Making Resurrection More Than a Metaphor: Mystics, Futurists, & ‘The Philosophy Of the Common Task’ (2023)

Easter Sunday, a day during which Christians contemplate just just what it meant for the object of their faith literally to die before subsequently rising, seems a good day to think about death and rebirth both as metaphor and as aspiration. The impression is strengthened when one considers that adherents to the other Abrahamic faiths, as well as many Hindus, also are celebrating forms of Divine revelation and salvation right now.

Resurrection as metaphor seems to be salient all around us right now. China is drawing all manner of attention, admiring and fearful by turns, as it raises itself from the death that was over a ‘Century of Humiliation.’ Russia is likewise attempting a rebirth, in this case from the mire of three decades’ post-Soviet humiliation of its own. Presidents Xi and Putin alike are explicit about their nations’ restorative missions.

Meanwhile, the US looks to be ‘great again’ or to ‘build back better’ after decades of deindustrialization and decay that would be, were the nation as capable of contemplative self-examination and non-delusional humility as are China and Russia, a sense of humiliation of its own. All the while Erdogan seeks to revive Ottoman glory, Iran to relive the Achaemenid triumph, and Isis the days of the Caliphate.

These efforts led me to query What to Make Great Again over a year ago, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the upshot of which inquiry was that we would do well, even if not condoning revanchism and irridentism, at least to understand the role justifiable feelings of humiliation play, after eight ugly decades of Wall-Street-cum-Washington triumphalism-cum-hegemony, in driving events at the present.

I see no need to reprise, rather than simply to cite to, those arguments here. What I do see, however, is what strikes me as an opportune time to propose an ambition, and concerted human action in the cause of that ambition, that might actually serve to bring unity to human striving worldwide, in a cause that seems genuinely worth pursuing.

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I refer not merely to planetary rescue of the Green New Deal kind, a matter on which I’ve by now possibly written myself dry. I mean something that presupposes yet moves well beyond that …

Google the phrase ‘Russian Cosmism’ and what will confront you will likely at first ‘blow your mind,’ drawing a mental response akin to that which reading Naked Lunch during a UFO landing might elicit. ‘A typical cross-product of fin-de-siècle millenarianism, grandiosity, and general Russian weirdness,’ you might think. But hear them out and you might come to find that the Cosmists had a point.

The movement begins with a figure who functions as something of a posthumous mentor, if not minor intellectual-cum-spiritual hero, of yours truly, who has been something of an obsessive about Russian culture and history since first reading The Straw Ox at age seven. I refer to Nikolai Fyodorov (often spelled ‘Federov’), a saintly Russian Orthodox philosopher-saint-theologian, not to say ‘futurist,’ who swore-off possessions while both working at and living in a library during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (He is said to have slept only on old newspapers.)

Fyodorov was of a sort that seems to be found only in Russia, an altogether unexpected figure combining altogether unexpected qualities and imbuing the mix with a rich mix of deep piety, jaw-dropping simplicity, yet surprising sophistication and … well, cosmic … ambition.

Looking around him, Fyodorov seemed to discern two salient features of human life that struck him as prompting all of the chaos, strife, and destructive violence that were the world of early modernity. One was the universal dread of inevitable human death, while the other was the lack of any singular telos or purpose to order human striving or guide human life.

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It was Fyodorov’s genius to see straightaway that one answer could supply both. Why not, he asked in his unjustly forgotten Philosophy of the Common Task, make the defeat of death itself our common purpose? Surely the universality of dread of death would itself suffice to get literally everyone on board, and humanity then could unite around this one great purpose. And wasn’t this, after all, the point of the Gospels of Jesus themselves?

Fyodorov didn’t stop there, however. He was far more than a mystic. He was something of a natural scientist and engineer as well, all the time keeping abreast of new developments in medical technology, molecular chemistry, physics and cosmology. He saw no reason why humankind could not one day not only colonize space and conquer the deaths of the living, but also even resurrect all who had previously died, recollecting and reconstituting the very atoms of which they’d been made.

This is of course where many will be tempted to chortle and get off of the train, concluding that Fyodorov must have been mad. But if you’re like me, you will find yourself furtively looking again at the train shortly after each time you exit. And we won’t be alone in so doing. The same reactions are known to have characterized Berdyayev’s, Dostoevsky’s, Fet’s, Solovyov’s, Tolstoy’s, and a host of other intellectuals’ responses to Fyodorov.

And it wasn’t just writers and philosophers. Biophysicist Alexander Chizhevsky, mycologist Mikola Naumov, aeronaut Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (founder of the later Soviet space program), and geochemist V.I. Vernadsky were but a few of the ‘hard scientists’ additional to Fyodorov himself who took Fyodorovism seriously.

If you now turn to the present, you’ll also find contemporary science following in Fyodorov’s footsteps. For one thing, of course, there are the US, former Soviet, and now Chinese space programs.

But for another, even as nearby as most American medical research labs there are countless scientists now in pursuit of the project of lengthening what has come to be called human ‘healthspans,’ with the mechanisms of biological aging now increasingly better understood and, with ever growing frequency, actually slowed and already in some cases reversed. This is no mere rhetorical flourish. It is actually now happening.

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Fyodorov was well ahead of his time not only in respect of healthspans and lifespans, as it happens. He was also a very early pioneer of both biological and ecological engineering. This in turn likely played a role in his early advocacy of renewable energy, weather control, space travel and universal science education, not to mention forms of global governance.

The surprising fusion of Promethean striving with universal homemaking and human fraternity render Fyodorov unlike anyone other than other Yurodivy, or ‘holy fools,’ of the great Russian and Ukrainian science-as-religion traditions. But that should not disqualify him as prophet for us. Indeed, there was one period prior to our own when Fyodorovianism held sway over substantial numbers of ‘people in high places’ …

I refer to the early Soviet period, before encirclement and invasion by reactionary powers including the US, UK, Japan, France and defeated Germany (what else could have made allies of such recent mutual belligerents?) brought the first Soviet experiment to an end. It is something of a cliché nowadays to think ‘dark, drab and gray’ when one thinks ‘Soviet.’

But what is forgotten is just how vital early Soviet society was in the 1920s, with massive construction projects, artistic and scientific ferment, and titanic experimentation all around.

Glance at the works under such headings as ‘Futurism,’ ‘Constructivism,’ ‘Suprematism,’ … examine the artistic and scientific productions of such as Florensky, Kolmogorov, Lissitzky, Malevich, Platonov, Tatlin, Vertov, and countless others … or simply view and hear the immediate pre-Soviet opera Victory Over the Sun, and you will be hard-pressed not to feel astounded by what we discarded in destroying the first Soviet Union, in making Stalin all but inevitable.

Fyodorov, though he died in 1903, had a hand in all of this. It might be quixotic, but I am inclined to conclude that, once we finally do begin to deploy public finance in the cause of a truly global ‘Common Task,’ the first fellow we resurrect - be it figuratively, literally, or both - should be Fyodorov himself.

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Happy Easter, Pesach Shalom, Ramadan Mubarak, and Shubh Hanuman Jayanti to all.

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