Tuesday, December 10, 2013

George M. Young on Fedorov and Company

E.L. Doctorow once wrote that Melville's genius lay in the fact that he broke every book in the writer's rulebook when he wrote Moby-Dick.  For instance, Melville doesn't introduce one of his central characters, the White Whale, until the final pages of his book, and doesn't hesitate to continuously stray from the plot in order to describe some arcane facet of nineteenth century American life in minute detail.  Doctorow goes further, suggesting that all truly great literature is a product of radical excess.  Ordinarily, a digression distracts a reader from his or her interest in the mechanics or action of a developing plot.  However, if you stray often enough from that plot, and spend enough energy in the attempt to escape the main storyline, you may very well discover something wonderful about American life or modernity in general by the radical and unsettling juxtaposition of dozens of overlapping explorations.  If radical excess is akin to genius in literature, why shouldn't this also be the case in philosophy?  Certainly one of modern Russia's most original of thinkers, Nikolai Fedorov, was also one of its most absurd ones.  For, as George Young writes in The Russian Cosmists:  The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers, Fedorov spent his life cultivating one very extreme idea, namely that human beings would someday conquer death itself.

The concept of resurrection isn't of course a recent invention, but Fedorov talked about resurrection in a physical, even literal way.  He believed that all of humankind needed to direct its creative and technological energies into the project of staving off death and raising our ancestors from the dead.  The idea didn't end there. Fedorov believed that men and women would eventually become so successful at the project of physical resurrection that they would be able to bring back our remotest ancestors, not excluding Adam and Eve.  Indeed, Fedorov's vivid imagination conjured up a picture of a retrofitted planet earth that could be steered toward the stars in an attempt to collect the cosmic dust of the earliest humans, dust which would be scientifically engineered to come back to life.  If Fedorov's project sounds a little off putting, we must remember that it inspired countless men (and presumably many women) of genius, including Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and isn't so very far removed from the current science of, say, the human genome project. Fedorov never wrote all that much, but many polmaths and renaissance men followed in his footsteps, some of whom made significant contributions to Soviet science.  Even today, Young tells us, the ideas of Fedorov, and other thinkers who also demonstrated an interest in resurrection or other semi-occult projects, are appealing to Russians.  

The overall impression left by reading Young's book, the Russian Cosmists, is that Russia really does deserve its reputation for producing large numbers of hugely original if slightly irrational thinkers.  Fedorov was clearly a brilliant and unique philosopher and indeed religious thinker.  But there were others whose brilliance closely paralleled the librarian recluse and at least shared some of his peculariarly Russian notions about religion, Russia's special destiny in the world, the cosmos, and the occult.  These include what Young calls the "Religious Cosmists," a category broad enough to include Solovyov, Bulgakov, Florensky, and Berdyaev, as well the "Scientific Cosmists," who include Tsiolkovsky, Vernadsky, Chizhevsky, and Kupevich.

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