X-Message-Number: 16027
Date: Sun, 08 Apr 2001 21:05:50 -0400
Subject: Re: 16014: Aesthetics in Cryonics

In message #16014 (Sat, 07 Apr 2001) "john grigg" <> 

>Reading [Natasha Vita-More's] article made me wonder how exactly >aesthetics 
and cryonics  relate to each other. Any ideas from anyone >here? I wonder to 
what extent aesthetics were taken into >consideration as various cryonics 
organizations developed. I have >read how the upcoming Timeship structure had 
very serious and lengthy >thought devoted to the aesthetics of it. The creators 
>aesthetics would have a powerful effect on how the world would view 

COMMENT: I suspect that for some people the aesthetics of cryonics (not 
necessarily confined to visual aesthetics) has played a far more powerful role 
than they themselves may have realized. This is true for both the boosters and 
the detractors of the idea.

On the booster side, remember that deliberate mummification as a technology came
originally from an extremely aesthetics-oriented society, where just about 
every aspect of life was connected with the visual arts. Since most aspects of 
putrefaction are aesthetically unappealing, we might imagine that the Egyptians 
simply applied themselves to this problem with the same exquisite aesthetic 
taste that they brought to their writing, their building, and everything else 
they did. The idea that the Egyptians thought they had to mummify bodies for 
religious reasons may be true, but it also may not have been the initial driving
force. We know of many cases where body preservation is done for artistic sake 
by people who by no means believe that if your body decays, then you are somehow
out of luck when the last trump blows. Consider the inordinate amounts of money
spent on metal sealer caskets, even today. The modern practice of embalming as 
we do it now (dating from mid 19th century) a!

lso essentially comes out of aesthetic/practical considerations, in order to at 
least preserve a body long enough for transport by train, or for mourners to be 
transported that way. Preventing something from smelling bad certainly comes 
under the heading of aesthetics; though if it's an art it's a minimalist one at 
best. But fixing or preventing the bad smell is only a small part of the much 
larger act of proper presentation of a corpse for mourners, which is certainly 
an entire complex artistic field (albeit one of commercial and performance art, 
rather than fine art).

On a larger view, I think that one of the motivators in much of art is the drive
to preserve something in a timeless way, so that it can continue to convey the 
artist's original message to viewers, each time they experience it. Almost all 
artists are vitally concerned with issues of preservation. If they use 
biological materials as part of the art, they think about degradation all the 
time. There is a certain artistic power in capturing a piece of the world, 
stopping time for it more or less effectively, and then displaying it. This may 
one of the primary artistic impulses ("Hey-- look at that! I wish Ungghthmm 
could see it"). Drying flowers and embedding things in acrylic plastic are very 
popular artistic hobbies in today's world. And I suspect it's not coincidence 
that cryonics from its inception has been frequently portrayed with people 
frozen into solid blocks of ice. Aesthetically, how can we deny that this is 
more appealing than hanging upside down in liquid nitrogen? Th!

at an ice-block "embedment" has never happened in the entire history of cryonics
is quite interesting, considering the number of images generated of it. 
Aesthetics surely drives this dichotomy between image and substance.

The revulsion from its detractors that has dogged cryonics from the beginning 
has also been partly aesthetic revulsion. It's one thing to be dead; it's 
something else to have your body carved up or invaded, and presented in the 
open. Worse still to have this happen to someone who is NOT dead. For now we 
have the potential for suffering from social alienation. I've written before 
about this theme in the writings of Poe and Lovecraft. And Frankenstein's 
creature who started all this, of course had the same problems. In Shelley's 
book, the creature is strong, intelligent, and has the kind of sensitivity to 
suggest it very much has a soul. What makes it a _monster_ is entirely the fact 
that it's *aesthetically* displeasing-- a poorly executed work of art which its 
creator takes no responsibility for. So the monster spends its time cast out of 
society, looking in from outside, being lonely ---an unusual type of orphan, and
certainly a victim of child-abuse. All the creature really !

wants to do is get married; it wants a mate which thinks it's not ugly. Thwarted
in even this, the creature turns murderous and destroys its creator's wedding 
and his creator's own chosen mate. We might have no difficulty in guessing that 
this novel was written by a motherless 19th-century teenaged girl, to whom entry
to society was heavily based on looks alone. The plot of Frankenstein is pure 
outsider teen revenge. We've seen it (to pick one modern example) in Stephen 
King novels from the very first (Carrie, Firestarter, They Come Back, etc).

BTW, I think that a good deal of very basic aesthetics seems to be hardwired 
into us. Smells we find distasteful are associated with decay, vomit, excrement,
and so on, and this seems to be somewhat universal and somewhat utilitarian. 
Visually, we like symmetry (in both our engineering and our faces), and our 
monsters are certainly always asymmetrical, are they not? We have a definite 
taste for sunny savanna-like parks with grassy meadows and trees, and we create 
such spaces wherever we can (even, ironically, when our allergies have forced us
into the desert to escape them in the first place). Our monsters come out of 
other environments (the sea, the jungle, the fog, the dark). We don't like 
spiders and snakes and heights. We share all these tastes with our primate 
cousins, who (as we know) are born with them as instincts. We don't like the 
sight of severed or dismembered body parts, and this kind of thing puts 
universal dread into chimpanzees, so it's probably genetic, too.  !

Severed heads and skulls are a special source of terror. And there are severed 
heads, of course, throughout all famous literature and history. Readers will 
remember Poe's "Adventure of the German Student." And one of the reanimated 
corpses in Lovecraft's "Reanimator" stories carries its own severed head tucked 
underneath an arm. Heads get attention. If you can raise the image of eight 
heads in a duffel bag, your movie might sell on title alone. In popular culture 
we all know more about Henry VIII than we do about Henry VII (or even Richard 
III), and so on. 

We humans are basically gregarious primates, and can't get away from our origins
there in some of our aesthetic tastes. Like monkeys, we like fruit, flowers, 
nuts, and bright colors (color other than green means ripe fruit!). Like monkeys
we fear snakes, dismembered body parts, insects, heights, and the dark. Unlike 
any other animal with the possible exception of the domestic dog, we love fire, 
are hypnotized and fascinated by it, and have been cooking with it long enough 
that (I suspect) we have a genetically inbred taste for char, smoke, braze, 
glaze, toast, caramel, and other food-browing products (dogs seem to like cooked
food also, but then they've been sharing our fires for a long, long time, and 
possibly come by their tastes the same way we have). Things like these go into 
our artistic and aesthetic values. So genes are partly destiny, when it comes to
beauty. Creatures able to see only a couple of colors, perhaps because they eat
meat and not fruit, cannot be expected !

to appreciate rainbows as we do. And rotting meat cannot smell the same to flies
and vultures as it does to us.

We humans also fear alienation, because we are pack animals, and there is safety
in numbers. One of our typical creation stories features snakes and fruits in 
forbidden trees (the attention-getters of the tale), and then the pain of being 
cast out and alienated to wander outside the savanna-like garden, never to find 
the way in.  When we want to be terrified here in the 21st century, we sit in 
movies (sipping cola-nut and fruit-flavored drinks, of course) and watch stories
full of flames, heights, danger in the dark, giant creepy-crawlies, and the 
ugly undead. We watch the socially isolated hero or antihero trying to find a 
way back to acceptance, or a way to make society pay for refusing admission.  We
are fascinated by, and at the same time fear, long journeys. The archetypal 
wanderer who battles monsters in order to get home, draws us into his story. 
Other than the social sitcom story*, the "journey with monsters" adventure story
is probably the main story we tell each othe!

r (see the recent movie _Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?_ for a fun and open 
retelling of Homer's Odyssey).

[*Social sitcom story/comedy: hero wishes to impress society or potential mate 
or both. Deception is called for, since he/she has few special skills. Initial 
attempts go awry and cause him or her to appear childish to exactly the wrong 
people. Eventually, however, at the end of the tale she/he succeeds in being 

So yes, there's a lot of aesthetic sensibility associated with cryonics, but the
news isn't all good. In a message to Cryonet a few years ago I reminded readers
about the aesthetic power of stories dealing with these button-pushing devices.
Fear of alienation is not a matter of aesthetics per se, but it's directly 
connected to it since aesthetics drive so much of social interaction for us, at 
levels too basic to change (think of Frankenstein's monster again). The idea of 
being made into something ugly and socially unacceptable generates anger and 
fear of the finest grade, and that kind of shiver is what gets stories 
remembered, from the plight Lawrence Talbot the wolf-man, to the problems of 
poor Dr. Jekel. Of course, other primal aesthetic elements help. (For a homely 
sensory example, there is a Stephen King short story, immortalized as a 
sub-story in the movie _Stand By Me_, about the revenge of an outcast fat kid 
who gorges at a pie-eating contest and then vomits blueberry !
pie onto a whole town. Consider the smell. Consider the color...)

My earlier example from the art of horror used American author Washington 
Irving, who wrote dozens of short stories, but is remembered 180 years later for
just two of them. Why these particular two? The answer is illustrative. One is 
the story of Rip Van Winkle, a hunter who encounters in a deep glen the shades 
of Hendrik Hudson and his murdered officers, sleeps 20 years from a draught of 
their ghostly whiskey, and returns to his town to find himself alienated in a 
novel way-he's out of his time, an anachonism with no way back. Also, he's now 
much older, with the aesthetic questions of instant aging to deal with. I don't 
think Irvine intended this story to really be a horror story (it's rather a kind
of Dutch ghost story, but the ghosts are only a vehicle to discuss the way 
things change). But the image of poor stranded and befuddled Van Winkle was too 
powerful to be remembered as anything but horror. Time-travel (cryonics!) is 
aesthetically a two-edged sword, and if it's one-!

way, the traveler always faces terrible potential alienation. He might find 
himself, for instance, among the beautiful Eloi, eating fruit and lying about in
the sun, like English gentle-people. But down below in the dark there might 
also be the Morlock industrial lower classes, who are ugly and who like Eloi 
meat. H.G. Wells probably intended this one for social commentary, too, but (as 
in Sinclair's _The Jungle_) the original socialist message got lost in the 
impact of the story's adventure and canibalism. What readers found more 
interesting in _The Time Traveler_, in other words, was a more timeless message,
and the same one we saw in Rip Van Winkle: if you're lost in time you're really

The other Washington Irving story is of course "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", 
which is about the headless horseman who is waiting to chase the unwary through 
the forests of the night. The original Irving story was intended as a wry 
situation-comedy rather than a horror tale (there is no suggestion that the 
horseman was real), but that is not what we remember the story for, either.  If 
an author uses an image this potent, he must be prepared to pay the 

Of course, such stories are all now in our cultural memory.  Cryonics 
organizations therefore encounter these Frankenstein archetypes immediately. 
Cryonics advertising says, in effect: "We'd like you to think of yourself when 
you are dead. How do you like that aesthetic image? No? Doesn't pass the sniff 
test? Okay, but just wait and see if you like this part: we'll remove your head,
perfuse some unappealing stuff into its vessels, and then send it (but not the 
rest of you) into the far future where you may wake up in any condition, and 
perhaps as helpless as you can imagine. And, of course, possibly irreversibly 
alienated from everything you know and love in your present life. And no, 
wiggling your ears won't help."

"Oh, and, by the way, all this will cost you a lot."

It isn't the cost that gets people's attention, it's the negative aesthetics. 
Aesthetics explain some of why cryonics can't even be given away to most people,
who react to it rather like the stories of Poe, Lovecraft, and Shelley. Or the 
images of Irving, or even King's blueberry pie story. It does no good to argue 
with them about the aesthetics of what will surely happen to them with NO 
cryonics. We never said aesthetic sense was rational, did we? People already 
have their mental defenses in place about death, and most of these are 
irrational. These prior defenses would need to be torn down first, for the 
cryonics idea to penetrate. And that process would involve mental pain and 
wrinkled noses all the way.


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