Svetlana Semenova (1941–2014)
Svetlana Grigoryevna Semenova was the best-known and most influential figure among late- and post-Soviet cosmists, the first postwar thinker to popularize the teaching of Nikolai Fedorov (1828–1903). She graduated from the Romano-Germanic Faculty of Moscow State University in 1964 as a specialist in French language and literature. From 1974 to 1977 she held the Foreign Languages Chair at the A. M. Gorky Literature Institute, and in 1988 she began a post as researcher at the A.M. Gorky Institute of World Literature of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 1987, she began hosting a philosophical seminar for the study and dissemination of the heritage of Fedorov, which she led until her death in 2014. She was the editor of the first collection of Fedorov’s works published in the Soviet period (1982), which was also the first-ever mass edition of his writing, as all prerevolutionary publications had come in the form of limited editions of several hundred copies. Semenova and her daughter, Anastasiya Gacheva, would later publish the collected works of Fedorov in five volumes (see: Fedorov, Sobranie sochinenii). Of all the cosmists, it is Semenova who most emphatically maintained the prophetic potential of Fedorov’s teaching. Semenova’s particular approach within cosmism can be more precisely described as anthropocosmism, since it underscores the active and assertive role of humankind in the transformation of the cosmos.
Critique of Existentialism
Semenova considered the philosophy of cosmism in the context of its two main branches, those of religion/philosophy and of the natural sciences. Her early philosophical interests can be traced to her preoccupation with French existentialism, which she admired for the depths of metaphysical tragedy explored by Camus and Sartre—the search for human meaning in a meaningless world. However, upon discovering Fedorov in 1972, she came to believe that the tragedy of the individual in an absurd world is not merely a status quo, but a condition that ought to be transcended. In her later works, she faults Camus for offering pessimistic and egocentric “solutions” to the existential dilemma “to be or not to be” (including philosophicallly motivated suicide), which are mired in the traditions of European individualism.
“The artistic-playful teleology … cannot transform the natural foundation of things, abolish the tragedy of mortal human fate; [Camus’s] ideal civilization so far does not dare encroach on it. [In Camus,] [t]he European idea of culture triumphs as the highest compensation and justification of the natural order of existence” (Preodolenie tragedii 260).
Despite recognizing the absurdity of being, a condition rooted in the inevitable return to nonbeing, the existentialists do not propose changes to being itself; instead, they seek solace in the realm of individual self–realization in politics or culture, where death can be overcome only symbolically, for instance through the immortality of an artist’s works. Of course, French existentialism, especially as represented by Jean-Paul Sartre, with his philosophy of active social engagement, did have a strong commitment to changing the world, but only politically and morally, whereas the physical and metaphysical problem of death and absurdity was presumed to remain intact, as an eternal curse of humanity.
Thus did Semenova’s encounter with Fedorov provide her with a philosophical solution to the problem of the absurd, settling accounts with her formative existentialist period. Whereas existentialism’s best proposal is an individual recourse to freedom, which allows one to counterpose one’s private and unique tragic challenge to universal absurdity, Fedorov’s “Common Cause” (obshchee delo) attacks the problem of absurdity at its source—death. With the realization of his project, the absurd is overcome, not just for the individual, and not just symbolically, but in reality and for all humanity.
The “Common Cause” and the Future Unity of Humanity
Unlike the majority of her fellow cosmists, who take scientific perspectives on the Fedorovian Common Cause, Semenova remains most faithful to the original moral and religious impetus of Fedorov’s ideas. So faithful that, indeed, it is often difficult to distinguish her own thought from that of Fedorov. She seems to have understood her own task as a relatively modest one: the continuation of Fedorov’s project for the future, incorporating both a defense of his ideas and ways for adapting them in light of the technological advancements and social transformations of the contemporary world. In her view, now that the world is even more variegated and divided than in Fedorov’s time, the need for a spiritual absolute that can overcome absurdity and relativism is all the more urgent. Humanity is divided into classes, races, nations, ethnicities, religions, and genders, each of which advances its own ideology and claims priority; but the very number of these competing ideologies attests to the difficulty of finding a common thread from which to weave a panhuman unity. Even the so-called world religions promise salvation only to the subset of the world that professes belief in their dogmas. Secular ideologies, both social and national, are even more limited in their scope, and those which at least gesture at worldwide unity (most recently, Marxism), divide humanity against itself in terms of class—a failure highlighting the need for an absolute that would actually unite the world. For Semenova, the only truly absolute project that could unite humanity, across all national and ideological divisions, is the struggle against death, the common enemy of all people. Thus, Fedorov’s philosophy of the Common Cause is the only framework broad enough to integrate everyone and everything, including those forces generally viewed as antagonistic, such as religion and science. The prospect of immanent immortality attained on earth combines the most far-reaching, transcendental visions of religion with the increasing technological potential of science. Thus, tools of contemporary civilization, such as computing and digitalization, can be interpreted as stages in the realization of Fedorov’s project, since they encompass quantities of information on the immense scale needed for the resuscitation of human beings in their entirety.
Technology of Resurrection
However fantastic Fedorov’s project may seem, Semenova insists that all the workings of civilization unintentionally pave its way. Both contemporary technology and culture are oriented toward providing a more perfect means for the restoration and reproduction of objective phenomena. Photography, television, video, audio, holography, and of course electronic media—all these technologies claim to create another reality, a hyperreality, more perfect and intransient than the one reflected. According to Semenova, these technologies may potentially constitute the precursors of the universal resurrection, which will be able to restore not only the appearance and sound, but the brain and very existence of a person previously deceased. In her view, the legacy of the Church fathers and discoveries of contemporary science alike substantiate Fedorov’s ideas.
For example, she cites from Gregory of Nyssa (335–395): “It is not improbable that this simple and non-complex nature [the soul] abides in each of [the body’s] particles after its disintegration” (Nikolai Fedorov 215). This means that, however dispersed one’s bodily particles become after death, they are still related, like family members who might well achieve a reunion through the act of resurrection. In attempting this, there is no need to strive to gather every atom proper to its original body, as the magnetism of the soul in effect keeps them together even at the distance. Certainly this presupposes the existence of souls that have their own free will, which aligns with the Church belief expounded by Gregory of Nyssa. However, this idea seems incompatible with Fedorov’s project, wherein the initiative of resurrection belongs not to the souls of the deceased, but to the determination of their progeny.
Biology and Theology of Resurrection
Equally acceptable for Semenova is to justify the possibility of resurrection with reference to “biological field” theory, a concept that was advanced in parapsychology and occult science, but that has also been elaborated by certain contemporary scientists. For example, the Belarusian physicist Aleksei Maneev (1921-2016) believes that what the ancients called “soul”—the bearer of individual consciousness—is a biological field (biopole) that is emitted as a wave-like radiation by the human body and is preserved after its death. “If radiated fields (for example radio waves) continue to exist independently of their source, which however does not prevent them from bearing sufficient information, then equally possible is the existence of a bio-field that is ‘radiated’ at the death of an organism, but still preserves all information about it” (Maneev, Filosofskii analiz 130–31). Thus might an organism be reconstructed from bio-field information, just as it was originally constructed from genetic information. Semenova goes so far as to separate the project of resurrection from material substance, proposing that memory, as the ideal reflection, might provide sufficient information to carry out the great task of the Common Cause. Memory preserves information about an object without any material connection to it, thus potentially standing as a generative model of resurrection, and one that would be more efficient than a model based on the search for actual particles of the deceased. For the most part, Semenova is open to any scientific prospect of resurrection, including the cloning of an entire organism from a single cell.
Semenova is careful to distinguish Fedorov’s Common Cause from science fiction, which is based on imaginary technological projections for the future. Resurrection is not so much a technological operation as a moral effort, “a deeply intimate, sublimely and intensively loving process through which human children consciously give birth to their parents from their own selves by all their most subtle and enormously concentrated energies” (Nikolai Fedorov 222). Just as the birth of children represents an extension of the love of their parents, the rebirth of parents is the consequence of their children’s love.
Semenova also responds to those critics of Fedorov who accuse him of necromancy—summoning the spirits of the dead and raising them bodily—by emphasizing, with reference to St. Paul, that the resurrected would inhabit perfected, immortal bodies rather than animate corpses. “We eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20–21). These “glorious” bodies will be capable of self-preservation, whereby life is sustained autotrophically, with complete nourishment generated from sunlight and air. Thus the human body will acquire the innocence of plant organisms, which live by photosynthesis. This capability presupposes a transfiguration of the body, which will become complete and self-creative, subject to conscious self-regulation. It is not, then, only external nature (climate, landscape) that will be subject to human conscious will, but also the organs of the body, which will be modified, even supplemented with innovative additions as dictated by the will and imagination. Fedorov called this polymorphous corporeality “polnoorgannost’”—“the complete range of organs.”
Eroticism in Cosmism
With regard to sexuality, Semenova proposes a model based on an extension of genital eroticism to the entirety of the body. As opposed to Freud, who privileged the male body as the arbiter of sexual identity (since it is the site of the penis), Semenova emphasizes the eroticism of the female body, which is not focused on one organ but distributed among numerous erogenous zones (continual vs. discrete). In questions of eroticism, she relies on the works of one of Fedorov’s followers, Aleksandr Gorsky (1886–1943), who elaborated a theory of the erotic transformation of the universe comparable to certain later developments like Wilhelm Reich’s conception of orgone, Herbert Marcuse’s ideas of polymorphous sexuality, and Norman O. Brown’s “love body.” Gorsky ascribed fundamental importance to autoeroticism, which in his view represents a love of one’s own body in its maximally possible extension, whereby the boundaries between self and the universe become indistinguishable. From this standpoint, the object of autoeroticism is not one’s actual body, but the potential body projected by desire, one that will eventually merge with the whole of the universe. Gorsky calls this cosmic sensuality “magnetic-cloud eroticism” (magnitno-oblachnyi erotizm) since the attraction of desire merges with natural forces (gravity, weather, etc.), thus making eroticism a factor of cosmic evolution, and eventually transforming the entire universe into a self-governing and self-enjoying body.
“The narrowly genital area of sexual reproduction breaks through and encompasses, at its highest conscious stage, the entire human organism. Magnetic-cloud eroticism, the privileging of the blossoming female body, which nourishes drowsy fantasy and creative dream, is now directed consciously and serves the human body’s integration into the world” (Semenova and Gacheva, Russkii kosmizm 25).
Instead of limiting itself to individual reproduction, eroticism expands to encompass the continuing creation of the universe by the force of human desires, which now become absolutely conscious and instrumental, like the skills of a worker. One might note an interesting parallel between two basic conceptions of the body in Semenova’s interpretation of cosmism: autotrophic nourishment and autoeroticism. In both cases, the body becomes a self-contained microcosm that does not require other bodies for sustenance or pleasure. Thus, the dialogic relationship is excluded from this universe of all-encompassing togetherness, or collectivism, which actually becomes a colossal form of solipsism, with the individual embracing the objective world as a part of itself.
Such an approach involves certain moral risks. The assumption that the external world might be made to correspond to internal desire implies the elimination of the boundary between the internal and external. This could transform the world of absolute freedom into a world of absolute violence, insofar as one person’s desires made law would subject others to his or her volition. In postulating the ultimate unity of human consciousness and the physical world (by way of technological transformation), anthropocosmism underestimates the possible moral and psychological consequences of such a unity. How do we preserve individual freedom once the boundary between the internal and external, as the grounds for communication and interaction between sovereign personalities, has been removed?
Salvation and Evolution
Semenova emphasizes that Fedorov’s project is not limited to the social and technological dimension, but extends to eschatology. Since resurrection will also entail the improvement of bodies and their immortality, the Last Judgement will result in apocatastasis—the ultimate salvation of everyone. It would be absurd to designate a perfect body for eternal suffering, but the very process of salvation will involve temporary suffering for those who, through their prior corruption, are unready for transfiguration, after which, however, no one will be condemned. Semenova also rejects traditional views on the ideal, divine world as immutable and fixed in some blessed and shining stupor. This, she argues, is but a projection of our limited intelligence, which sees evolution as incompatible with perfection. And no wonder, as, in our earthly life, evolution is usually associated with a redressing of deficiency. “Motion, change, evolution in the limits of the natural, cosmic world (this is the only world man knows directly and physically) has always taken place through individual harm, has always brought the diminishment and death of the individual, of the singular entity” (Nikolai Fedorov 229). This is why the conventional vision of the next world, in contrast to this material, changing one, has always painted immortal order as beyond the flow of evolution, as absolutely static, like the ideal entities in Plato or the Heavenly Kingdom in Christianity. In Semenova’s view, Fedorov stipulated, to the contrary, mobility and change as indispensable aspects of the Kingdom of God. This type of development, which is free of the degradation of individual living entities, may be called “blissful becoming”—eternal life, but not eternal stasis, which is more akin to the state of death.
Religious and Irreligious Aspects of Anthropocosmism
Analyzing the affinities between Fedorov’s doctrine and other religious teachings, Semenova reveals its correspondences with the Chinese cult of ancestors and its antinomies with Buddhist teachings about Nirvana. Fedorov was likewise critical of Judaism’s conception of Shabbat, of an all-encompassing peace and rest as the ultimate state of God and humanity, which, he alleged, echoes the Buddhist ideal of non-activity. The only religion to sanctify the fullness of human activity, including the victory over death, is Christianity. Christ, in this context, appears less Savior than Resurrector; however, historical Christianity had misunderstood the mission of Christ. As Semenova emphasizes, Fedorov found existing churches too preoccupied with prayer and ritual, and too little interested in actually realizing the project contained symbolically in the celebration of Pascha.
Where religion in concerned, Semenova’s work helps reveal several inner contradictions within Fedorov’s own views. For instance, Fedorov claimed that the Common Cause was the true embodiment of Christ’s teachings, but precisely how he understood Christ’s mission, and that of God himself, remains unclear, since, in his view, the resurrection and transfiguration of the dead will be accomplished by the work of human mind and hands. These atheistic implications in Fedorov’s legacy become even more explicit in Semenova’s writings. She emphasizes that Fedorov is an anti-mystical thinker; there is no place for supernatural mystery in the system of his views, no “beyond.” Even those dimensions always thought to be transcendental become, in Fedorov, immanent; the next world is nothing but a model guiding human aspirations to self-preservation and immortality. Semenova is explicit in her recognition that
the ideal of the Common Cause essentially offers a fitting solution for any ontological variant, even for the situation of extreme metaphysical despair: there is no God, and the world has no meaning. Fedorov would respond, “If this is true, then we must impart meaning to it.” Therefore, if God exists, people become “active tools” of his will … if God does not exist in the form in which theistic religions present him, then the ideal of divine existence as a regulative idea of what is proper leads us to the creation of such existence, to its gradual expansion to the entire universe. (Nikolai Fedorov 233)
This acknowledgement of the possible religious irrelevance of Fedorov’s project is probably the most obvious of Semenova’s deviations from Fedorov’s original intention. In such an interpretation, Christianity is just one of the religions, striving for immortality, a mythological pattern among resurrection stories ubiquitous in world religious traditions. Thus the moral and mystical dimension of Christianity, which demands spiritual transfiguration as the premise of bodily resurrection, is partly detached from the “Common Cause.”
Active Evolutionism: Philosophical and Literary Precursors
Most of Semenova’s works do not claim to present original ideas, but rather to synthesize the diverse sources of cosmism, or active evolutionism, into a coherent system, which she conveys with the energy and eloquence of a preacher. Her style, far from dry academic prose, is full of metaphors, symbols, and rhetorical figures appropriate for the discourse of sermon and exhortation. A significant portion of Semenova’s writings is devoted to the metaphysics of Russian literature, to the motifs of death and immortality and the relationship between nature and civilization, religion and utopia, especially in Andrei Platonov, but also in classical poets of the 19th c., Maksim Gorky, Mikhail Prishvin, Velimir Khlebnikov, Nikolai Zabolotsky, Mikhail Sholokhov, and Leonid Leonov (See: Metafizika russkoi literatury).
Besides Russian thinkers and writers, Semenova is especially fascinated by French philosophers Henri Bergson, with his idea of creative evolution, Teilhard de Chardin, with his concept of noosphere and his evolutionary creationism, and Sri Aurobindo, an Indian philosopher and spiritual leader. One of Semenova’s last books is an investigation—the most fundamental in the Russian language—of Teilhard de Chardin’s life and thought, titled A Pilgrim to the Future (Palomnik v budushchee: P’er Teiar de Sharden). She defines the common denominator of all the various cosmist tendencies as active evolutionism. In her view, the dream of human mastery of the universe was once limited to mythological and literary fantasies, but a century ago, it became a growing tendency of scientific and philosophical thought, whose joint advancement makes such “fantasies” ever more feasible. The theory of evolution challenged the traditional conception of the world as a stable whole, but humanity took another step, coming to understand evolution as a potentially conscious, even deliberate and regulated, process limited only by the human will and imagination.
The idea of active evolution is the necessity of a new conscious stage in world development, when humanity directs [evolution] as dictated by reason and moral sense, takes, so to speak, the steering wheel of evolution in its own hands. It would thus be more precise to define this tendency as not so much cosmic as active evolution. Humankind, for active evolutionists, is still an interim being that is in the process of growth, far from perfection, but at the same time consciously creative, destined to transform not only the external world, but also its own nature. (Semenova and Gacheva, Russkii kosmizm 4)
The assumptions behind active evolutionism echo the philosophies of Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche, inasmuch as these thinkers first strive to immanentize the transcendental, by claiming that God is a creation of humanity or a symbol of its creative abilities—and then to fill the vacancy left by God by the reverse operation of transcendentalizing the immanent through the force of human volition and creativity. The Common Cause of active evolution oversteps the limitations of both the Marxist and Nietzschean projects, since it aspires to the unity of all humanity, not to a privileged class or a cohort of exceptional overmen.
Cosmism and the Individual
In postcommunist Russia, anthropocosmism is especially appealing in that it offers a challenge to both communism and nationalism, aspiring to an international and intersocial unity of all humanity. However, it also challenges the project of liberal democracy. Cosmism and liberalism both reject social or national oppositions as criteria of privilege, but they deeply differ in their primary orientations. In the post-Soviet period, we find an increasing anti-liberal and anti-Westernist stance in Semenova’s orientations, targeting the rather primitive stereotypes of “bourgeois” hedonism and consumerism (see: By the Paths of Cordial Thought). Liberalism inherently rejects any notion of a Common Cause or of an obligatory “labor army,” prioritizing instead the autonomous rights of each individual and protecting the uniqueness of the personality rather than subjecting it to some ideological unity or technological imperative. From the liberal standpoint, individual values are irreducible to any common task, and the project of one ideology for all humanity appears to present a potentially even more dangerous kind of totalitarianism than those relatively “specialized” forms of totalitarianism we find manifested in history: communism and fascism. A panhuman totality may exclude all kinds of otherness, even the otherness of nature with respect to humanity. Thus, the classic Soviet pejorative by which a given person could be designated as hostile—an “enemy of the people”—might now be broadened into a metaphysical accusation: an “enemy of the universe.”
This is not meant to imply that the cosmist project is necessarily antagonistic to individuality. Semenova emphasizes that no part of the universe is expendable; even a single individual (or a single atom) contributes to its unity. But this tribute to individuality is reminiscent of many utopian projects that require the participation of everyone for their realization. Overall, cosmism can be characterized as an extreme form of monism, one that attempts to unify various levels of existence and consciousness under the aegis of a panhuman will. Even Marxism acknowledged the principal difference between the social and the natural orders of the universe; but cosmism attempts to eliminate the boundaries between the psychological, social, natural, and technological spheres to create a universal and perfect entity that would possess simultaneously the qualities of spirit, organism, cosmos, society, and machine.
Mikhail Epstein, September 2021
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