The Guardian

There’s no hope for this guy

Philosopher John Gray falls back on generalities and sketches of oddballs in his latest, sometimes frenzied assault on liberalism and humanity, writes Jonathan Rée

The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism John Gray Allen Lane, £20, pp192

This is a punchy book, and its punches are meant for people like me: people who long to live in a society where lives are cherished, truth is revered, and everyone can speak their mind. John Gray calls us “liberals”, and relishes the fact that we once applauded faraway acts of resistance – from the Arab spring to the umbrella revolution in Hong Kong – which have turned out not too well. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves, he says: it is time to drop our “liberalism” and abandon hope.

Gray has been pushing this kind of argument for more than 40 years. His signature theme – which can be traced back to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) – is that when a belief in rational progress makes contact with reality it is liable to flare into delirium and terror. Gray’s variations on Burke’s theme have become more and more frenzied as time goes by, and he now tags all “liberals” with the conviction – demented indeed – that “humans can escape dependency on the natural world”.

Gray’s principal exhibit is the hullaballoo over the fall of the Soviet Union, which led, he says, to “an era of delusion in the west”, riddled with “millennial political fantasies”, in which China and Russia were going to convert to democracy and salute the “universal triumph of liberal values”. When we noticed that history had departed from our script we liberals embarked, according to Gray, on the “hyperliberal project”, also known as “the woke movement”. Despite wallowing in self-ascribed “virtue”, we could not conceal the fact that we were nothing but a bunch of “redundant graduates” from the “professional bourgeoisie” who had fallen for a “cult of self-creation”. We turned against the western traditions that nurtured us and – in an orgy of “deconstruction” – called on everyone to sever their links with the past and “define their own identities” from scratch.

Gray defines his own “identity” as that of a “philosopher”, though he skimps on the sceptical circumspection usually associated with the word. He makes no attempt to weigh up arguments and counter-arguments, and never addresses the question why, if everyone else in “the west” has lost their mind, he has been able to keep his. Instead of examining statistics or historical evidence, he proceeds by way of biographical sketches depicting miscellaneous oddballs with endearing quirks whose lives bear witness, he believes, to the callous inanity of liberal thought. We are introduced, for example, to the Polish painter Józef Czapski, notable for “passionate attachments with women and men”, who had to live in exile in Paris, and to persecuted Russian writers such as Yevgeni Zamyatin, who went in for “tweedy suits”, and Vasily Rozanov, who “loved jam”. If the coverage seems haphazard, the reason is that most of these sketches are recycled verbatim (“thrift, thrift, Horatio!”) from book reviews in the New Statesman.

The selection is not completely random, however. With one exception – Nadezhda Teffi, who had “silver shoes” – Gray excludes the testimony of women. He thus manages to overlook the fact (or is it a woke delusion?) that the 20th century saw

The Owl and the Nightingale Simon Armitage Faber, £10.99, pp100 (paperback)

Continuing his series of translations of Middle English verse, the poet laureate once again brings the wisdom, wit and vulgarity of medieval poetry to 21st-century audiences. While remaining largely faithful to the original’s setting and ideas – the eponymous warring birds spitting 900 rhyming couplets at one another – Armitage’s update of the language brilliantly underlines humanity’s enduring capability for disagreement. The fact that these two rivals simply will not understand each other’s point of view is telling, too, and the illustrations from Clive Hicks-Jenkins complete a dramatic package.

They Fell Like Stars from the Sky and Other Stories Sheikha Helawy (translated by Nancy Roberts) Neem Tree, £9.99, pp128

Sheikha Helawy grew up as a Bedouin in a Palestinian village, since demolished for an Israeli railway. You might expect, then, her first short story collection to be translated into English to be strident, autobiographical and political. It is, but not obviously so – these tales are remarkable for the details left out: a home, a football pitch, basic services. They’re notable, too, for the passionate and rebellious women at the centre of every yarn.

To order Invisible Lines for £19.36, The Owl and the Nightingale for £9.67 or They Fell Like Stars from the Sky for £9.29 go to guardianbookshop. com or call 020-3176 3837