The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom John Gray Allen Lane, 2015
Some books can change people, authors as much as readers. Twelve years ago, the philosopher John Gray wrote Straw Dogs. Up until then the author of a dozen or so books of sustained and subtle, if unusually readable, political philosophy, Straw Dogs transformed Gray, its punchy, aphoristic prose proving immensely popular. Since then, he has written half a dozen short, erudite philosophical excursions in a similar vein, of which The Soul of the Marionette of the latest.
Fans of Gray, among which the present reviewer counts himself, will find no significant developments in his thought here. Indeed, it might be judged perverse to expect such from a thinker who has denounced the idea of progress with particularly creative vehemence. Thus, we see our author again slicing up complacent secular humanism, using Aztec ritual murder to show how alone among animals humans seek meaning in their lives by killing, and critiquing his particular bêtes noires Ray Kurtzweil, the “futurologist” (you can almost hear the sneer in Gray’s voice) and director of engineering at Google, with his predictions of how humans are on the verge of transcending biology, and (although not by name) Steven Pinker, the cognitive scientist who has assiduously collected data allegedly proving how humans are becoming better and more peaceful. In the process, he casts a wide net, drawing up vignettes from the familiar, and the unjustly neglected, such as Heinrich von Kleist, Giacomo Leopardi, and T.F. Powys.
The book’s central theme is that humans are caught creatures, “über-marionettes” trapped between the uncomplicated simplicity of the animal and the transcendent freedom of the divine (or at least the imagined divine). Philosophies that fail to recognise this ineradicable tension are bogus, although not as bad as those, like Gnosticism, that imagine we can transcend human limitations and achieve salvation through knowledge, an ideology that Gray convincingly argues has become the silent creed of our time.
Gray’s writing is, as ever, fluid and memorable, and the book has plenty of quotable lines, usually of the kind that have infuriated bien pensants. Modern rationalists see themselves “as embattled warriors in a struggle against darkness, [but] it has not occurred to them to ask why humankind is so fond of the dark”. “If you want to reject any idea of God, you must accept that ‘humanity’… also does not exist.”
Such sentiments underline what a deeply a deeply religious thinker Gray is, albeit one whose scriptures end at Genesis chapter 3, a myth that he sees as depicting the “intrinsic condition of self-conscious beings”, and with which he has deep sympathy. As always with him, however, the brilliance with which he pulls down human pretensions has its own shadow side, namely the failure to erect anything in its place. Gray’s rhetorical answer at the end of Straw Dogs was that other animals do not need a purpose in life, so “can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” The answer to that, though, as he knows, is ‘no’. For him that is our tragedy. For others, it is the seed of our glory.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos
The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom is published by Allen Lane