“Full of challenging ideas you want to argue with,” is how Joan Bakewell described “Straw Dogs”, which J. leant me over the festive period.
John Gray’s book collects together various writings about mankind, our position on the planet and our future, and it’s not exactly comfort reading. Gray pulls down authority after authority, concluding that we’re frankly a bit rubbish.
He talks, for example, about how machines and computers are obviating humans in industry, so that,
“we are approaching a time when ... almost all humans work to amuse other humans.”
John Gray, “Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals”, p. 160.
“Contemporary capitalism is prodigiously productive, but the imperative that drives it is not productivity. It is to keep boredom at bay. Where affluence is the rule the chief threat is the loss of desire. With wants so quickly sated, the economy soon comes to depend on the manufacture of ever more exotic needs.
What is new is not that prosperity depends on stimulating demand. It is that it cannot continue without inventing new vices. The economy is driven by an imperative of perpetual novelty, and its health has come to depend on the manufacture of transgression. The spectre that haunts it is glut – not of physical goods only, but of experiences that have palled. New experiences become obsolete even more quickly than do physical commodities.”
Ibid., p. 163.
(The Granta website also lets you read the chapter, “Science versus humanism”.)
I suspect the book is meant to be contentious and provocative, especially given its habit of generalising that “Everyone thought…” or “Christians are…”. Some of it certainly made me cross (though not as mouth-foamy as it got Terry Eagleton in the Guardian).
I found myself often disagreeing with Gray, but in doing so articulating ideas I’d not been conscious of believing. Humans are different from animals because of the footprint we leave behind us. As Dr Bronowski says in the opening episode of “The Ascent of Man”, other species leave behind fossils of themselves, we leave behind things we have made.
That doesn’t make us better, though. Just different. And with a moral imperative to do better. That we know ourselves to be the most aggressively destructive species on the planet is really not enough.
It also raises the old chestnut that atheism and science are to blame for Nazism and the Holocaust – which I shall address another time, when I’m not feeling so bleurgh.