Still, the experience is brusquely entertaining. Gray offers well-timed scratches at tender bits of the human psyche and sinks some sharp teeth into a few of our most cherished self-conceptions – in particular, our conceptions of ourselves as rational, ethical, transcendent over nature. Yet for someone so grimly opposed to hubristic narratives and metaphysical fictions, Gray appears to be rather too given to them himself. His diagnosis of our ills, individually and as a species, trades heavily on the traditional distinction – one enshrined in the mirror-recognition test beloved of animal sciences – between the merely conscious non-human and the fully self-conscious human.
Cats do not fall into philosophical distress because they are not self-conscious in the way people are. They are engaged in their lives completely without forming an image of themselves doing so. Humans, by contrast, are doomed by self-consciousness to be “self-divided creatures whose lives are spent mostly in displacement activity.” Our normal animal sufferings are doubled when we contemplate ourselves in the mirror. Far better to mimic cats, who accept life as it comes, and walk past mirrors with indifference.
A reasonable case can be made that the more advanced forms of self-awareness – such as the ability to think of oneself – are essentially social phenomena. They arise, most completely, in social groups. If so, perhaps it is the distinction between the social and the solitary animal that is really at the core of Gray’s arguments? This is an observation, not a criticism. But it does make one wonder how Gray’s arguments might have differed had his choice of companion animal been a more social creature. I wonder, too, how much of the exceptional work Gray has produced in the preceding decades has been entangled with his choice of animal companion.
That Obama’s justice-prone arc of history is as much a myth as Zeus or Thor has been helpfully demonstrated by recent events. Brexit, coronavirus and Trump are challenges to the idea that history’s motion is forward rather than random. Most public intellectuals are boring but wrong. A few are interesting and wrong. Perhaps only John Gray is interesting and right... It’s a mark of the book’s subtlety that you’re not quite sure how seriously to take him.