The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death by John Gray. Doubleday Canada; Toronto, Ontario, 2011. (273 pages). Reviewed by Donald R. Officer.
As Hamlet observes with mock delicacy, nobody ever returns from the land of the dead. However, that is the rub, as he notes while pondering his own death in his best known soliloquy. John Gray’s truly astounding account of two parallel and epic series of undertakings to deal with the mortality question in more recent times demonstrates how remarkably obsessive the question remains with the marked decline of traditional belief.
When I listened to John Gray talk to the Ottawa International Writers Festival on April 30, I was very curious to know what he would say about his new book The Immortalization Commission or of course, why he wrote it. The book unpacks two very different narratives, two very different although parallel streams of history. During his question and answer session at the Festival reading, the author stated his own position on immortality; namely, he does not believe it possible. He did concede that the probability of our understanding the fundamental questions about the nature of reality is much poorer than we might have speculated it to be only a few generations ago. So while he may be going out on a limb with such skepticism, who is in position to cut him off? Professor Gray also appears to believe it’s possible the universe is at bottom pure random chaos. So all the laws we have inferred from observation are not simply incomplete but may be subjective projections or rationalizations, a vain (in both senses) attempt to make sense of things.
Our increasing appreciation through multiple disciplines that the world is much more intertwined and complex than we could possibly imagine might lead a thinking person to be more agnostic than absolute about that whereof we can not speak. Case in point: do we know anything whatsoever about the disappearance or continuance of consciousness after this life ends? The physics that appeared cut and dried at the start of the twentieth century now proposes multiple dimensions unperceivable to human senses or coexisting worlds of unimaginably different properties. John Gray mentioned these extraordinarily odd yet entirely feasible possibilities during his conversation with the moderator. In the text he also speculates on the evidence for fragmented consciousness, even identity. Freud’s model of the multi-tiered psyche is only the beginning. Indeed, grappling with the undisciplined, un-evolved, fragmentation of the average personality was the ostensible motive behind a huge range of happenings from the bizarre to the horrific described in this book.
This is the point where The Immortalization Commission truly emerges as an important account. John Gray is a particular kind of author we need more of. The last book that took my breath away the way this one does was Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do. What these two extraordinary books have in common is more important than any differences. One was written by a philosopher exploring the effects of changing beliefs on social behaviour (Gray), the other by a network scientist exploring the explosive impact of convergent events in creating astounding historical outcomes. That’s the dullest way to compare these two titles. Both are actually extraordinary wild rides through fascinating, turbulent episodes of history inexplicable except via the insights the authors bring to them. I’ll let you explore Bursts on your own. Let’s look at John Gray’s efforts here.
The Immortalization Commission describes the project to contact the dead undertaken by well known members of British society (like a brother of a former prime minister) in the decades surrounding the First World War. The participants were sincere and hopeful, but ultimately saddened by the poor return on their efforts. They often began the spiritualist project in grief for the loss of beloved friends or family. In the background is a mourning for cultural loss. Darwin’s revolution was not wasted on these people. Many were a part of the same circles; most were adapting to the decline of established religion that evolutionary theory represented. Not simply furnishing after dinner games for the Edwardian parlor, providing high points for circus sideshows or energizing marginal poets, the occult attracted serious often high minded as well as high placed adherents. We have forgotten how influential the paranormal belief system used to be.
Likewise the Soviet after life project has faded from the picture we retain of the communist system. Lenin’s tomb was not merely an attempt at sustaining a personality cult. The goal was to keep the deceased leader’s corpse viable enough to resuscitate when the right technology emerged. The Immortalization Commission of the title was the corresponding political body tasked with the project. Fortunately for its members, unlike the myriads or other ambitious schemes of the Politburo, this one had no precise deadline. The doll-like mummy in the glass case remains in storage to this day. We now see that much of what the Soviets did was just for show. Tens of millions lost their lives either in pursuit of vainglory or just for questioning it. The entire apparatus of the state was devoted to a bizarre Lamarckian adventure in philosophical terms not unlike the British crystal ball gazing cults. In the minds of many, science had struck down faith and owed it to the world to provide a substitute.
The costs to the subjects of the Soviet Union of such notions were astronomical especially compared to the far milder but still unnerving implications for inter bellum Britain. Nevertheless, many thinkers on the left turned their heads away during the show trials, the disappearances and the horrific atrocities in the gulag and Kremlin dungeons out of delusional optimism. This unfortunate intellectual lacuna still blurs our latter day sense of what Lenin and Stalin were trying to do. John Gray shows us through his recounting of these startling if relegated histories that any kind of ultimate speculation on what happens after death is still only that. He believes it always will be. Frankly, I don’t understand how he can be that certain about anything that might happen down the road. For all we know, one day we’ll discover heat resistant philosophers living on the sun.