Freedom is illusory. There is no driving force behind our lives. No Fate, no Destiny, no intrinsic meaning or purpose. What’s more, we are interminably ignorant creatures who look not for truth but for cosy myths of human nature that are based on superstition, predicated on defunct religious dogma. We look upon life as a semi-literate child peers at a yellowing edition of The Brothers Karamazov.
Such is John Gray’s take on humanity. A ruthlessly unsentimental thinker, he looks upon the grandiose image we have of ourselves and dispels it with an exhilarating intensity. He takes on liberal humanism and wins; he takes on Christianity and wins; he takes on the new-atheists and wins. Gray appears the supreme critical mind. He says that he “tends to steer clear of beliefs”, and echoing that brilliant Will Self, an admirer of Gray’s, phrase, “beliefs are ideas going bald.”
Gray’s ideas about freedom in Soul of the Marionette are not bald but richly adorned with follicles of quotation and reference from other writers. Guy Debord, TF Powys, Philip K Dick, Koestler: Gray has an amazing eye for other writer’s synergy with his own thought. The principle theme is taken from Kleist’s essay On The Puppet Theatre, which Gray uses to suggest that the marionette has reached a level of freedom unattainable by the ‘human animal’: freedom from choice. The Marionette is far more ‘graceful’ and poised than man precisely because it is not free, and does not have any pretence of its own freedom, as man does.
Man has adopted, instead, a new form of the Gnostic faith. This is the belief that the world was created not by an omnibenevolent God, but by a mischievous, malign demiurge. Gnostics believe that Adam probably should have eaten the apple and that The Fall of Man was a fall into freedom. They also believe that we can reach a state of peace by the pursuit of knowledge. These religious Gnostics have been replaced by secular Gnostics whose unwavering faith in the progression of humanity is ultimately flawed, so says Gray.
Conspiracy theorists, despite being acutely false, are compelling to study insofar as they show the deep need in humans to search for an overriding narrative. These people, finding themselves not free, need to be a pawn in the project of totalitarian lizards in order for their lives to have meaning. Gray looks at the extraordinary tragicomedy of the Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro’s disappearance and death. Moro’s ministers took it upon themselves to consult a Ouija board in the hope of discovering his location.
It is fitting that Gray even takes issue with the Stephen Hawking-style doomsday warnings about the oncoming robot apocalypse. He suggests that these people have forgotten that these robots will be made by humans, and will therefore have the same faults as humans. He can envisage a time when robots will come to “have the impression that they are choosing their path through life. As in humans, this may be an illusion; but as the sensation takes hold, it will engender what in humans used to be called a soul.” Evidently, the ghost is an invention of the machine and Gray retains his unwaveringly critical perspective.
The wry humour, acerbic wit and occasional beauty of his writing is reason enough to read as much of Gray’s oeuvre as possible. It must be said though that if you are quite proud of your position as a human being you may leave his work a little rattled.
If Leopardi was right in saying that “no one understands the human heart at all who does not understand how vast is its capacity for illusions”, then one should read Gray for a little glimpse of the real human heart. After all, as Gray says in Straw Dogs, maybe the aim in life should be simply “to see.'”
Words by Sam Fuller