Cryogenics is probably the weirdest version of ambition. It proves how hard it is to think about the future: its images have no intimacy.
This difficulty is probably identical to the difficulty of imagining the past not as it appears in retrospect, but as it was when its future was undecided, alive with possibilities. Nothing shows how habit has consumed strangeness so much as reading an out-of-date book of prophecies. Take Archibald Williams’ book, The Romance of Modern Invention.
You can read it here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/41160.
It covers the telephone, ‘mechanical flight’ and ‘horseless carriages’. Here is its prediction for the ‘flying machine’: ‘possibly the ease of transit will bring the nations closer together, and produce good fellowship and concord among them. It is pleasanter to regard the flying machine of the future as a bringer of peace than as a novel means of spreading death and destruction but we have grave doubts if it will ever be of much use outside warfare…’
Well, he got death and destruction right – What is most strange about reading The Romance of Modern Invention is the way it treats our past, its future, as full of strange chances: ‘romance’. In an introduction to one of the eight books I love most – Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood Around 1900 – Peter Szondi writes:
Benjamin, on the contrary, can … devote himself to the invocation of those moments of childhood in which a token of the future lies hidden. It is not fortuitous that among his favourite objects were those glass globes containing such scenes as a snowy landscape which is brought back to life whenever the globe is shaken.
In this modest, short and brilliant book, Benjamin remembers the places, toys, practices and habits of his childhood. Berlin Childhood could be taken as a response to Wordsworth’s The Prelude, set not among hills but in the city: ‘Nothing has fortified my own memory so profoundly as gazing into courtyards, one of whose dark loggias, shaded by blinds in the summer, was for me the cradle in which the city laid its new citizen’. Berlin Childhood is also an intimate version of his Arcades project. In introducing it, Benjamin writes: ‘I have made an effort to get hold of the images in which the experience of the big city is precipitated in a child of the middle class’. He restores to his childhood memories their fullness; in this way, obliquely, he explores the future’s betrayals.
Writing my poetry sequence ‘Hotel Hyperion’, which is set in the future in a space hotel, I have been playing around with images of coldness and of intimacy. It seems to me the architecture of space settlement could itself serve as an image of how images and memories work: small rooms of manufactured atmosphere, more intimate for the blank of space around them; rooms where you would always hear the whirr of engines. I suppose in writing about the future I’ve been interested in how precariously and even dazedly we inhabit the present, among our constructions of habit and of daydreams.
The Cryonics Institute in Michigan and the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona store between them nearly two hundred bodies pumped full of antifreeze, wrapped in sleeping bags, and hung upside down in liquid ice. Thousands more people have signed up. Now a group called the Stasis Foundation has funded detailed architectural plans for a sort of compound called Timeship a six-acre centre for storage and ‘life-extension research.’ Self-consciously futuristic, the building is nonetheless modelled on medieval fortresses.
Here’s a link: http://www.timeship.org/architect.html
I feel bad that I supported Stasis to the extent of buying the book.
In Timeship’s image of suspended bodies, the image of our own death coincides with the dream of deathlessness. We’ve thought of death as the moment when we enter history. These suspended bodies recast it as the moment when we enter the future. They bring the old dream of an afterlife home to this: the singular fact of a body. In this respect, cryogenics seems like the apotheosis of advertising. Here the object – the body – does not represent the dream: it contains it. Is it only a scam? Alcor claims that its clients are not dead. On the other hand, it takes their life insurance.
The people writing about Timeship repeatedly describe its clients as time travellers en route to the future, as though the future were a place. They speak of ‘indefinite youthfulness’. The future they imagine is defined, like the architectural plan for the Timeship itself, by a lack of intimacy: it is made of ambitions without dreams. When I read about it, I think of Kevin Krajick’s article, ‘The Mummy Doctor’, first printed in The New Yorker, and reprinted in Brian Greene’s The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2006. This essay discusses the work of a scientist, Dr. Arthur Aufderheide, who studies mummies: not the kind preserved in museums as emblems of lost time, but the kind buried without jewels or names. Aufderheide studies them for signs of disease; and this is how he keeps them: ‘Aufderheide opened the Frigidaire and pulled out a pile of cardboard dog-food boxes, which he had reinforced with duct tape. Neatly lined up inside them were rows of Whirl-Paks, six-ounce plastic bags designed for taking milk samples at dairies, each containing mummy parts…’
In the end what interests me most about cryogenics is that its clients haven’t even asked themselves why the future might want them.