I bought this after seeing the author at the Edinburgh Book Festival. He spoke to a packed audience full, judging by the questions, of philosophy buffs. He spoke extremely well, with humour and no trace of self importance. He even signed my copy of this book, and we discovered a shared love for the poems of Walter de la Mare.
This is a fascinating but easily digested book. It concerns two attempts to overcome death, one by proving the existence of an afterlife and one by perfecting humanity by the power of science and, thereby, achieving immortality.
“The Immortalization Commission” was set up in Soviet Russia to preserve Lenin’s body after his death. However, the long term objective was to bring him back to life, once science had found the means to do so. There was a whole school of pseudo-science in Soviet Russia, with links to western visionaries like H G Wells, that believed humanity could be perfected by a combination of extreme Darwinism (if that even makes sense) and science. ‘God-builders’, the author calls them. Sounds crazy but, like so many ideas of that time, it really did command serious attention, if for no other reason than the deranged brutality of the forces that promoted it – in this case, Stalin’s organs if repression and state control.
The first half of the book is devoted to the efforts of several eminent British Victorians to prove that life continues after death. Their principal means of doing so was automatic writing, where a living person is directed to write things down under the direction of a dead one. W B Yeats was a big believer in all this, though he doesn’t figure in this book except as a passing reference. By gathering several sources of automatic writing, these people hoped to find ‘cross correspondences’, where coherent messages could be conveyed from the dead to the living by joining up superficially disparate sources.
Arthur Balfour, the British Prime Minister, was involved, with members of his family, as was Henry Sidgwick and F W H Myers. These were very eminent people indeed. The book includes the sad story of how William James and Myers made a solemn pact to the effect that whoever died first would contact the other after death to confirm post mortem survival. When Myers did die, James spent hours waiting for his communication but, of course, none came.
Some of the better-known occultists and charlatans of time, like Madam Blavatsky, make an appearance. But the conclusion one has to draw from both sections of the book is that humankind yearns to believe in life after death and, absent religion, tries to support that belief through science or political schemata.
This is a great book and a fascinating read.