Author: Heiser, James D
Date published: July 9, 2012
SPIRITUALIST SCIENCE The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, by John Gray. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 201 1. hardcover, 273 pages.
John Gray's book The Immortalization Commission examines pseudo-science - done in the name of scientific investigation - and spiritualism that fed off a fear of death.
"During the late nineteenth century JL-/ and early twentieth century science became the vehicle for an assault on death. The power of knowledge was summoned to free humans of their mortality. Science was used against science and became a channel for magic." John Gray is no stranger to controversy, but the introductory words of his latest book, The Immortalization Commission, are a particularly blunt introduction to the thesis he endeavors to defend in his most recent work. Gray maintains that the decline of religion has not brought an end to the desire for eternal life, and The Immortalization Commission documents the occult directions taken in the name of science in pursuit of a triumph over death.
Gray was a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics and Political Science before his retirement in 2008. but throughout his career and since his retirement, his greatest influence has been through his published writings, many of which have been quite controversial. For example. Gray's 2007 book. Black Mass. was an examination of the religious utopianism that he believes underlies the wars in the Middle East. An earlier work. Al Qaeda and What Ii Means to Be Modern (2003). attempted to establish Gray's thesis that 21st-century jihadism is essentially a modern. Western ideology - despite the claims of its adherents, and 1 .400 years of Islam's war against the West.
Despite the length of The Immortalization Commission, the work is divided into only three chapters. The first chapter ("Cross-correspondences") explores the popularity of the pseudo-scientific pursuits of Spiritualism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The second chapter ("Godbuilders") is a window into the obsession in Soviet Russia with the transcendence of death by means of technology. In the final chapter ("Sweet Mortality"). Gray attacks more recent attempts to defeat death - cryonic suspension and uploading human consciousness into computers, for example - before turning to an apologia for the "sweet scent of death."
Throughout the first two chapters of the book, the reader is struck by the pathetic character of the broken lives documented therein. Whether one is considering English Spiritualists who were haunted by personal tragedies - and the desire to contact loved ones who had died - or Russian Socialists - who denied there was a survival of the soul, and therefore were desperate to cling to life - a sense of pity and even horror pervades the pages. On occasion, the antics may have an element of humor: however, more often than not. the story that emerges from a cloud of personal tragedies, violent political purges, and elaborate self-deceptions is devastating to the image of those were caught up in their various "scientific" quests - and Gray's assault intentionally undermines the surety of those who boast of the objectivity of science:
Both the God-builders and the psychical researchers believed humans had powers beyond those recognized in the science of the day. In fact scientific investigation of the paranormal failed to reveal the new human powers of which they dreamt. Instead it showed the limits of conscious awareness, and the vast tracts of life that can never be governed by human will. Much in the study of the paranormal was what we would now call pseudo-science. But the line between science and pseudo-science is smudged and shifting: where it lies seems clear only in retrospect. There is no pristine science untouched by the vagaries of faith.
An old fairy tale has it that science began with the rejection of superstition. In fact it was the rejection of rationalism that gave birth to scientific inquiry.
Much of Gray's treatment of the Spiritualists is devoted to the "cross-correspondences": the purported connections between the labors of various "automatic writers" who supposedly wrote down those things that were dictated to them from beyond the grave. Writings that were seen as incoherent on their own were alleged to form a coherent whole - even proof of life after death - when they were combined. The subjectivity of such assessments - and occasions when they were positively refuted - are documented by Gray. The search that Spiritualists were engaged in - an enduring source of morality, and a reason for living a moral life - often seems to be treated with disdain.
Undeniably. Gray has a skill for uncovering connections that are often missed by other observers. One such link that is briefly explored in The Immortalization Commission is between Spiritualism and Eugenics, which Gray maintains arise from an urge to perfect mankind:
Eugenicists aimed to rid the world of defective human beings, while Spiritualists believed that the body that awaits us in the afterlife would be purged of defects. Eugenics and Spiritualism were both of them progressive creeds, claiming that by using new knowledge humankind could attain a level of development higher than anything achieved in the past.
However, in a work that relies on documentation in a notably lopsided way, Gray has a propensity for exaggerated, and even absurd, assertions. Thus, for example, he blithely asserts that the Christian religion was "invented by Paul and Augustine" and that "Closer to original Christianity than Western traditions. Russian Orthodoxy promised the resurrection of the body." Such assertions give this reviewer the impression of having been made without even a fundamental knowledge of the history and doctrine of the Christian Church, and wonders how Russian Orthodox readers would react to the notion that a relatively late - and Latin - Church Father such as Augustine "invented" their religion, and how any Christian who has confessed the Apostles or Nicene Creed - both of which confess a quite literal bodily resurrection - would respond to the notion that such a belief is committed only to the Eastern Church.
Gray's assessment of the Russian "Godbuilders" is quite stunning. The entire book draws its title from the commission charged with the task of preserving Lenin's body with the intention that he would eventuallv be scientificallv resurrected.
Gray notes that the Soviet regime long perpetuated the notion that Lenin would be raised: "The treatment of Lenin as a living person continued after the war. In 1973. when the Politburo decided to renew Party documents, the first Party card to be reissued was Lenin's. Throughout the last decades of communism Lenin"s suit was changed every eighteen months ami replaced h_\ a new one special!} made by a KGB seamstress." Gray insightfully links the horrific purges undertaken from the first days of the Bolshevik revolution as an effort influenced by the "God-builders" to create a purified, deified, human race. Thus, "the use of terror was above all a means of remaking humanity."
Ultimately, however. Gray's work is spoilt by the fatalism of its author. Apparently considering religion sufficiently privatized as to be beyond his concern, the seeming purpose of The Immortalization Commission is to demonstrate that science fails to measure up: "More than ever, science is seen as a technique for solving the insoluble." Gray's negative assessment of the capabilities of science does not lead him to return to religion, but to dismiss both religion and science.
The bile that permeates the end of the book renders the work rather difficult to read: this reviewer was left with the impression that Gray had concluded that suicide may be the only rational response to life:
Death means release from care, and it may be that you will live more happily if you are ready to welcome death when it comes, and call it to you when it is late arriving. Before Christianity suicide was not in any way troubling. Our lives were our own. and when we tired of them we were at liberty to end them. One might think that as Christianity has declined, this freedom would be reclaimed. Instead secular creeds have sprung up. in which each person's life belongs to everyone else. To hand back the gift of life because it does not please is still condemned as a kind of blasphemy, though the offended deity is now humanity instead of God.
In fact. Gray rejoices in the notion that mankind's days are numbered: "There are some who think humans should escape the planet they have gutted by migrating into outer space. Happily, there is no prospect of the human animal extending its destructive career in this way." Gray seems relieved by the sense that man's death will leave the planet to go on:
Unnumbered species have perished as a result of human expansion, and countless more will die out as a consequence of humanly caused climate change. But the planet will recover as it has done in the past, and life will flourish for hundreds of millions of years, long after humans have disappeared forever.
In the end. it appears as if Gray's assessment of science is that it demonstrates how unworthy mankind's goals were in the first place:
The end-result of scientific inquiry is to return humankind to its own intractable existence. Instead of enabling humans to improve their lot. science degrades the natural environment in which humans must live. Instead of enabling death to be overcome, it produces ever more powerful technologies of mass destruction. None of this is the fault of science: what it shows is that science is not sorcery. The growth of knowledge enlarges what humans can do. It cannot reprieve them from being what they are.
Overall, the readability of The Immortalization Commission is hampered by what seems to be a contempt for all who do not share the author's air of disdain for both traditional and modern attempts to address the perennial questions of human existence.