The Immortalization Commission Science and the Strange Quest
to Cheat Death
by John Gray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pp., $24
John Gray, not to be confused with the John Gray who wrote Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Cincinnati, or however that went, is a maverick conservative British political philosopher and sworn enemy of all militant versions of progress. He was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher, but long ago, in books like False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998), turned against free-market economics. As an admirer of Hume, Burke, and Mill, and a friend and disciple of the late Isaiah Berlin, he arrives at his own party-of-one conservatism by way of skepticism and pluralism. It’s allowed him to become an unpredictable but effective saboteur of utopian, apocalyptic, and end-of-history projects.
Yet in Straw Dogs (2002), he presented, with a certain sour misanthropic relish, his own end-of-history vision:
Homo rapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone the Earth will recover. . . . The Earth will forget mankind.
What? Even Lindsay Lohan?
He seems to have decided that man, or at least modern man, isn’t the rational animal so much as the radical animal (not that he sees much difference between rationalism and radicalism). And Mother Earth is the last real conservative. In Straw Dogs he defended the Gaia hypothesis, which presents the Earth as a living organism that will eventually rid herself of any lesser organisms. Here, the human race gets a sharp elbow nudge that drastically disturbs her complex, self-preserving balances. For Gray, human beings, given their unsustainable numbers and their reliance on technology and massive extractions of resources, have become a revolutionary horde, burning and pillaging.
The Earth, in other words, can’t, and won’t, take much more progress. The Enlightenment ideal of progress, he believes, is just a secular ghost of the millennial Christian belief that history must have a final goal and meaning. He much prefers the ancient Greek view of history as cyclical, a going-nowhere process in which the destinies of individuals and societies are ruled by arbitrary fate
This is a bit reductive about the Enlightenment utopianism that was rare until the Jacobins arrived, and the American Founding Fathers, like their mentors Locke and Montesquieu, never succumbed to it. Nor did Voltaire and Diderot, or Hume, Hutcheson, and Smith. But his point is that, if we are to take Darwin seriously, we have to admit that we’re just part of Nature in all its chaotic randomness, not set apart for a special destiny that we can rationally or willfully control. Ultimately, this desire for control, however scientific its guise, takes on an occult character.
At least that’s what he suggests in this fascinating and puzzling new book, which is about two very different pseudoscientific attempts to deny or defy death. The first was typically Victorian/Edwardian British: modest, empirical, tentative, genteel, eccentric, high-minded. The second was typically Russian/Bolshevik: extreme, feverishly ambitious, lethal.
In late 19th-century England, some nice, well-dressed people who were deeply disturbed by the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution went looking for a kind of spiritualist extension of it in order to soften and moralize it. They attended séances or engaged in “automatic writing”—believed to channel cryptic messages from the departed—hoping that some scientific evidence for human immortality would turn up. If they could succeed in communicating with the dead (including members of their own psychical-research set who had promised to send specific messages back to them as soon as they got wherever they were going), then human life might recover, with the prospect of further spiritual evolution, the higher meanings and dutiful morals that seemed to be lost in the Darwinian melee.
Darwin himself attended a séance in 1874, but quickly walked out, convinced that it was all humbug, a conclusion shared by the novelist Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), who was there, too. But other eminent Victorians took the plunge. They included Alfred Russel Wallace, a collaborator with Darwin, Henry Sidgwick, a distinguished and perplexed Cambridge don, Frederic Myers, whose idea of a “subliminal self” anticipated the unconscious of Freud and Jung, and Arthur Balfour, the philosopher and future Tory prime minister.
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
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.