“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Resurrecting the dead



I’m reading  George Young’s book, The Russian Cosmists. The Cosmists notion of things was heavily influenced by  a man named Nikolai Fedorov, a nineteenth century thinker who thought that the energies of humankind should be directed towards physically resurrecting the dead. Fedorov also was opposed to death in its other forms: metaphysical, social,  and metaphorical. For him, the primary mode of death was disaggregation – hence, he saw in the atomization of society under the influence of capitalist individualism the marks of an apocalypse of death. However, he also saw fusion as a form of death – and thus as vehemently opposed fusing the individual with the mass. His dream was that humanity would finally realize that it was a project with an endpoint: the resurrection of the dead. With death overcome, there would be no need for birth, so life after death would be rather strangely sterile. Because the world would be crowded with the newly resurrected, Fedorov proposed colonizing other planets with humans – an idea that made him popular, in the twentieth century, with certain scientists involved in the Soviet space program.

Being a crank myself, I understand the crankish need to systematize. A… and, as well, the nineteenth century need to systematize, since you couldn’t be a nineteenth century litterateur without adhering to some system that encompassed history and the universe. Given these coordinates, it is not surprising that Fedorov bumped into Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Dostoevsky he never met, but a disciple of Fedorov’s sent the great man various of Fedorov’s text, to which Dostoevsky replied with a wonderful letter, full of sulfur and piss:

“In your account of this thinker, the most essential thing,” Dostoevsky wrote to Fedorov’s disciple, “without a
doubt, is the duty to resurrect the ancestors who lived before. If this duty were fulfilled, then childbirth would cease, and what the Gospels and the Book of Revelation have designated as the first resurrection would begin. But what you have not stated at all in your account is just how you understand this resurrection of ancestors-in just what form
you envision and believe in it. That is, do you understand it somehow mentally or allegorically, like, for example, Renan, who understands it to be something like a total illumination of human consciousness at
the end of the life of mankind, an illumination of such intensity that it will be clear to the mind of those future people how great was, for example, one of their ancestor's influence on mankind, how and in what manner his influence was exerted, and so forth, and of such intensity that the role of every person who lived before will be seen with perfect clarity, his contribution will be divined… or: does your thinker intend this to be taken directly and literally, as religion implies, and that the resurrection will be real, that the abyss that divides us from the spirits of our ancestors will be filled, will be vanquished by vanquished death, and that the dead will be resurrected
not only in our minds, not allegorically, but in fact, in person, actually in bodies. (N.b. Not of course in their present bodies, for when immortality begins, marriage and the birth of children will end, and that alone is testimony that in the first resurrection, designated to be on earth, the bodies will perhaps be like Christ's body in the  fifty days
between his resurrection and ascension?)”

Dostoevsky, of course, rejects the disguised but still petty vanity of Renan (and all the French) for the expansive and semi-insane Russian grandeur of us all being like Christ’s body between his resurrection and ascension, a body mutilated and yet sweet, neither dead nor alive.

However, I like better the account of Fedorov’s relation to Tolstoy. Tolstoy met Fedorov. He was impressed with his ascetic lifestyle – for instance, the fact that he didn’t have a bed. Fedorov was less impressed with Tolstoy.

  ” People who often observed them talking together tell us that when Fedorov spoke, Tolstoy would listen respectfully and nod his agreement, but when Tolstoy spoke Fedorov would usually scowl sternly and shake his head in strong objection. Fedorov was apparently one of the few people who dared tell Tolstoy to his face that he was an utter fool. N. N. Gusev relates that once while walking with Fedorov through the library stacks, Tolstoy looked at the books piled everywhere and remarked: "Ech, they ought to dynamite here!" Fedorov apparently never forgave him for this remark. In another version of what may have been the same incident, Tolstoy said: "So many stupid things are written; it all ought to be burned!" Fedorov, as if stung, seized him by the head. "I've seen many stupid men in the world, but never one like you!" The witness reports that the author of YVtlr and Peace looked shocked, embarrassed, and confused. And once when they were arguing some philosophical point, Tolstoy began to refer to something he had written earlier on the matter under discussion. Fedorov replied: "Very well, but at that time you, Lev Nikolaevich, were not only a distinguished writer, you were an intelligent person as well.”

These anecdotes are like parables. I can imagine them being penned by Kafka. But underneath, they do show a lot of common sense – the common sense that runs through the world of the fable, a world that has become a paradox, an inversion of itself, and that common sense, on one level, simply accepts. And so Fedorov rejected Tolstoy’s  provocateur’s  pose.  In a sense, Tolstoy needed Fedorov for just that rejection – which was not a result of shock, but of something more like Fedorov’s intellectual consistency. Fedorov at least made Tolstoy realize something about himself. As he told some interviewer: " Now can't abide me: in first place because I
don't share theory; in the second place, because I love deat.h.”

No comments: