Times Literary Supplement: No strings attached

In Heinrich von Kleist’s essay The Puppet Theatre, published in 1810, the character Mr C wanders through a public park, where he meets the recently appointed first dancer of the opera house. A puppet theatre has been erected at the market and Mr C had frequently spotted the dancer in the audience. When they meet, Mr C expresses his surprise that a dancer should attend such “little dramatic burlesques”. The dancer, however, responds that he admires the puppets’ dance and that there is a lot to be learnt from them. Aren’t puppets particularly graceful in their movements? No human being could possibly match the marionette’s grace. This is because the puppet is “incapable of affectation. For affectation occurs, as you know, whenever the soul . . . is situated in a place other than a movement’s centre of gravity”. Since puppets are not conscious, there’s nothing self-conscious about their dance. The narrator, argues John Gray in his latest book, is “perfectly well aware of the damage done by consciousness to the natural grace of a human being”.

Kleist’s story has long been an enigma to critics, but not to Gray. In his new book, The Soul of the Marionette: A short enquiry into human freedom, the philosopher, who is known for his bold claims in False Dawn: The delusions of global capitalism (1998), Straw Dogs: Thoughts on humans and other animals (2002) and Heresies: Against progress and other illusions (2004), uses Kleist’s story as a segue to discuss Gnosticism and to cast doubt on the idea of human progress. If one of Kleist’s marionettes were somehow to achieve self-awareness, Gnosticism (“the faith of people who believe themselves to be machines”) would be its religion. For the followers of Gnosticism, humans are “creations of a demiurge” and self-knowledge is the key to freedom (gnosis is Greek for knowledge). Gray argues that many people today hold a Gnostic view without realizing it, in their belief that humans can be fully explained by scientific materialism. Moreover, Gray doubts whether human beings actually want to make choices in their lives; perhaps, like the dancing puppets they admire, they dream of being relieved of the burden of a free will.

Gray’s argument is provocative and erudite, but this last thought is hardly groundbreaking. It brings to mind Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom (1941). Having fled Nazi Germany, Fromm wrote about the human need for structure, arguing that this need is due to a deep-seated anxiety that stems from individual freedom. Starting from psychoanalytic ideas, Fromm argued that freedom creates feelings of uncertainty, whereas a lack of freedom promises certainty and comfort. That is why powerful tendencies arise within human beings to escape from freedom and submit to structures, such as those imposed by authoritarian regimes.

“Unlimited choice” can produce “genuine suffering,” wrote the psychologist Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice: Why more is less (2004). When we are faced with the choice of 285 varieties of biscuits in the supermarket, some of us feel overwhelmed. A similar explosion of choice applies to more significant areas of life, including our choices of marriage and family life, health care and even the identity we choose for ourselves. But more choice does not guarantee an increase of autonomy or individual welfare.

So it is not its discussion of the question of freedom that makes The Soul of the Marionette so original. Rather, it derives from Gray’s wild concoction of sources and arguments. Reading Gray’s words feels less like following the rational premises of an academic, and more like eavesdropping on the mutterings of an exceptionally learned alchemist. He writes about the ancient Aztec rituals of human sacrifice as part of his argument that violence and chaos are part of human nature. He discusses Stanislav Lem’s 1961 science fiction novel Solaris, in which a group of scientists examines the oceanic surface of a planet which turns out to be a sentient intelligence that examines the scientists in return. If consciousness can exist in many different ways, Gray asks, why not also freedom of will? He concludes that what makes humans special is not their consciousness of free will but their inner conflict: “No other animal seeks the satisfaction of its desires and at the same times curses them as evil; spends its life terrified of death while being ready to die in order to preserve an image of itself; kills its own species for the sake of dreams”.

Writing about what he calls the “cyborg economy”, Gray argues that as unskilled labour becomes increasingly automated, many functions will no longer require human contact in the future. Robot nurses, teachers, sex workers and soldiers have ceased to be the stuff of speculative fiction, he says. In the long run, humans will become redundant and those who want to continue to participate in society will have to more closely resemble machines. As a result, “a technologically enhanced species will join in in the ongoing evolutionary advance”. Gray warns that these Über-marionettes will develop flaws: “Eventually these half-broken machines will have the impression that they are choosing their path through life. As in humans, this may be an illusion; but as the sensation takes hold, it will engender what in humans used to be called a soul”. Those who are convinced by Gray’s argument may think that the first of these evolutionary steps has already occurred: we are the flawed machines, the degree of our redundancy being proportional to our embrace of new technology. But everyone else is free to doubt it.

This article was originally published in the Times Literary Supplement, 31 July 2015

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