20 April 2011

The Immortalization Commission

The title of John Gray's newest volume refers to the body of experts commissioned by the Soviet government to preserve Lenin's corpse. Gray makes perhaps too much of some extreme optimism about the prospects of eventually resurrecting the Soviet founder, but that allows him to attach his Bolshevik story to a short history of late Victorian spiritualism and present both as post-Darwinist follies in pursuit of life after death. In Gray's account, Darwin's narrative of natural selection made it impossible for many Victorians to take bible mythology and its promise of Heaven seriously. To compensate, they sought proof of the soul or mind's survival after physical death as a natural phenomenon. For Gray, this spiritualism was not a superstition but a pseudo-science, since organizations like the Society for Psychical Research aspired to an objective standard of empiricism rather than appealing to faith. For his spiritualists, the stakes were high, since many feared that life could have no meaning, and people would have no motive to better themselves, if they could not believe that their selves were both eternal and perfectible. The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, approached their "god-building" work in more antinomian fashion. While allegedly striving to conquer nature and make man immortal in the process, they considered themselves unconstrained by conventional morality and positively entitled to kill anyone who did or might stand in their way.

Gray's Russian section is the weaker of the two, since he quickly exhausts the immortalization theme and resorts to a familiar catalogue of atrocities to fill pages. The Soviet material is also of questionable relevance to Gray's concluding chapter, which is a jeremiad against "progressive" thinking along the lines of recent work like Black Mass, his critique of militant atheism. Gray is a philosophical but not an ideological conservative. He claims that a true understanding of Darwin would lead us to abandon any utopian aspirations or hope for perfection in this life or another. For Gray, the key point of Darwinism is that natural selection is random, not progressive. Despite popular misunderstandings, evolution isn't automatically improvement, and Darwin gives us no reason to assume that humans will steadily grow "better" by any measurement. There's even less reason to believe that we'll ascend to a "higher" plane of existence when we'll die. We could well enter another plane, Gray allows, but there's no guarantee that it'll be a "higher" plane or that we'll be better off there. There's not even any real guarantee that what we think of as the afterlife would be the final stage of our spiritual development if we even reached a second stage. The universe is simply too chaotic for progress to be certain or even likely.

Gray is a long-term pessimist, but he believes that progress is possible, if perfection isn't. While skeptical towards science's claim to reveal universal laws, he remains a strong believer in the scientific method, which he considers antithetical to science's law-giving temptation. He clearly believes that some of the world's ills can be alleviated, but his anti-utopian attitude leaves a reader wondering what would motivate anyone to attempt to alleviate the lot of others. Assuming that the world can't be perfected doesn't give us much of a guide for determining how much we ought to try to do to improve it. Since the most Gray can recommend to us is that "we might live more calmly, and more pleasantly" in the present rather than constantly looking toward saving ourselves in the future, he doesn't seem to leave us much room for forward thinking. His problem may be that he identifies forward thinking with selfishness. His assumption seems to be that we're concerned with the future because we don't want to die, and he'd like us to understand that "the self we want to save from dying is itself dead." He means that we want to preserve an unchanging self when we should instead accept the reality of perpetual change, including death. In that, he resembles those ideologues who, while always denouncing an alleged "culture of death," urge us to embrace and appreciate our mortality. Gray's idea of immortality is dystopian, a vision of inevitable stagnation and indolence. That view is based on questionable assumptions, and it seems unduly judgmental toward speculative immortals who'd have no obligation to entertain or stimulate them with meaningful activity. But his desire for meaningful existence ultimately comes up against his pessimism. He appears to believe that only mortality can motivate meaningful activity, but how motivated can we be to do anything meaningful if Gray himself has convinced us that all human endeavors are futile? The answer should have occurred to him during his defense of religion from its literal-minded militant atheist enemies. Repeating his argument from Black Mass, Gray explains that religion and myth aren't theories of natural history but mechanisms for coping with the tragedy of life that will always be useful to man. Conceding his point for the sake of argument, it follows that belief in the perfectibility of the world and mankind is another such coping mechanism that arguably has more real benefit than the myths of millennia past. If so, then Gray has no more business bursting the progressive or utopian bubble than he'd grant to anyone attempting to extinguish religious faith. If we must make up stories to make life meaningful, then the story of progress and perfection seems like one still worth telling.

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