I don’t want to read this book a second time so this will be a short review. From its title, I expected something more elegant but, in fact, it’s a rather ragged book, as if written in a hurry or with lots of cutting and pasting. Bits of important argument are jammed up against thumbnail biographies. There is a very large cast of characters, some of them new to me and who sound as if they are worth reading. I’ve never read Santayana or Schopenhauer and Gray makes me feel that I’ve missed out. That’s something worth taking away from any book.
It’s an interesting book the most general theme of which is the claim that modern (post eighteenth century) positivisms and humanisms, supposedly atheist or secular in character, repeatedly mirror and repeat key mistakes of Christianity, notably the ideas that there is progress in history and that human beings are perfectible. As a result, they end up less liberal and humane than they often set out to be.
For Gray, history is cyclical - things get better, then they get worse - and human beings are always going to let us down. If I had to sum up his views in two words, they would be Shit happens. Three words and it would be Shit happens. Whatever.
In this context, Gray makes some interesting remarks about Joseph Conrad and the sea (pp 132 - 141). The sea does not know the idea of progress, nor does the sea care much for our prayers. One might add: American evangelical conmen (they are always men and they are always conning people) who see hurricane floods as God's wrath directed at gays or abortion (or whatever) sometimes find their own houses struck by lightning. It may be poetic justice, but it is not part of a Plan nor does it represent Progress.
Lots of potential lines of argument are opened up only to be fairly rapidly abandoned. Some nuances are missed: the French revolutionaries changed the calendar, in a root and branch way; the Bolsheviks also changed the calendar (page 81), but the Bolsheviks actually did no more than move from the inaccurate Julian [as in Caesar] calendar to the more accurate Gregorian [as in Pope Gregory] calendar used throughout the bourgeois capitalist world, 31st January 1918 followed by 14th February 1918, a reform still in place because it works better. It never had any Millenarian credentials.
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