We now arrive at chapter 6, the shortest, of the wonderfully provocative little book – Straw Dogs - by the well-known philosopher John Gray. It is entitled “As it is” and only contains five sections in the span of six pages.
Section 1: The Consolations of Action:
In a book which champions an erudite and questioning pessimism, this title is singularly positive. Having read these two pages two quotations from Shakespeare rattle around my mind:
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
(from As You Like It 2/7)
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Macbeth, Act 5, Sc. 5, 19-28.
These two quotations sum up for me the tone and the tenor of Gray's thoughts in this section. People of action, our philosopher friend argues, engage in it because the world is a stage on which to enact their dreams. Here are Gray’s words for your pondering:
Over the past few hundred years, at least in Europe, religion has waned, but we have not become less obsessed with imprinting a human meaning on things. A thin secular idealism has become the dominant attitude to life. The world has come to be seen as something to be remade in our own image. The idea that life is not action but contemplation has almost disappeared. (Op. cit., 193)
The above are some words from a mere two pages which demand to be re-read several times for their profundity. However, the central theme is the human animal’s self-delusions and and delusions of grandeur; it’s constant seeking of meaning and truth – delusions in themselves; it’s construction and re-construction under new masks of ancient desires for eternity. Humanisms and secularisms of all varieties, our man argues, are mere masks for the old religious quests for meaning outside or indeed inside us. Perhaps, T.S. Eliot was right after all – we are Hollow Men indeed, bereft of meaning, or mere Straw Dogs as the Old Sage or Lao Tsu argues. Then, how about this for a depressingly pessimistic message from our philosopher friend? I find a Shakespearean sensibility in them:
The good life is not found in the dreams of progress, but in coping with tragic contingencies. We have been reared on religions and philosophies that deny the experience of tragedy. Can we imagine a life that is not founded on the consolations of action? Or are we too lax and coarse even to dream of living without them? (ibid., 194)
Section 2: Sisyphus’s Progress:
This section is almost a hymn to idleness, and indeed why not? In Western societies, we are all slaves to work and to the work ethic which is all at the behest of our illusions and delusions of grandeur. Gray reminds us that it was the Protestant Christians who put such an emphasis on work and the work ethic while others like the ancient Greeks sought salvation in philosophy, the Indians in Meditation and the Chinese in poetry and nature. Then he reminds us that the pygmies of the African rainforests work only to meet the needs of the day, and spend most of their lives idling. However, most religions and certainly modern society, built on the concept of progress despise and condemn idleness. Our author reminds us that the moral of the Myth of Sisyphus is that continual work is indeed slavery and enslavement and quotes Robert Graves to back him up. I recall here with a certain pessimistic and dark pleasure our reading Camus’ rendering of the same story in a more modern guise from my college days in the late seventies of the last century.
Section 3: Playing with Fate:
In an interesting insight into playing, Gray informs us that “the point of playing is that play has no point.” (Ibid., 196) Our philosopher is correct, I feel, when he says that we have forgotten how to play or how to be playful towards life. Instead we are engaged in a purposeful existence, geared towards work and more work, all in the name of a delusion called progress – my words here as I assimilate Gray’s thoughts. There is a lot of meat for thought here!
Section 4: Turning Back:
I particularly love the opening lines of this section, which again like the last chapter – indeed the whole book – demands re-reading many times for its sheer provocation of thought and ideas aplenty! Let me quote these wonderfully provocative words:
Searching for meaning in life may be useful therapy, but it has nothing to do with the life of the spirit. Spiritual life is not a search for meaning but a release from it. (Ibid., 197)
Again to finish this section I am drawn to quote our philosopher again:
In modern times, the immortal longings of the mystics are expressed in a cult of incessant activity. Infinite progress… infinite tedium. What could be more dreary than the perfection of mankind? The idea of progress is only the longing for immortality given a techno-futurist twist. (Ibid., 198)
Section 5: Simply to See:
Gray finishes his book with three sentences, the theme of which is the title of this section. Buy the book, read them and ponder, ponder, ponder!
Above, yet another photograph I took at Howth Dart Station. Welcome to modernity.