“If a man could learn to fly, why could he not learn how to live forever?”
– Charles Lindbergh
The heart beats on rhythm rippling electric red through the body, a wet erosive machine. As if on cue the animal breaks down, eventually. It’s born strange and confused and grows into a sleek engine, skin taunt and muscles primed. The full grown animal seems beautiful and perfect to our eyes, and it’s a sorrowful notion that it must inevitably wither and degrade.
There must be a way to save it.
Charles Lindbergh’s history-making transatlantic flight in 1927 made him feel like a god. He was experiencing a perspective that’s now common, but at the time he felt he had obtained a knowledge and view of life that irrevocably separated himself from the rest of humanity, a group not only beholden not just to the pull of the earth but to limiting worldviews. Lindbergh’s accomplishments were the result of a lifetime of a cultivating a different mentality than most people, and in that moment, it made him feel above them in some hierarchy of human consciousness.
“I began to feel that I lived on a higher plane than the skeptics of the ground; one that was richer because of its very association with the element of danger they dreaded, because it was freer of the earth to which they were bound. In flying, I tasted a wine of the gods of which they could know nothing. Who valued life more highly, the aviators who spent it on the art they loved, or these misers who doled it out like pennies through their antlike days? I decided that if I could fly for ten years before I was killed in a crash, it would be a worthwhile trade for an ordinary life time.” -Charles Lindbergh
When he landed on the ground, he’d also reached the height of fame, a pinnacle of media frenzy that had never been reached before. Advances in technology had helped a man fly across the ocean and let the world see and know about this dizzying feat almost immediately. Lindbergh’s level of fame isn’t much different from the kind of fame we see today, but it was brand new at the time. If he hadn’t felt like a god when he was soaring through the skies, he most certainly couldn’t have helped but feel like one once he touched down in Paris.
Having achieved this, Lindbergh was hungry to continue to push the boundaries of possibility. He’d already achieved the impossible, so that might mean that there was so much more he could do. Several people had died trying to fly across the Atlantic, but he had survived. Maybe there were other ways to cheat death. Maybe death was a mystery that could be unlocked.
As a child, before there were driving age limits, Lindbergh drove the first motorcars and studied how they worked. He knew machines inside out. He lived and breathed them. He also watched his grandfather patent porcelain crowns for teeth and use a rubberlike substance called gutta-percha to perform one of the first facial reconstructive surgeries.
These experiences peeled back some of the mystery of the world to show a kind of conquerable wonder. Charles Lindbergh knew it was possible to master and create machines and the human body is machine itself. Maybe its problems, including the problem of death, is just another mechanical problem to be solved.
A place for Lindbergh to start with this line of thinking was his sister-in-law, who was sick with a heart condition. He felt determined to help cure her by figuring out how to successfully tinker with the workings of the heart.
The excitement of a great accomplishment wears off. Humans are wired to achieve a kind of homeostasis. A positive reward only pays off for so long, and the glow of success winds down to a faint sliver. We’re left to wonder how we can feel that way again, and what all that achievement and success was for in the first place, and why we have to die if it can feel so good to be alive.
While Charles Lindbergh was contemplating disrupting the inevitability of death, Nobel Prize winning Dr. Alexis Carrel was doing the same thing. As a very young man in Lyon France, he studied with silk seamstresses to developed a delicate vein-sewing technique that helped save people from bleeding out from deep wounds and also paved the way for organ transplantation. But that was only the beginning.
Carrel was searching for eternal life, and he preferred to do it in the dark. He kept a laboratory with black painted walls and wore flowing hooded black robes for surgery. Carrel’s reasoning was that dust particles, which are dire enemies to any medical lab, can be more easily seen on black robes. He also thought the mind worked better in the dark. We now associate sterility and science with white coats and bright lights, and Dr. Carrel’s choices seem symbolically, at least, more apt for a religious or ritualistic ceremony.
In his science lair, Carrel tested the limits of life. He transplanted bits of one animal on to another. He once put a dog’s kidney on its face and watched as the organ continued to produce urine. He made a “visceral organism” by cutting out a cat’s organs, floating them in Ringer’s solution (a solution of dissolved salts very similar to the fluids in a body) and hooking up the disembodied cat parts to a live cat. The deconstructed cat came “alive.”
Dr. Carrel also saved an infant from death from blood loss by hooking a vein in the child’s knee to her father’s wrist. It would have been a disaster if the pair had had the wrong blood types, but the experiment worked splendidly and the baby soon glowed red from the infusion of her father’s blood. Dr. Carrel later danced at her wedding.
But all of this groundbreaking and, arguably, reckless work wasn’t enough.
Dr. Carrel posited that the cell itself is immortal. He claimed it was an perpetually preservable entity, only broken down by the byproducts of the process of digestion. He claimed to be growing immortal chicken heart cells by continually replenishing the metabolic broth the cells lived in. This wasn’t the same as achieving eternal life for an organism, but Carrel’s immortal chicken heart cells were important symbolically. The problem of death, Dr. Carrel believed, was well within his reach. He even consulted a lawyer about his liability if he were to raise someone from the dead. Would he be responsible for the feeding and welfare of this person if the formerly deceased failed to find work?
The idea of eternal life can seem fantastic and dreamy, but the real application of it raises a number of practical and social issues, of which Dr. Carrel was well aware. He wasn’t seeking eternal life for everyone, but for the elite the ones with what he considered to be the best genes.