The Immortalization COmmission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death John Gray

Allen Lane, pp.273, 18.99

This book reads like an interesting after- dinner conversation between intelligent friends. That said, it is a rambling conversation, and although it is extremely entertaining, it does not add up to much.

Its ostensible subjects are two instances of scientific intelligence being brought to bear on the possibility of defying, or surviving, death. In the first case, John Gray investigates those, such as Freddie Myers and Henry Sidgwick, who formed the Society for Psychical Research. In the second instance, Gray tells again the bizarre story of the cult of Lenin, and Leonid Krasin’s belief that, if Lenin’s body could be kept in a state of cryonic suspension, there might dawn a glad day in which Comrade Lenin could return to life.

In both cases, Gray writes, as always, with great brio and wit. And along the way, he rambles round many interesting historical byways, investigating the emotional lives of figures as various as Arthur Balfour, H.G.Wells and the diplomat- journalist-spy Robert Bruce Lockhart. (Lockhart, Wells and others were madly in love with Nick Clegg’s voluptuous great-great-aunt Moura, who was ‘planted’ on both men by the Cheka) .

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Gray seems so obsessed by the emotional lives of the characters he observes that the supposed central theme — human beings attempting to come to terms with mortality — gets blurred in a welter of tittle-tattle. In the case of the harmless intellectuals who formed the Society for Psychical Research, I found this approach something of a distraction. Poor old Henry Sidgwick, for example, is held up to us as a ‘hypocrite’ for failing to face up to his supposed homosexuality. But does there exist a scintilla of evidence that Sidgwick was in fact homosexually inclined, still less a practising gay? Arthur Balfour received innumerable letters, supposedly spirit-written by a young woman called Annie Marshall, to whom he had been somewhat loosely engaged, and who committed suicide. Gray somehow contrives to make us think that Balfour was a bit too sexless for this girl, and that his ‘devotion’ to her was an affection or a front.

Surely, whatever the truth of this judgment, the central matter here is whether or not we consider Myers, Balfour, Sidgwick, William James and the other Psychical Researchers honest and intelligent men? Balfour was by any standards one of the cleverest men ever to hold the office of Prime Minister. He was cautiously sceptical about the letters written to him from the Other Side by Annie. Some members of the SPR were religious, as Balfour was, some, like Myers and Sidgwick, were doubters. The point of their investigations was to see whether there existed any scientific evidence for such paranormal phenomena as spirit-writing, telepathy and other manifestations of the Other Side. On the whole, having collected an enormous amount of evidence, they remained agnostic, though many of them believed in telepathy.

Gray appears to make very little distinction between Sidgwick and pals asking legitimate questions, and the hierophants at the shrine of Lenin, who promoted and believed in pseudoscience for quasi- religious reasons. The chapter about the Russian death-defiers, like the chapter about the Psychical Researchers, is overwhelmed with gossip about the sexual life of Clegg’s auntie and others.

The reader senses Gray trying to make the material stretch, and hoping that even those who cannot sustain an interest in metaphysics for more than a few pages will be diverted by (admittedly fascinating) personal detail: our last glimpse of Clegg’s aunt Moura is of a swollen old lady in reduced circumstances in London, swigging from a half-bottle of vodka in front of her favourite TV programme, Pinky and Perky.

A final chapter is in effect a secular sermon, telling readers that they should come to accept their mortality, and to abandon either the scientific utopianism of an earlier age, or the attempt to cheat ageing by low-calorie diets. Immortality is seen as a ‘dream’ from which the human race should learn to liberate itself. ‘What could be more deadly than being unable to die?’

The late Hugh Montefiore wrote a book with the uninviting title The Paranormal: A Bishop Investigates. It raises all sorts of scientific and empirical questions about such paranormal experiences as poltergeists, visions of one’s own death or that of others moments before it occurs, out-of-body experiences, reincarnation and telepathy. Montefiore’s book is less elegant than Gray’s but it raises more interesting questions. This is because Montefiore approached the subject with an open mind, whereas Gray makes it clear from page one that it is deluded even to ask those questions that interested not only crackpots but all the greatest minds of European civilisation.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book reviews, Death, History, Non-fiction, Science