All this is meant to illustrate the difficulties a largely protestant society had coming to terms with the accelerating scientific revolution and the devastating implications of darwinian thought, but is excruciatingly lumpen and inadequate to the task. The second chapter eschews any adherence to the central thesis of the book in lieu of Page after page of regurgitated facts about the horror of the soviet Union. The details are excoriating, but widely covered elsewhere, and are repeated here without any real attempt to frame them within the critique of the modes of thought that he takes issue with.
The third chapter takes the concept of progress more firmly in its sights, specifically with the modern belief in science as a conduit for progress. Whilst this is the most substantive chapter of the book in terms of critique of ideology, it is also the shortest, less than a third of the length of the other chapters, and also attempts a summing up and synthesis of the previous chapters, and a conclusion and send off.
Therefore the more weighty questions and attempt to find their historical origins, logical implications, and intellectual flaws and perhaps a better alternative system are given over to very few pages of text. More than anything it seems that Gray had been reading a bunch of books about the occult in victorian England, a bunch of books about soviet atrocities, and wrote an essay about each which tried to shoehorn his standard reproachment of the idea of progression and it's various manifestations.
Book Review - The Immortalization Commission - By John Gray - The New York Times
Each of these essays could well have been extended to a whole book, but as it is they remain self-serving rehashes of Gary's old and repeating material against a paltry background of poorly painted character sketches and shallow historical investigation. Mar 09, Stephen Hull rated it it was ok. This is a puzzling book. The title and particularly the subtitle feels like an attempt after the fact to impose some sort of theme on what is a rather arbitrary set of pieces.
The Immortalization Commission, by John Gray
At the same time it was a very enjoyable book which I'm glad I read, it being very well written and not overly long. The book starts by looking at the psychic researchers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and, as well as providing portraits of some quite interesting and curious people, gives a fascinating perspect This is a puzzling book. The book starts by looking at the psychic researchers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and, as well as providing portraits of some quite interesting and curious people, gives a fascinating perspective on their work: in particular, the idea that their work wasn't rejecting science but quite the opposite, based on a firm belief that science was the way to establish the truth of existence beyond the grave.
He unfortunatly assumes that the reader already has a good understanding of automatic writing and could perhaps be a bit more detailed when he explains the theory of cross-correspondences, but these are minor quibbles. So far, so good. Then, in the next section he seems to start an entirely different book.
He tells the story of Moura, the mistress of H. Wells, in particular her struggles for survival in Bolshevik Russia and the allure she had for Wells and others. The only connection that this has to the subtitle is that death is something she came close to but managed to evade on several occasions. He goes on to look at Wells and Maxim Gorky, another of Moura's conquests though perhaps not sexually and someone whom the author classifies as a God-builder, one of the Soviet intellectuals of that period whose philosophy of existence mixed occultism and science, although this feels more like a footnote to the chapter rather than its theme.
The author then looks more closely at the eary Soviet era, focusing on the government-imposed terrorism, the murder of literally millions in the cause of establishing the state. It briefly looks at the story behind the embalming of Lenin, and here he seems to return to what is supposed to be the theme of the book. In this case, the cheating of death refers to the firm belief that at some point Lenin could be brought back to life if his body were sufficiently well preserved.
Ths book is then concluded with a brief chapter which, once you get past the beautifully crafted prose, feels like little more than a rant against science, and not a terribly well-informed one. He sets up scentific straw men which he then knocks down. In particular, he attacks scientists' belief that they can discover the laws which govern the entire universe. The problem with this for me is that I don't personally know any scientist who actually believe this.
He also and to be fair I am simplifying here suggests that the belief that there are patterns ot the universe is equivalent to theism, so for science to deny the existence of God is absurd. He finally concludes the book with some reflections on how our entire existence is built upon our relationship to death.
While this is perhaps not terribly new, it is nonetheless beautifully presented. And that's for me the key thing about this book. I may be puzzled at why it contains what it does and I may be a bit exasperated at the author's various soapboxes, but I nevertheless enjoyed reading it a lot -- and that's far more important than anything else as far as I'm concerned. Nov 30, Richard rated it liked it Recommends it for:? I enjoyed reading this book, especially the second half which focused on the Russian Communist attempt to immortalize man in the body of Lenin.
Maxim Gorky played the role of the immortality hunters of the first part of the book, the English atheists who looked for "proof" of the continuance of personality after death. Some, like Henry Sidgwick, the great ethicist, believed that morality would collapse were there no afterlife. I kept thinking of Hume who had a strong feeling that religion served I enjoyed reading this book, especially the second half which focused on the Russian Communist attempt to immortalize man in the body of Lenin. I kept thinking of Hume who had a strong feeling that religion served a necessary purpose, keeping most people in line through fear.
Recent developments suggest that Sidgwick, Frederic W. Myers, and Hume were wise to be concerned. Gray makes much of the materialistic basis of the Russian Communist interest in "immortality," but, of course, the Western establishment of Capitalism as the basic "religion" has created a similar situation in which morality collapses into egotism and greed, the Sermon on the Mount into "consumer satisfaction.
This book certainly suggests the truth of this observation. I did enjoy reading this as Mr Gray offers significant detail, especially in 20th-century history. He raised my estimation of H. Wells considerably, and I'll be off to the library to sample his work beyond the inescapable War of the Worlds. It feels like he had a subject, but then not enough data to cover that subject so spread it really thin.
This is a shame, as I think there are other areas that could have been brought into scope for the book, if examples were taken from the 20th century as a whole and not just the late Victorian and early 20th. Interesting passages about dead Lenin were balanced by annoying historical trivia. Not five stars since the first chapter gets too much biographical in nature. Otherwise fantastic , like all Gray reads - the biggest thinker of the 21st century.
Feb 27, Larry Koester rated it really liked it.
Difficult to know what to say about this book. Interesting if you have thought about the subject. Makes some good points. But leaves me flare. Dec 17, Dan rated it liked it Shelves: nonfiction , science , philosophy. In this book, John Gray gives the full attention to the ultimate standard of Progress: cheating death.
For the initiated, there are few new ideas here, but fans of Gray's work may still find passages that reward their time. The book is cut into three distinct but related sections. Of the three, the last section is by far the shortest, but the nearest to my expectations. I'd been interested in the John Gray perspective on Ray Kurzweil, whose his ilk and ideology seem to me indicative of the times. There was little explicit examination of that but what there was was articulate and thought provoking, especially in the context of the main portions of the book.
The first section is on Victorian period elites seeking knowledge of the afterlife by a bizarre interweaving of occult rituals via pseudoscience and psychology. Having only read Heresies, which compiles articles written for The New Statesman, I found Gray's writing more elegant here than before. His biographical renderings of F. Myers, Henry Sidgwick and Arthur Balfour were usually interesting, if not exactly riveting.
They did serve to provide a human dimension to all of the idealizing about life, death and afterlife. That the occult was popular with many Victorians is common knowledge now. Their methods were almost comical, of course, but at times their earnestness was heart breaking. I found myself having more sympathy for them the stranger and more desperate their quest became. Gray examines their ideas and their mission articulately and respectfully, never dismissing them out of hand simply because they were silly or unconventional.
What comes clear is that, behind all the seances and automatic writing there is a human longing quite universal and not at all abstruse. The second section explores similar themes of conquering death through technology and a bastardized science-as-religion in Communist Russia. I found it less interesting, and often digressive. The Stalinist mission of "progress" at all costs certainly holds relevant lessons for Gray's topic here, but the biographical bits about H.
Wells and especially Moura Budberg seemed overdrawn and largely irrelevant despite their being interesting characters. The meander through the perils of living in Russia during this period seemed unjustified, given that it's all been explored so much more thoroughly in many, many other books.
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Perhaps the ideology that Gray discusses here has it's most extreme historical example in this period, but there were many other factors involved in these atrocities that he can hardly explore here. I got the feeling he lingered on certain bits here just to give the book a little more meat. The last section was a short but superb conclusion in which Gray gives his own ideas center stage. I have my particular bones of contention with his philosophy, but this is hardly the place to get into that. One never agrees entirely with any writer, and it's usually beneficial to be at odds on at least a few things.
The two previous stories present humanity desperately seeking certainty and control, loathe to tolerate long any conditions that undermine the feelings of either. Should those Victorian characters seem distant from the 21st century, Gray reminds us that the same messianic view of technology is alive and well today in many new forms.
The methods may have changed, but the mission bears frightening resemblance to the justifications that spawned the follies and horrors of the past. In the quest for absolute control over nature and fate, the human race has proven itself capable terrors our ancestors would never have imagined. Gray also makes the excellent point, so often ignored or downplayed by the new atheists, that science and progress have been just as guilty of engendering these terrors as religion ever was.
Perhaps more so, when one considers that the greatest calamities of the twentieth century which also happen to be the greatest in recorded history happened at the hands of progressive regimes. I've often felt that if our progress in the sciences demonstrates one thing for sure, it's the ultimate ignorance and finitude of human beings. Every new truth discovered undermines a previous one, and yet we remain so sure of ourselves. Contradiction and even ignorance are nothing to be ashamed of, once you recognize how unavoidable they are.
In fact, the recognition of it allows for humility, and the retention of a sense of mystery and curiosity. The last portion of this book quotes from several poems, which are complimented by Gray's own occasionally eloquent prose. It reminds us that, as much as death may make life appear absurd at times, life without death would be at least as absurd. In a way, it's the ending that grants our lives with so much of their beauty and their novelty. Here, Gray says it better than I - "Without seasons nothing ripens and drops to the ground, the leaves never change their colors nor the sky its vacant blue.
Nothing dies, so nothing is born. Apr 22, Mangoo rated it liked it. This could synthesize this book by against-the-grain philosopher John Gray. Staying human means first understanding the reach and richness of human existence in its complicated and convoluted unfoldings, and at the same time remaining humbly attached to human nature in front of uncontrolled and easily addictive exercises of indulgence, excess and hubrys.
It takes an entire lifetime in the best case to understand how to leave fully the single-shot instance we are eventually gi "Let's stay human". It takes an entire lifetime in the best case to understand how to leave fully the single-shot instance we are eventually given, and the distractions along the uniquely contingential path of each human experience are manifold.
Here Gray is attracted by that unseemingly perverse and dangerously alluring such fascination that is immortality, which stands for the ultimate attempt to cancel the role of chance, disorder and contingency path dependence physicists would say in one's life by overcompensating with an endless possibility of resetting, retrying, procrastinating and skipping any possibility ever happened or imaginable. Immortality has to do with infinity -- in fact, it is a division by infinity of any activity, which ends up counting for zero relative value in any case.
Gray openly elaborates his negative view of immortality only in the third and final part of the book, which takes start from the hyped Singularity prophesized or advertised mostly by Ray mond Kurzweil, currently engaged with Google to make his own obsession with immortality turn into an escapable reality for everyone.
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Gray takes two thirds of the book in its previous two parts to introduce the reader to some of the subterranean esoteric streams that have underlined the previous two centuries ultimately in the same quest. Gray does not go as far as trace this subliminally cogent drive to its egyptian antecedents -- he is content with bringing forward a substantial amount of carefully documented evidence on the personal businesses of eminent personalities that drew inspiration from the hidden quest to be able to bear their own often miserable life. The first part of the book concentrates mostly on the automatic writing and cross correspondences experienced in England at the end of the nineteenth century.
The second centers on the esoteric nature of Bolshevism, which will surprisingly remind some readers of a very similar character found in Nazism, which in turn Gray does not address here much to anyone's pity. In the Bolshevic mass killing of its own citizens converged a naive inspiration from Darwin's rather Spencer's?
Gray's accounts of the ease with which Lenin and Stalin above many others just accepted or even fostered the mass erasure of their population in view of the future birth of a new and superior race is shocking. Yet the climax of the book is indeed reached when the words of Kurzweil are quoted to show how close they resemble in style, inspiration, content and outlook to the equivalent attributed to Sigdwick, Wells, Gorky and others. To Gray the thread really looks the same, and it is the use of science to overcompensate and finally reach where religion failed.
Yet Gray indulges too much and too often into biographical details along the way, to the point that the main thread is put aside for so long at times that the reader can think the author has some other goal in mind pro tempore. His tone is constantly objective if comprehensive, yet he shows his best in the final unleash of his own judgments in defense of humanity.
The book is divided into three parts. An Edwardian romp documenting an esoteric search for evidence of an afterlife by way of communicating with the dead using something called "automatic writing". Probably automatic writing is more likely evidence of the subconscious at work or a split-mind writing activity, if it was not in actual fact a fraud perpetrated on the gullible survivors of lost loves and untimely death. The search for evidence of life after death was certainly a folly, especially if The book is divided into three parts. The search for evidence of life after death was certainly a folly, especially if you imagined you could get some cryptic messages, written by some Medium on behalf of the dead, to be proof.
Subjective and wishful bias should have ended the project from the get go, but dreams of evidence for an afterlife are powerful draws to those caught between science and religion. A false dichotomy discussed later in the book. But there you have it, this was not an attempt to cheat death, but to "scientifically" prove death is not the end.
This first part is an exceptionally detailed account of the "minds and times" that brought forth this doomed project. I found this part of the book tough going, perhaps because many of the characters are better known to the English, although I know Americans were as much devoted to the idea of communicating with the dearly departed. You can probably rush through the gossipy bits, with tedious details and endless accounts, that I don't think advanced the arguments John Gray is documenting in "The Immortaliztion Commission". The book picked up steam for me in part 2, with an account of a Soviet project to cheat death, by preserving the body of Lenin.
This is actually the backdrop to a larger story about communism's attempt to reform humans into Demi-gods, and the results of thinking the ends justify the means The best part of this book is the ending 3rd part, where Gray argues that humanity's quest to be divorced from the forces of nature, that all animals encounter, including the recent efforts of science's attempts to cheat death and to make our individual consciousness immortal in cyberspace, are equally dubious ventures.
The rewards of the 3rd section are well worth some slower parts. Full of fascinating characters you know and many you may have never have heard of, this is a fantastic book, poetic at times, that shakes the tree of knowledge in science, religion and occultism, with plenty of rotten fruit falling to the ground.
Embracing the reality of a final end, both to humankind and with each individual's death, John Gray returns to what we all struggle with, accepting we only have now.
This is an interesting read that straddles the line between history, biographies and philosophy. John Gray is notorious for his writings on 'the myth of progress', and the cruelty and idiocy arising from humanity's belief that we are exceptional. The final chapter is an overview of contemporary examples, from This is an interesting read that straddles the line between history, biographies and philosophy.
The final chapter is an overview of contemporary examples, from the Singularity to Intelligent Design, all of which he rubbishes. Claiming a common desire in all these projects and ideologies of 'transcending death' and 'becoming divine', Grey's ideas are as pessimistic as I was expecting, revelling in the futility and hideous cruelty of his subjects. There are points where this through-line becomes weak, though.
At times Grey meanders off into Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-style linking of historical figures through affairs and acquaintances it's only a short hop from Maxim Gorky to Aleister Crowley , only to sum up with the equivalent of "So this person was misguided and cruel, too". Similarly, the excruciating details of Stalin's Terror seem to veer further and further away from the book's theme. And there is the odd passing assertion that made me stop in my tracks - claiming for instance that "belief in the free market" is a dead ideology.
Overall, while problematic in spots, it was an interesting read, though of more value to me as a catalogue of historical figures and their neuroses than as a grander statement about humanity. Jan 05, Philip rated it it was amazing. One of the strangest books I've read in a long time, and one of the most intriguing.
From Bolshevik crucifixions to Darwin's attendance at a seance, there's a bit of everything here. It's basically an extended meditation on mortality. The first half is rooted in late Victorian England and a group of well-educated upper class folks who engaged in more than a decade of automatic writing experiments to prove that consciousness transcended death. This was a desperate response to Darwin, whose theory One of the strangest books I've read in a long time, and one of the most intriguing.
This was a desperate response to Darwin, whose theory of evolution, they feared, threatened to destroy the meaning of existence. The second half of the book looks at the Russian revolution and what Gray argues were the occult or 'religious' motivations of that bloody effort to make gods out of men. The Immortalization Commission was the name given to the committee established to create Lenin's tomb, and those who went to such great lengths to embalm and preserve the corpse.
Nov 06, Sam Eccleston rated it really liked it. This is a very interesting look at secular attempts to achieve immortality. Gray's analysis is penetrating, unmasking in the last chapter the pretensions of secular ideologies to an un-adulterated basis in rationality and facticity. His conclusion is, perhaps refreshingly, un-waveringly pessimistic, and one is left with a sense of the honesty and consistency of his approach to critical thought.
His exploration of the historical and philosophical subject matter is fascinating and his prose is com This is a very interesting look at secular attempts to achieve immortality. His exploration of the historical and philosophical subject matter is fascinating and his prose is compelling, but I am sometimes left with the feeling that his exploration of the topic could have been much more rigorous and detailed without losing any of the appeal of the text, and that he occasionally dismisses ideas he doesn't endorse too easily, or propounds what is actually a rather controversial historical opinion as if it were the object of consensus.
Nevertheless, this is a fascinating read. Unlike other books since his Straw Dogs , this isn't a variation on the same theme utopianism, myth of progress, etc. Frankly, I wasn't all that interested in Myer, Sidgwick, Balfour, and others in the Spiritualism movement during the Victorian age it might have to do with the age and location , and though I was more in It's All right-- For John Gray's work, I thought it was just OK. Frankly, I wasn't all that interested in Myer, Sidgwick, Balfour, and others in the Spiritualism movement during the Victorian age it might have to do with the age and location , and though I was more interested in the Soviet Russian side of the story, it wasn't covered as much in detail as the first.
Probably not the best place to begin reading John Gray's work. Jul 26, H Wesselius rated it really liked it. An other great book by John Gray. Looking at two supposedly rational attempts to escape he reaches the conclusion that it was the quest to find extraordinary meaning and to retain individuality past death which motivated the individuals. The quest to cheat death is an eschatological movement within science and the application of reason. For him, there's no need for any of this, we should live as if this was are only life. The only negative to express about this book was it didn't measure to the An other great book by John Gray.
The only negative to express about this book was it didn't measure to the high standard he set in Black Mass. Jan 27, Zoe rated it it was amazing. A really great book about the human quest for immortality and why it is so absurd. I loved the mixture of politics, philosophy and history, focusing on the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe, the United States, and Russia.
Like his master Isaiah Berlin, he has always thought of the modern world as living off the divided inheritance of the Enlightenment: on the one hand a healthy scepticism about myth, tradition, sentiment and superstition, and on the other a dangerous optimism about the chances of reorganising the world along perfectly rational lines.
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All of Gray's political positions flow from his suspicion of neat-and-tidy utopias, and his conviction that only an acceptance of contingency, impermanence and compromise can save us from the politics of well-intentioned murder. About ten years ago his thoughts turned to metaphysics. Charles Darwin replaced Berlin as hero-in-chief, and Gray became fascinated by the idea that human history as a whole is no more than an accidental smudge on the surface of an undistinguished planet hurtling towards oblivion.
He was not the only one to take such a turn around that time; but most of his fellow Darwinians - Christopher Hitchens, for example - believed that once the human race freed itself from religion it would be able to take control of its destiny at last. Not so Gray; for him, Darwinism had dealt a fatal blow to "humanism", or the idea that the human race, unlike everything else in the natural world, is capable of self-fashioning and self-redemption.
In Straw Dogs and Black Mass, he argued that humanism is just a continuation of religion by other means, an attempt to smuggle afanatical belief in transcendent salvation past the controls of natural science. We will never get rid of God, as Nietzsche realised long ago, until we get rid of human exceptionalism. In The Immortalisation Commission, Gray continues his assault on humanist optimism by investigating two attempts to salvage a hope of immortality from the devastation wreaked by Darwin.
The second half exposes similar follies in tsarist Russia, and then suggests that they were recycled as articles of technological faith in the Soviet Union. Desperate attempts to preserve Lenin's body after his death in were, as Gray sees it, part of the same daffy quest for eternal life. But, as always with Gray, high hopes turn out to pave the way to tyranny, and soon we are observing the British Leninophile H G Wells offering a defence of the Stalinist state for killing its citizens only "for a reason and for an end".
Judging by Gray's method of reasoning, Soviet policies of extermination were only the other face of the proposed immortalisation of Lenin: "It was the same enchantment with technology," he argues, "that produced the Soviet death machine. Its range is admirably wide, but The Immortalisation Commission reads like a book with attention deficit disorder. Gray's scattergun will not persuade many of us that state-sponsored murder, which he regards as a "genuine Marxist attitude", can be reduced to an attempt to evade the "true lessons of Darwinism".