Issue #137 Curating Immortality

Curating Immortality

Boris Groys

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, directed by Joseph Green, 1962. 

Issue #137
June 2023

1.

Ilya Gordon wakes up in his apartment. The time is: Future. But the apartment looks familiar—a typical middle class New York apartment. He drinks his coffee, goes to a parking lot, enters his car, and drives to his workplace. He presents his documents to the guards at the gates, then drives through the gates. He drives past buildings of different types. Some buildings look like apartment buildings and others are obviously office buildings. Ilya parks his car, enters one of the office buildings, and heads to his personal office.

Ilya works as a senior curator at the State Museum of Immortality. At a certain point in time, people began to consider themselves the most valuable art objects. Humans did not want to accept their own mortality any longer, when the products of their activity—texts, artworks, monuments, designed objects etc.—were guaranteed the privilege of secular immortality by the museum system. Earlier people had been able to accept bodily death because they believed that they had immaterial souls that could survive their bodies. But humanity had become non-religious, materialistic. People didn’t believe in the immortality of the soul any more. Yet the fear of death and the desire for immortality remained.

It was only natural that hope for survival was directed towards the museum system. After all, like art objects, humans are only particular material bodies, which can be kept intact and/or repaired and restored if necessary. The State took over the function that had earlier been fulfilled by God and Church. The State was not only responsible for the well-being of the living population but also for its immortality. This care was delegated to the curators. One could say: utopia became realized. However, the new order was neither utopian nor anti-utopian. The State’s role in preserving immortality connected the population to the State more than ever before. But State-produced immortality is not the same as immortality bestowed through divine grace: the production of immortality is dependent on technology and social organization. And the maintenance and development of technology need the permanent investment of energy and work. People may have been relieved from death—but they were not relieved from work.

The museum system was totally restructured, and all the museums and archives were turned into immortality museums. After a person died, his or her body was cryogenized and put into a special container. The container was installed in a room designed to look as if this person still lived in it. The room contained photos and other documentation that were related to the dead inhabitant of the room. The body was preserved, with the goal of its eventual repair and resurrection. The documentation and the general aesthetics of the room were used to restore the personality and individual identity of the deceased: his or her taste, way of life, and familiar environment. In other words, the Museums of Immortality functioned as a democratized version of Egyptian pyramids. Of course, being a technological operation, no resurrection was a hundred percent reliable, and after a while the resurrected could die again—but then he or she could be cryogenized and resurrected again.

Museum diorama. Photo: tosh chiang / Flickr.

Ideally, every human being had a right to be cryogenized, to be given a room, and to be resurrected in the shortest period of time possible—so that he or she could be still greeted by living relatives and friends. But technology could never be perfect. While divine grace was infinite, the economic resources of the State were finite. That meant: the work of repair and resurrection depended on curatorial decisions.

Someone had to decide who to resurrect first, what kind of space an individual would get, how many people would be involved in the design of the apartment and the resurrection process itself. These were the questions that the State Museum of Immortality’s curators—especially the senior curator—had to decide. Clearly, curators were constantly under pressure. There was always pressure from the museum’s administration to make resurrection cheaper. There was always political pressure to make resurrection practices more representative of the make-up of society in general. And there was also pressure from relatives who wanted to resurrect their loved ones as soon as possible. Beyond that, technology needed permanent repair and improvement, financial resources were always insufficient, there was not enough space, there were not enough specialists and not enough money to pay them, etc. In other words, the curators of immortality were subjected to the same pressures as the curators of traditional art museums—only to a much greater degree. They always operated under the suspicion of corruption, of accommodating certain special interests, of disregarding true equality and justice. And, as it turned out, the suspicion of corruption was not totally unfounded.

The curators also had a subtler—but actually more important—responsibility than the obvious one. The personalities of resurrected individuals were heavily dependent on the archives kept in the Museums of Immortality and on the aesthetics of their rooms. And they were also very much dependent on the way they were reintroduced into the present state of their life: paradise and hell are always the same, but earthly life changes all the time. The past can operate in the context of the present only if the past is interpreted in a way that makes it compatible with the present. At a previous stage in history, God was supposed to interpret and judge people’s pasts. Now, it was the responsibility of the curators. Curators like Ilya, who were supposed to decide what should be included or excluded from the individual archives, had enormous responsibility—because they defined the personality that each individual took on after resurrection. The curators controlled the afterlife of humankind.

Ilya believed that the role of curators was the improvement of humankind. Every individual should live his or her afterlife better than his or her previous life. In other words, Ilya wanted the moral progress of every individual, and humanity in its totality, to correspond to the progress of technology. To achieve this goal, he believed curators should place the resurrected into an environment that appealed to the best and not the worst aspects of his or her nature. This would further the individual’s ability to make ethically and aesthetically better choices and to avoid bad choices. Ilya was known to say: “These clothes and this furniture are too impersonal—they demonstrate the typical fashions of the time in which this individual lived, but not his particular personality. So his personality will be weakened by this environment.” Or: “Why are there only photos of this person taken by the others, but not her own photos? They better reflect her personal attitudes. Please, consult her Facebook page.” His assistant Justine took notes. Justine was a beautiful blonde girl—but very formal and reserved.

Fragment of the collection at the IZO-Narkompros museum office, late 1919. Artworks by Malevich, Goncharova, Larionov, Kandinsky, Rodchenko, and others. Photo: Encyclopedia of the Russian Avant-Garde.

Today, after a routine tour of the museum spaces, Ilya goes to his daily meeting with the director of the museum. There are several curators in the room. The director uses the opportunity to make an important announcement:

I’ve gone through the recent reports, and I’ve seen that your proposals bring us far beyond our financial possibilities. After all, we are based on public-private cooperation. We are financially responsible towards the State and our investors. We have to produce revenue, not only spend money.

Here one of the curators asks: But how can a museum produce revenue?

Director: You forget that resurrected people will begin working after a while—and they will be working potentially into infinity. They will be not only be able to pay their debts to the museum for maintenance and resurrection, but also to bring a very substantial profit. But as we waiting for more money to come in, let me introduce Mr. Voland and his assistant, Juliette. Mr. Voland is a private sponsor who is deeply interested in the problems of identity and personality. He is ready to invest a substantial amount of money to try to help us to create documentation and environments to keep the personalities of the resurrected as close as possible to their original or, rather, primary personalities.

Voland is in his forties—good-looking, elegant. Juliette is a very attractive brunette.

Voland: Yes, it is important that our resurrected work for society. But of course, people are mostly lazy by nature—and immortality makes them even lazier. God himself made a certain creative effort for only five days of his life. So if we want to keep the essence of people’s personality intact, we cannot push them to work too hard. And by law, we are responsible precisely for keeping the essence of their identity intact. That is why I plan to invest a substantial amount of money to relieve the resurrected from the necessity to work, and at the same to create the optimal environments for keeping their personalities undistorted.

Here Ilya intervenes: I think there is a misunderstanding here. We do not only have to protect the personalities of the resurrected, but also make these personalities more ascetic and dedicated to working for the good of society. What kind of environment should we create? Should we order diamonds for Marilyn Monroe’s room, under the pretext that loving diamonds is an integral part of her personality?

Voland: I hope that you are a materialist and will not deny that our personalities depend on the conditions of our existence. One cannot imagine the personality of Mark Zuckerberg without Facebook, or Trump without Trump Tower.

Ilya: And what does that mean? If we decide to resurrect Hitler, should we also rebuild Auschwitz for him?

Voland: In fact, Hitler never went to Auschwitz. He spent most of his time at a summerhouse or in a bunker. So it would be a good idea to build a bunker for him—he could practice painting there. But, in general, I believe that human personalities are very different from each other—and it is these differences that you curators have to cherish, defend, and resurrect. Human history is full of colorful, daring, creative personalities. It would be a crime against human culture to resurrect everyone as average, modest, good workers without imagination, without passions and desires—even if these desires may be from time to time excessive and destructive. Our highest duty is to uphold human culture in all its diversity. My assistant Juliette will contact you, Mr. Gordon, and I hope that our collaboration will help realize these high goals. And here I have to say that I represent the DeRais Foundation. The owner of the company, Gilles de Rais, died recently, and we are very interested in his speedy resurrection. Indeed, I can assure you that Mr. de Rais was dedicated to the work of our company—so here our goals coincide.

Ilya: Yes, of course, I am happy to arrange a meeting with Miss Juliette and discuss our further plans with her.

2.

They meet. Juliette is charming. She says that she truly admires Ilya and his lofty ideas about resurrection as a method to improve humankind. However, she asks herself what “improvement” means. She believes that humans should be happy. But to be happy one has to have the ability to be seductive, admirable, desirable, and loved. We love and admire people not only for their virtues but also for their deviations from virtue—even for their sins. Some people, like Ilya, might be morally perfect and desirable at the same time—at that moment one could read admiration for Ilya in her eyes – but many other people are more complicated but no less desirable. Gilles de Rais is such a person. Juliette says she would love to cooperate in designing his apartment in a way that would suit his extraordinary personality. Ilya is half-seduced, fascinated—and says, yes, of course, he would be happy to work together.

Now, something should be said about the DeRais Foundation and its true origin and goals. The emergence of the Museums of Immortality was quite a blow for more traditional organizations, movements, and sects who made the promise of immortality their main business. First of all, different Christian churches, as well as other religious institutions, were affected. It seemed that they did not have a place alongside the new Museums of Immortality. Indeed, humanity lost its faith in immaterial spiritual matters. Thus, Christian priests lost their communities, as did specialists in transcendental meditation, theosophy, anthroposophy, and metempsychosis. However, they found their new place fast enough. The museums needed specialists in human psychology in relationship with immortality, and traditional psychology does not deal with this topic. And so the priests took positions as advisers in the new Museums of Immortality, which substituted for their old churches.

The Trial of Gilles de Rais, painting manuscript, National Library of France, 17th century. License: Public Domain.

The same smooth transition could not be said about other—dark, obscure, demonic—practices of making people immortal or keeping them eternally young. The reason is simple: these traditions were also materialistic, and thus did not contradict the zeitgeist. The initiated, like Gilles de Rais, attempted rejuvenation by bathing in the blood of virgins, a vampiric tradition combined with the cult of Holy Grail. For these old traditions, the Museums of Immortality offered real competition. That is why organizations like the DeRais Foundation tried to corrupt, subvert, and even destroy the Museums of Immortality. At the same time these old obscure, secret societies presented themselves as enlightened and humanistic, because they spoke the language of materialism. One might say that the two kinds of institution offered two conflicting visions of humankind in the post-religious age. The museums continued the great religious traditions by secular means: they were collective and centralized projects to achieve real, corporeal immortality through technology based on science and art—and did so in a reliable and controllable way. On the other hand, various obscure materialist sects wanted to produce ecstatic feelings in their adherents, or inner experiences of immortality—and believed that these feelings, produced mainly by drugs, were more important than the factual, “external” immortality of the human bodies. They considered such factual immortality as monotonous and boring.

During the days following the meeting, Ilya starts to notice unusual objects, not only in De Rais room but also in the rooms of other deceased people. For example, he sees copies of old German and Dutch paintings that show the bodies of Christ and saints enduring torture, covered by blood. At first, the sight gives Ilya an uneasy feeling, but Juliette explains to him that the true Christian religion is a religion of suffering and the selected images reflect the spirit of this religion.

She says: Look how the faces of these martyrs are joyous, happy.

Ilya: Because they are suffering for the right cause?

Juliette: Yes, partially. But primarily because they feel that they are truly alive. We humans look for the intensity of life—we want not only live but also to experience life. Look at the rooms of your museum. The deceased are cryogenized, they remain in their containers—but what happens when they leave these containers? Their rooms are also lifeless, neutral, dead. Their resurrection is just a transfer from a small container to a bigger container. That is not true life.

Ilya looks at Juliette—and suddenly understands: yes, he has never been truly alive. If she tortured him, he would feel alive for the first time in his life. Maybe even if she would simply kiss him or undress for him. He wants to tell her this, but remembers the rules that forbid sexual harassment at the workplace. So he remains silent. Their collaboration progresses further. The number of strange objects grows. The beds are turned into alcoves. The rooms become darker. The books disappear from the shelves. They are substituted by ancient Indian fetishes and African masks. One day, in Gilles de Rais’ room, Ilya finds a big knife with traces of blood on it. He asks Juliette what it means. Juliette says that Gilles uses this knife for his work. Ilya does not ask: what kind of work? He does not want any conflict with Juliette. He is frightened by the possibility of losing her, of not seeing her, of not enjoying her presence.

Fewer and fewer resurrections are taking place. It is said that some of them have failed. The bodies have not been shown to relatives—but this is mostly because they were the bodies of people without relatives. The museum begins to serve as a location for the corporate festivities of the DeRais Foundation. At the beginning, the festivities have a modest character. But then they become more and more ecstatic and orgiastic—drugs and sex and a lot of blood. Voland and Juliette play the role of organizers. The orgies become increasingly cannibalistic. The cryogenized bodies are defrosted and eaten. This is why the bodies have been disappearing. The director of the museum is seen participating in the orgies—together with some other collaborators of the museum.

Detail from Untitled, a fresco by František Gajdoš, 1960. License: CC BY-SA 4.0.

Justine is increasingly worried by these developments. She is an ideal assistant: intelligent, well educated, and truly dedicated. She is trained not to be surprised by anything. But she is also trained to be well-informed. So she decides to find out what the DeRais Foundation is really about. She searches the museum files to find out what has happened to the non-resurrected bodies. She searches the Internet, calls friends and acquaintances. She gets even more worried. On the surface, the DeRais Foundation buys and sells antiquities—especially African masks and Indian and Polynesian fetishes. But it also offers courses on how to reenact the rituals in which these objects were initially used. However, the content and goal of the courses remains somehow obscure, the rituals not fully described. Justine decides to schedule an appointment with Voland to find out the intention behind the courses and rituals.

3.

They meet in Voland’s office. The office is rather traditionally styled. There are images of the crucifixion, some fetishes, and masks. Voland greets Justine, offers her a seat, and starts a short lecture:

We at the DeRais Foundation understand ourselves as community organizers. Our goal is to build communities—to overcome the alienation and isolation of individuals in our society. As you know, Christians achieved this goal by offering believers Communion: Christ’s flesh and blood. In this way, the community was built, not only on the spiritual but also the corporeal level. Of course, this privileging of Christ is historically obsolete. In our time every body can serve as Communion. So our rituals are based on cannibalistic feasts that produce communities. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find people who are ready to offer their flesh and blood for these feasts. We realized your museum offers a good solution. As you well know, the technology is never perfect. So some cryogenized bodies could be—and are from time to time—unfit for resurrection. We suggest to defreeze these bodies and then eat them. In this way, cryogenized people get an alternative perspective on immortality—and, in fact, a much better one. Their existence is no longer sad and solitary; they become parts of vibrant communities. I see here the essence of the private-public partnership: the opportunity to overcome the cold, administrative approach through active, warm community practice.

Justine is surprised. She needs some time to think through Voland’s ideas. She is trained to check everything through first-hand observation. So she asks Voland to show her how the community building functions. Voland invites her to a ritual. He asks Juliette to invite Ilya, and all of them come. Very soon, Ilya is carried away by communal ecstasy. But Justine remains calm in the midst of the collective frenzy and tries to make sense of what she sees. She discusses the action with Voland—and he argues that what she sees are only true human desires becoming realized. The abolition of death makes no sense to people who are still living under the necessity of work. Original sin is still not overcome, the old curse remains operative, the paradise is not reached. But Justine does not accept Voland’s ideology. And she realizes that she has to save herself and the whole museum from Voland’s control.

The next day, Justine speaks to Ilya. Ilya is embarrassed when he realizes that she had been watching him the night before, but then agrees that action should be taken. They must prove that the museum files have been falsified and cryogeny misused. They search in the archives and find that the whole museum administration is corrupt. It has been taking money from the relatives who wanted their loved ones be resurrected and, yes, DeRais has also taken money for proclaiming some cryogenized people unfit for resurrection. Ilya and Justine go to the director and confront him with their findings.

Marquis de Sade, Justine, first edition, 1791. Frontispiece by Philippe Chéry. License: Public Domain.

But Voland and the director are already prepared for their visit. The museum’s guards and the members of the DeRais Foundation are also there. Ilya and Justine are captured.

The story of their ensuing escape is a complicated one—and cannot be told here in all its details. But the most important point: during the escape, the electronic security system is switched off, there is a storm outside, lightning hits one of the buildings, and soon all the museum’s buildings catch fire. The director perishes. The fire squads come—and Voland gives up his attempt to catch Justine.

Voland is in a car—together with Juliette.

She says: It is nice to see these cryogenized people get cooked.

Voland: Oh, no—they have these new refrigerators—fire-resistant ones.

Juliette: What a pity.

Voland: Well, I don’t like them cooked anyway. I prefer them as carpaccio.

Juliette: Me too.

They drive away.

Ilya and Justine contemplate the fire.

Ilya: All this is our fault. We were not vigilant enough. I was not vigilant enough—I let imaginary immortality distract me from real immortality. I did not understand that immortality is a moral duty that compels us to work for the future well-being of all humankind—and not an individual experience that is temporary and leaves emptiness behind when it is over.

Justine: But we will build the Museum of Immortality anew. And we will make the solemn promise that all our resurrected will live their afterlives as better people.

Category
Museums
Subject
Cosmism, Immortality
Return to Issue #137

Originally published in the Cosmic Bulletin, Institute of the Cosmos, 2020.

Boris Groys is a philosopher, essayist, art critic, media theorist, and an internationally renowned expert on Soviet-era art and literature, especially the Russian avant-garde.

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