‘The undiscovered country, from whose bourn No traveller returns’,
The Immortalization Commission is a fascinating and well written account of attempts made, either through using scientific investigation, or through scientific means, to either prove the existence of `the immortal soul’ or to cheat bodily death or the death of consciousness.
I knew a fair amount about the spiritualist movement, (the subject of the first section) and the attempts made to prove that individual consciousness survived via the use of cross correspondence and mediums – the attempt to set up a scientific method to prove survival. Despite their sometimes messy and tangled personal/sexual lives, Myers, Sedgewick et al seem models of perhaps naïve idealism, anxious to prove the survival of personal consciousness, because of course it is the loss of those we love which is perhaps harder to live with than the idea which we can barely imagine, of our own demise – our consciousness cannot really use itself to abstract itself from itself, but the loss of other is experienced by all, and explains the rise of the search of proof of survival through spiritualism, particularly after the great War.
I was most interested in what was unknown to me – that scientific endeavour was used in Soviet Russia because it accorded with a belief that the dead could be raised by scientific means – particularly of course the `good and great’ (sic) dead. Unlike the well meaning spiritualists, the upper echelons of the Communist Party – Lenin and on, were less concerned with proving the survival of individual consciousness (except I assume trying for their own) more with the idea that the role of science is to create a super human, to advance and quicken evolution of the human race to a perfectibility which will become immortal. Curiously, this seems much more evidence of `magical thinking’ than Myers et als endeavours. Not to mention, dark, appalling and inhumane, since the individual life of the common man and woman at that time counted for nought against the golden lure of the future super ideal. Whereas the spiritualists so passionately value individual human consciousness that they find the idea of its negation too appalling to contemplate, here we have the idea of expendable `human units’ – the present individual in their thousands to be sacrificed on the alter of a potential superhuman future.
Gray is impressed neither with the quest for individual immortality of the spiritualists, nor with the ends-justifies-the-means approach of `The Immortalisation Commission’ and also looks askance at the possible future attempts of science to produce a technological immortality, whether through cryogenics or other means. His view is rather that the cessation of consciousness, rather than immortality, is something to be accepted. Serenity in the face of the inevitable.
My only cavil with this interesting, beautifully written and complex book, is that Gray has structured it more like a novel than a factual book. There is no index. We meet a complex cast of characters and cross references, but there is no way to jog your memory..’now who was..?..again – as you can’t search for a prior reference. Rather than use footnotes within the text itself – or even a numbered footnote which can refer to an end of the text Harvard style reference, he plumps instead for a sequence of notes on pages 1-15, 16-30 etc at the end – but doesn’t link this at all to specific quotes within the text. So at times its only by reference to the general notes that you may find something within the text was a quotation. I found this curious, and unhelpful