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The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death Hardcover – March 29, 2011

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (March 29, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374175063
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374175061
  • Product Dimensions: 7.7 x 5.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #600,465 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Man™s dream of immortality is a foolish, sinister nightmare, argues this gloomy, tendentious meditation on scientific hubris. Gray (Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern), a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, examines two oddly paired movements of deluded immortalists: the Victorian Society for Psychical Research sought scientific evidence of an afterlife in the œautomatic writing of mediums, and the œGod-builders, an elite circle of Bolsheviks (such as Maxim Gorky) who believed socialism could re-engineer humanity to abolish death. From these studies, Gray distills intriguing insights into Darwinism™s impact on philosophy and the similarities between religion and the scientific worldview; he finishes with a nakedly scornful, fatalistic attack on human efforts to avoid extinction, both individual (cryonic preservation) and collective (anti–global warming initiatives). The historical underpinnings of Gray™s argument are rickety, especially the confused God-builder section, which swirls pointlessly around the story of H.G. Wells and a beautiful Russian spy. His argument that Soviet atrocities flowed from a mad longing to transcend death is free-associated rather than reasoned, and his implicit yoking of dotty British psychics with Stalin™s executioners reveals little. (Apr.)
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“Beautifully conceived and executed . . . Deftly blending philosophy and history, [The Immortalization Commission] rips along with the narrative drive of the most vivid fiction.” —Malcolm Jones, The Daily Beast
“A chilling reflection on the post-Darwinian world.”—Jill Lepore, The New Yorker
“The British philosopher and freewheeling intellectual John Gray is in serious danger of making philosophy exciting and fun to read . . . Gray captures the hilarious audacity and absurdity of the search for immortality, one that could be conceived only by such charmingly quixotic creatures as human beings . . . A fascinating piece of intellectual history.”—Clancy Martin, The New York Times
“John Gray is a connoisseur of human idiocy. In this brief, modest-seeming yet profound book he makes his most compelling plea yet for man to come to his senses and stop dreaming of immortality, for himself and for the earth.”—John Banville, The Guardian
“Enthralling. . . John Gray's superb meditation on our desire for immortality makes for an enthralling read. ”—Richard Holloway, The Observer
“An ­engrossing double-act play about scientific ­hubris.”—Thomas Meaney, The Wall Street Journal
“A core strength of this engrossing book lies in his readiness to take absurd endeavours seriously and to consider morally complex individuals sympathetically.”—Marek Kohn, The Independent
“The author is undoubtedly one of the most important and insightful polemicists currently writing in English. Like most of Gray’s work, this book is filled with diverting anecdotes and ironic asides, yet swells to a powerful philosophical conclusion . . . An engaging additional chapter in its author’s long-running campaign to expose the quasi-religious and magical thinking that underpins our visions of progress.”—Stephen Cave, The Financial Times

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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Diziet on April 1, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is a fascinating extended essay on the nature of religion, science and death.

Gray takes as his starting point the publication of Darwin's 'The Origin of Species'. It is perhaps difficult now, even with the continuing furore in some quarters over the theory of evolution, to really comprehend the enormous impact that this had on Victorian society. Darwin situated human beings firmly in the animal kingdom. And animals die. They do not have immortal souls. As Gray says in the Foreword:

'Science had disclosed a world in which humans were no different from other animals in facing final oblivion when they died and eventual extinction as a species. That was the message of Darwinism, not fully accepted even by Darwin himself. For nearly everyone it was an intolerable vision, and since most had given up religion they turned to science for escape from the world that science had revealed.' (P 1)

Gray follows the results of this huge and probably final displacement of humanity from the centre of creation in two closely linked but radically different situations.

The first section, entitled 'Cross Correspondences', looks at how many in the English upper and upper-middle classes resorted to trying to develop psychic research in order to find a way of subverting or avoiding the conclusions forced on them by evolution theory.

In the second section, 'The God Builders', he looks at the more material (and murderous) attempts at transcending base humanity utilised in Lenin's and Stalin's Russia. He also draws fascinating links between these two apparently disparate approaches.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Eliane Lundberg-Tanaka on September 15, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Anyone who knows me knows that I have nary a bad word to say about anything Prof. Gray has published from "Straw Dogs" onward: I find his to be an incredibly lucid and relevant voice, which cuts through a suffocating miasma of contemporary cultural studies / philosophy writing. Unlike the majority of philosophical writers entrenched in the publish-or-perish academic environment, Gray's ideas themselves remain challenging and pertinent enough that he doesn't have to do hide them behind impenetrable walls of effusive verbiage and ephemeral jargon. What I especially like about Gray is that he treats all species of interesting thought as having critical value, not limiting himself to readings of the work by fellow researchers in his field: that is to say, J.G. Ballard (a regularly quoted Gray favorite) is treated in his writings as a cultural critic on par with, say, Bruno Latour. By sticking to his guns as such, he has even earned the respect of people much closer to this academic milieu I mention (e.g. Slavoj Zizek) and provides a tremendous inspiration for anyone who wishes to write on human nature without genuflecting before the small handful of "acceptable" Continental thinkers and theorists.

So, that said, this current book is no deviation from that standard of excellence. Gray states his case calmly and convincingly, and - as was done in both "Straw Dogs" and "Black Mass" - ends the often pessimistic ride with a surprisingly uplifting realization that mortality is not the curse it appears to be (of course, you'll have to read it in his far more erudite words to appreciate it, and I won't spoil it for you here.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Chews on July 25, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Credit Darwin for using his head. Wary of the paranormal, he sent his son and T.H. Huxley to a séance to confirm his doubts about communicating with the dead. Darwin remained unconvinced after one such gathering, and Huxley and George Darwin came from theirs feeling duped. The séance was a sham and Spiritualism, to Darwin's great relief, posed no threat to scientific materialism. There were others, however, among them prominent men and women, who considered the afterlife a given and used scientific methods to prove man's immortality. It would take magic to support the claim and in the end those respectful of science admitted to have proved nothing.

The Immortalization Commission follows a dozen or so individuals associated with psychical research in Victorian England and resurrection science in Bolshevik Russia. In England, the Judeo-Christian belief in salvation was in doubt. Faith in science, however, urged a number of scholars to prove what religion had only promised: that the soul outlived the body in something like an afterlife. For Henry Sidgwick this meant ushering in a "universal well-being" that man had never known. Although he found Christianity anathema, his belief in theism remained steadfast. Only God made morality possible. There could be no justification for good social behavior without an omniscient being keeping score.

F.W.H. Myers, co-founder of the Society for Psychical Research with Sidgwick, made telepathy his life's work and automatic writing a means to reach the dead. Those participating in the cross-correspondences included Arthur Balfour, William James and Rudyard Kipling's sister, Alice Fleming. The research continued after his death.
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