

Kirkus Reviews
Another bucket of cold water splashed in the face of idealism by Gray (European Thought/London School of Economics; Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, 2007, etc.), this time focused on humankind's stubbornly feral nature. The author opens with series of stories about human atrocity, drawn from both fiction (Koestler, Conrad) and fact (Europe in the world wars), as if to shock readers into recognizing that the notion of human progress is bunk. "There are not two kinds of human being, savage and civilized," he writes. "There is only the human animal, forever at war with itself." It's a persuasive argument, though Gray doesn't attack it with the rigor of a philosopher so much as with the breadth of a well-traveled literary scholar, drawing from John Ashbery and Sigmund Freud as much as Wittgenstein and Nietzsche. He connects the idea that mankind is progressively becoming more civilized with other long-lived religious myths (indeed, he describes it as largely a function of Christianity), but this is not another entry in the "angry atheist" literature, and he's not interested in proofs for or against God. In recognizing that our lives are constructed on fictions, he writes, we acquire a degree of freedom not provided by baseless optimism. He points to the case of British author Llewelyn Powys, gravely ill for much of his adult life, who threw off his sexual and religious shackles and determined to live happily and free of delusions. Gray doesn't bother with the moral complications of such hedonism; he seeks only to demolish moral certainties, not to reckon with their replacements. However cold his perspective, though, the author brings a liveliness to his prose, augmented by the top-shelf authors he quotes. The world is all chaos, Gray wants us to know, but he has a good time delivering the message.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374229177
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 6/4/2013
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 984,655
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

John Gray is the author of many critically acclaimed books, including The Immortalization Commission, Black Mass, and Straw Dogs. A regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, he is Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics.

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