Nikolai Fedorov’s Death

It is a well-known fact that death, being outside of all linguistic referent, cannot be represented; language is indeed utterly incapable of addressing death properly speaking. But is this always the case? Can we imagine a way of conceiving death without at the same time bumping into the limitations of language? To address this old issue, I have chosen, for this Log entry, a few key points in the work of the formidable Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov [1828-1903]. This choice of author is obviously purely arbitrary, except for the crucial fact that, as I will endeavor to argue, Fedorov manages in his work to apprehend the event of death without exposing the threshold and limits of language. This Log entry should obviously only be interpreted as a small exegesis on the interface language/death in relation to Fedorov’s work—needing more work, of course!—and not as an attempt to sum up the entire sweep of his immensely varied, rich, but often contradictory philosophical and religious speculations.

Fedorov’s philosophy, which he calls alternatively Projectivism or Supramoralism, is not intended as a speculative system or theory, but as a practical project. Fedorov is not interested in the cause for life or its final purpose, let alone in establishing a correct understanding of it. His aim is, as V.V. Zenkovzky rightly remarks, to “pass from an understanding to an embodiment of that which is revealed to us.”[i] For this reason, his attitude towards philosophy and history is neither “objective” nor “subjective,” but “projective.” His aim is to turn knowledge into “a project for a better world”[ii] (1:136), a means of salvation that would lead us towards a process of perfect self-creation. Fedorov envisages that with the development of science, human beings will eventually be able to overcome their “unbrotherliness” (bezrodstvennost)[iii] towards nature and attain a sufficient control over it to realize a type of Eupsychian[iv] world on earth. However, unlike the Christian tradition, this ideal is not bestowed to the righteous few, but—extraordinarily—to allincluding the dead. Taras Zakydalsky sums this well, when she writes that “to achieve [Fedorov’s] goal, all people must join together and devote their mental and physical energies to the ‘common task’ of restoring life to the dead.”[v]

The most important and controversial aspect of Fedorov’s philosophy is indeed this famous resurrection of the dead, which he saw as a direct challenge to the fatalistic Darwinian belief that humans “progress” through evolution. Fedorov envisages the idea of overcoming the power of death and resurrecting the dead within the tradition of Orthodox Christianity, a religion that attaches special value to the idea of the resurrection of the flesh (Easter) and everlasting life. He also envisages it in the more specific context of the Russian tradition of Hagia Sofia or Holy Wisdom, which recognizes the potential holiness of all matter and humans’ ability to participate in Divine transfiguration.[vi] With this tradition, Fedorov argues that the goal of humanity is therefore to take hold and become the reason of the universe. The project is a commonone. The plan is to move away from the personal salvation intimated by Christianity and to take on, with the help of a curious reading of scientific positivism, the resurrection of the entire universe.[vii] With Fedorov, man must therefore join and master the forces of nature (at present blind and hostile) in order to overcome death and resurrect all ancestors.

As can be expected, his resurrection project, like the cloning of dinosaurs from blood found in insects trapped in amber in the film Jurassic Park, is generally viewed with skepticism and often dismissed as an impossible fantasy. What is certain is that Fedorov’s philosophy of resurrection, a type of “immortalism” that seeks the death of death, is a blend of deeply religious metaphysics with cosmological and epistemological utopian ideas. George Young perceives this key aspect of Fedorov’s thinking, when he writes that “the project of resurrection shifts emphasis from the Western Catholic and Protestant idea of Christ as Atonement, to the Eastern, Orthodox idea of Christ as Resurrection. And within Orthodoxy, Fedorov’s project would require a [further] shift from passive commemoration of the Resurrection to active participation in the process of resurrection.”[viii] Fedorov’s immortalism therefore goes a long way beyond the mere trappings of Christians’ views on resurrection, turning it into the power of a universal transformation.

The main problem with most interpretations of Fedorov’s ideas is that the resurrection is usually taken literally as a mechanistic project for which we would have to literally start digging graves and reassemble fragments of bones and decomposing flesh.[ix] This is understandable since the Russian philosopher himself conceives his writing as a task to be accomplished. This results in an inevitable questioning of Fedorov’s entire philosophical corpus especially because he himself leaves numerous areas of his theory unexplored. This questioning goes from a respectful admission of doubt to a frank dismissal. Fedorov’s disciple, the philosopher Vladimir Solov’ev, for example, questions the usefulness of resurrecting dead bodies belonging to individuals who had committed serious crimes (above all, cannibals).[x] Closer to us, Young again takes a more categorical stance, rightly asking the question: “But if man evolved from, say, the apes, how can a clear line be drawn between the first man and the last ape? Would not the apes also be our ‘ancestors’? Where is the line?” and concludes: “what is clear here is that Fedorov thought his idea through to a certain point, but did not think it through to the end.”[xi] The question is how to think through Fedorov’s ideas without falling into the problems associated with his late nineteenth-century mechanistic extrapolations and how can this help in rethinking language’s relationship to death?

The most important aspect of Fedorov’s ideas is that his understanding of resurrection challenges traditional approaches to the liminal event of death. There is a small phrase by Fedorov that is worth reflecting upon. The sentence is this: “All matter is the dust of ancestors.” (1:329) This simple sentence clearly shows that when Fedorov speaks of the resurrection of the dead, he is rhetorically speaking of the resurrection of all matter. This is a crucial point and this for two reasons, firstly, it challenges Fedorov’s idea of a mechanical resuscitation of the dead, and secondly, it also questions the very meaning and importance of death. By extending the idea of resuscitation to all matter, then the tree that was used in the production of the coffin containing the dead ancestor to be resuscitated should also be resurrected. Fedorov’s well-known anthropocentrism is in fact a cosmological event that places the planetary task of resurrection in the larger sweep of the (re)creation of the entire universe. There is no line to be drawn between humans and animals or humans and stars. Everything is the dust of ancestors, including apes and trees, soil and sand, here on earth, but also on comets and quasars—everything needs resurrecting.

This sentence therefore calls for the following question: what and where is “death” as a non-space/non-time in this resurrection process of cosmic proportions? In other words, what and where do we situate radical absence in this universe made up of dust of ancestors to be resurrected? Young’s dismissal of Fedorov’s philosophy is mainly based on the fact that the Russian philosopher never properly defines death. Although he never defines it, it is clear, however, that his curious reflections on the topic reveal an approach to death that marks it as something essentially irrelevant not because it is outside of semantic structures, but because it effectively plays no part in his vision of a universal process of resurrection. This is evident in the way he insists on discarding death to emphasize a reengagement with life, that is, with resurrection. As he says: “We know no more about the essence of death, actual death than about actual life. Yet by limiting our knowledge to the phenomena of life, we narrow our field of action; whereas by rejecting the proud right to decide what death is in reality; we widen our field of action, we become the… tools… in the cause of general resurrection.” (4:2)[xii]

The first consequence of this disregard for death is that for Fedorov the dead are in fact alive. “Our Father! God of the fathers, not dead, but living! Enable us to become instruments of Thine holy will.” (2:12) The dead that Fedorov laments are only dead to us and our world, but they are not really dead; they are alive, minute particles of dust, the very embodiment of the process of resurrection itself. His famous call for the death of death is therefore a way of summoning mortals to participate in the common process of resurrection, not literally, but by inversing our passive relation to nature.[xiii] “The subject of the Common Task… will be [for] the totality of all those living… to return life to all those who have died under the leadership of the executor of all the dead… It will be the totality of the living… that is to say, all rational beings united in the study of the irrational force. Thus the tools of destruction will be transformed into the instruments of salvation.”[xiv]There is no concept of “absence” or some “radically other” in Fedorov’s philosophy. By hypothesizing that it is possible to resurrect all the dead, he emphasizes that there is only “life” whether as dead or living entities. There is only “life,” that of physical embodiment and its disintegration.

The second consequence is that, if death is only a misreading of reality and nothing is really dead, then human beings are essentially immortals and their present mortal state is only a “temporary” condition due to ignorance and blindness. For Fedorov, immortality is not contrasted to mortality; it is the condition of what is transient. We are immortal, immortality is our fate, nothing can be reduced to a form of temporality where the past, present and future are separated from one another and signify three different “things.” To prove this immortal state, he draws a correlation between mortality and space/time. Mortality is a limitation not only in space—man’s inability to travel large distances in space—but also in time—man’s inability to live longer than a generation. By contrast, immortality is a “non-limitation in space, action, motion, and time. In other words, immortality [is] omnipresence (non-limitation in space), omnipotence (non-limitation in action), ubiquity (non-limitation in motion), and eternity (non-limitation in time).”[xv]Space-time is not therefore defined by mortality, but by immortality, of which we are part.

Everything therefore revolves around a misinterpretation of the true structure of space/time. Humans are trapped in their finitude by a false perception caused by the process of succession. By contrast, immortality is the coexistence (non-sequence) of all generations (as live dust or literally alive) everywhere in the universe at any one time. “Mortality signifies that individuals do not coexist, but follow one another sequentially. If, on the other hand, individuals of all generations re-create their own bodies and become immortal, they would coexist…” (1:344)[xvi] Fedorov’s bold idea is that if we adopt this non-dualist understanding of life, then we reveal the living present as an eternal process of exposure where all matter in the universe co-exists as one. With such a perspective, life therefore becomes unbound by the constraints of death. “The transition from Earth to Sky is a victory and a triumph over space, whilst the transition from Death to Life, or the coexistence of all times, generations and sequences is a triumph over limitations in time.” (2:351)[xvii] This is no mere utopianism. This triumph is Fedorov’s projective philosophy for which mortality is essentially relative and immortality is the only time there is.

From the confines of his nineteenth century doctrine that holds natural processes to be mechanically capable of transformation by the laws of physics and chemistry, Fedorov therefore envisages an understanding of death that simply does not imply the existence of a border between life and non-life. For Fedorov, to die is only to unburden ourselves of the constraints of our mortal condition, to shed the skin of mortality in order to reveal the reverse of the fold, our immortality. This process is a continuous presentation to the future both as living and dead bodies, particles of dust in the universe. Although his project implies literally resynthesizing bodies with the help of science, it is also a process of revelation where the Word becomes our very own word. We are effectively (re)writing the Genesis as we live. As he remarks, “The problem of God’s transcendence or immanence will only be solved… when the Word becomes our divine action.”[xviii] Only then, will Fedorov’s dream come true: all the present members of the human race will come together so that by combining all their talents both intellectual, spiritual and physical, they can quite literally resurrect all their dead ancestors and “act as Divine tools in the government of the universe.”[xix] (1:417) In such a scheme, death thus becomes indeed perfectly representable.

[i] V.V. Zenkovzky, A History of Russian Philosophy (London: Routledge, London, 1953), p. 592.

[ii] Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are taken from George Young, Nikolai F. Fedorov: An Introduction (Belmont: Norland, 1979). Fedorov’s main publication from which these quotes are taken is his Filosofiya obshchago dela, mysli i pis’ma edited by Kozhevnikov, V.A. and Peterson, N.P., [1907-13], reprinted with a preface in English by N.M. Zernov, under the title The Philosophy of the Common Task (Farnborough: Gregg, 1970). This quotation: Vol. 1, p. 136. All subsequent quotations refer to [Volume followed by Page Number].

[iii] Quoted in Ayleen Teskey, Platanov and Fyodorov, The Influence of Christian Philosophy on a Soviet Writer(Amersham: Avebury, 1982), p. 9.

[iv] “Mankind’s ultimate happiness,” Stephen Lukashevich, N.F. Fedorov (1828-1903), A Study in Russian Eupsychian and Utopian Thought (London: Associated University Press, 1977), p. 13.

[v] Taras Zakydalsky, “Fedorov’s critique of Nietzsche, the ‘Eternal Tragedian’”, in Nietzsche in Russia, Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal (ed.) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 113.

[vi] See Teskey, et al., The Influence of Christian Philosophy on a Soviet Writer, p. 18.

[vii] For a more comprehensive analysis of the roots of Fedorov’s philosophy, see Ludmila Koehler, N.F. Fedorov: The Philosophy of Action (Pittsburgh: Institute for the Human Sciences, 1979), p. 14.

[viii] Young, Nikolai F. Fedorov: An Introduction, p. 103-4.

[ix] For examples, see, Young, Nikolai F. Fedorov: An Introduction, p. 108.

[x] Quoted in Young, Nikolai F. Fedorov: An Introduction, p. 55-6.

[xi] Young, Nikolai F. Fedorov: An Introduction, p. 110.

[xii] Quoted in Koutaissof, Fedorov, N.F. What Was Man Created For?, p. 99.

[xiii] “Death can be called real only when all means of restoring life, at least all those that exist in nature and have been discovered by the human race, have been tried and have failed and the blind force of nature has been transformed into conscious force to restore life.” (4:2) Quoted in Koutaissof, Fedorov, N.F. What Was Man Created For?, p. 98.

[xiv] Quoted in Koutaissof, Fedorov, N.F. What Was Man Created For?, “Ways of solving the paschal question or the course of a natural task,” p. 140.

[xv] Lukashevich, N.F. Fedorov, A Study in Russian Eupsychian and Utopian Thought, p. 101.

[xvi] Lukashevich, N.F. Fedorov, A Study in Russian Eupsychian and Utopian Thought, p. 101.

[xvii] Lukashevich, N.F. Fedorov, A Study in Russian Eupsychian and Utopian Thought, p. 104.

[xviii] Quoted in Nicholl, Triumphs of the Spirit in Russia, p. 117.

[xix] Quoted in Koutaissoff, Russian Literature Triquarterly, p. 405.

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