The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
192 pp., 35.35
The Soul of the Marionette
If the only alternative to Gnosticism is Stoicism—if the intellect of man is forced to choose the wild outward spirit or the stern inward soul—then we have made no philosophical advance since the days of the Roman Empire and the closing of the ancient mind. It is now as it was then: Valentinus stands at one door, smiling, while Seneca, stands at the other door, frowning, and the dim cave of human falsity offers no other exits. For the world, you have to understand, remains a vile and vicious place. The body is little more than some disease, while matter is merely the stuff that ensares the soul.
Or so at least it seems to John Gray—the dark specter who, since the 1980s, has haunted British philosophy with a determination that seems to alternate between grim and gleeful. Somewhere along the line, Gray decided to be the rain cloud that spoils the picnic. The wedding guest who insists on talking about funerals. The neighbor playing "MacCrimmon's Lament" over and over on the bagpipes while you're trying to take a nap.
And now, with his latest book, The Soul of the Marionette, John Gray has reached his apotheosis, or as much apotheosis, anyway, as a self-proclaimed atheist can allow himself. All the darkness, all the refusal of cultural pieties, all the suspicion of politics, all the rejection of hope and hype—it's all here, rolled into a ball and held up as a denial of free will, political freedom, psychological amelioration, and historical betterment. This is a mean and narrow world in which we live, and we delude ourselves into even greater meanness and narrowness when we pretend otherwise.
Born in 1948, the son of a working-class British family, Gray flourished at Oxford, emerging with his undergraduate and graduate degrees to teach at the University of Essex, Oxford, and the London School of Economics until his retirement in 2008. Beginning as a leftist, he turned in the 1970s to a more conservative position, driven by what he believed was the left's inability to see the changes being wrought by technology and economics. By the 1990s, he had arrived at what he claimed was a position outside all left/right political distinctions, culminating in his announcement of his atheism, his strong rejection of Enlightenment humanism, and his increasing environmentalism.
Along the way, Gray wrote scholarly works on Mill, Hayek, Voltaire, and—perhaps most influential in his thought—Isaiah Berlin. The 1995 Enlightenment's Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age and 1997 Endgames: Questions in Late Modern Political Thought presaged Gray's darker work, but it was really with the publication of Straw Dogs in 2002 that he seemed to feel himself set completely free to be the piper at the gates of darkness. And in subsequent years, he has poured out seven more books of complete rejection: Al Qaeda and What it Means to Be Modern, and then Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, and then Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, and then … and then … well, and then the new volume, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.
It's hard to put a simple statement of the many threads tangled together in The Soul of the Marionette. On its British publication earlier this spring, the Literary Review described the book as "a fugue of argument, aphorism and anecdote," while The Spectator asked its readers to imagine "Isaiah Berlin with a thing for sci-fi, occasionally lapsing into a Guardian op-ed." Names and ideas and whole swaths of history go flying by in the slim book's pages: Jeremy Bentham and Jorge Luis Borges, Baudelaire and the Aztecs, robots and Italy's Red Brigades, mannequins and magic. Through it all, however, Gray argues against Gnosticism—or, at least, the half of Gnosticism that finds the fleshy, muddy substrate of human nature a bar to human ascent. We humans must "exit from the material world," the ancient Gnostics insisted. To be free, we must "revolt against the laws that govern earthly things." It's all piddle, Gray declares. "Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves," he writes. We act, but we have no idea why we act, and the project of Gnostic ascent is a delusion.
What's more, it's a delusion that hasn't faded. Just as Gray claimed uplifting Enlightenment humanism as spoiled Christianity in his earlier work, so he claims a number of recent movements as simply repackagings of Gnosticism for the hipsters of today. Transhumanism, robotic perfections, the singularity of Artificial Intelligence: "When thinking machines first arrive in the world," he notes, "they will be the work of flawed, intermittently lucid animals whose minds are stuffed with nonsense and delusion." And the fantasy that the machines will achieve the Gnostic ascent at which humans failed is just that—a fantasy, born of the Gnostic belief that it is our bodies, our material components, that have held us back.
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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