Wednesday, February 15, 2006

More Doom Mongering

There are two famous writers in this world who share the name John Gray. The first one is the author of one of the classics of one of the most asinine of genres - the kind of books which teach you how to be happy in a relationship. It is called Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. He has written some sequels too but I don't remember or care. The other John Gray, who I am going to write about in this post, is a British thinker and a professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics. He is, I gather, some kind of an expert on Liberalism, having written some obscure and highly technical books on Hayek, Mill and Isaiah Berlin. I have, of course, not read any of those books and they are obviously not what he is famous for. He is also the author of Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, which is one of most devastating and virulently misanthropic critique of all tenets of humanism. His most recent book is a collection of his essays and is, rather appropriately, called Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions. Earlier he had written a pithy and an excellent critique of the politics and economics of Globalization, called False Dawn: Delusions of Global Capitalism. In it he showed, much before the east asian crisis and dot com bust how delusionary, unstable and unjust the contemporary economic system is.

If you, like me, are irritated with those two penny "spiritual" gurus like Deepak Chopra and his ilk who peddle phony feel-good "philosophies", these three books might be the perfect antidote, specially the first one.

Straw Dogs (it has nothing to do with the movie with the same name although thematically both are of course linked) is basically a summary and a survey of all the pessimistic philosophies from all the different schools. He starts with Heraclitus and ends with Heidegger and makes important detours in the middle with Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and other enemies of illusions. Buddha and Bhagvad-Gita make cameo appearances too. The conclusion of the book is simple -- we are all doomed. Freedom is a fantasy, so is free will. There is nothing more laughable than the idea that truth shall make us free or at least make us moral. And as a result, science and rationalism are bogus too, inspire as they do, the idea of progress in our ridiculous little minds. Justice is nothing but a matter of arbitrary custom. Salvation is spiritual bullshit. And so is the idea that we can transcend our animal natures. Our existence on this planet is just a darwinian accident and the idea that human beings are on a path to fulfill some divine purpose is so ridiculous that you can't even laugh at it. Our advance on this planet can only happen with the cost of ecological devastation. And most startlingly, he argues that our unique linguistic abilities, while enabling us to write poetry, also enables us to create intellectual abstractions which inevitably creates more delusions. In short, if you are in bed, don't bother getting out of it because the world is going to end and it is going to end sooner than you think.

The most important insight of the book is about the idea of "progress". Gray argues that while progress might be a fact in the realm of science, but when it comes to ethics and politics it is nothing but a dangerous delusion. Moral progress is not an irreversible advance that we can achieve parallel to the scientific progress, as in climbing a ladder. Rather, we are always in the danger of continuously learning new lessons and at the same time forgetting the lessons of the past. It is all eternal recurrence. Also his insight about the role of Government in our lives. It is not, as Bush and his neo-con gang believe, to guide us to more moral ways of living, by imposing democracy, liberalism and free market on the unsuspecting masses of the third world but the role of the government is to protect us from each other, to make sure that our lives don't turn out to be "nasty, brutish and short".

Ahh, long post. I am kind of jobless today :) Anyway, here is a profile from Guardian.

"Of all modern delusions, the idea that we live in a secular age is the furthest from reality ... liberal humanism itself is very obviously a religion - a shoddy replica of Christian faith markedly more irrational than the original article, and in recent times more harmful."

And reviews of Straw Dogs from the same site here, here and here. The last review by Terry Eagleton, although negative, is very good and very funny. Sample this line for example:"The Fall from Eden was a fall up, not down - a creative, catastrophic swerve upwards into culture, comradeship and concentration camps."

And I just love these quotes on the blurb of the book:

At once daunting and enthralling, Gray's remarkable new book shows us what it would be like to live without the distraction of consolations.
--Adam Phillips

My book of the year was Straw Dogs ...a devastating critique of liberal humanism, and all of it set out in easy-to-digest (although hard-to-swallow) apercus
--Will Self

This powerful and brilliant book is an essential guide to the new Millennium. Straw Dogs challenges all our assumptions about what it is to be human, and convincingly shows that most of them are delusions

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