John Gray, The Soul of the Marionette

The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human FreedomThe Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom by John N. Gray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A brief and essayistic digest of Gray’s analysis—he views western modernity as deludedly self-satisfied in its unwitting recapitulation of the Gnostic heresy that humanity can be God—and his aesthetic—his is an austere and gentlemanly nihilism, such as one finds in Borges or Sebald. There is little new here for those who have read Straw Dogs or Black Mass, but Gray’s opening tour of modern literary Gnosticism from Kleist to Dick is fun, like a good lecture, and it put a few more books on my reading list (Giacomo Leopardi, T. F. Powys) even as I enjoyed its review of books and authors I already admire (Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, Lem’s Solaris—though not Dick, whom I’ve never liked or been able to read).

I must say, though, that Gray’s literary history follows very closely, even down to the specific examples and the governing marionette metaphor, Victoria Nelson’s own analysis of contemporary cultural Gnosticism in her wonderful 2003 book, The Secret Life of Puppets, a work Gray oddly does not mention. Likewise, “Gnosticism is the hidden theology of modern secular progressive thought” is a thesis first developed, if I am not mistaken, by the philosopher Eric Voegelin, who also goes uncredited here, despite the book’s many references and annotations.

The book’s concluding chapters detail a realistic appraisal of humanity’s future prospects: in short, the west will enter an anti-humanistic culture of intelligent machines and docile, tech-pacified people, with a periphery of unincorporated violence in the less technologically developed world. Likely, if depressing, enough. Gray’s counsel is neither Marxian revolution nor Nietzschean anarchy, both of which he dismisses as outmoded radicalisms that have proven themselves unworkable or worse; instead, he recommends a pursuit of “inner freedom,” like that of the Stoics (or the Taoists, whom he does not mention here but who feature in Straw Dogs).

But the most arresting part of Gray’s inquiry comes in the middle of the book, in his long discussion, and at least partial defense, of the Aztec or Mexica civilization, including its practice of human sacrifice. According to Gray, modern liberal society may congratulate itself on its supposed peacefulness, but in reality we only deny our capacity for violence even as we live behind walls policed by very violent agencies, from the coerced foreign labor that brings us cheap consumer goods to the endless proxy wars raging around the globe, in which people are slaughtered and their environments permanently despoiled for the sake of resources our techno-societies require or for the empowerment of the states in which we live. The Aztecs, Gray seems to say, were at least honest with themselves in formalizing a ritual, i.e., human sacrifice, that both expressed and contained their capacity to do harm, which all humans share. Gray sees it as no accident that their civilization was so orderly and aesthetically refined aside from this gruesome rite; the regulated release of disordered emotion, the ritual frenzy, in fact, enabled the elegance and control. Some contrast with our own disordered society, with all its disavowed killing, is certainly implied.

This kind of thinking, which disturbs but which cannot be dismissed, and which is not easily summed up in the usual arguments of the Left 0r Right, is the reason I read Gray. The Soul of the Marionette is not his best book among those I’ve read—Straw Dogs is more poetic and philosophically rich, and Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern more timely in this age of ISIS, as it convincingly argues that Islamic radicalism is not a medieval throwback or some “discourse of the Other” but is rather another modern or even modernist movement of revolutionary violence, like fascism and Marxism-Leninism before it. But the present book’s literary focus will interest readers seeking to understand our world through fiction; I do recommend that they go beyond Gray’s bibliography, however, and also seek out the aforementioned Victoria Nelson and Eric Voegelin.

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