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The utopian apocalypse

October 28, 2007|Michael Joseph Gross | Michael Joseph Gross is the author of "Starstruck: When a Fan Gets Close to Fame."

Black Mass

Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia

John Gray

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 244 pp., $24

Straw Dogs

Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

John Gray

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 248 pp., $16 paper


This might be the most important question you can ask about the presidential candidates: Can they talk to the animals?

Bizarre as it may sound, the desire for an affirmative answer to that question (which we'll get back to) acquires a nagging gravity while reading two books by the English writer John Gray. "Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals," a bestseller upon publication in Britain in 2002, is being released here, along with his new "Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia." Each book is slender and sharp as a scalpel.

Read in sequence, they perform an almost surgical feat: "Straw Dogs" reconstructs popular notions of the relationships among science, religion and politics. This revisionist landscape of modern thought is further explored in "Black Mass," which presents utopian politics from the French Revolution through America's project of spreading democracy in the Middle East as "mutant version[s]" of an ancient, apocalyptic Christian belief that God will transform the world and evil will pass away.

"When the project of universal democracy ended in the blood-soaked streets of Iraq," Gray writes, " . . . Utopianism suffered a heavy blow, but politics and war have not ceased to be vehicles for myth. Instead, primitive versions of religion are replacing the secular faith that has been lost."

And yet, oddly, as "Black Mass" hints, other religious myths offer hope for dispelling the superstitions hovering over global politics today.

Gray, a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, has written or edited 19 books, including academic studies of Isaiah Berlin and John Stuart Mill. Though relatively unknown in the United States, he is a controversial public intellectual in Britain, where he has evolved from a Thatcherite conservative into an ideologically unclassifiable provocateur.

Though typically shelved as political philosophy, "Straw Dogs" and "Black Mass" offer a reading experience less like Locke and more like the joyful, quasi-academic synopses of Alain de Botton (though Gray is more erudite and less sentimental) or the mirthfully sober, brain-wandering novels of W.G. Sebald (though Gray is prouder and more rhetorical). With excursions into Conrad, Plato, Bruce Chatwin, Schopenhauer and Lao Tzu, among many others, Gray's books have the delighting, frightening, distracting and focusing qualities of a mist-to-dusk drive on the Pacific Coast Highway.

These are works of intellectual cartography, clarifying boundaries among disciplines, with one primary goal: naming the ways that what we call secularism unknowingly and stubbornly promotes a crudely religious way of looking at the world.

Explaining that the "very idea of revolution as a transforming event in history is owed to religion," Gray announces near the beginning of "Black Mass" that the "Enlightenment ideologies of the past centuries were very largely spilt theology." (The apercu is no less electrifying for being an uncredited allusion to the critic T.E. Hulme, who dismissed Romanticism as "spilt religion.")

The view of politics described by "Black Mass" is grounded in the argument of "Straw Dogs." That book details the ways that science has become a vessel for old religious hopes: "sickness and ageing will be abolished; scarcity and poverty will be no more; the species will become immortal. Like Christianity in the past, the modern cult of science lives on the hope of miracles."

By contrast, "Straw Dogs" considers what politics might be like if we took science seriously -- if we accepted the full ramifications of Darwin's finding that Homo sapiens is merely another kind of animal. If, as Gray writes, "species are only assemblies of genes, interacting at random with each other and their shifting environments," then humanity's ambition to master fate is absurd. Those who speak of " 'the progress of mankind,' " Gray contends, "have put their faith in an abstraction that no one would think of taking seriously if it were not formed from cast-off Christian hopes."

In the long run, Gray suggests, people are as helpless to control their destinies as pigeons. Thus Western politics (as practiced since Louis XVI lost his head) is vanity. "Good politics," he writes, "is shabby and makeshift, but at the start of the twenty-first century the world is strewn with the grandiose ruins of failed utopias. With the Left moribund, the Right has become the home to the utopian imagination. Global communism has been followed by global capitalism. The two visions of the future have much in common. Both are hideous and fortunately chimerical." The best that we can hope for is government that manages the tragic contingencies of life.

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