14 January 2016

Why are you still here?

Mikhail Nesterov's painting "The Philosophers" (1917)
Pavel Florensky (left) and Sergei Bulgakov (source)
The Moscow region's frigid weather didn't keep me from taking the train to the big city on Monday evening to hear a lecture and discussion on "Russia's Leonardo da Vinci," Father Pavel Florensky (1882-1937).

Until Monday, all I knew about Florensky came from Father Alexander Men's book of lectures, Russian Religious Philosophy, published posthumously and available online. (Russian only, so far.) Alexander Men's lecture was enough to make it clear why Florensky -- mathematician, botanist, physicist, theologian, poet, historian -- was a subject worthy of ranking with da Vinci. After refusing more than once to follow other intellectuals into foreign exile in the years following the October Revolution, Florensky met his fate on an NKVD killing field near Leningrad on December 8, 1937, at the age of 56. His family knew only that he had been "deprived of the right to correspondence."

Alexander Men' points to the bitter pathos of this story:
Fifty-six years old. Here's a person who, just a few months before these events, in hellish labor-camp conditions, was continuing to carry out his scientific work; a person who lived a deeply spiritual and intellectual life, who was able to pass along his wealth of knowledge to his children (until 1937, he was permitted to correspond, and there were even times when his family could visit him); this is a person in whom any civilization could take pride. He stands at the same level as Pascal and Teilhard de Chardin, with many scientists and thinkers of all eras and peoples. And he was shot like a total criminal -- this completely innocent man!
Pillar and Ground of Truth: An Exercise
in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters
(Source: mobi edition)
Innocent -- and even somewhat unworldly. For most of his adult life, Florensky was stubbornly apolitical, even at times collaborating with the communist government's historical preservation program and later (with Trotsky's support) in the national campaign to expand access to electricity. His research on electrical capacitors resulted in a patent. He worked on imaginary numbers and the geometry of Einstein's relativity. As a convict, he isolated iodine from local plant life. For all of his work, whether in church settings, or in communist government offices, he wore his priestly cassock, to the amazement of some and the irritation of others. And insights from almost all of these spheres found their place in his major theological book, Pillar and Ground of Truth -- which I have only started to read. In Russian it is available from here in a .mobi format with modern orthography, or read it online at that same page. In English it's available here, but apparently not in electronic-book form. 

At Monday's lecture, Elisaveta Vereshchagina added fascinating details to the 35 pages or so of Alexander Men's chapter -- how Florensky's work with imaginary numbers fit in with his theology; how startled people were to see the uber-revolutionary Trotsky together with priestly Florensky; how he began excerpting his own will and testament to his family already twenty years before his death; and, most telling to me, how he admitted to totally nonsensical charges of anti-Soviet activity in a calculated effort to get his friends off the hook. Really, I'm only scratching the surface of a superb presentation.

Toward the end of the discussion period, moderated by literature professor (and writer, critic, poet) Dmitri Bykov, someone at the back commented, "Lots of others left the Soviet Union in those years -- for example, those who took the 'Philosophers' ships' into exile. Why didn't Florensky?" Vereshchagina answered (I'm paraphrasing from memory), "At the time he wasn't in any particular trouble, and he was hard at work in his lab, so he saw no reason to leave." A few minutes later, the same questioner pushed a little harder: "His occupation really won't do as an answer. There must be something deeper going on." In the discussion, it emerged that even after Florensky's arrest, he was offered chances to join the exodus, but he categorically refused all such suggestions. His deliberately chosen fate was to remain in his homeland. Bykov added, "For that matter, why are you [the audience] still here? Why are we all here?"

On the train back to Elektrostal, my mind was still in a whirl of thoughts from the evening. For one thing, it was amazing that, on a cold winter's evening, a lecture on a dead philosopher could fill an auditorium. In how many places around the world would that be true? I spent a few minutes thinking about what Florensky and David Bowie (who died the day before the lecture) might have in common. I don't think it is an absurd comparison: both men were stubborn defenders of the right to define one's self and one's boundaries. In Florensky's case, his mannered modesty and alleged priestly affectations irritated his famous contemporary Nikolai Berdyaev, who made catty comments about Florensky's "artificial voice," according to Alexander Men'.

The other comparison that came to me was early Friends' doctrine of Gospel order. Florensky gave a very high value to Church as the community of believers who sought God together -- but Church is more than a community of contemporaries. It's a coherent phenomenon that participates in the mysteries of Heaven. Florensky the mathematician, scientist, and Symbolist/Christian Platonist worked out the implications of Gospel order further and in a more metaphysical direction than early Friends went, even anticipating process theology with his explanations of how earthly paradoxes relate to the unity of heaven.

In view of how we ourselves, as Friends, fail to reflect the Gospel order of heavenly unity, here's a final comment on Florensky from Alexander Men':
Men', Russian Religious Philosophy
In 1923 he [Florensky] wrote some brief commentaries about Orthodoxy. One of them is called "A comment on Christianity and culture." Father Paul wrote that division among Christians doesn't come about because there are different dogmas, rites and customs, but because of the absence of true faith, true love.

"The Christian world," he writes, "is full of mutual suspicion, ill feelings, and hostility. It's rotten down to the foundations, because it does not have active faith in Christ and as a whole does not have the courage and candor to admit the rottenness of its faith. ... Church offices, church bureaucracies, and church diplomacy cannot breathe the unity of faith and love into places where it doesn't already exist."

Sergei Chapnin on Orthodoxy without Christ. (I quoted Chapnin in this earlier post.)

On David Bowie: What do we learn from the complicated legacy of a beloved icon?

Ron Sider looks at books on the early church and war.

Hope against hope? (Thanks to Natasha Zhuravenkova for the link.)

Tina Turner welcomes a guest ...


Daniel Wilcox said...

Thanks for posting this review of the lecture. I had not heard of this thinker before. Where have I been?!
I did just finish Young Stalin a biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore so am thinking a lot about Russia.

It's amazing that Pavel Florensky survived as long as he did.

On a side note: Also baffling that he had a friendly relationship with Trotsky. Do you have any speculative comment to make about how the U.S.S.R. might have been different if Trotsky had ruled (not Stalin)?

Johan Maurer said...

I have the sense that Trotsky and Florensky didn't really know each other. Trotsky simply thought that the electrification program was more important than citizen Florensky's peculiarities.

If Trotsky had ruled, mass terror would still have been used, but perhaps with somewhat greater precision. But the biggest difference (and this is a risky thing to say, maybe) would have been the way things might have unfolded differently with respect to June 1941.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Thanks for sharing your perspective and speculation.

I like alternative history novels:-)

Why do you think it would have been different with "respect to June 1941?

I wondered if Trotsky would have signed a treaty with Hitler?

He seems to have been more doctrinaire than Stalin, and as ruthless but in a different way.

Patricia S. said...

Enjoyed this very much, Johan. I read Iconostasis some year's back at Natasha Zh's recommendation.His theory of borders in some ways fits into a lot of contemporary thinking about arts and culture, but for him, and maybe for any believing person, it is much more. To be human is to exist between two states of being? Always in two states or spaces of being?

Johan Maurer said...

Daniel, the butterfly effects of an alternate Trotsky history are so wildly impossible to calculate that I won't go much further in commenting -- except to say that Britain and France played a role in the USSR's decision to sign a deal with Hitler. If Trotsky had been leader, or co-leader with Stalin or with another of the leading Old Bolsheviks, would the Western powers have been readier to cement an alliance with the USSR, or even less enthusiastic?

Speaking of alternate histories, last month I met a man in Jerusalem, Boris Grinshtein, who is writing an alternate history of the USA, proposing to show what might have happened if the Russian presence in northwestern North America had actually taken hold and become a country, a Russian America coexisting with the USA and Canada. His rule was not to change anything in history, technology, geography, etc., that could reasonably have remained as it is now, other than the historical fork triggered by one meeting that could have taken place, but didn't. In other words, he did lots of research, with intriguing results. Russian readers can visit his story here.

Patricia, I'm glad you saw this post. I'm not qualified to talk about two states of being -- I'm a typical non-metaphysically-oriented Quaker :)) -- but I think that being a believer does involve saying "yes" to a deeper reality. And that deeper reality is not one we're really sure we want to access, despite the absolute Grace and Love at its center. Too often it seems safer to stick with the familiar.