January 8, 2011
How do we deal with a purposeless universe and the finality of death? From Victorian séances to the embalming of Lenin's corpse to schemes for uploading our minds into cyberspace, there have have been numerous attempts to deny man's mortality. Why can't we accept the limits of science?
The séance that Charles Darwin attended in January 1874 at the house of his brother Erasmus brought the pioneering biologist together with Francis Galton, eugenicist and one of the founders of modern psychology, and the novelist George Eliot. All three were anxious that the rise of spiritualism would block the advance of scientific materialism. They were unimpressed with what they witnessed – Darwin found the experience "hot and tiring" and left before sparks were seen and rapping heard – but they would have been seriously concerned had they known the future career of a fourth participant in the séance, the classical scholar and psychologist FWH Myers.
The inventor of the word "telepathy" and the writer who first introduced the work of Freud into Britain, Frederic Myers went on to become one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research. Supported by some of the leading figures of the day, including the Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgwick and Arthur Balfour, president of the society and later prime minister, the psychical researchers believed human immortality might prove to be a scientifically demonstrable fact.
Their quest for an afterlife was partly driven by revulsion against materialism. Science had revealed a world in which humans were no different from other animals in facing oblivion when they died and eventual extinction as a species. For nearly everyone the vision was intolerable. Not fully accepted by Darwin himself, it led the biologist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace – acknowledged by Darwin as the co-discoverer of natural selection – to become a convert to spiritualism. Wallace insisted he did not reject scientific method. Like Sidgwick and Myers, he was convinced science could show the materialist view of the world to be mistaken.
Very often these Victorian seekers also had other, more personal motives. Members of an elite that protected itself from scrutiny by keeping to a code of secrecy, leading psychical researchers used their investigations to reveal, and then again conceal, aspects of their lives that they or their culture could not or would not accept. For Myers the search for evidence of survival became a passion when a married woman for whom he had formed a deep attachment committed suicide, leading him to spend the remainder of his life trying to contact her through mediums. Sidgwick spent decades earnestly searching for proof of life after death because without this evidence, he believed, there is no reason for living a moral life. If the visible world is the only reality, he wrote at the end of Methods of Ethics (1874), morality is "reduced to chaos". He excised this passage from subsequent editions of the book, but never altered his view. Sidgwick feared the finality of death because it left no reason to restrain one's desires – a thought he must have found extremely troubling, since he seems to have spent much of his life suppressing a part of his sexuality.
Balfour was celebrated for his aloof detachment. Yet through his brother Gerald, a former Conservative minister who gave up politics to study the paranormal, the former prime minister entered into what purported to be a correspondence with a long-dead woman, whom many believed he had once loved. Balfour's ostensible correspondent communicated by automatic writing – texts produced without conscious awareness in which another mind seems to be guiding the pen, which became a vehicle for unresolved personal loss and secret love.
Starting early in the 20th century, tens of thousands of scripts were produced by different mediums in several countries over a period of more than 30 years. Known as the "cross-correspondences" because they seemed to be linked together, the scripts contained texts claiming to be messages from deceased psychical researchers, including Sidgwick and Myers, which together demonstrated the reality of life after death. As the flow of scripts continued an even larger claim emerged: the dead had taken on the task of saving the world of the living by means of a post-mortem experiment in eugenics. Scientists who had passed to "the other side" were fashioning an exceptional human being, a posthumously designed messiah-child who would deliver humankind from chaos and bring peace to the world.
A child was in fact born – the offspring of Balfour's brother and the medium who transcribed the scripts, the wife of a much older man who took up automatic writing under the cover of a pseudonym after her daughter died in infancy – but seems to have known nothing of the role he had been assigned until late in life, and then probably less than the whole truth. Featuring a spell in MI6 (where for a time he worked alongside Kim Philby) followed by life in a monastery, the career of the supposed messiah was certainly unusual. But he had no impact on the world at large, which continued its normal course of conflict and drift.
The idea of dead scientists engaging in an experiment in eugenics is incredible enough. Yet the most striking feature in this episode – only fully revealed more than 100 years after the scripts began to appear – is the power that is ascribed to science itself. While spiritualism evolved into a popular religion, complete with a heavenly "Summerland" where the dead lived free from care and sorrow, the intellectual elite of psychical researchers thought of their quest as a rigorously scientific inquiry. But if these Victorian seekers turned to science, it was to look for an exit from the world that science had revealed. Darwinism had disclosed a purposeless universe without human meaning; but purpose and meaning could be restored, if only science could show that the human mind carried on evolving after the death of the body. All of these seekers had abandoned any belief in traditional religion. Still, the human need for a meaning in life that religion once satisfied could not be denied, and fuelled the faith that scientific investigation would show that the human story continues after death. In effect, science was used against science, and became a channel for belief in magic.
Much of what the psychical researchers viewed as science we would now call pseudo science. But the boundaries of scientific knowledge are smudged and shifting, and seem clear only in hindsight. There is no pristine science untouched by the vagaries of faith. The psychical researchers used science not only to deal with private anguish but also to bolster their weakening belief in progress. Especially after the catastrophe of the first world war, the gradual improvement that most people expected would continue indefinitely appeared to be faltering. What had been achieved in the past seemed to be falling away. If the scripts were to be believed, however, there was no cause for anxiety or despair. The world might be sliding into anarchy, but progress continued on the other side.
Many of the psychical researchers believed they were doing no more than show that evolution continues in a post-mortem world. Like many others, then and now, they confused two wholly different things. Progress assumes some goal or direction. But evolution has neither of these attributes, and if natural selection continued in another world it would feature the same random death and wasted lives we find here below.
Darwinism is impossible to reconcile with the notion that humans have any special exemption from mortality. In Darwin's scheme of things species are not fixed or everlasting; there is no impassable barrier between human minds and those of other animals. How then could only humans go on to a life beyond the grave? If all life were extinguished on Earth, possibly as a result of climate change caused by humans, would they look down from the after-world, alone, on the wasteland they had left beneath? Surely, in terms of the prospect of immortality, all sentient beings stand or fall together. Then again, how could anyone imagine all the legions of the dead – not only the human generations that have come and gone but the countless animal species that are now extinct – living on in the ether, forever?
Science could not give these seekers what they were looking for. Yet at the same time that sections of the English elite were looking for a scientific version of immortality, a similar quest was under way in Russia among the "God-builders" – a section of the Bolshevik intelligentsia that believed science could someday, perhaps quite soon, be used to defeat death. The God-builders included Maxim Gorky, Anatoly Lunacharsky, a former Theosophist who was appointed commissar of enlightenment in the new Soviet regime, and the trade minister Leonid Krasin, an engineer and disciple of the Russian mystic Nikolai Fedorov, who believed that the dead could be technologically resurrected. Krasin was a key figure in the decisions that were made about how Lenin's remains would be preserved.
Weakened in Britain, belief in gradual progress had ceased to exist in Russia. An entire civilisation had collapsed, and the incremental improvement cherished by liberals was simply not possible. The idea of progress was not abandoned, however. Instead it was radicalised, as Russia's new rulers were confirmed in their conviction that humanity advances through a succession of catastrophes. Not only society but human nature had to be destroyed, and only then rebuilt. Humans did not go on to a new life on the other side. There was no other side. When humans died they returned to dust, just like other animals. But once the power of science was fully harnessed, the God-builders believed, death could be overcome by force. Eventually all of humankind could look forward to scientifically guaranteed immortality, but the process of technological resurrection would begin with the most valuable of human beings – Lenin.
The poet Mayakovsky captured the mood among Bolsheviks when Lenin's death was announced on 21 January 1924: "Lenin, even now," he wrote, "is more alive than all the living." For Krasin this was more than a poetic conceit. Soon after Lenin's funeral he published an article in the communist newspaper Izvestia entitled "The Architectural Immortalisation of Lenin". After deliberations involving Stalin and the head of the secret police, Felix Dzerzhinsky, who had organised the funeral, it had been decided to embalm Lenin rather than bury or cremate the body. Krasin wanted Lenin's mausoleum to be a site that surpassed Jerusalem and Mecca in grandeur and significance. In late March the funeral commission that had been set up to organise Lenin's interment was renamed the immortalisation commission.
Lenin's tomb was designed by AV Shchusev, an architect involved in the constructivist movement and influenced by Kazimir Malevich, the founder of suprematism. Malevich viewed abstract geometrical forms as the embodiment of a higher reality. Believing that Lenin's cube-shaped mausoleum represented a "fourth dimension" where death did not exist, he suggested that Lenin's followers keep a cube in their homes. The proposal was adopted by the party, and cubic shrines to the dead leader were set up in "Lenin corners" in offices and factories. Shchusev's design reflected Malevich's belief in the occult properties of the cube. At a meeting of the funeral commission in January 1924, Shchusev declared: "Vladimir Ilyich is eternal . . . In architecture the cube is eternal. Let the mausoleum derive from a cube." He then sketched a design made of three cubes, which the commission accepted.
Krasin was also active. In a speech delivered at the funeral of a fellow revolutionary some years before Lenin's death, he had made clear his belief that in future, revolutionary leaders would not die forever: "I am certain that the time will come when science will become all-powerful, that it will be possible to recreate a diseased organism and resurrect great historical figures. I am certain that when that time will come, among the great figures will be our comrade." With this prospect in mind, towards the end of January 1924 Krasin constructed a refrigeration system designed to keep Lenin's cadaver cool. Unsurprisingly, the primitive cryogenic technology failed to work. The skin of the face had darkened, wrinkles were appearing and the lips had parted. Krasin was adamant that freezing could succeed if a better refrigerator was imported from Germany and double-glazing installed. But the process of deterioration continued, the nose began to lose its shape, one hand was turning greenish-grey, the eyes were sinking in their sockets and the ears were becoming crumpled.