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The Immortalization Commission by John Gray

Karl White wants to live forever.

John Gray has established himself in the public consciousness as an iconoclast, a relentless critic, and an irreverent debunker of the orthodox utopias of the day, whether of Communists, Greens, liberals, or free-market capitalists. There are very few readers who are neutral towards him: his admirers revel in his disruptive thought, and his critics loathe his acerbic undermining of their orthodoxies.

Gray’s latest volume, The Immortalization Commission – Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death is an attack on another myth of our times (albeit one not as mainstream as his previous targets) – namely, the belief that science will one day enable us to achieve immortality, and thereby make life meaningful. The book is in essence a response to Wittgenstein’s famous line from the Tractatus: “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, still the problems of life have not been touched at all.”

Victorian Revelations

The first part of the book concerns the lives and activities of an assortment of late 19th and early 20th century thinkers who sought to prove, through the use of spiritualists, mediums, automatic writing and other forms of occultism, that personal survival after death was a genuine possibility. Gray sketches the involvement of these individuals (the most famous of whom was former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour), many of whom were tormented by grief in their personal lives and sought solace in contemplating a happy afterlife.

On a more philosophical level, Gray is eager to prove that the concept of personal immortality provides no real solutions to existential issues. If we were to survive in some (ill-defined) afterlife, so what? Would we not still experience the same feelings of angst and uncertainty as before we died? On this side of the grave or the other, purpose and meaning do not necessarily derive from eternal life. Of course, those of a Christian persuasion would argue that, on the contrary, any afterlife would be a dwelling in God’s realm of eternal love and benevolence, where all questions are answered and there are no more mysteries.

The most interesting individual featured in the book is the Victorian Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900). Sidgwick, referred to by Peter Singer as one of the most important moral philosophers of all time, was convinced that without the existence of a benevolent God morality had no ultimate grounds and was nothing but a shifting set of socially-convenient rules. He believed that investigations of the afterlife could provide him with the certainty he needed to quell his fear of moral nihilism.

Sadly, he and his fellow travellers in the world of spiritualism found no satisfaction. Seances, possessions, channelling and so on failed to provide solid evidence of a post-mortem existence, and the alleged communications from ‘the other side’ raised as many questions as they answered. For Gray, the almost inevitable futility of the quest is demonstrated by this posthumous communication supposedly received from Sidgwick himself: “We no more solve the riddle of death by dying than we solve the riddle of life by being born.”

The Communist Spirit

The second part of the book focuses on the Soviet Union, but is disappointing.

Gray describes the intellectual progress of the era’s most famous utopian, H.G. Wells, as he moves from his early techno-utopianism to his gradual disillusionment with humanity. According to Gray, central to this pessimistic development was Wells’ relationship with Moura Zakrevskaya, an aristocrat who moved in the intellectual circles of both pre- and post-revolutionary Russia, and who survived largely on account of her capacity to mould her identity to suit the circumstances. Presumably the point Gray intends to make by recounting her life story is to demonstrate that what we call the self is a fluid, shifting, malleable construct, lacking an inner core and thereby lacking any essence which would be capable of surviving death. This, of course, was one of David Hume’s most famous ideas, and one that has played a major part in philosophical discussions of personal identity. However, many believe it reasonable to identify the self as existing through a core of key characteristics threaded through with memories and associations which thus gives life a sense of personal coherence – thereby rendering hopes of an afterlife also coherent.

Although the story of Wells’ and Zakrevskaya’s complicated relationship is reasonably engaging, the remainder of the second section seems irrelevant to the book’s philosophical theme. Gray launches into a catalogue of the crimes of the Soviet Union, including the horrendous use of state violence on citizens; but how this material is relevant to the philosophical discussion of human hopes for elongated and post-mortem survival is unclear. Gray has outlined the crimes of the Soviet Union to devastating effect in his more academic work, and so it is surprising that he does not focus more on, for example, Trotsky’s famous idea about raising the average intelligence to the level of Aristotle, or discuss in more depth Stalin’s attempts to create an übermensch by authorising scientific experiments into crossbreeding humans and apes. Gray used this material to good effect in Black Mass, and surely it would have been more relevant to his purposes here than another rendering of Soviet barbarism.

Changing Immortal Truths

The concluding section of the book brings us back to the core issue of immortality. Gray focuses on how science has taken the place of magic in providing hope for those who wish to achieve eternal life. He is on tried and tested ground here, as the persistence of Judeo-Christian concepts of the sanctity of the self in a supposedly secular and scientific age has been a core aspect of his thinking since Straw Dogs.

Gray takes us on a brief and breezy tour of cryogenics. He points out the likelihood that a combination of history and environmental catastrophe will bring about an end to the human species – and thus to any societies that those banking on developments in body-freezing are relying upon for their immortality. As for those who cherish the hope that more conventional medicine will one day bring about immortality, Gray reminds us that science itself is a body of provisional knowledge, subject to a constant process of reinvention, rendering the hopes of even near-omniscience unlikely to ever be realised.

Having pointed out the inconsistencies and inadequacies of theories of immortalization, Gray finishes by recommending that we adopt a more poetic and accepting attitude, seeking to find beauty where we can in our fleeting lives. Many would respond that they already do this, but are still troubled by existential issues of life and death, as well as by the enormous social and political problems of the world.

It is interesting to note the trajectory of Gray’s thinking since the Eighties: a constant critic of Soviet Communism; a provisional supporter of Thatcher; a brief flirtation with Green thinking; a savage and incisive critic of liberalism; the devastating anti-humanism of Straw Dogs; the Spengler-like reflections on politics and history found in his Al-Qaeda and Black Mass books; and now what appears to be a Zen-like acceptance of the human condition. One wonders if there is anywhere left for Gray to go. He might respond that if we could only shed our illusions concerning the nature of humanity and the real possibilities of deep progress, we would realise there was nowhere to go in the first place.

Then again, great thinkers are always capable of surprises, and Gray is only sixty-three, so for his admirers and detractors alike there may yet be surprises in store.

© Karl White 2011

Karl White has MAs in both philosophy and history, and is a co-editor of the forthcoming One Hundred Years A’Dying: A Centenary Celebration of Samuel Beckett.

The Immortalization Commission: The Strange Quest To Cheat Death by John Gray; Allen Lane, 2011, 288 pps, £18.99 hb, ISBN:978-1846142192.

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