THE IMMORTALIZATION COMMISSION: SCIENCE AND THE STRANGE QUEST TO CHEAT DEATH
By John Gray
The Immortalization Commission takes the form of a pair of historical essays dealing with the “assault on death” made by pseudo-scientists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The first part is set in Victorian England and describes the investigations of psychic researchers into the ability of the dead to communicate with the living from beyond the grave. This particular anxiety was the product of a backward-looking, conservative culture milieu trying to find a way to preserve its finer sensibilities. They hoped to enlist the aid of the noble dead in their project of saving the present from itself. To this end there was even talk of spiritual interbreeding in the hopes of producing a messiah.
The book’s second essay deals very loosely with the pursuit of a different type of immortality in the early days of the Soviet Union. The goal here was to make a revolutionary break with the past and build a utopian future founded on a radical new understanding of human nature. The totem of this revolution was Lenin’s mummified corpse, crudely preserved by Soviet scientists in the anticipation of its resurrection and treated by the regime as though it were still alive until the regime itself was tossed into the dustbin of history.
Both essays wander quite a bit from Gray’s thesis, which has to be reinforced in a challenging epilogue. The point Gray insists on is that making any attempt to cheat death is not just quixotic but entirely wrong-headed. Darwin’s evolution is chaotic and without morality or purpose; both science and religion err insofar as they try to impress on life a meaning (the theme of a lot of Gray’s work, as evidenced most recently in Black Mass). “At bottom,” Gray explains, the pursuit of immortality “is an attempt to escape contingency and mystery. Contingency means humans will always be subject to fate and chance, mystery that they will always be surrounded by the unknowable. For many this state of affairs is intolerable, even unthinkable. Using advancing knowledge, they insist, the human animal can transcend the human condition.”
But this is misguided. The world is, in Santayana’s phrase, “thoroughly unintelligible.” Which means there can be no clear line between science, pseudo-science, and religion: they are all infected with magical thinking, systems of symbols and efforts at transcendence that must come up short when faced with the messy reality, or “divine chaos,” we inhabit.
Despite not being a long book, The Immortalization Commission still feels padded. The biographical background material on the secret lives of the members of the Society for Psychical Research and the discussion of Stalin’s reign of terror don’t add a lot to what Gray has to say. And his conclusion, that death is what gives life meaning, is a bit predictable. He does, however, make an eloquent appeal for us to enjoy and appreciate life without worrying so much about what happens next.
Review first published March 14, 2011.