Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die
— “In Memoriam“, Lord Alfred Tennyson
This much is true. We do not want to die. And some say everything we do comes down to this. We look to fame, to children, to heaven, hoping all the while to grasp just a bit of immortality. We look to religion and we look to the occult, invisible solutions built on clouds and trust. We look to more tangible solutions as well. If we had a vitamin or a machine or a method — if science said it could be so, well maybe, just maybe, the end wouldn’t have to come.
Two hundred years ago, in 1811, a teenage Percy Bysshe Shelley published a little novel about the hubris of man and the quest for immortality. Sharing themes with his wife’s more popular novel Frankenstein, the book is called St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian, A Romance. It begins with a gentleman standing high on a stormy, windswept precipice in the Alps, desperate and suicidal. His name is Wolfstein. We don’t know why Wolfstein is so unhappy, or how he came to be standing on the precipice. A few paragraphs in, Wolfstein is wracked with despair, and falls to the earth, where he is at once discovered by a group of monks who, thinking him dead, bring him back to their monastery, where Wolfstein awakens in confusion. Before he can get his bearings, Wolfstein and the monks are overtaken by a group of bandits. Admiring his nihilism, the head bandit Cavigni suggests that Wolfstein abandon the monks and join the bandits’ life of rape and plunder. It’s a good profession for a young man without aim or hope, and Wolfstein agrees.
Wolfstein falls in love with the beautiful Megalena after the bandits rob and murder her father. Megalena thinks Wolfstein surprisingly refined for a bandit, and he is handsome to boot. True to the Romantic tradition, she pledges her eternal love to Wolfstein and agrees to escape with him when the opportunity presents. That very night, Wolfstein poisons Cavigni; just as the bandits are about to overcome him, Wolfstein is aided by the intimidating, mysterious, and gigantic Ginotti, who allows the young lovers to escape the next morning to Genoa where, for one glorious month, they are happy.
Then, one evening, Wolfstein pleads with Megalena to consummate their love. She concedes, and it is around this time that Wolfstein starts to think maybe Megalena is not “the celestial model of perfection which his warm imagination had portrayed.” Bored and discontent with life once more, Wolfstein begins frequenting gambling halls and his eyes wander to other women. Always, in the back of Wolfstein’s mind are his terrible crimes. He is haunted by the fear of retribution, “eternal punishment before the tribunal of that God whom he had insulted.” This punishment in mind, the once-suicidal Wolfstein turns the avoidance of death into his primary obsession, even though he is still young and healthy.
As luck would have it, the hulking Ginotti, who has been haunting Wolfstein, reveals one dark night that he, Ginotti, had obtained the secret to the mythical elixir vitae — the elixir of immortality. I too, Ginotti tells Wolfstein, was a restless youth with “a desire of unveiling the latent mysteries of nature.” Ginotti sought wisdom, truth. “Love I cared not for; and wondered why men perversely sought to ally themselves with weakness.” Ginotti turned finally to the study of natural philosophy. And the more he discovered, the more he found himself returning to one inescapable fact: death. The idea that he would one day perish like all other men filled him with anger. Was this wisdom’s great gift, the knowledge that he would die? The thought of it made Ginotti suicidal. At last, Ginotti tells Wolfstein, he “ascertained the method by which man might exist for ever,” and it is around this time that Ginotti became truly despondent. “It would unfold a tale of too much horror to trace, in review, the circumstances as then they occurred,” Ginotti tells Wolfstein. Suffice it to say, Ginotti wished to be released from his hell of discovery, and the only solution was to give the formula for the elixir vitae to Wolfstein. One might think that Wolfstein would refuse the proposition, yet, St Irvyne being a Gothic novel, Wolfstein enthusiastically, ecstatically agrees. In the book’s hasty conclusion, Wolfstein and Ginotti are both struck down by a malevolent supernatural force and, in seeking release from the tedium of life by trying to conquer eternity, end up dead.
No one can say that St. Irvyne is Shelley’s most esteemed work. Today, it’s a novel known mostly by scholars as a forbearer of Frankenstein with little contemporary interest. Rosicrucianism — the Enlightenment-era secret society devoted to the study of metaphysics and mysticism — was a theme of great interest to the Romantics, but is these days an esoteric curiosity, like spirit photography and phrenology. Inspired by an anonymous pamphlet written in 1614 about a mythical 15th-century knight named Christian Rosenkreuz, the brotherhood of the Rosy Cross attracted a vast network of eminent scientists — astronomers, natural philosophers, mathematicians, et al. — men like Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. The Rosicrucians are infamous, too, for their interest in the fabled philosopher’s stone, that mythical bit of alchemy that turns ordinary metal to gold and had such powers of rejuvenation that it could cure all illnesses and grant longevity, maybe even immortality.
As the indispensable historian Frances Yates writes in The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, the words “Rosicrucian” and “Enlightenment” seem mortally opposed, the first tending toward “strange forms of superstition” while the latter toward a “critical and rational opposition to superstition.” She defines the Rosicrucian movement as being “concerned with a striving for illumination, in the sense of vision, as well as for enlightenment in the sense of advancement in intellectual and scientific knowledge.” For Rosicrucians, illumination and understanding were one. Enlightenment meant exploding the boundaries of natural human capacity, and transcending them. It makes perfect sense, then, that they would head straight into the realm of the supernatural to do so.
The first real Rosicrucian novel is thought to be St. Leon, written by Shelley’s idol and would-be father-in-law William Godwin. At the center of St. Leon — like St. Irvyne, Frankenstein, and the many Rosicrucian romances it inspired — is the outcast, the discontent wanderer searching for meaning. Generally, the malcontent is so because he is spiritually bereft and feels that the limits of human existence are an impediment to greatness — great knowledge mostly, but the wanderer is also usually looking for great wealth and/or power. The Romantics were disgusted by these rationalist pursuits. Becoming immortal in a Romantic tale is, thus, always a curse. In St. Leon, the eponymous protagonist’s house is burnt down, his son abandons him, his servant and his favorite dog are killed, his depressed wife dies, and he is imprisoned in the dungeons of the Inquisition until, at last, the marriage of his son makes him realize that “there is something in this world worth living for.” Often in these tales, people who become immortal are mired in a profound boredom. They learn quickly that, with immortality, the miseries of existence are not alleviated; they are simply prolonged. Deathlessness is just another word for infinite, meaningless monotony.
Although the Rosicrucians have retreated mostly into the dusty corners of the Internet, the Rosicrucian promise of immortality still tempts contemporary scientists. Every phase of scientific discovery since the Renaissance has brought with it a new breed of Rosicrucian.
Our very own modern-day Rosicrucian is a man named Raymond Kurzweil. Kurzweil — who invented a reading device for the blind and a quality line of synthesizers — may forever be known as the 21st century’s preeminent transhumanist. Like the Rosicrucians, Kurzweil believes that science can, and will, allow us to conquer mortality. Kurzweil calls his elixir vitae the Singularity. In his bestseller The Singularity Is Near, Kurzweil proposes that scientific knowledge is progressing at such a rapid rate that artificial intelligence will soon rival, and eventually overtake, human intelligence. As this happens, human and computer will merge. The division between man and machine will cease to exist and civilization as we know it will be healthier, faster, smarter, and more creative than we ever thought possible.
Ostensibly a book about the future of artificial intelligence, The Singularity Is Near is about transcending the limits of human intelligence, and indeed, humanity itself. The stuff of life that creates our misery — our histories, our personalities, our bodies — will soon be overcome and eventually eliminated. All the problems of the world will end because they will all have intelligent solutions. The 21st century “will be an era in which the very nature of what it means to be human will be both enriched and challenged, as our species breaks the shackles of its genetic legacy and achieves inconceivable heights of intelligence, material progress, and longevity,” Kurzweil writes. As human capacity becomes boundless, so will our ability to think and live and love.
Every day, we look at digital technology and see how it is transforming our bodies, our minds. So why couldn’t Kurzweil’s theories be true? Why couldn’t we become part computer? Why couldn’t we be immortal?
The most famous Rosicrucian novel, Frankenstein, may also be the most Kurzweilian. Victor Frankenstein, a student of natural philosophy obsessed with expanding the frontiers of human possibility, decides that the best way to conquer death is to create a new kind of life. This life needs no God and transcends the laws of nature. Why can’t it work? Even Adam was part clay. At last, Frankenstein’s efforts are successful; all that he aspires to comes true. Frankenstein’s monster is “born” — part human and part artifice, part natural and part supernatural. The monster is a surrogate for Frankenstein’s own claims on immortality; through him, Frankenstein will become immortal in fame. But, like any Romantic hero, the wonderful monster quickly becomes a lonely, wretched outsider. Indeed, there is perhaps no character in all English literature more miserable than Frankenstein’s monster, a fantastic, extraordinary man/machine whose only desire is to live like an ordinary human being. To live and love, and to be loved. And then to die.
In January 2011, John Gray wrote an article in the Guardian (based on his book The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death) about Victorian Spiritualists and their quest for immortality. Contrary to what one might think, Spiritualism was not simply a pastime for irrational believers of ghosts and magic. The advance of scientific materialism and its depressingly convincing claims that the visible world makes up the entirety of existence made many people uneasy. “Science,” wrote Gray, “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.” The challenge to religion is obvious, but materialism posed serious concerns for some scientists and other believers in the scientific method as well. The philosopher Henry Sidgwick, for example, believed that without a proof of life after death, there was no reason for living a moral life. Gray writes: “If the visible world is the only reality, [Sidgwick] wrote at the end of Methods of Ethics (1874), morality is ‘reduced to chaos’.” The same brand of scientists, writers and philosophers attracted to Rosicrucianism found solace in Spiritualism, people such as the scholar and philosopher Frederic Myers and Arthur Balfour (the U.K.’s prime minister at the turn of the century). Like Ginotti and Kurzweil and Frankenstein, they believed “human immortality might prove to be a scientifically demonstrable fact” (as Gray put it).
It wasn’t only scientists who were concerned by the spiritual void materialism left. Lord Alfred Tennyson’s classic poem “In Memoriam A.H.H.” is an extended meditation on the dilemmas materialist ideas posed to Victorian beliefs and ethics. The original title of “In Memoriam” was “The Way of the Soul.” In one of its most well known passages, Tennyson writes:
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed
If nature is so cruel and has no purpose, Tennyson is saying, if there is nothing beyond it, how can we believe in Creation’s final law? In love? As a Christian, this question was most troubling for Tennyson.
Yet, for all of its wrangling with God and materialism, “In Memoriam” is a poem primarily about love and loss, a 17-year-long elegy for a friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, a poem which may be summed up in one of the most quoted lines in English poetry: “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”
The line has made its way into movies and songs and greeting cards. Yet, these words are not optimistic encouragement about romantic heartbreak. Tennyson is writing about the limits of love itself. To love is to accept the eventual loss of love. It’s not just that we should love even though we might lose love. It is accepting the limits of love that makes love possible at all.
A few years ago, the Fox network premiered a short-lived television show you’ve likely never heard of called New Amsterdam. John Amsterdam, an NYPD homicide detective, is secretly a 400-year-old Dutch soldier who was given immortality in the 17th century by a Native American girl in order to save his life. The twist is that he cannot die or age until he finds true love. Since he is 400 years old, one suspects that the main character has little motivation for finding true love, that the limitlessness of being immortal prevents Amsterdam from grasping a fundamental component of true love. That thing is commitment. True love cannot be true unless a choice is made and one accepts that choice. And commitment, by its nature, is the acceptance of limits in the face of limitless possibility.
On page 389 of The Singularity Is Near, Kurzweil writes that evolution moves toward greater complexity, greater elegance, greater knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, greater love. “And God has been called all these things,” he writes:
only without any limitation: infinite knowledge, infinite intelligence, infinite beauty, infinite creativity, infinite love. Evolution does not achieve an infinite level, but as it explodes exponentially it certainly moves in that direction. So evolution inexorably moves toward this conception of God, although never quite reaching this ideal. We can regard, therefore, the freeing of our thinking from the severe limitations of its biological form to be an essentially spiritual undertaking.
Kurzweil thinks he is telling us that human beings are evolving more toward God, and becoming more spiritual. But what he is actually saying is quite different: that human beings are evolving to be gods. It is in this passage that Kurzweil most clearly lays out the formula for cheating death: To conquer death, we must give up being human.
In St. Irvyne, Wolfstein jumps from one thing to another searching for an answer to the meaning of life — suicide, religion, thievery, love, gambling, the supernatural. That life itself might be the meaning of life is not a thought that occurs to Wolfstein. Life for him is too fearsome to be truly embraced. But so, too, is death. So, he decides that immortality must be the solution. Immortality: the opposite of life.
At the heart of the quest for immortality is the fear of what life is — painful, uncontrollable, ephemeral. The term “immortal human” is thus an oxymoron. That immortality means being who we are right now stretched into infinity is an insolubly flawed idea. Life without pain and without end is not human life enhanced. It is not life. It is something else. And the truth is, we have no idea what that something else is.
There’s a documentary about Raymond Kurzweil called Transcendent Man. It contains a very moving scene of Kurzweil talking about the death of his father, and the scene tells as much about Raymond Kurzweil as all his books put together. Kurzweil’s father died when Kurzweil was 22 years old, at the age of 58. Kurzweil worshipped his father, a musician he describes as being a “thwarted genius” who was never given due credit in life and died too soon. In the film, Kurzweil explains that he has collected every document and memento belonging to his father that he could find: letters, tax returns, receipts, pictures, musical scores. He keeps it all in storage. The idea is that, someday in the future, when computers are intelligent enough, technology (with the help of all the stuff) will one day resurrect Kurzweil’s father. Not only is immortality part of the Singularity, but resurrection, too. In an interview with Rolling Stone’s David Kushner, Kurzweil explained his plan further:
We can find some of his DNA around his grave site — that’s a lot of information right there. The AI will send down some nanobots and get some bone or teeth and extract some DNA and put it all together. Then they’ll get some information from my brain and anyone else who still remembers him.
I imagine an immortal Kurzweil and his resurrected father meeting one day in the future. Would Kurzweil’s father recognize his son in the limitless, updatable, adaptable, partially-mechanized creature bearing the name Ray Kurzweil? Would Kurzweil’s recharged, reinvigorated, long-dormant father, reincarnated from his things and memories, be the same man who died in 1970? Would the Kurzweils simply pick up where they left off, their relationship the same as ever?
Perhaps Raymond Kurzweil envisions a reunion that could actually come to pass. And perhaps it will be beautiful. But I can’t shake the feeling that the scene will be something more suited to a Shelley novel. That the Romantics were right to see tragedy at the heart of the Rosicrucian fantasy. That the day Kurzweil and his father meet again, their relationship won’t be the same as ever. It will only be forever. • 14 December 2011