The utopian apocalypse
Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 244 pp., $24
Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 248 pp., $16 paper
This might be the most important question you can ask about the presidential candidates: Can they talk to the animals?
Bizarre as it may sound, the desire for an affirmative answer to that question (which we’ll get back to) acquires a nagging gravity while reading two books by the English writer John Gray. “Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals,” a bestseller upon publication in Britain in 2002, is being released here, along with his new “Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia.” Each book is slender and sharp as a scalpel.
Read in sequence, they perform an almost surgical feat: “Straw Dogs” reconstructs popular notions of the relationships among science, religion and politics. This revisionist landscape of modern thought is further explored in “Black Mass,” which presents utopian politics from the French Revolution through America’s project of spreading democracy in the Middle East as “mutant version[s]” of an ancient, apocalyptic Christian belief that God will transform the world and evil will pass away.
“When the project of universal democracy ended in the blood-soaked streets of Iraq,” Gray writes, " . . . Utopianism suffered a heavy blow, but politics and war have not ceased to be vehicles for myth. Instead, primitive versions of religion are replacing the secular faith that has been lost.”
And yet, oddly, as “Black Mass” hints, other religious myths offer hope for dispelling the superstitions hovering over global politics today.
Gray, a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, has written or edited 19 books, including academic studies of Isaiah Berlin and John Stuart Mill. Though relatively unknown in the United States, he is a controversial public intellectual in Britain, where he has evolved from a Thatcherite conservative into an ideologically unclassifiable provocateur.
Though typically shelved as political philosophy, “Straw Dogs” and “Black Mass” offer a reading experience less like Locke and more like the joyful, quasi-academic synopses of Alain de Botton (though Gray is more erudite and less sentimental) or the mirthfully sober, brain-wandering novels of W.G. Sebald (though Gray is prouder and more rhetorical). With excursions into Conrad, Plato, Bruce Chatwin, Schopenhauer and Lao Tzu, among many others, Gray’s books have the delighting, frightening, distracting and focusing qualities of a mist-to-dusk drive on the Pacific Coast Highway.
These are works of intellectual cartography, clarifying boundaries among disciplines, with one primary goal: naming the ways that what we call secularism unknowingly and stubbornly promotes a crudely religious way of looking at the world.
Explaining that the “very idea of revolution as a transforming event in history is owed to religion,” Gray announces near the beginning of “Black Mass” that the “Enlightenment ideologies of the past centuries were very largely spilt theology.” (The apercu is no less electrifying for being an uncredited allusion to the critic T.E. Hulme, who dismissed Romanticism as “spilt religion.”)
The view of politics described by “Black Mass” is grounded in the argument of “Straw Dogs.” That book details the ways that science has become a vessel for old religious hopes: “sickness and ageing will be abolished; scarcity and poverty will be no more; the species will become immortal. Like Christianity in the past, the modern cult of science lives on the hope of miracles.”
By contrast, “Straw Dogs” considers what politics might be like if we took science seriously -- if we accepted the full ramifications of Darwin’s finding that Homo sapiens is merely another kind of animal. If, as Gray writes, “species are only assemblies of genes, interacting at random with each other and their shifting environments,” then humanity’s ambition to master fate is absurd. Those who speak of “ ‘the progress of mankind,’ ” Gray contends, “have put their faith in an abstraction that no one would think of taking seriously if it were not formed from cast-off Christian hopes.”
In the long run, Gray suggests, people are as helpless to control their destinies as pigeons. Thus Western politics (as practiced since Louis XVI lost his head) is vanity. “Good politics,” he writes, “is shabby and makeshift, but at the start of the twenty-first century the world is strewn with the grandiose ruins of failed utopias. With the Left moribund, the Right has become the home to the utopian imagination. Global communism has been followed by global capitalism. The two visions of the future have much in common. Both are hideous and fortunately chimerical.” The best that we can hope for is government that manages the tragic contingencies of life.
The other purpose of the liberal state, “Black Mass” explains, is to protect “a type of civilized life in which rival beliefs can coexist in peace.” In this view, government has no place doing missionary work to spread democracy.
“In waging war to promote their values actually existing liberal societies are corrupted. This is what happened when torture, whose prohibition was the result of an Enlightenment campaign that began in the eighteenth century, was used at the start of the twenty-first as a weapon in an Enlightenment crusade for universal democracy. Preserving the hard-won restraints of civilization is less exciting than throwing them away in order to achieve impossible ideals,” Gray writes, ending with a gravely donnish joust: “Barbarism has a certain charm, particularly when it comes clothed in virtue.”
Gray’s analysis of religion’s influence in politics, especially as applied in “Black Mass” to the Iraq war, is uncommon. He writes about religion not as most do -- in a rational sense, considering it as a system of propositional truths -- but in a manner that’s both older and more contemporary: as a symbolic phenomenon, like a culture or language, that people use to make sense of ultimate concerns.
So when Gray considers the missionary project of this war, he describes insiders’ decisions with deep understanding. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s complicity in planning the war despite knowing it was based on faulty intelligence, he writes, was not mendacious: “It is not so much that he is economical with the truth as that he lacks the normal understanding of it. . . Blair’s untruths are not true lies. They are prophetic glimpses of the future course of history.”
Passages like this reveal apocalyptic patterns of thought and belief that shaped the utopian project of the war. The Greek word that we translate as “apocalypse” does not refer directly to the end of the world: It means “the lifting of the veil,” conveying secret knowledge to a group of privileged people set apart from the rest of humanity. This is why the Book of Revelation is full of inscrutable symbols. This is why John’s Gospel opens with that knotty passage about the Word. These texts carried secret knowledge, meant to baffle outsiders and to protect insiders’ exclusive claim on truth.
Though Gray argues that the tragedy of Iraq will end secular utopian hope, he also thinks that climate change and resource scarcity are inspiring new devotion to violent apocalyptic dreams. His vision of the future, and of religion’s role in shaping humanity’s fate, is mostly bleak.
Yet on the last page of “Black Mass,” he grants that “at its best religion has been an attempt to deal with mystery rather than the hope that mystery will be unveiled.” Moreover, he notes that some religious myths can help humanity see more clearly. “In the Genesis story humans were banished from paradise after eating from the Tree of Knowledge and had to survive by their labours ever after. There is no promise here of any return to a state of primordial innocence. Once the fruit has been eaten there is no going back.” Genesis also tells the story of Noah and the Flood, which Gray does not mention, though it’s a clear rebuke of apocalypticism: God promises to wreak no more violent transformation of the world, and that the routine of “seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
Perhaps remembering such myths could make it easier to learn to see ourselves as animals. Yet for this to happen, we would need leaders with the courage to see themselves, and treat the rest of us, as creatures and not as little saviors or little stars. That’s almost as unlikely as it is imperative, in a YouTubed culture of relentless video recycling and commentary that pressures public figures to speak and behave with inhuman consistency, which routs ingredients of realism -- uncertainty, subtlety, patience -- from public debate.
It would take a presidential candidate as wisely daft as Doctor Dolittle to engage a world where each of us now shares the fate of pushmi-pullyu: that cute, sad two-headed creature, paralyzed by freakish scope of sight.