At a recent Commonwealth Club event author Josh Kendall talked about his eponymous book on American obsessives and the seven builders-&-shakers on whom his spotlight shines. It is a spotlight of ambivalence. Kendall is talking about the likes of Melvil Dewey (who thought so obsessively in ten’s that we can now thank him for the Dewey decimal system, libraries, things like that.) Or Steve Jobs, who was prone to call in the scrubbers if a speck of dirt got on his white floors — but meanwhile was busy creating technological wonders. Or Charles Lindbergh, famous aviator and serial womanizer.
The talk made me feel a little better about the less famous among us. Being mildly obsessed with reproductive rights myself, I am inexpressibly grateful for the likes of Gloria Steinem, or Cecile Richards or Terry O’Neill. But investing one’s gifts and energies in a cause seems to be far less hazardous — to oneself as well as loved ones and everybody else — than the traditional path of the obsessive super-achiever.
Kendall’s super-achievers (the others he chose to study are Thomas Jefferson, Ted Williams, Henry Heinz and — it was reportedly hard to find a woman — Estee Lauder) were not just difficult, he maintains, but mentally ill. In an article for Slate titled “Madness Made Them Great,” he wrote that his subjects had “occasional bouts with depression, but they primarily suffered (or benefited) from another form of mental illness: obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.”
You can obsess about a cause or a project and still be a great parent or a welcome dinner guest; once you get to the level of OCPD evidenced by Kendall’s subjects — who make for a fascinating book, by the way — you’re making a mark on history, but driving your families and friends nuts.
In other words, obsessives create a lot of good stuff but you probably don’t want to marry one.
Say you could live, maybe not forever, but to 150 or so; would you exercise that option? The immortalists, notably including British biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, unquestionably would. Immortalist thinking is that we should be “conquering death” (by rearranging genomes and other scientific maneuvers) so we can set about living into infinity. De Grey’s goal is to develop a “cure” for human aging.
Immortalism — OK, it’s not in the dictionary, but may be there any day now — the notion that humans should be able to live forever, has been around for a while itself. In the late 1920s, after an “otherworldly experience in the Utah desert,” aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh enlisted Nobel laureate scientist Alexis Carrel in an immortality project that never went much of anywhere. And that was fortunate, since it had more than a smattering of facism and anti-semitism. Several years ago, David Freidman wrote about that project in The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever.
And now comes another daring quest. It’s led by super-scientist de Grey and is detailed in another, new book by Jonathan Weiner, Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality. No offense to Jonathan Weiner, who is a remarkably gifted writer with one Pulitzer Prize and a great deal more literary honors more than this writer, but I think I’ll pass on Long for This World. I did read a fine review of it by Abraham Verghese in the New York Times Book Review of August 1 (and was pleased to have my letter about it published a couple of weeks later.) Verghese pointed out that the Immortalists miss the point: “that simply living a full life span is a laudable goal,” and that we could end up “simply extend(ing) the years of infirmity and suffering.”
There’s also a finite amount of space on the planet, and just now we’re not doing a great job of sharing that space. This small piece of cyberspace believes the quest for better life — say, health and wellbeing — might make more sense than the attempt to “conquer death.”