Allen Lane, £18.99, 273pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, By John Gray
The Soviet system was as indifferent to its subjects' self-esteem as it was inimical to their self-expression, but a bureaucratic regime did at least bring a touch of flattery to the identity cards it obliged them to carry. Photographed at a three-quarters angle while staring at a lamp that could have doubled as an anti-aircraft searchlight, every man looked a hero and every woman a beauty. While they grew haggard from the unnecessary privations of "building socialism", their idealised images resembled miniature visions of what people would be once communism had been perfected. The photos were like souvenirs of a day that would never come.
It was just a trick of the light, of course; a quirk of the Iron Curtain's preservative effect upon techniques long since superseded in the West. But at the heart of the empire, in Red Square, Lenin's waxy corpse affirmed that the Soviet system would indeed perfect the human condition. Stalin apparently calculated that an embalmed Lenin would impress the masses, steeped as they were in the Orthodox belief that saints' bodies were incorruptible.
The preservation efforts were certainly a matter of faith for Leonid Krasin, who called for the leader's tomb to outshine Mecca and Jerusalem. He looked forward to the day when bodies would be resurrected not by Christ but by science, and made unsuccessful efforts to preserve Lenin's body in a fit state for reanimation. The committee set up to plan the memorial was called the Immortalization Commission.
Among other things – engineer, terrorist, smuggler, counterfeiter, commissar – Krasin was a God-builder. He followed a school of thought that believed humans have the capacity, as the writer Maxim Gorky put it, "to perform miracles of justice and beauty". Although Lenin detested the God-builders, a number of them combined their faith with Bolshevism.
For John Gray, the counter-prophet who scorns all claims that humans can transcend the human condition, that was folly squared. On top of it there was the artist Kasimir Malevich, who saw the cubic form of Lenin's tomb as a symbol that the leader was "alive and eternal"; he proposed that Leninists should keep commemorative cubes in their homes.
Unholy mixtures of mysticism and rationalism like these are grist to Gray's mill. Before turning to the infernal Soviet labyrinth of savaged ideals and tortured loyalties that swallowed up mysticism and rationalism alike, he devotes the first section of his book to the high-minded fantasies of psychical research in Britain. These were a feverish response to the new terms of mortality that faced educated Victorians. Loved ones died as frequently as they always had, but now Darwin had drawn the curtain back and shown that no deity was needed to account for life and death. By the eve of the First World War, psychical researchers had convinced themselves that, on the other side, a team of deceased scientists was working to create a new saviour for humanity. "Science was used against science and became a channel for magic," Gray summarises.
That formula trades on a broader definition of science than scientists would generally accept, not just today but at the time. Certainly, a number of British scientists interested themselves in attempts to contact the dead. But they risked what in elite circles was known as "losing caste" - although several did go on to become presidents of the Royal Society.
Psychical research was indulged by science to some extent, but never accredited. In the Soviet Union, science itself was subject to Marxism's scientific pretensions and Stalin's political machinations. Promising the leadership what it wanted to hear about increasing crop yields, the agronomist Trofim Lysenko discredited genetics by using pseudo-science against science and as a channel for magic.
What isn't in doubt is that hopes that science could overcome death, one way or another, flourished both in the Soviet Union's early years and in the higher reaches of British society. One of the most eminent Britons who sought to communicate with the dead was Arthur Balfour, Conservative statesman and former Prime Minister, who sat with mediums trying to contact a woman he had known and who had died 40 years before. She, it was said, was his great lost love.
Gray doubts this, noting his long relationship with Mary, Lady Elcho, whose nature remains unclear but apparently included "sadomasochistic sex-play". Although he omits to elaborate – leaving the reader free to suppose that these games were of a subtlety and refinement appropriate to their players' lofty station – he is absorbed in the details of his characters' lives, desires and entanglements: their "cross-correspondences", to borrow the term used by psychical researchers for the connections they discerned between the scripts of "automatic writing" produced by mediums. The reader's appetite is whetted by retro-styled telegraphic chapter synopses – "George Eliot discourses on Duty at twilight in Trinity College garden" – and satiated by the rich textures of narrative produced by Gray's genuine interest in the personalities he explores.
A core strength of this engrossing book lies in his readiness to take absurd endeavours seriously and to consider morally complex individuals sympathetically. He treats them as people, not just as props for his arguments about the limits of science and the illusion of the self.
Indeed, he is far readier to pass summary judgement on science and human capabilities than upon a character such as Moura Budberg, companion of Gorky and HG Wells, a femme fatale who survived her coerced liaison with the Soviet secret police by killing her former self, as Gray puts it. His account depicts Wells plunged into crisis by the revelation of duplicity in his "Lover-Shadow", leading to an outpouring of morbidly pessimistic fiction in which human genius produces monsters. Gray himself relishes the idea that human vision is delusion, declaring the misanthropic principle that "the more pleasing any view of things is to the human mind, the less likely it is to reflect reality".
This may be enjoyed as poetic licence, along with the actual poetry (by Wallace Stevens and others) that deepens the narrative rather than merely decorating it – though the book's literary qualities are no excuse for the omission of an index. By turns polemical and elegiac, the final section combines overstatement, such as the claim that climate change is a problem that cannot be solved, with blunt opacity - "the final end of science is a revelation of the absurd". You don't have to agree with Gray to enjoy the fireworks.
Gray points out that modern prophets of immortalisation – notably Ray Kurzweil, who looks forward to the assimilation of minds into computers – are upholding the traditions of the God-builders and psychical researchers. He urges us to recognise that "the self we want to save from dying is itself dead", a lifeless image that we have made of ourselves. But that image is always a reluctant compromise with reality. Visions of immortality would have little power if they did not involve attaining an ideal state.
They would have less power than they do if people had more confidence in their own ability to make the real world a better place. Fortunately, their capacities are considerably greater than John Gray will admit.
Marek Kohn's 'Turned Out Nice' is published by Faber & Faber
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