The Immortalisation 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.
For a splendid and detailed account of Gray's subject matter in this book, read the excellent review by the first reviewer, Diziet, which really tells a prospective buyer anything they may want to know. I'm only writing MY review because such an excellent book deserves more than one 5 star review.
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
on 28 March 2011
John Gray's "The Immortalization Commission: The Strange Quest to Cheat Death" is a book I really like. First it's full of anecdotal references and this makes it very easy to read. Despite being clearly an essay, the narrative is well build and I enjoyed it.
It's full of reference to lots of (dead) people with unpronounceable names (mainly Russians) who's biographies are strange and stranger. This book is also great because it puts evidences beforehand and then draws conclusions which you do not generally find in history books. Gray digs deep into the roots of "evil", only to find out its actually humankind natural state. We're all part of Evolution, and it's not gonna be a "fun" experience. Unlike some Nat.Geo. or BBC documentaries sometimes makes us think there is no design, just selfish reproduction. And it's gonna be bloody and painful and it's no surprise that the "quest to cheat death" is the main theme of any culture and civilisation since Man became sentient and capable of expressing it to its kins. In the past it was mainly Religion, but since the publication of Darwin's work, Science has become a very promising tool to cheat death. A tool, Science, which has been elevated to a new kind of Religion where people are spendable, like rats in a Lab. They are just raw material that can be thrown away with no major consequences if not the construction of a new kind of Super Humans.
The final pages of the second part of the book for example, the "God Builder" part, is particularly enlightening of what really happened, not only in Bolshevik's Russia under the Terror state of Lenin first and Stalin later. But most important how this "demographic suicide pond" that was the USSR was perfectly interconnected to Hitler's Germany and concealed in plain sight to Western "observers". There was no misunderstanding there. It was clear from day one where it was going.
In this sense, this latest "The Immortalization Commission" is a typical John Gray work. Dismaying and capable of eradicating any hope you'd left in mankind and probably in yourself. The natural subtitle of John Gray's work should be: "What you see is what you get"... and you won't like what you'll see.
This work is also (another) reminder to us all of the "March of the Lemming" in which Russia has been engaged for a very long time. From Tsarist time first and Bolshevik Russia immediately later and probably in Putin's Russia today. This demographic suicide is mesmerising and at the same time a massive warning of what "failed state" means in case the UN definition does not really satisfy you fully. Russia is not alone in this book of records. Nazi Germany of course, Mao's China, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Argentina, Pinochet's Chile, al-Bashi's Sudan are probably other examples, though not as well documented.
The "thin red line" that connects Gray's work is in fact (to me of course), the emerging evidence that mankind has never been in charge of their own fate and any attempt, the latest with science, and prior with religions, to ride the bitch have all miserably failed. Nevertheless, we keep trying to "control our future" as if it was a linear one. This total failure only makes us wonder what the next step will be and which consequences will we have to bear, if any: geo-engineering? genetic modification of crops and people (since they are the something in the end)?
So in conclusion, the book is definitely worth reading but you must have the stomach to take it 'cause Gray presents a reality which really hurts. I am dazzled by the success of "horror movies", especially among youngsters. There is a massive industry and effort by producers and writers in finding new stories of horror. They'd just have to open a John Grays' book to understand they are part of a greater movement to cheat death and the real "horror" lies in making a spectacle out of it.
It we take John Gray's lesson seriously it is clear we, for the most part, can only watch. And if we are really smart and quick, make a run for higher ground before the tsunami catches us. And still I find that John Gray is not a message of despair. Like another Brit, Richard Dawkins, Gray accept the benefit of the doubt about mankind and confront reality for what is might be and not only for what it is or seems to be.
on 27 December 2011
Gray writes, have so far that is. He thinks like me, only deeper and wiser and keeps it cooler than I was ever able. As for the book, it consists of 3 parts: the English spiritualists, the Russian revolutionary butchers, and kind of bitter-sweet reflection for closure. The parts are linked though.
I have lived under the soviets and thought that I knew most of it. Well, Gray certainly surprises. In fact, the details of the middle part (butchers) were so concrete and lively that I turned kind of depressive for a week or so. Well, he's a prophet of truth and the truth is depressive, and if something is pleasing etc, then it's a lie (it's almost a quote from the book).
Gray is one of the few I trust. I'm kind of addicted to his writings.
on 28 March 2011
This book itself is a strange quest. It brings together evidence of the interest in immortality on the part of a curious set of folk, ranging from the 'pioneers' of the Society for Psychical Research through HG Wells and Russian spies etc. Not so much a quest, as a wander.