The Hewing of the Hereafter
If I could slip out of the stream of time and plunk myself back in at a moment of my choosing, I wouldn’t choose to reenter the churn of history in the future. Nor would I choose to come back to the cold linearity of the universe in my present form. Rather, as a gleaming salamander-like creature, I would contentedly schlomp around in the mud at the edge of the frothing sea of life, billions of years ago. There, worried only about needle-toothed Devonian fishes hunting at the edge of the surf for delectable creatures like myself, I would have no need of the knowledge we all recently came possess, of a powerful and depraved man’s quest for immortality.
Jeffrey Epstein also desired to slip out of the stream of time, to conquer the inevitable recession of his life, and he had the money and scientific connections to investigate many different methods of doing so. A couple of weeks ago The New York Times published an investigation into Epstein’s quest for immortality, one, which like so many facets of his miserable excuse for a life, was fueled by his entitlement to and consumption of the bodies of women. By impregnating as many women as possible at his property in the New Mexico desert, Epstein hoped to “seed the human race” with his genetic material. Added to his interest in cryonics technology with the aim of having his brain and genitals frozen for future revival, it’s clear that Epstein was making a bid for a kind of immortality. Epstein’s megalomaniacal pursuit of legacy and the eugenic schemes that he dreamed of were fed and apologized for by a network of enablers and feckless bystanders, many of whom were also content to ignore his sexual predation, and many of whom are prominent scientific luminaries.
In 2010, Jill Lepore profiled Robert Ettinger, the founder of the Cryonics Institute, just a year before his death. Lepore traveled to the CI facility in Michigan, where inside the converted warehouse, human bodies and the corpses of pets floated upside down inside steel tanks of liquid nitrogen. Grudgingly, Ettinger also showed Lepore a cache of photo albums, stored at CI at the request of Ettinger’s dead, of frozen mothers and wives. He seemed utterly uninterested in these documents of family history, focused only on the future he believed he was preparing these women, and himself, to experience. And the future that Ettinger imagined was of course tailored to the sexual appetites of those men who are daring enough to leap across time. Quoting from Ettinger’s book, Lepore writes, “‘The world of tomorrow will be unimaginably better than the world of today. How? There will be transsex and supersex! Scientists will invent a ‘sexual superwoman . . . with cleverly designed orifices of various kinds, something like a wriggly Swiss cheese, but shapelier and more fragrant.’” Men, according to Ettinger, would benefit from various biotechnological improvements to their virility and sexual prowess.
Lepore leaves Michigan concluding that in the CI’s warehouse “some of the sorriest ideas of a godforsaken and alienated modernity endure.” Lepore’s disdain for Ettinger’s ideas is palpable in the piece, and she seems to close the door on his sad little kingdom in disgust. But we still live in the world built by that same “godforsaken and alienated modernity,” and there is a direct line between Ettinger’s thirst for immortality and the sexual license he expected to enjoy in the future, and Epstein’s scheme to proliferate his DNA. And that’s without even accounting for Epstein’s wish to be frozen after his death. It would be a mistake to think of these cases as the isolated desires of individuals on the fringe. Both men were able to create and maintain connections with influential people willing to entertain their ideas—ideas that are profoundly eugenic and misogynistic. And at least in Epstein’s case, the scientists with whom he surrounded himself seemed unable or unwilling to recognize the content of both his schemes for immortality and his sexual predation, much less the way they are threaded into a larger set of ideas about what science is for and at whose expense it can be accomplished. Science has always been, and remains, a means to the ends of powerful men.
Medical ethicist Robert Veatch, in introducing debates about the ethical dimensions of extending the human life span, wrote, “For anyone who has desires about future states requiring his own existence, it is rational that he regret the anticipation of his nonexistence.” Perhaps this regret is rational, but is it rational to have such designs on the future in the first place? Epstein’s vision, after all, goes far beyond having extra time with family or space to explore new kinds of work. His is a vision of the literal genetic domination of human life, not merely a future in which his existence is required but one in which itself consists of his existence. Men like Epstein and Ettinger think that the future will be their ideal habitat, either because of their faith in the ability of liberal individualistic modernism to ultimately triumph over the dark forces of postmodern pluralism or because they themselves will make the future in their own image.
Ettinger is floating in liquid nitrogen and Epstein died in prison over the weekend. But we already live in the future in which such creatures thrive. It is as unwelcoming to my slimy salamander self as to the rest of us who are not rich white men with desires to block out the stars or drink the blood of young people or build a eugenics ranch.