The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, by John Gray, Allen Lane, RRP £18.99, 288 pages
“Lenin, even now, is more alive than all the living!” announced one Bolshevik poet when the great chairman died on January 21 1924. The Soviet machine that Lenin had created then set about transforming reality to make this bold claim true. Urgent attempts were made to freeze his body: within three days a specially designed mausoleum was built and shrine-like “Lenin corners” were set up in factories and offices around the country. These efforts to preserve the revolutionary leader in body and spirit were co-ordinated by a new high-level committee whose grand purpose was clear from its title: “The Immortalisation Commission.”
This allegory of hubris gives John Gray’s latest book both its title and its tone. It is an absorbing study of humanity’s struggle to understand Darwin’s message that we are animals like any other, condemned to death and eventual extinction.
Gray, political philosopher and commentator, presents two divergent responses to this grim news: the first, the escape into another world of the Edwardian spiritualists; the second, Soviet Russia’s attempt to transform this world into an eternal workers’ paradise. Both of these movements considered themselves scientific – yet both were in flight from science’s true lessons. He exposes their jumbles of arrogance and ignorance, before concluding that we are yet to learn the lesson of these follies.
The author is undoubtedly one of the most important and insightful polemicists currently writing in English. Like most of Gray’s work, this book is filled with diverting anecdotes and ironic asides, yet swells to a powerful philosophical conclusion. It is also of the times: the modern immortality movement is gaining in credibility and support, with its promises of preserving the dying in human freezers or uploading our minds into silicon brains. Its advocates claim that such technologies are the next step in the humanist ideal of using know- ledge to better our lot. For Gray, humanism’s most vocal critic, it is another fantasy attempting to fill the void left by the implosion of religion.
The first part of the book, however, is not dedicated to the techno-utopians but to those whom Gray considers their intellectual predecessors: the worthy figures who together led the Society for Psychical Research, the London-based learned society founded in 1882 to examine the paranormal. Its members included the cream of Edwardian society, such as the Cambridge philosophy professor Henry Sidgwick, the co-discoverer of evolution Alfred Russel Wallace, prime minister Arthur Balfour and the poet WB Yeats.
What these scientifically minded figures sought was proof that dying was, in Gray’s words, like “a move from one wing of a great country house to another, a shift in which nothing was lost”. But the story is mostly one of gradual disillusionment, occasionally perked up by mad plans – the maddest being that of Gerald Balfour, the prime minister’s brother, and a leading Welsh suffragette to conceive a messianic child who would deliver humanity from chaos. Supposedly infused with the spirit of various dead luminaries, the planned baby was indeed born in 1913 but went on to nothing more than a modest career in the intelligence services before becoming a monk.
The second part of the book details disappointments of a vastly different order: the millions who died in the attempt to create a workers’ paradise. Gray again introduces a crowd of characters, with the novelist HG Wells providing the link between the drawing rooms of England and the turmoil of post-revolutionary Russia. Wells visited the Soviet Union a number of times, enjoying meetings with Lenin and Stalin, and a long-running acquaintance with the well-connected and influential writer Maxim Gorky. He was therefore an enthusiastic observer of one of the greatest social experiments in human history.
What Wells, Lenin and Gorky seem to have had in common was a faith in the future of humanity combined with a contempt for actual human beings – the “half-savage, stupid, difficult people of the Russian village”, as Gorky put it.
Gray, on the other hand, seems to share with them only the latter – the contempt for human beings, unmitigated by any hope of redemption. He relates the horrors of collectivisation and the Great Purge in which millions died with a certain relish, as if these depravities confirm his long-held belief in humanity’s moral debasement.
Indeed, Gray’s anti-humanist instincts bore through the book like a worm-hole through an apple. He dismisses creationism, for example, on the basis that “a glance at any human should be enough to dispel any notion that it is the work of an intelligent being”. His severest censure, however, is reserved for those who have not learnt the lessons of the 20th century but continue to believe that science will deliver us utopia. It is to these contemporary immortalists that he finally turns in the relatively short conclusion, mocking their fantasies of having us frozen like Lenin, or made deathless by upping our vitamin intake. His points are well-made, although he covers a good deal less science than the sub-title might imply.
The book’s portmanteau approach befits perhaps a long-standing professor of European thought – albeit now emeritus – whose task is to draw parallels between disparate milieus. But at times the link between the book’s two halves seems tenuous, and the main thesis is hidden by the bustle of characters rushing by. Some of these characters, and many of the thoughts, will also be familiar to readers of Gray’s earlier work, in particular his 2007 book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia.
Nonetheless, The Immortalization Commission is an engaging additional chapter in its author’s long-running campaign to expose the quasi-religious and magical thinking that underpins our visions of progress. A little more humility is his plea; he would undoubtedly endorse the former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s bon mot that those who have visions should see a doctor. Like the Greek tragedies, Gray’s grim yet compelling view serves to deflate the pretensions of society and may, in the end, help us to live with ourselves a little more easily.
Stephen Cave is writing a book about immortality for Random House