The collapse of the banks. The rise of al-Qaeda. The fall of communism. One man predicted them all… John Gray talks to John Preston.
Can we talk about nothingness?” I ask John Gray.
You don’t get a reputation for being the pre-eminent philosopher of your day by being thrown by questions like this. Sure enough, Gray leans forward, eyes glinting behind his spectacles. “Oh, I love talking about nothingness,” he says. “I absolutely adore it!”
Up until 11 years ago, nothingness might have been most people’s reaction when asked if they’d heard of John Gray. He had a highly successful academic career – latterly as Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics – and had written a great number of books. He’d also carved out a niche as an uncannily accurate soothsayer, having predicted the fall of communism, the global financial crash and disaster in post-war Iraq. But the big recognisability factor, it is safe to say, had so far eluded him.
Then, in 2002, his book Straw Dogs came out and all at once everything changed. Written in handy, bite-sized chunks with titles like “The Poverty of Consciousness”, it encompassed everything from Gray’s reflections on morality to his thoughts about al-Qaeda.
Its central message, however, was as stark as it was startling. Human progress, declared Gray, was a myth. If we thought we were steadily becoming more civilised, then we were delusional. Instead, human beings are “weapon-making animals with an unquenchable fondness for killing”.
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