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Imagine Paradise

February 18, 2014 | by

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Mavis Gallant was a family friend of ours. My mother knew her well. I remember her visits when I was a child: she was so intelligent, wry, and observant—so funny and so cool, with her Parisian air of detachment. She was fascinated with my platinum-haired younger brother, Julian, whom she deemed a “changeling.” 

While passing through Paris in my late twenties, at work on my book The Fruit Hunters, I once stopped in to bring her a letter from my mother and some flowers. Not wanting to interrupt her writing, I suggested coffee or a glass of wine. She insisted we meet at Le Dome for lunch.

I arrived five minutes early, left her bouquet on the table, and went out to pick up a Herald Tribune. Workers were marching in the streets as part of a general manifestation against the government. By the time I returned, she was sitting there, beaming. She waved at the protesters, she whose May 1968 diary for The New Yorker concluded, “I am convinced that I have seen something remarkable.” Read More »

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The Immortality Chronicles, Part 7

September 30, 2013 | by

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What have we not done to live forever? Adam Leith Gollner’s research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is out now as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. Over the past seven weeks, this chronological crash course has examined the ways humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history. This is the final installment.

You have to get old. Don’t cry, don’t clasp your hands in prayer, don’t rebel; you have to get old. Repeat the words to yourself, not as a howl of despair but as the boarding call to a necessary departure. —Colette, Les Vrilles de la Vigne

In 1927, before Charles Lindbergh set off across the Atlantic Ocean, newspapers described the flight as a guaranteed “rendez-vous with death.” While the Spirit of St. Louis hummed toward France, human-formed phantoms and vapor-like spirits materialized before Lindbergh’s eyes. These “inhabitants of a universe closed to mortal men” spoke to him, reassuring him and helping him find his way. This inner experience, he wrote, seemed to penetrate beyond the finite. It was an epiphany that guided the rest of his life.

After his pioneering flight, he received millions of letters, thousands of poems, countless gleaming accolades. Whole cities attended parades in his honor. Wing-walking skywriters spelled HAIL LINDY high in the air. Former secretary of state and later U.S. Supreme Court chief justice Charles Evans Hughes gave a speech in New York heralding “science victorious.”

In the euphoria’s wake, having managed one impossibility, Lindbergh wondered if he mightn’t help solve another. Working alongside Nobel Prize–winning cell biologist Alexis Carrel (who claimed, erroneously, that cells divide endlessly and are therefore naturally immortal), Lindbergh came to question whether death is “an inevitable portion of life’s cycle,” musing that perhaps scientific methods could hasten the arrival of bodily immortality.

Lindbergh had been raised to believe that “the key to all mystery is science.” The idea that science will allow men to become gods was instilled in him by his grandfather, a well-known surgical dentist. For postflight Lindbergh, solving the basic mystery of death seemed only as challenging as flying across the sea. It just meant doing what people said couldn’t be done. Yet as he aged, and as his experiments didn’t yield the hoped-for results, he began questioning his desire for immortality. He became an environmentalist, spending time in the wilderness and observing cycles of life and death in nature. Read More »

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The Immortality Chronicles, Part 6

September 23, 2013 | by

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What have we not done to live forever? Adam Leith Gollner’s research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is out now as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. Over the past six weeks, this chronological crash course has examined the ways humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history. This week explores the nineteenth century. The final installment will run next Monday.

The only secret people keep
Is Immortality.

—Emily Dickinson, poem number 1748

Last week, Google launched Calico, a new company dedicated to fighting “aging and associated diseases.” The idea of aging as a curable disease (rather than a fact of life) can be traced back to the work of Charles Édouard Brown-Séquard (1817–94), the first medical scientist to make the idea of comprehending—if not controlling—aging a respectable aim.

Not much remembered today, Brown-Séquard was the chair of physiology at the Collége de France, one of the most prestigious appointments in nineteenth-century medicine. He is still known for successfully describing Brown-Séquard syndrome, a paralysis caused by severed spinal cords. His late-period research, however, occupies one of the more bizarre footnotes in medical history: toward the end of a distinguished career, he stunned the scientific community by announcing that he’d found a glandular elixir of eternal youth.

His speech on June 1, 1889, at the assembly of Paris’s Société de Biologie, is widely considered to mark the commencement of gerontology. (Gerontology, from geron, meaning “old man” in Greek, is the systematic study of aging.) Most members of the society were in their seventies, as was the swarthy, six-foot-four, bushy-bearded gentleman onstage. In unscheduled introductory remarks, Brown-Séquard confessed that his natural vigor had declined considerably over the last decade.

At that time, many scientists felt that old age was not a natural phenomenon, so a murmur of commiseration rippled through the room. Those graying authorities knew full well what it meant to grow elderly and infirm, nodding as Brown-Séquard lamented his own chronic pain—the lassitude, the insomnia, and, most delicate of all, the decline of his manliness. He had a pretty young wife, he was rich, successful, accomplished—et quand même. Read More »

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The Immortality Chronicles: Part 5

September 16, 2013 | by

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What have we not done to live forever? Adam Leith Gollner’s research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is out now as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. Every Monday for the next two weeks, this chronological crash course will examine how humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history.

In the late 1700s, a Scottish quack named James Graham, Servant of the Lord O.W.L. (Oh, Wonderful Love), became the talk of London for claiming anyone could live to 150 simply by making regular visits to his private clinic, the Temple of Health. Graham encouraged valetudinarians to rub themselves with his patented ethereal balsam. He also advocated earth baths, in which naked patients climbed into holes in the ground and were covered neck deep in mud. He spoke of the salutary effects of thoroughly washing one’s genitals in cold water or, even better, in ice-cold champagne. His most in-demand device, however, was the celestial bed, a massive stallion-hair-filled mattress supported by forty glass pillars that administered mild shocks of electrical current. Graham’s clients hoped the effects of “holding venereal congress” in the bed would cure barrenness—or at the very least help them live longer, if not forever.

Graham was only forty-nine years old when he died in 1794—a pivotal, auspicious year in the history of immortality. It was the same year that Blake engraved his Songs of Innocence and Experience with lines about being a happy fly whether he lives or dies, about immortal eyes in forests of night, about “that sweet golden clime / where the traveler’s journey is done.” What Graham sought in the physical, Blake found in the mystical. His visions showed him “what eternally exists, really and unchangeably,” that “which liveth for ever.”

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The Immortality Chronicles, Part 4

September 9, 2013 | by

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What have we not done to live forever? Adam Leith Gollner’s research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is out now as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. Every Monday for the next three weeks, this chronological crash course will examine how humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history.

During the Middle Ages, every alchemist worth his saltpeter tried to find the philosopher’s stone, the water stone of the wise, the miraculous stone that is no stone. It was the means to transmute base metals into gold and—more importantly—concoct elixirs of immortality.

The word is Arabic in origin: al-kimia, al-khymia, or al-kīmyā. It’s how chemistry begins. Science as we now conceive it did not exist in the medieval period. (The word scientist only became commonplace in the nineteenth century, after Cambridge University historian William Whewell coined the term in 1833.) Instead, there was natural magic and philosophy—and alchemy, the experimental attempt to combine different elements and uncover the factual mysteries of nature. Read More »

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The Immortality Chronicles, Part 3

September 2, 2013 | by

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What have we not done to live forever? Adam Leith Gollner’s research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is out now as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. Every Monday for the next four weeks, this chronological crash course will examine how humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history.

Is immortality real? Depends on your definition of real. Eternal life isn’t into proof. It’s unverifiable. Intangible. In the hiddenness, as they say. That isn’t deterring anyone. The majority of Americans (between 74% and 81.1%, depending on the survey) believe in life after death.

One subsection of the unbelieving minority also believes in the possibility of everlasting life, albeit in a different, fleshly guise: they are hot for physical immortality. Those feverishly pursuing technological attempts to never die—the transhumanist billionaires and radical Plastic Omega life-extensionists, the cyborgian robot-cultists and extropian illusion-peddlers—are convinced that scientific breakthroughs will soon end aging and render us capable of living forever. Will we evolve into immortal data-people? Or is the singularitarians’ desire for Human Version 2.0 simply another way to assuage our innate fear of finality?

Whatever the narrative, stories about immortality are always attempts to manage death, to make sense of its loamy unknowability, to dispel uncertainty. Freedom means we can align ourselves with whatever mythology resonates, from pearly gates to nanobot foglets to nothing at all. Either way, immortality isn’t something we can fully resolve. It can’t be known; only believed in. Read More »

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