Friday, June 03, 2011

The Immortalisation Commission (Part One)

A history in three parts, John Gray's latest book relates how sophisticated humanity has attempted to think its way around the prospect of personal oblivion in the century and a half following Darwin's removal of the glass ceiling, which had been thought to separate mankind from the rest of the beasts.

In the first part, Cross-Correspondences, Gray looks at the Spiritualist movement in Britain, which was the most immediate of his 'rebellions against death'. Unlike the now more familiar response — that if science comes into conflict with personal conviction, there must be something fundamentally wrong with science, darnit — these late Victorian men and women turned to science itself to protect themselves from the most up-to-date conclusions it had to offer.

One of the leading figures in the movement was Henry Sidgwick, who professed that if death really was the end, then the world was truly chaotic and therefore not especially friendly to human values — or rather the specific elite Victorian values which invited him to repress the impulses that conflicted with his sense of duty.

Why would these people care more than we seem to about the existential pain of living in a world where the human mind is a localised after-effect of trajectory of matter? Gray doesn't state this directly, but it does seem to be the case that the likes of Sidgwick and Frederick Myers is that theirs was not a simplistic piety which Darwinism had confounded, instead it was the age-old conflict between morality and self-interest which had seemingly been reinvigorated by On the Origins of Species.

The chaos most feared by Myers was the threat of 'insistent desire', for Myers like Sidgwick and others was a Victorian gentleman of the sexually ambiguous sort. The self Sidgwick wanted to take with him into eternity was clearly an idealised version of himself; in other words the self he had failed to be in life.

Gray goes on to suggest that these intellectuals fitted into a milieu which sought to extend the naturalistic outlook into an invisible world in order to purge itself of its defects as a whole. One of the more bizarre secondary anecdotes in this section of the book is the tale of August Henry Coombe Tennant, conceived in the Biblical sense as part of a planned out-of-wedlock tryst between a medium and one of the leading lights of the Spiritualist clique, and in the cereberal sense as part of a whacko scheme to create a made-to-order messiah who would save humanity from chaos. This attempt to manipulate the afterlife using techniques that called themselves scientific, went by the name of spiritual eugenics.

One of the ironies of Myers's research into the survival of the human personality after death was his realisation that the personalities we exhibit on this side of the grave are far from fixed. Everyday identities are in fact rather fluid impersonations spun off by our primary psychological reality, the 'subliminal self'. And, as Gray notes, if each of us is "no more than a bundle of sensations, egoism may be no more rational than universal benevolence." Myers did however believe that his subliminal self might have access to knowledge beyond the reach of our more chimerical personas.

The notion of the subliminal mind may also help us understand the automatic writings which the Spiritualists practiced as long as their movement persisted. They endlessly poured over these scripts, authored they believed by lost friends and lovers (some of them secret), although it was their own hands holding the pen. The texts reflected a shared high cultural lexicon and were encoded in an outlook which no longer exists, and to some extent never existed, because the human relationships revealed are those of Victorian England "not as it was, but as it imagined itself to be."

This consciously (or subliminally) fictive elite lifestyle, was one where death was understood not as the final calamity at the end of a long struggle against poverty, disease and insecurity, but rather as "a move from one wing of a great country house to another, a shift in which nothing was lost."

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