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Live and Let Live

The mortal implications of man’s place in nature.

Apr 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 28 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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Gray’s treatment of these people is sympathetic. They were motivated by a yearning not only for science-licensed intimations of immortality, but for lost or unspoken loves that might be retrieved in the afterlife. It was a refined, insular, class-bound world doomed to vanish; but while it lasted, they wanted it to last forever: “Dying was only a move from one wing of a great country-house to another, a shift in which nothing was lost.” Tea would still be served at four in the Beyond.

The Bolsheviks, of course, burned down the country house and just about everything else. It’s a familiar historical abyss, but Gray wants us to know about the occult contribution to the debacle. He tells the story of the “God-builders,” moonstruck late-Czarist and Bolshevik intellectuals who had a “magical faith in the power of science” and believed the revolution would eventually conquer death and produce a race of godlike immortals. They included the writer Maxim Gorky, who had a kind of cyberdream of science dissolving matter and replacing corporeal humanity with beings of pure thought, Anatoly Lunacharsky, who was appointed commissar of Enlightenment in the new regime and declared that “God is the humanity of the future,” and Leonid Krasin, who tried to freeze Lenin’s embalmed body with the aim of eventually bringing him back to life. Most of them were eventually murdered by Stalin.


Gray isn’t the first to see communism as a kind of warped religion, or version of the Gnostic heresy, but he’s trenchant about the way the movement aimed to “deliver humankind from Nature” and thus became a war of annihilation on both nature and human nature: “Materialism in practice meant the dematerialization of the physical world. An integral part of the process was the destruction of human life.” The Bolsheviks devastated the countryside and “executed more people in their first four years of power than the Romanovs did in all of their 300-year history.”

The wistful English and the baleful Bolsheviks have nothing in common, and neither group has much in common with occult celebrities such as Madame Blavatsky and Gurdjieff and Krishnamurti, who make brief appearances. Their common pursuit of mirages takes them, and the book, in completely different directions. The only major figure here linking England and Russia is a beautiful Russian woman known as Moura (born Maria Ignatyevna Zakrevskaya), who was the lover of both Gorky and H.G. Wells. Gray goes into some detail about Wells who, except when he was writing dark science-
fiction works such as The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau, had a view of the future not unlike the God-builders. A scientifically trained elite would take ruthless control of humanity and its evolution and produce a race of (one gathers) superior Wellses and Mouras. The problem was that Moura, who seemed to him his feminine alter ego, was spying on him (and on Gorky, too) for the Soviet secret police. When Wells found out, he finally realized that his view of the future had no future. He wasn’t in control of his own life, never
mind evolution.

The Immortalization Commission, then, is a set of somewhat discordant variations on Gray’s established theme: the perils of claiming to know too much and trying to control too much, an ambition that he thinks always strays into occult territory or mad hubris. Given the history of the past hundred years, it’s a point that’s unarguable and, especially in the Soviet section, powerfully and chillingly made. But when you come to his reflections at the end, you are puzzled by the way Gray can reconcile his reliance on Darwinism and science in general for his view of humanity’s humble and precarious place in the scheme of things with his pessimism about the validity of any scientific description of the world. 

In Straw Dogs he asked, “Illusion is our natural condition. Why not accept it?” And here, while he’s defending religious myths from literal-minded New Atheists, he suggests that the order we perceive in the universe is probably just a figment of our own order-seeking imaginations. The world is, at bottom, chaotic and unknowable. But if this means something, it means inviting progress, utopia, the search for a cryptic occult order in the universe, and the other modern illusions or myths he’s been busy kicking out of the house, in through the back door. 

There are other passages where Gray seems to be, like history according to the Greeks, going in circles, but the main idea comes through unscathed:  “Science is not sorcery. The growth of knowledge enlarges what humans can do. It cannot reprieve them from being what they are. .  .  . The afterlife is like utopia, a place where no one wants to live.”

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.

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