(Allen Lane, £17.99)
Since leaving a university teaching post almost a decade ago, John Gray has systematically purged his writing of any lingering traces of the postures and habits of academic political theory. Like his previous book, The Silence of Animals, The Soul of the Marionette is less an argument than a kind of commonplace book in which Gray assembles insights drawn from a wide range of often obscure or (in his view, at least) under-appreciated writers and thinkers.
Prominent among these is the German Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist, whose essay “On the Puppet Theatre” (from which the title of this book is derived) Gray reads as an allegory of human freedom. Kleist teaches us that the desire for freedom of choice, which for many contemporary thinkers is what the idea of freedom amounts to, is not the strongest human impulse, even if it is universal. Human beings value other goods, too—security, food or shelter, say—and these things often conflict.
In Gray’s unconsoling world view, therefore, what makes human beings distinctive is not consciousness or free will, but “inner conflict.” The most seductive (and dangerous) piety of contemporary rationalism, he believes, is the idea that humankind could emancipate itself from this conflict—either through the Promethean efforts of modern science or else through a political programme that seeks to remake the world in the image of abstract ideals. This leaves Gray embracing a kind of quietism rather like the one he finds in the work of another of his heroes, the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. Like Leopardi, he has “no interest in projects of revolution and reform.”