14 March 2011


John Gray. The Immortalization Commission. Allen Lane, 2011.

Charles Darwin's Origin of Species published in 1859 presented a word in which human beings were totally embedded in the general and very mortal biological world, and not a special creation destined for immortality. John Gray explores ways in which human beings have tried to escape that fate and construct a path to immortality founded on science rather than religious revelation.
The first example that Gray gives is that of the Society of Psychical Research, in particular the role of Henry Sidgwick and Fred Myers, both of whom, he suggests, may have been gay or bisexual. Sidgwick could not conceive of a system of ethics which was not based on God and immortality. Gray, a philosopher himself, has some fun with this proposition.

Ironically Gray argues, in trying to prove immortality, Sidgwick, Myers and the other members of the SPR actually accumulated evidence which tended to deconstruct the notion of a unified rational human personality. What, he suggests, these people wanted to survive was not their actual, complex, warty, personalities, but the people they would have liked to have been.

A central aspect of their work was the so called Cross Correspondences, a series of strange messages supposed to come from discarnate founders of the SPR. These read like some kind of surrealistic poetry and if the examples given here are anything to go by, the message was definitely in the eye of the beholder.

The cross correspondences were tied up largely with the extended Balfour family, its friends and hangers-on. One feature discussed by Gray is the attempt to create a new messiah, as revealed in Archie Roy's The Eager Dead. [LINK]

Another core association between the Cross Correspondences and the Balfour family was the so called Palm Sunday case, predicated on the claim that for the whole of his adult life the former Tory Prime Minister Arthur Balfour was in deep mourning for his one and only true love Mary Lyttleton. Gray argues that the evidence suggests that their relationship was nowhere near as close or significant as the SPR suggested, indeed Balfour's main relationship was a sadomasochistic one with Mary Wyndham, Lady Elcho.

In the newly created Soviet Union the search for immortality took, if anything, an even stranger form, in the form of the God Builders, who believed that scientific progress would eventually lead to human immortality and the scientific resurrection of the dead. This ideology had some impact on some members of the Bolshevik party in the 1920s, and was the main reason for the preservation of Lenin's body. The original, unsuccessful plan had been to freeze it so that a future science could revive it. The future humanity envisioned by the God builders and related groups was not as a biologically being, but as a disembodied spirit or energy, perhaps existing in cosmic space. Echoes of this theme can be found in the writings of Teillard de Chardin and in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End.

Gray presents this story in the context of the relationship between H. G. Wells and Moura Budberg (also mistress of Maxim Gorky and suspected double agent) and the bloody violence of the Bolshevik regime, which shared Wells's general distaste for actual human beings. Rather than seeking to improve the lot of masses of really existing human beings, the Bolsheviks early on decided that the actual people were not good enough for the party and to try and replace them with the new model Soviet citizen.

Even today there are those who dream of using science to abolish mortality, such as Ray Kurzweil, who talks of the singularity in which, human beings will dematerialise into cyberspace. Like the post mortem 'entities' dreamed of by psychical researchers and the transcendent future beings dreamed of by the God builders, Kurzweil's virtual beings have left actual real, messy, biological human lives behind them. All of these groups, and Wells, were only really interested in the survival of elites, whether Cambridge classists or new model Soviet Citizens. -- Peter Rogerson

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