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The Silence of Animals
On Progress and Other Modern Myths
By John Gray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2013 John Gray
All rights reserved.
An Old Chaos
The highly civilized apes swung gracefully from bough to bough; the Neanderthaler was uncouth and bound to the earth. The apes, saturated and playful, lived in sophisticated playfulness, or caught fleas in philosophic contemplation; the Neanderthaler trampled gloomily through the world, banging around with clubs. The apes looked down on him amusedly from their tree tops and threw nuts at him. Sometimes horror seized them: they ate fruits and tender plants with delicate refinement; the Neanderthaler devoured raw meat, he slaughtered animals and his fellows. He cut down trees that had always stood, moved rocks from their time-hallowed place, transgressed every law and tradition of the jungle. He was uncouth, cruel, without animal dignity – from the point of view of the highly civilized apes, a barbaric relapse of history.
Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon
THE CALL OF PROGRESS
'Kayerts was hanging by a leather strap from the cross. He had evidently climbed the grave, which was high and narrow, and after tying the end of the strap to the arm, had swung himself off. His toes were only a couple of inches above the ground: his arms hung stiffly down; he seemed to be standing rigidly at attention; but with one purple cheek playfully posed on the shoulder. And, irreverently, he was putting out a swollen tongue at his Managing Director.'
The hanged man was one of a pair of traders sent by a Belgian corporation to a remote part of the Congo, 300 miles away from the nearest trading post. Most of their work was done by a native interpreter, who used a visit by some tribesmen to sell some of the outpost's workers as slaves in exchange for ivory tusks. Initially shocked at being involved in slave-trading but finding the deal highly profitable, Kayerts and the other European Carlier accepted the trade. Having made the deal, they were left with little to occupy their time. They passed their days reading cheap novels and old newspapers extolling 'Our Colonial Expansion' and 'the merits of those who went about bringing light, faith and commerce to the dark places of the earth'. Reading these newspapers, Carlier and Kayerts 'began to think better of themselves'. Over the next few months they lost the habit of work. The steamer they were expecting did not come and their supplies began to run out. Quarrelling over some lumps of sugar that Kayerts held in reserve, Carlier was killed. In desperation, Kayerts decided to kill himself too. As he was hanging himself on the cross, the steamer arrived. When the Managing Director disembarks, he finds himself face to face with the dead Kayerts.
Joseph Conrad wrote 'An Outpost of Progress' in 1896, and it is a story at least as ferocious and disabused as his later and better-known novella Heart of Darkness. Conrad describes how Kayerts 'sat by the corpse [of Carlier] thinking; thinking very actively, thinking very new thoughts. His old thoughts, convictions, likes and dislikes, things he respected and things he abhorred, appeared in their true light at last! Appeared contemptible and childish, false and ridiculous. He revelled in his new wisdom while he sat by the man he had killed.' But not all of Kayerts's old convictions have vanished, and what he still believes in leads him to his death. 'Progress was calling Kayerts from the river. Progress and civilisation and all the virtues. Society was calling to its accomplished child to come to be taken care of, to be instructed, to be judged, to be condemned; it called him to return from that rubbish heap from which he had wandered away, so that justice could be done.'
In setting his tale in the Congo, where he had observed the effects of Belgian imperialism at first hand when he visited the country in 1890 to take command of a river steamer, Conrad was making use of a change he had himself undergone. Arriving with the conviction that he was a civilized human being, he realized what in fact he had been: 'Before the Congo, I was just a mere animal.' The animal to which Conrad refers was European humanity, which caused the deaths of millions of human beings in the Congo.
The idea that imperialism could be a force for human advance has long since fallen into disrepute. But the faith that was once attached to empire has not been renounced. Instead it has spread everywhere. Even those who nominally follow more traditional creeds rely on a belief in the future for their mental composure. History may be a succession of absurdities, tragedies and crimes; but – everyone insists – the future can still be better than anything in the past. To give up this hope would induce a state of despair like that which unhinged Kayerts.
Among the many benefits of faith in progress the most important may be that it prevents too much self-knowledge. When Kayerts and his companion ventured into the Congo the aliens they met were not the indigenous inhabitants but themselves.
They lived like blind men in a large room, aware only of what came in contact with them (and of that only imperfectly), but unable to see the general aspect of things. The river, the forest, all the great land throbbing with life, were like a great emptiness. Things appeared and disappeared before their eyes in an unconnected and aimless kind of way. The river flowed through a void. Out of that void, at times, came canoes, and men with spears in their hands would suddenly crowd the yard of the station.
They cannot endure the silence into which they have come: 'stretching away in all directions, surrounding the insignificant cleared spot of the trading post, immense forests, hiding fateful complications of fantastic life, lay in the eloquent silence of mute greatness.' The sense of the progression of time, which they had brought with them, begins to fall away. As Conrad writes towards the end of the story, 'Those fellows, having engaged themselves to the Company for six months (without having any idea of a month in particular and only a very faint notion of time in general), had been serving the cause of progress for upwards of two years.' Removed from their habits, Kayerts and Carlier lose the abilities that are needed to go on living. 'Society, not from any tenderness, but because of its strange needs, had taken care of those two men, forbidding them all independent thought, all initiative, all departure from routine; and forbidding it under pain of death. They could live only on condition of being machines.'
The machine-like condition of modern humans may seem a limitation. In fact it is a condition of their survival. Kayerts and Carlier were able to function as individuals only because they had been shaped by society down to their innermost being. They were:
two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals, whose existence is only rendered possible through the high organization of civilized crowds. Few men realize that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings. The courage, the composure, the confidence; the emotions and principles; every great and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowd: to the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and of its morals, in the power of the police and of its opinion.
When they stepped outside of their normal surroundings, the two men were powerless to act. More than that: they ceased to exist.
For those who live inside a myth, it seems a self-evident fact. Human progress is a fact of this kind. If you accept it you have a place in the grand march of humanity. Humankind is, of course, not marching anywhere. 'Humanity' is a fiction composed from billions of individuals for each of whom life is singular and final. But the myth of progress is extremely potent. When it loses its power those who have lived by it are – as Conrad put it, describing Kayerts and Carlier – 'like those lifelong prisoners who, liberated after many years, do not know what use to make of their freedoms'. When faith in the future is taken from them, so is the image they have of themselves. If they then opt for death, it is because without that faith they can no longer make sense of living.
When Kayerts decides to end his life he does it by hanging himself on a cross. 'Kayerts stood still. He looked upwards; the fog rolled low over his head. He looked around like a man who has lost his way; and he saw a dark smudge, a cross-shaped stain, upon the shifting purity of the mist. As he began to stumble towards it, the station bell rang in a tumultuous peal its answer to the impatient clamour of the steamer.' Just as the steamer is arriving – showing that civilization is still intact – Kayerts reaches the cross, where he finds redemption in death.
What has the cross to do with progress? Conrad tells us that it had been put up by the Director of the Great Trading Company to mark the grave of the first of his agents, formerly an unsuccessful painter, who 'had planned and had watched the construction of this outpost of progress'. The cross was 'much out of the perpendicular', causing Carlier to squint whenever he passed it, so one day he replants it upright. Wanting to make sure that it is solid, he applies his weight to it: 'I suspended myself with both hands to the cross-piece. Not a move. Oh, I did that properly.' It is on this tall, sturdy structure, which appears to him as a dark, smudged stain in the mist, that Kayerts ends his life.
In the story that the modern world repeats to itself, the belief in progress is at odds with religion. In the dark ages of faith there was no hope of any fundamental change in human life. With the arrival of modern science, a vista of improvement opened up. Increasing knowledge allowed humans to take control of their destiny. From being lost in the shadows, they could step out into the light.
In fact the idea of progress is not at odds with religion in the way this modern fairy tale suggests. Faith in progress is a late survival of early Christianity, originating in the message of Jesus, a dissident Jewish prophet who announced the end of time. For the ancient Egyptians as for the ancient Greeks, there was nothing new under the sun. Human history belongs in the cycles of the natural world. The same is true in Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, and the older parts of the Hebrew Bible. By creating the expectation of a radical alteration in human affairs, Christianity – the religion that St Paul invented from Jesus' life and sayings – founded the modern world.
In practice human beings continued to live much as they had always done. As Wallace Stevens wrote:
She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, 'The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering,
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.'
We live in an old chaos of the sun.
It was not long before a literal expectation of the End was turned into a metaphor for a spiritual transformation. Yet a change had taken place in what was hoped of the future. Many transmutations were needed before the Christian story could renew itself as the myth of progress. But from being a succession of cycles like the seasons, history came to be seen as a story of redemption and salvation, and in modern times salvation became identified with the increase of knowledge and power – the myth that took Kayerts and Carlier to the Congo.
When Conrad used his experiences of the Congo in Heart of Darkness (1899), he was not telling a story of barbarism in faraway places. The narrator tells the tale on a yacht moored in the Thames estuary: barbarism is not a primitive form of life, Conrad is intimating, but a pathological development of civilization. The same thought recurs in The Secret Agent (1907), Conrad's novel of terrorism and conspiracy, which is set in London. The anarchist Professor, who travels everywhere with a bomb in his coat that he intends to detonate if arrested, wants to believe that humanity has been corrupted by government, an essentially criminal institution. But, as Conrad understood, it is not only government that is tainted by criminality. All human institutions – families and churches, police forces and anarchists – are stained by crime. Explaining human nastiness by reference to corrupt institutions leaves a question: why are humans so attached to corruption? Clearly, the answer is in the human animal itself.
Conrad shows the Professor struggling with this truth: 'He was in a long, straight street, peopled by a mere fraction of an immense multitude; but all around him, on and on, even to the limits of the horizon hidden by the enormous piles of bricks, he felt the mass of mankind mighty in its numbers. They swarmed numerous like locusts, industrious like ants, thoughtless like a natural force, pushing on blind and orderly and absorbed, impervious to sentiment, to logic, to terror too, perhaps.'
The Professor continues to dream of a future in which humans will be regenerated. But what he truly loves is destruction: 'the incorruptible Professor walked, averting his eyes from the odious multitude. He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable – and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world.' If Kayerts hanged himself because he no longer believed in progress, the Professor is ready to kill and die in order to show that he still has faith in the future.
The myth of progress casts a glimmer of meaning into the lives of those who accept it. Kayerts, Carlier and many like them did nothing that could be described as significant. But their faith in progress allowed their petty schemes to seem part of a grand design, while their miserable deaths achieved a kind of exemplary futility their lives had not possessed.
FROZEN HORSES AND DESERTS OF BRICK
When Norman Lewis arrived in Naples as an officer of the British Intelligence Corps in early October 1943 he found a city on the brink of starvation.
It is astonishing to witness the struggles of this city so shattered, so starved, so deprived of all those things that justify a city's existence, to adapt itself to a collapse into conditions which must resemble life in the Dark Ages. People camp out like Bedouins in deserts of brick. There is little food, little water, no salt, no soap. A lot of Neapolitans have lost their possessions, including most of their clothing, in the bombings, and I have seen some strange combinations of garments about the streets, including a man in an old dinner jacket, knickerbockers and army boots and several women in lacy confections that might have been made up from curtains. There are no cars but carts by the hundred, and a few antique coaches such as barouches and phaetons drawn by lean horses. Today at Posilippo I stopped to watch the methodical dismemberment of a stranded German half-track by a number of youths who were streaming away from it like leaf-cutter ants, carrying pieces of metal of all shapes and sizes ... Everyone improvises and adapts.
In the book he wrote about his experiences, Naples '44, published in 1978, Lewis presents a picture of life as it is lived when civilization has crumbled. Hit by plague – a typhus epidemic visited the city not long after its liberation, while syphilis was rampant – the inhabitants were surrounded by death and disease. Beyond the struggle against sickness, there was another struggle that was all-consuming – the daily effort simply to stay alive.
Lewis's life was driven by an impulse to escape the restrictions of interwar England. Born and passing most of his early years in the London suburb of Enfield, he married the daughter of a member of the Sicilian mafia who had ended up in Bloomsbury. Having been smuggled into America in a coffin, Lewis's future father-in-law decided to return to Europe after his New York apartment was machine-gunned. It seems to have been the Sicilian who funded Lewis's excursion into business as the owner of the photography shop R. G. Lewis, through which Lewis would for a time corner the British market in Leica cameras. According to Lewis, it was through an encounter in this shop that he was recruited as an 'amateur spy' by British intelligence in 1937 and sent on a mission to Yemen, travelling there by dhow only to be refused entry to the still-feudal country. On the way home he was befriended by an English archaeologist, who seems to have been responsible for Lewis joining the Intelligence Corps.
Excerpted from The Silence of Animals by John Gray. Copyright © 2013 John Gray. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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