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The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom
The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom
John Gray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
192 pp., $23.00

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Joseph Bottum


The Soul of the Marionette

John Gray, piper at the gates of darkness.

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In truth, we cannot find freedom through knowledge, as the Gnostics hoped, for all things are material, and the fact of materiality prohibits freedom. We are marionettes and mannequins, born to violence and delusion in equal measure, and we never dance as we want. We only think we do. Even claims of inner harmony are madness, because "inner conflict, the contending impulses that divide us from ourselves," are "singularly human." Only a kind of acceptance of our vile natures and divided impulses is available to us. A thin freedom, but all we've got.

In that move, however, Gray chooses sides. He gives in The Soul of the Marionette as satisfying a takedown of intellectualized Gnostic ascent as anyone could want. But he does it while embracing the Gnostic account of vile nature, even as he claims that the material world and the physical body should be accepted as the unrelenting truths that they are.

The Gnostics were not alone in the ancient world with their despising of matter and bodies. You can find in the Roman Stoics, from Epictetus to Seneca, lines that could wander over to the manuscripts of Marcion and Valentinus without missing a beat. (Or to the neoplatonists, as far as that goes. It was Plotinus, after all, who declared the living human body "a painted corpse.") But the Stoics answered their distaste for the material with a stern ethics of self-control and acceptance of the vicissitudes of the fate that denies us any free will to alter external reality.

In other words, John Gray accepts the shared Gnostic and Stoic view that we live in material squalor, but he adds that Gnosticism's way out of that dim cave leads only to more squalor and dimness. A kind of half-hearted acceptance of Stoicism's answer is the most he can manage: a sort of crawling though Seneca's door as infants, since we cannot will ourselves to walk as adults.

And fair enough—if one accepts bodily human existence as denied any free will because of its materiality, denied any transcendent mind because of its physical brain, denied any ethical power because of its brute nature, and denied any beauty because of its corporeal existence. We are animals, for John Gray, without even the grace of unselfconsciousness granted mute beasts.

I think I have an easier way to reject Gnosticism, but then, I rather like the human body. The material realm. The physical world. The door out of the darkness that The Soul of the Marionette doesn't notice is the one that leads to an embrace of creation as, you know, the stuff that was created—the stuff that God at the first moments of time saw was good.

Joseph Bottum is a bestselling essayist in the Black Hills of South Dakota and author of An Anxious Age (Image).

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