Magazine article The Spectator

'The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom', by John Gray - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom', by John Gray - Review

Article excerpt

The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom John Gray

Allen Lane, pp.179, £17.99, ISBN: 9781846144493

You can't accuse John Gray of dodging the big questions, or indeed the big answers. His new book The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom isn't really that short and certainly isn't confined to a reflection on human freedom. As a reviewer you're often faced with books that are so bereft of content, so painfully thin that they're transparent, and you wonder why anyone would publish them. I can imagine Gray's editor begging him to jettison some profundity.

The reader is bombarded with boulders of philosophy and politics. Religions are gobbled up. Whole civilisations whizz past. It's the ontological kitchen sink coming atcha, or to paraphrase Joyce, Here Comes Everything. Not just the past, but the future too.

As you would expect from a former professor of European thought, Gray offers an urbane and learned account of man from the Garden of Eden to secret rendition. Gray, like Isaiah Berlin, that great tour-guide of ideas, is skilled at hijacking the writings of others, and cogently expounds the work of Heinrich von Kleist (whose essay 'On the Puppet Theatre' provides the theme of marionette freedom), Giacomo Leopardi, Bruno Schulz, Thomas Hobbes, Joseph Glanvill, Guy Debord, T. E. Powys, plus several science fiction authors such as Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem. Indeed I would characterise the book as Isaiah Berlin with a thing for sci-fi, occasionally lapsing into a Guardian op-ed. The erudition, and the range of the erudition, is frightening. Gray zooms from Zoroastrianism to the musings of those Russian science fiction lords the Strugatsky brothers.

One of the ironies of the whole edifice of philosophy is that it hasn't come up with solid answers. How do we know anything? What makes us human? What separates us from the animals? There are some colourful attempts: Descartes coins the witty line 'cogito ergo sum'; Plato wants to tell you a story about a cave. But, essentially, after more than 2,000 years of head-scratching, Socrates and Philip K. Dick are pretty much saying the same thing. Socrates said he didn't know anything. Dick says we can't know anything (probably because they won't let us) or, at best, we can't be sure we know anything.

Oddly, Gray doesn't make reference to the novel that I consider to be Dick's best, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This was the basis for the film Blade Runner . Ironically again, it's the American science fiction writer with the most utility-bill prose who had the most unsettling ideas about how we know anything, and the book is more unsettling and weirder than the film, and also has a powerful subplot about a messiah that was completely dropped for the screen. …

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