Animacy and mortality usually go together. We think of both as attributes of ‘life.’ Mortality is the condition by which life is susceptible to death, while animacy is the semantic or linguistic coding of liveliness or sentience. Both features help us define ‘life itself.’ But paranimates frequently and variously decouple ‘mortality’ and ‘animacy.’ Immortal beings for instance, are animate without being mortal. Re-animated beings by contrast remain mortal whilst lacking most characteristic forms of animacy such as liveliness, sentience, gestural autonomy etc. Paranimates therefore defamiliarize our notion of life and force us to rethink exactly what is life.
In this essay, I focus on one such prominent attempt to reimagine life through paranimates. Though I call it a single attempt, it involved multiple actors and texts. At its core were two SF novels written respectively in 1909 and 1910 by Dinendrakumar Ray (1869-1943). Ray is usually remembered as one of the pioneers of Bengali detective fiction in the 1890s and indeed the vast majority of his novels were in fact detective fiction, but he also authored a few books in other genres, such as biography (including one of Napoleon) and at least two SF novels.
Jal Mohanta [The False Abbot], the first of the two, tells the story of a Bengali adventurer, Nalini Karfarma, who is befriended and employed by a brilliant but ruthless Japanese doctor, Akuma (a tribute to the Japanese politician, Count Okuma perhaps?). The two travel through China into the heart of Tibet in search of a secret kept in a remote and ancient monastery. The abbots of the monastery have, we learn, for centuries hidden from the world knowledge of a strange and mysterious force or energy that could be used to heal the diseased and raise the dead. The novel gets its name from the fact that Akuma poses as one of the high abbots with a view to stealing the mysterious knowledge.
Throughout the novel animacy and mortality are juxtaposed with each other in myriad distinctive ways. In one short chapter where the old abbots of the monastery demonstrate their ability to ‘bridge the gap between life and death,’ we are shown three concrete examples where animacy and mortality are distinctively configured.
In the first instance, a man who is completely paralyzed and unable to speak, move, eat, or drink is miraculously revived by the used of a mysterious ointment and fumigation. The man, though on the brink of death, is clearly not dead, yet he has lost most of his powers of animation. Upon his re-animation, he does not become immortal but simply regains his powers of movement.
In the second instance, a man who has died a few hours earlier and is patently dead is re-animated. In this case that agent of re-animation is a massive manually operated galvanic battery. This man, once re-animated, is capable of movement and obedience to commands but does not seem to be possessed of a will and falls back dead the moment the abbots stop the machine.
Finally, in the third instance, those who have long died and whose bodies are no longer available are brought back to life. The abbots create a smoke screen by throwing some special dried leaves into a fire while uttering esoteric mantras and the dead appear upon the smoke screen like images in a silent movie. There is no sound, but the images look real and move around freely upon the screen.
The three instances clearly instantiate what Mel Chen has recently called an ‘animacy hierarchy.’ But whereas the animacy hierarchy appears to be graduated and continuous, mortality seems to provide a threshold that must be bridged. ‘Life’ takes different forms depending on where and how the animacy hierarchy intersects with the threshold of mortality. Surely, the long dead saints who appear on the smoke screen have some form of ‘life’ though they lack both a body and a voice. Similarly the re-animated corpse, too, has some form of ‘life’ imparted to it by the galvanic battery. But it is obvious that the two forms of ‘life’ are not identical.
Dinendrakumar Ray developed this theme of non-identical forms of ‘life’ further the following year in another novel titled, Pisach Purohit [Undead Priest]. Set mostly in London, Ray here tells the story of a young Bengali gentleman, Narendra Sen, whose father had been employed in colonial Egypt for a long time. Upon the sudden death of the father, the son inherited an ancient Egyptian mummy. Predictably, in fulfilment of Victorian and Edwardian anxieties about the mummy’s curse, the mummy came to life in London. It turned out that the mummy was an ancient Egyptian high priest, Ra-Tai, who had sworn to wreak terrible vengeance upon the civilization that desecrated his grave and occupied his country. Ra-Tai was not only able to control other people’s thoughts and actions by his special powers, but he was even able to unleash terrible epidemics upon entire cities and nations.
In an attempt to wreak double vengeance upon both imperial Britain and Narendra Sen, who had spurned Ra-Tai’s attempts at collaboration, the ancient priest ‘vaccinated’ Sen with plague germs. The ‘vaccine’ rendered Sen himself immune to the plague but turned him into a transmitter of plague. His mere presence in a city or nation contaminated the air with plague germs and devastated his surroundings. He had no way of controlling the contagion that spread from him. In Ra-Tai, Sen and their hapless neighbours, not to mention the plague germs, we find once again distinctly different forms of life. But whereas in Jal Mohanta the parallel forms of life are merely distinctive from each other, in Pisach Purohit some of the life-forms are mutually antagonistic. Thus the plague germs and Sen himself were antagonistic or threatening to the life of their neighbours. In the finale to Pisach Purohit Sen goes into self-imposed exile in order to prevent further deaths. In the latter novel then, paranimacy becomes socialized. Instead of the tableau-style heterogeneity presented in Jal Mohanta, in Pisach Purohit we are forced to confront the always already socialized nature of parallel forms of animacy. Animacy exists in relation to other forms of animacy and sometimes these can be antithetical.
Interestingly, the conclusion of the novel suggests that antithetical forms of animacy may also engender moral choices about the degree of socialization. The self-chosen exile of Sen suggests that animacy and intimacy needs to be brought into conversation. Certain forms of animacy might engender a moral argument against intimacy.
Sen’s predicament calls to mind that of Typhoid Mary in the New York area. Mary Mallone, an Irish immigrant and the first known asymptomatic carrier of typhoid, was forcibly quarantined for the first time from 1907 to 1910. Later, in 1915, she would be permanently quarantined and eventually die in prison. In her case, as in Sen’s, we come face to face with the homogeneity of life that underwrites biopolitical regimes. The biopolitical commitment to prolong life and make it more productive assumes a certain coherence and uniformity to life itself. It eschews the possibility that life can come in various forms and sometimes the sustenance of one form of life might directly be antithetical to another form of life. These toxic animacies undermine the moral consensus that biopolitical regimes seek to build and expose the necessary violence through which certain forms of life are preferentially protected. The difference between Typhoid Mary’s predicament and that of Sen’s is that whilst the former is de-socialized through incarceration, the latter embraces de-socialization as a morally informed choice. The choice seems to be between the government’s right to control certain forms of animacy to protect others and paranimate beings being morally responsible for the degrees of social intimacy they enjoy.
The protection, sustenance and development of life, instead of being a settled universal desideratum awaiting executive implementation through enlightened government policy, became a complex moral and political problem. Consequently, the ‘sciences’ through which paranimate life was protected and sustained were not simply rational bodies of biological knowledge. They were also moral codes. It was this biomoral aspect of paranimate sciences that required Ray’s scientists to simultaneously be priests. Whether they were abbots in a Shangri La-esque Tibetan monastery or the eponymous Egyptian high-priest, they embodied a romantic identity of priest-scientists.
Ray’s paranimate science did not just remain an ideal. It received practical elaboration in the copious writings of his student Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950). Ghose is today revered as one of the most charismatic and influential Hindu mystics of the twentieth century. Raised in England by a Christian minister, when Ghose returned to India in 1898 he did not know any Indian languages and sought a good Bengali tutor. Ray was already a minor figure in the Bengali literary scene at the time but unhappy with his day job as a court clerk and therefore in search for a more fulfilling employment. Through a series of happy connections, Ray became Ghose’s Bengali tutor and remained with Ghose, living at his residence, for nearly two years and developing a close relationship with him. Later Ghose briefly rose to fame as the leader of an underground group of anti-colonial ‘terrorists.’ But while in jail, Ghose underwent a spiritual awakening and thereafter retired to a retreat in the French colony of Pondicherry. There, with a growing number of disciples from across world, Sri Aurobindo, as he came to be called, wrote extensively about a new synthesis of science, spirituality and morality that he called ‘Supramental Yoga’ or ‘Integral Yoga.’ This new synthesis involved both the rethinking of ‘life’ and the ‘science’ suitable for knowledge of such ‘life’. Of ‘life’ Aurobindo wrote, offering a poetic interpretation of the works of his teacher:
Life, death, — death, life; the words have led for ages Our thought and consciousness and firmly seemed Two opposites; but now long-hidden pages Are opened, liberating truths undreamed. Life only is, or death is life disguised, — Life a short death until by life we are surprised
This more capacious notion of life, despite being strung together by a shared spirit, included within it a bewildering diversity of forms.
I saw my soul a traveller through Time; From life to life the cosmic ways it trod, Obscure in the depths and on the heights sublime, Evolving from the worm into the god.
‘Science’ as we knew it, according to Aurobindo could not fathom this more capacious and diversified notion of ‘life’.
This was the secret Science could not see; Aware of death, to life her eyes were blind.
The organ for the thing itself she takes, The brain for mind, the body for the soul, Nor has she patience to explore the whole, But like a child a hasty period makes.
In a poem titled A Vision of Science Aurobindo insinuated a new, future ‘science’ which would transcend the divide between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ and be able to make manifest a more fulsome picture of the enspirited cosmos:
I dreamed that in myself the world I saw, Wherein three Angels strove for mastery
Science was one, the other gave her name, Religion. But a third behind them came, Veiled, vague, remote, and had as yet no right Upon the world, but lived in her own light.
Paranimate science was the wisdom of the Third Angel.