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on 22 February 2011
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
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on 28 January 2011
This is a fascinating extended essay on the nature of religion, science and death.

Gray takes as his starting point the publication of Darwin's 'The Origin of Species'. It is perhaps difficult now, even with the continuing furore in some quarters over the theory of evolution, to really comprehend the enormous impact that this had on Victorian society. Darwin situated human beings firmly in the animal kingdom. And animals die. They do not have immortal souls. As Gray says in the Foreword:

'Science had disclosed a world in which humans were no different from other animals in facing final oblivion when they died and eventual extinction as a species. That was the message of Darwinism, not fully accepted even by Darwin himself. For nearly everyone it was an intolerable vision, and since most had given up religion they turned to science for escape from the world that science had revealed.' (P 1)

Gray follows the results of this huge and probably final displacement of humanity from the centre of creation in two closely linked but radically different situations.

The first section, entitled 'Cross Correspondences', looks at how many in the English upper and upper-middle classes resorted to trying to develop psychic research in order to find a way of subverting or avoiding the conclusions forced on them by evolution theory.

In the second section, 'The God Builders', he looks at the more material (and murderous) attempts at transcending base humanity utilised in Lenin's and Stalin's Russia. He also draws fascinating links between these two apparently disparate approaches.

In the third and final section of the book, 'Sweet Mortality', Gray brings the threads together and considers current attempts to transcend our inevitable biological and evolutionary demise. He looks at both cryonics - the hope that deep frozen bodies may be revived at a later date once science has reached a sufficiently sophisticated level, and at Kurzweill's ideas of 'The Singularity', where computing power becomes so huge that humans may transcend their mortal bodies and live eternally in virtual worlds and virtual bodies.

However, this is not simply a book about a 'quest for immortality'. Gray uses the conflicting ideas and approaches as the basis for a critique of science itself. As he says in the Foreword:

'...it was the rejection of rationalism that gave birth to scientific enquiry. Ancient and medieval thinkers believed the world could be understood by applying first principles. Modern science begins when observation and experiment come first, and the results are accepted even when what they show seems to be impossible. In what might seem a paradox, scientific empiricism - reliance on actual experience rather than supposedly rational principles - has very often gone with an interest in magic.' (P 6)

The sections are filled with the biographical details of the main protagonists - and a fascinating (if unsavoury) bunch they were. The first section looks, in particular, at the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Using mediums, automatic writing and so on, he relates how various attempts were made by the researchers to establish 'cross-correspondences'. Briefly, members of the SPR promised to attempt to communicate after they had died. These communications would be cross-referenced to try to 'prove' their validity.

However, Gray doesn't simply stop there - he attempts to unravel what the members of the SPR considered the afterlife might consist of. Not simply a 'heaven', would the afterlife be a dissolution of the individual into a 'god-mind', a universal whole, or would there still be individual consciousnesses and, if so, would these consciousnesses be the same as their previously living counterparts or would they in some way be better, more 'perfect'? In trying to answer these questions, Gray narrates, in some detail, the associations, friendships, affairs and lives of members of this English elite, from Arthur Balfour, H G Wells, Frederic Myers, Bruce Lockhart and Russian emigres such as the amazing Moura Budberg.

Moura Budberg also features heavily in the second section of the book. Russia certainly had its fair share of psychical researchers and spiritual thinkers as, along with Budberg, characters such as Gurdjieff and Ouspensky make appearances. But the main thrust of this part of the book is a consideration of how the Bolsheviks attempted to recreate humanity, to go beyond what they saw as the degenerate peasantry to create a New Man. Of course, the way to do this was to slaughter millions, pitilessly, remorselessly, but the aim was to transcend evolution in a thoroughly Modernist sense.

Again, there are detailed histories of several of the individuals involved - Lenin, Stalin, Gorky and many others. And there are many links between these people and their SPR counterparts in the West - H G Wells being the most obvious example. The title of the book also comes from this section - 'The Immortalization Commission' was the body set up to decide on how best to bring Lenin back to life or, failing that, how best to preserve him.

The final and shortest section of the book takes the themes developed previously and shows how they are still alive and well today - in the attempts at physical immortality through cryonics or a less material life in virtual realities. But more interesting than that, the section also includes Gray's thoughts on the relations between religion and science, implicit in the previous sections. For example:

'Enemies of religion think of it as an intellectual error, which humanity will eventually grow out of. It is hard to square this view with Darwin's science - why should religion be practically universal, if it has no evolutionary value? But as the evangelical zeal of contemporary atheists shows, it is not science that is at issue here. No form of human behaviour is more religious than the attempt to convert the world to unbelief, and none is more irrational, for belief has no particular importance in either science or religion.' (P 224)

Finally, Gray suggests:

'Science is like religion, an effort at transcendence that ends by accepting a world that is beyond understanding. All our enquiries come to rest in groundless facts. Just like faith, reason must at last submit; the final end of science is a revelation of the absurd.' (P 227)

There is so much more to this book that I have not been able to cover. I admit I found the biographical details a bit lengthy, but they serve a purpose. The final section, though, apart from providing a really interesting view of the relationship between religion and science, is also almost poetic and quite beautiful. It has made me reassess quite a few of my beliefs and assumptions.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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on 17 November 2011
Sorry to rain on anyone`s parade but a scholarly book on the Russian search for physical immortality which fails to include and discuss N F Fedorov deserves to be pulped.

Who is Fedorov I hear you ask? Gray should have answered that question in his book. But you could read Elif Batuman The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them or Berdayev, or best of all Fedorov himself. What Was Man Created for?
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