Wednesday, January 16, 2008


There is nothing as deliciously entertaining as a thoroughly well-deserved bad review and this (via Norm) is a classic of the genre, directed at John Gray.

"Smugism" doesn't turn up as a separate entry in dictionaries of ideas, probably because it permeates so many other -isms. Yet it can be isolated and delineated. Consider it the jaunty declaration of large philosophical beliefs with a smack of magisterial certainty, and absence of argument, that's breathtaking.

I once read Straw Dogs, Gray's peculiar book written in a portentous faux-Nietzsche style and vaguely regretted it, though morbid curiosity compelled me to read on to the end. The book makes loopy grand generalisations - like atheism isn't possible in a pantheistic society, without ever mentioning why. It draws evidence from literature, which it uses as scientific fact. It quotes from highly selective and dodgy sources, rehashes cod behavioural psychology, etc., etc. His view of humanity as merely "an abstract term signifying a shifting current of genes" beautifully illustrates his neo-Malthusian misanthropy.

Whilst the book must have appealed to a type of millennial pessimism, I found a sinister undertone. Catastrophe is treated with a certain relish in Gray's writing and his distaste for humanity implies an authoritarian elitism (at one point he quotes John Aspinall). Carlin Romano gets Gray dead right when he says that "he's no friend of any progressive group that believes in action to achieve a better future".

Cynical misanthropy of the type that Gray peddles is the antithesis of hope and paralyses action. Good men need to read this review in case they are ever, in the face of evil, tempted by such arguments to do nothing.


Will said...

Banal comment coming up.....

Yes -- I read the same Norm post and thought -- John Gray -- what a fucking twat.

Everybody just give up now and succumb. Gawwwwd -- I despise these pseudo philosophers. Give me a Zizek anytime of the day. Someone with some fucking balls at least.

James Barlow said...

I remember reading "Straw Dogs" (well, the first half) and thinking they should have called it "Straw Men".

mikeovswinton said...

By and large I am on board with you and the rest of the blogosphere on this. However, there has to be a "but" inserted here. The reviewer, Carlin Romano, writng in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the USA's equivalent of the Times Higher or whatever it calls itself these days. (The Poppletonian ?)

Carlin holds up a number of comments from Prof Gray as self- evident absurdities and then annotates them. One example made me wonder a bit;
Gray; "Nearly everything that is most important in our lives is unchosen."
Romano: "(You know, spouses, children, jobs, where we live....)"

Might it not be that for a very large percentage of the world's population Gray has a point, given the examples chosen? Perhaps in the world of US academics and folk like them (and us) Gray's comment is self evidently wrong, but I think that is not universally the case. Then again, I think that may be a problem that needs addressing, whereas Gray might simply think that, to quote Darryl MacDaniels "its like that, and that's what its like."

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