The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom by John Gray

Hardcover, 192 pages
Publisher: Allen Lane (March 2015)
Language: English 
Selected by Tank

We flatter ourselves about the nature of free will and yet the most enormous forces – biological, physical, metaphysical – constrain our every action. John Gray explores the religious, philosophical and fantastical traditions that question the very idea of human freedom. Drawing his title and central conceit from an 1810 essay on marionette theatre by the German romantic Heinrich von Kleist, Gray launches a masterful “enquiry into human freedom.”

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Gravity and the Fall

As Herr C. portrays them, marionettes have an advantage over humans: the puppets can defy gravity. Recall his rhapsodic description: “these puppets have the advantage of being resistant to gravity. Of the heaviness of matter, the factor that most works against the dancer, they are entirely ignorant: because the force lifting them into the air is greater than the one attaching them to the earth…” The marionette is able to resist gravity because it does not have to decide how it will live. Humans are fumbling in their movements, and forever on the point of falling down. But what of the über-marionette – the human being that knows it is a machine? Must it envy the graceful automatism of the puppet?

In the story told by Herr C., human beings become free when they become fully conscious. For these godlike creatures, there can be nothing that is mysterious. Mystery fades away with ever-greater conscious awareness, and true freedom means living by that inner light. This is, of course, a very old faith – the faith of the Gnostics, and also of Socrates. Both believed that freedom was achieved by the possession of a special kind of knowledge. Modern rationalism is another version of this religion. Contemporary evangelists for evolution, trans-humanists and techno-futurists are also followers of this creed. All of them promote the project of expelling mystery from the mind.

The trouble with this project is that it has the effect of confining the mind within itself. In a world where there is nothing that cannot be explained, everything that happens fits into a hidden scheme. In Gnosticism, the world is the plaything of a demiurge. For conspiracy theorists, history is scripted by occult agencies. For secular rationalists, enlightenment is thwarted by the sinister forces of superstition and reaction. There is a pattern here: if you aim to exorcise mystery from your mind, you end up – like Philip K. Dick – locked in a paranoid universe and possessed by demons.

From being seemingly annihilated by Christianity, Gnosticism has conquered the world. Belief in the liberating power of knowledge has become the ruling illusion of modern humankind. Most want to believe that some kind of explanation or understanding will deliver them from their conflicts. Yet being divided from yourself goes with being self-aware. This is the truth in the Genesis myth: the Fall is not an event at the beginning of history but the intrinsic condition of self-conscious beings.

Only creatures that are as flawed and ignorant as humans can be free in the way humans are free. We do not know how matter came to dream our world into being; we do not know what, if anything, comes when the dream ends for us and we die. We yearn for a type of knowledge that would make us other than we are – though what we would like to be, we cannot say. Why try to escape from yourself? Accepting the fact of unknowing makes possible an inner freedom very different from that pursued by Gnostics. If you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be content to let meaning come and go. Instead of becoming an unfaltering puppet, you will make your way in the stumbling human world. Über-marionettes do not have to wait until they can fly before they can be free. Not looking to ascend into the heavens, they can find freedom in falling to earth.

  • The Soul of the Marionette