REVIEW: The immortalization commission: Science and the strange quest to cheat death

Book by John Gray

The immortalization commission: Science and the strange quest to cheat deathIn the later 19th century, all sorts of people who thought of themselves as sophisticated moderns—and therefore irreligious—explored new and purportedly “scientific” routes to immortality. Gray, in his intriguing take on two of these explorations, examines the era’s mushrooming interest in spiritualism. One British group, which included Arthur Balfour, prime minister from 1902 to 1905, communicated with the dead via cross-correspondence, automatic writing dictated by deceased scientists (and loved ones) presumed to be still active on the other side. In one of their experiments, not made public for a century, the immortalists decided to conceive a messianic child—expected to somehow save our world—fathered by Balfour’s brother, Gerald, with a married woman.

Augustus Henry Coombe-Tennant, born in 1913, and bearing the name of his mother’s husband, was theoretically without imperfection. That’s because he was mysteriously “designed” fault-free from beyond the grave by another Balfour brother, Francis, a Cambridge biologist who had died in a mountain-climbing accident in 1882. Augustus, of course, never did save the world, but he did have an interesting life: after wartime military service, he joined MI6 (working alongside Kim Philby), converted to Catholicism while on spy duty in Iraq, became a monk in 1960 and died in his monastery 29 years later.

But if the Victorian spiritualists were, as Douglas Adams might have described them, mostly harmless, the same can’t be said for Gray’s other subject. The so-called God-builders believed mankind, freed from religious superstition and powered by science, would eventually conquer death. They were well represented in the 1920s Bolshevik regime in Russia, where they were as enthusiastic about slaughtering present humanity, in the name of a more perfect future, as their fellow revolutionaries. But the God-builders’ most noticeable historic trace can be seen in Lenin’s bizarre afterlife.

One of them, Leonid Krasin, convinced the Bolsheviks to preserve Lenin’s body after his 1924 death—with an eye to future resurrection. All the might of Soviet science couldn’t pull that off, but tender care has always been (and still is) applied to Lenin’s mortal remains. When the Germans advanced on Moscow in 1941, the corpse was evacuated before any living Muscovite. His clothes were changed every 18 months, and the body redressed in a new suit specially made by a KGB seamstress. And after a 2004 makeover, Gray sardonically notes, Lenin now looks younger than he has in decades.

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