Sunday, 10 July 2011

Straw Dogs - uncomfy philosophy

Straw Dogs, Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray (Granta Books: 2003) A philosophy book in which Gray explains his view of the human race, disagreeing with pretty much everyone else along the way. He questions everything, and comes to some incredibly uncomfortable conclusions.
I enjoy books that make me think. I do. Ones that present new ideas to me, ones that make my mind wander in directions that it wouldn’t naturally. I think everyone kind of likes that. It’s one of the reasons we read.
And so when my dad gave me a philosophy book, I thought “why not.” This is a book whose very purpose is to present new ideas. That could be kind of fun, huh?
I was wrong. Yes, thinking about stuff can be fun. But there are limits.
Where do I start? What was the thing I didn’t enjoy about this book the most? Well, an easy read this isn’t. Thankfully, it is split up into small digestible bits, but not exactly what you would call easily digestible bits. It’s like eating something you hate – just because you’re allowed to take small bites, doesn’t make you wretch any less.
And then there’s the ideas themselves. I’ve never been more unsettled by a book. If Coldplay is music to slit your wrists by, this may very well be the paperback equivalent. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and doesn’t by itself make this an unenjoyable book. After all, there’s clearly some worthy philosophy in this. I’m happy enough to recognise the fact that there are some worthwhile and eye opening thoughts on the pages. But they weren’t half depressing. I often put this book down just plain upset, questioning everything, to the point that I wasn’t even sure if I was a real person, or if there is even such a thing as a person.
Again, I don’t want it to sound like I don’t enjoy thought provoking stuff. But this takes it a little far if you ask me. There was some stuff in here I did agree with, like Gray’s conviction that the human race is (at its core) not really any different to any other type of animal. I agreed with some of the points he made about religion. But the nods of my head were far outweighed by shakes. This guy makes so many radical presumptions to base his depressed view of the world and the human race on, that by the end of each page, you don’t even have the energy to disagree with him anymore.
So yes, this did open my mind a little. This did present new thoughts. It did give me an entirely new kind of book to read.
But the pages did not fly by. I spent most of my time either trying to figure out what he was saying, or disagreeing with him.
I did not enjoy reading it. And I don’t think you will either (unless you’re my dad, who apparently did enjoy this).
And both of those are a vague admittance that there is philosophical worth here - just a pretty depressing, disagreeable, tough to read kind of worth.
Next week, something fun and fictiony I think. I think we all need a break after that one.


Anonymous said...

I would have given this a 0 GBR for the cover alone. Who wants that thing lying around the house? Urghhh! Scary.

Anonymous said...

Having read the book I agree that it is not light escapism and requires some deeper unpacking than other books. This said that is the nature of philosophy writing and it is more accessible than most philosophy I have read.

Gray’s comments on the views of famous philosophers are controversial to say the least and some of his contentions are not closely argued, but against this his more general expositions are original and very thought provoking.

One of Gray’s basic themes is that humanism (progress of humankind by humankind) is false. Scientific progress does not equate to political and ethical progress. He also outlines a view that life (or more accurately being) is the present and is for experiencing; it does not in itself have a purpose.

We are bound to have an emotional reaction to his arguements however for me philosophy is about exposing truth and truth does not have emotional content. If we find Gray’s reasoning and conclusions inaccurate then it helps confirm our own views but if we find Gray’s reasoning correct then we should, where necessary, adjust our views.

I don’t agree with large parts of the book's content but it certainly made me think and in 2002when it was written is was classed as the book of the year for 11 book reviewers including – J.G. Ballard, Will Self, Joan Bakewell and Andrew Marr. I wouldn't go as far as book of the year but I think it is a worthwhile read.