Looking for the great hereafter

This review of John Gray’s The Immortalization Commission appeared in the Irish Times.

The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death By John Gray, Allen Lane, 256pp. £18.99

ON JANUARY 16th, 1874, Charles Darwin attended a seance at the London home of his brother Erasmus. He found the evening “hot and tiring”, and he left to lie down before anything out of the ordinary happened. According to others present, he missed quite a show: bells rang, sparks flew, tables were rapped and a chair (as chairs always do at such soirees) leaped into the air.

We may disbelieve all of these spectral shenanigans – Darwin’s son George reported the whole spirit trade a frank sham after another performance, a week later – and still wonder at the intellectual mix in attendance that night. Around the table were Darwin’s colleague TH Huxley, the occultist Frederic Myers, the novelist George Eliot (mostly sceptical on such matters) and Francis Galton, notorious espouser of eugenic pseudoscience but quite level-headed when it came to things that went bump and supposed missives from the other side.

It’s easy to scoff at the Victorian interest in the afterlife and quest for interviews with the afterliving, but, as a number of authors have recently reminded us, the gap between orthodoxy and esoterica in the 19th century was often Bible-paper thin. In his England’s Last Eden (2005) Philip Hoare showed how mainstream Christianity cohabited with spiritualist churches; in Phantasmagoria (2006) Marina Warner described the birth of modern media in such haunted technologies as spirit photography and ghoulish magic-lantern shows.

The Immortalization Commission is an instructive and sometimes startling addition to this literature: a study of overlapping efforts at immortality in Victorian-Edwardian England and the first decades of the Soviet Union. Gray’s specific contention is that reason was (and is) shadowed by faith: in the century or so that he considers “science was used against science and became a channel for magic”.

Spirits and phantoms had been hovering for some time, of course (not least in the Gothic craze a few decades before), but the immediate impetus for the Victorians’ traffic with the deceased was in fact, Gray contends, Darwinism itself.

Quite apart from the existence or otherwise of God, it was the absence of an afterlife that spooked the century, sparking alternative versions of evolution (such as that of Darwin’s sometime colleague Alfred Russel Wallace) that seemed to promise a measure of human progress and a chance at immortality.

Among those who flirted with the spirit world were Ruskin, Tennyson and Gladstone – Arthur Balfour was a particular enthusiast, and was in regular contact with the ghost of one Mary Lyttleton, with whom he was said to have been in love as a young man. The British establishment’s romance with the afterlife culminates in the unlikely tale of Henry Coombe-Tennant, born in 1913 as part of a grand plan to send a “messianic child” into the world. (He was of course no such thing, though he did effect an almost miraculous escape from a German prison camp during the second World War.)

Having conjured this host of crankish spiritmongers, Gray shifts abruptly to Russia in the aftermath of the revolution. The linking figure is HG Wells, who was committed like many in this period to the idea of human perfectibility, and visited Russia in 1920. He declared Lenin an “amazing little man”, but Lenin – the account is Trotsky’s – was less impressed: “Ugh! What a philistine!”

Gray’s argument is that the Soviet Union – contra most Western critiques – was in no sense an expression of excessive economic rationalism or cold murderous logic but was esoteric through and through: fully in thrall to the Gnostic idea of a revived and immortal humanity, and to the reality of certain revolutionary “god-builders” who imported Edwardian-style occultism into the ideology of the new state.

The strangest expression of this Soviet spiritualism (shot through with scientism) was the fate of Lenin’s corpse: first frozen after his death (by the commission of Gray’s title) in hope of eventual resuscitation, and when that didn’t work embalmed and entombed as a virtual if not actual reminder of the regime’s capacity to renovate mankind.

Gray is a consistently engaging narrator of such anecdotes, but it’s in these chapters that his book ceases to channel quite so thrillingly the occulted history of the 20th century and begins merely rehearsing some awful facts about the early Soviet Union and some fascinating lives, such as those of Maxim Gorky and his (also Wells’s) lover Moura Budberg. (Though this last character is at least surprising: she was the great-great-aunt of Nick Clegg, the British deputy prime minister.) It’s probable that there is simply less detailed documentation of the beliefs and practices of the “god-builders” than there is of their English equivalents. But if the difference makes the book list a little in favour of its early chapters, it does not essentially take away from its import. As a philosophical and economic thinker – schooled on the market irrationalism of Thatcher, now a kind of left Nietzschean – Gray has long made the point that illogic subtends all our rationalist dreams, from political revolution through the life-prolonging ambitions of medical science to the “reasonable” assumption that we are technologically and morally capable of saving ourselves from global warming. We are part of the chaos from which we dream of saving ourselves, and “immortality is only the dimming soul projected on to a blank screen”.

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