An uncertain fate awaits the most bracing and contrarian writers: Will the insights they offer still come across as stingingly original if the disillusion they so often recommend becomes commonplace?
I was thinking about this while reading John Gray’s peculiar new book, “Feline Philosophy,” the latest in a provocative oeuvre that has spanned four decades and covered subjects including Al Qaeda, global capitalism and John Stuart Mill.
Gray, a British philosopher, has long been one of the sharpest critics of the neoliberal consensus that emerged after the end of the Cold War. (He happens to share a name with an American self-help author, leading to some unintentional comedy whenever someone has to explain that the writer of books like “Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia” isn’t also responsible for the best seller “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.”)
On the face of it, “Feline Philosophy” would seem like a departure for Gray — a playful exploration of what cats might have to teach humans in our never-ending quest to understand ourselves. But the book, in true Gray fashion, suggests that this very quest may itself be doomed. “Consciousness,” he writes, “has been overrated.” We get worried, anxious and miserable. Our vaunted capacity for abstract thought often gets us (or others) into trouble. We may be the only species to pursue scientific inquiry, but we’re also the only species that has consciously perpetrated genocides. Cats, unlike humans, don’t trick themselves into believing they are saviors, wreaking havoc in the process. “When cats are not hunting or mating, eating or playing, they sleep,” Gray writes. “There is no inner anguish that forces them into constant activity.”
Humans like to think of themselves as special, in other words, but what makes us special also, not infrequently, makes us worse. We are human supremacists whose vanity and moralism and tortured ambivalence make us uniquely unhappy and destructive. “While cats have nothing to learn from us,” he writes, “we can learn from them how to lighten the load that comes with being human.”
This is a variation on an unwavering theme for Gray, who has been critiquing the follies of humanity and humanism for some time now. “Humans are like any other plague animal,” he wrote in “Straw Dogs” (2002). “They cannot destroy the Earth, but they can easily wreck the environment that sustains them.” In “The Silence of Animals” (2013), he connected a belief in progress, which he ascribes to both the left and the right, to the hubris that denies our animal nature. In “The Soul of the Marionette” (2015), he went so far as to assert that an insentient puppet was infinitely more free than any sentient human being.
“Feline Philosophy” shares a core with those previous books, but its advice is offered with a lighter touch than the very serious, Cassandra-like pronouncements he usually favors. This time he makes reference to essays by Mary Gaitskill, Pascal and Montaigne, among others, and reflects on some cat-centric fiction by Patricia Highsmith and Colette. His literary treatments are appropriately fleet-footed; he hops from text to text, never alighting on any one for very long.
Gray has made ample mention of various animals in his other books, but he focuses expressly on cats in this one. Why? For one, he clearly enjoys their company. He thanks four cats in his acknowledgments, including a 23-year-old named Julian. Also, unlike dogs, he writes, “cats have not become part human.” Dogs have been domesticated to please their owners and retain a wolflike preference for a pack “held together by relationships of dominance and submission.” Cats abide by “none of the settled hierarchies that shape interactions among humans and their close evolutionary kin.” Cats are “solitary hunters” and live with “fearless joy.”
They do? It’s a tricky business, this — presuming to know that cats experience “joy,” and that it’s “fearless” to boot. Gray concedes that we “cannot know what it is like to be a cat,” but that doesn’t stop him from trying. He decides that they would most likely find humans as foolish as he does: “If cats could understand the human search for meaning they would purr with delight at its absurdity.”
Gray has written so brilliantly about the perils of anthropomorphism in his other books that it’s surprising to see the rank anthropomorphism he deploys in this one — only instead of projecting human qualities onto cats, he projects the qualities he wants humans to have. Liberals like to think that empathy is a great virtue, he says, and that progress is not only possible but morally necessary, but people would be better off cultivating a catlike indifference.
A recent profile of Gray in The Guardian remarked on his unusual political journey — from a working-class upbringing in Northern England; to support for Thatcherism in the 1980s; to a dalliance with New Labour in the ’90s before he abandoned that, too, after it became yet another “universal project” he considered in thrall to a distorted view of human possibility. He was in favor of Brexit, and has written sympathetically of those who voted Leave, deeming the European Union another grand scheme shot through with arrogant idealism. In its place, Gray wants to see … well, something that’s never fully defined.
Gray has always been a shrewd critic, nimbly dismantling high-minded schemes and their unintended consequences, but his is no longer a lonely voice in the post-Cold War wilderness, where liberals could blithely pretend that they had won and nothing was wrong. Considering the enormity of our current problems — raging nationalism, climate change, a devastating pandemic — making the world livable for vulnerable humans will probably require something more than the feline indifference and Taoist “contemplation” that Gray counsels. He marvels that cats are “arch-realists” who know when not to bother: “Faced with human folly, they simply walk away.”
This is all fine and good for the cat, but if you’d like another perspective on whether living a cat’s life is as exemplary and harmless as Gray makes it out to be, you may want to ask a bird.