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review: non-fiction

John Gray

"Each bullet hole is a portal to the immortal," American poet Frederick Seidel wrote. His quote appears at the opening of John Gray's new book, The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death. Another apt quote might have been this by Ernest Becker from his seminal 1974 The Denial of Death: "Of all things that move man, one of the principal ones is the terror of death."

It is this terror and humankind's attempts to transcend it that form the engrossing centre of The Immortalization Commission.

Gray's particular focus is the late-19th and early-20th centuries - the Victorian Age - when science, fresh from its ascendancy via Darwin, combined with the occult "in two revolts against death, each claiming that science could give humanity what religion and magic had promised - immortal life."

As in his other books - Straw Dogs, Black Mass, Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern, False Dawn - Gray's latest quest is to separate reality from delusion, and he achieves this brilliantly. You are never in doubt that the titillating puff piece of history presented in the opening pages - séances, crystal gazing and communications from mediums - will, through the course of the book, develop into something much deeper.

The astuteness of Gray's thinking, the connections he makes between a wide range of subjects - philosophy, theology, psychology, history, ethics, morality - and the clarity of his conclusions makes this book extremely satisfying. Many readers, though, believing in a God-inspired everlasting life, a New Age envelopment into white light or a technological resurrection through nanotechnology may be desperately disappointed in his thesis. Belief in an afterlife and the survival of the individual personality after death has been, after all, an enduring theme throughout millennia.

Gray's argument, though, is convincing. It is presented in three sections. The first, Cross-correspondences, tracks the question that preoccupied many thinkers during the Victorian era: Is death "the end for the conscious human individual?"

In a bid to answer this question, the Society for Psychical Research was founded in Britain in 1882. Many intellectual lights of the day were attracted to the movement: writers Tennyson and John Ruskin, philosopher William James, Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Charles Richet, prime ministers W.E. Gladstone and Arthur Balfour, and especially Frederick Myers, the inventor of the word "telepathy," and Trinity College professor Henry Sidgwick.

Attempting to prove that "postmortem minds were at work," psychical researchers practised automatic writing, hoping through correspondence from beyond the grave to show that even in a universe which, according to science, was without meaning, meaning could still be found "on the other side, in a world preserved from death but interacting with the living." Nobly, they also hoped to "intervene in history and deliver humanity from chaos."

Freud's work with the unconscious also fuelled their efforts, alongside hypnosis and Dadaist literary theory, but the results were disappointing. Personal grief among the practitioners seems to have been a prime research motive, and the quote from Emily Dickinson Gray uses as an epigraph - "Love can do all but raise the Dead" - provides a sad comment on their efforts.

The more deadly side of the psychical quest is outlined in the book's second section, God-making. Eugenics, the aim to rid the world of defective human beings, Gray tells us, also played a part in Spiritualist thinking, as did H.G. Wells's view that "an intelligent few - scientists, engineers, aviators, commissars - could seize control of evolution and lead the species to a better future (where) eventually humans would become like gods."

Throughout this section, which is set in Russia, Gray chronicles the influence psychical thinking had on dictators Lenin and Stalin, the rise of the Bolshevists and of the "God-builders," another movement in which "occultism and science marched hand in hand to give humans power over death." The results were horrifying, with estimates of between 20 million and 60 million people slaughtered or starved to death throughout Russia from 1917 to 1942.

Gray takes his title from the initiative - the Immortalization Commission - established to preserve Lenin's body in a glass sarcophagus after his death, the idea being to revive him at a later date when the technology to do so became available. The results were both absurd and macabre, a fitting metaphor for the entire immortality enterprise.

The ideas in the final section, Sweet Mortality, are perhaps the most profound, echoing many of the truths Gray outlined in Straw Dogs, namely, that our attempts to escape contingency and mystery are doomed to failure. "Contingency means," he writes, "that humans will always be subject to fate and chance, that they will always be surrounded by the unknowable."

Or, commenting on our enduring question about the meaning of life and death, we might consider the immortal words of Gertrude Stein: "There ain't no answer. There ain't gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer."

M.A.C. Farrant's The Strange Truth About Us, a novel of absence, will be published in the fall.

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