Magazine article The American Conservative

Who Pulls John Gray's Strings?

Magazine article The American Conservative

Who Pulls John Gray's Strings?

Article excerpt

The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom, John Gray, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 192 pages

John Gray, emeritus professor of I European Thought at the London I School of Economics, is an enigma.

He began his intellectual life on the left but moved right in the late 1970s, becoming a fan of Nobel Prize-winning free-market economist F.A. Hayek. Gray's libertarianism was tempered, however, by studying British philosopher Michael Oakeshott's critique of "rationalism in politics." During the 1990s, Gray was associated with New Labour--the center-left ideology that brought Tony Blair to power in Westminster--and he became a prominent critic of global capitalism with his 1998 book False Dawn.

Recently he appears to have embraced something of a nihilistic stoicism, whose spirit suffuses The Soul of the Marionette. In these pages he undertakes a sort of jazz improvisation on the theme of human freedom, surveying an omnium-gatherum of earlier writers' and cultures' thoughts on the topic from the point of view of a "freedom-skeptic." Gray sees the modern, supposedly secular belief in human freedom as a creed that will not admit its character: "Throughout much of the world ... the Gnostic faith that knowledge can give humans a freedom that no other creature can possess has become the predominant religion." Gray finds the Gnostic frame of mind even among "hard-headed" scientists:

   The crystallographer J. D. Bernal
   ... envisioned 'an erasure of individuality
   and mortality' in which
   human beings would cease to be
   distinct physical entities . 'consciousness
   itself might end or
   vanish . becoming masses of at
   oms in space communicating by
   radiation, and ultimately perhaps
   resolving itself entirely into light.'

In another vignette of a thinker he finds relevant to his inquiry, Gray discusses the philosophy of the 19th-century Italian writer Giacomo Leopardi, most famous for penning the classic poem "L'Infinito." Leopardi was a staunch materialist who nevertheless found religion to be a necessary illusion. He understood Christianity as an essential response to the rise of skepticism in Greco-Roman culture; in Leopardi's view, "What was destroying the [ancient] world was the lack of illusion." Christianity had now gone into decline, but this was not to be celebrated; as Gray quotes Leopardi, "There is no doubt that the progress of reason and the extinction of illusions produce barbarism." What was arising from the "secular creeds" of his time was only "the militant evangelism of Christianity in a more dangerous form."

Gray finds Edgar Allan Poe's vision of a world where "human reason could never grasp the nature of things" congenial and devotes several pages to the American poet. He also takes up the trope of the golem as evinced in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, declaring "Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves"--a view on the surface at odds with his later proclamations about the coming age of artificial intelligence.

Continuing his odyssey, Gray arrives at the isle--or rather, planet--of Stanislav Lem's novel Solaris (which was made into a 2002 movie starring George Clooney). It features a water-covered world involved in "ontological auto-metamorphosis." According to the "heretical" scientific theories its discovery spawned, the planet has a "sentient ocean": Lem was prefiguring something like the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock that Gray has invoked favorably here and in earlier works.

Gray also takes interest in the work of renowned American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, who wrote a series of novels that advanced one of the most compelling paranoid metaphysics of our time. Gray notes that Dick is an archetypal Gnostic, as shown by lines like "Behind the counterfeit universe lies God ... it is not man who is estranged from God; it is God who is estranged from God. …

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