Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 14

Section 11: Nikolai Federov, Bolshevism and The Technological Pursuit of Immortality

Gray continues with his riveting discourse on the delusions of humanism, which he argues is just another mask for religion and stems from the same  human needs.  Nikolai Federov (1828-1903), as his name indicates, was a nineteenth century Russian teacher and librarian who spent most of his career working in the Rumiantsev Museum, at the time Moscow’s leading lending library.  He is also known as Nikolai Fyodorovich Fedorov, with his surname spelt with either an “e” or an “o”.  He is one of the most important, but perhaps most ignored, prophets of space flight.  Here is what the commentator Nader Elhefnawy says about Fedorov on the site The Space Review:

Like these other thinkers, his thought was powerfully shaped by both Orthodox Christianity and Hegelian philosophy. Also like many of them, he had little trouble reconciling religion and science in a way that would shock the belligerents in today’s war over Creationism. A common product of this combination of ideas was not just a focus on eschatology, but a “Christianity of action.” Rather than passively waiting for God to bring on the Millennium, being a good Christian meant participating in the building of heaven on Earth.

It was the way in which he expected this to come about that really separated Fedorov from the others. In his thinking there is only one evil in the world that really counts, death. Moreover, rather than being accepted as a part of “the human condition,” part of the human mission is the technological conquest of death. This means not only achieving immortality, but restoring all the people who have ever walked the Earth to life so that they may share the gift as well, making the heaven of the afterlife a physical reality. (Put in Fedorov’s terms, there must be “sonship” as well as brotherhood in the human family, which entails duty to our ancestors, for whom death must also be conquered.) [See the following link: Space Review ]

Gray puts it more succinctly: “The human enterprise was the technological resurrection of the dead.” (Op. cit., 137)  Our philosopher argues forcefully that Federov (the spelling Gray prefers) influenced greatly the Bolsheviks, especially in their overpowering and all-pervading belief that technology could emancipate mankind from the Earth itself.  Gray informs us that Federov’s ideas inspired the leading  Russian rocket engineers.  Again returning to an oft-repeated theme our philosopher comments:

Federov’s view of humanity as a chosen species, desperate to conquer the earth and defeat mortality, is a modern formulation of ancient faith. (Ibid., 137)

That technology could achieve the emancipation of humankind Gray calls by the beautifully sounding name of “Technological Gnosticism.” (Ibid., 138) I love this powerfully loaded term.  Gray follows the development of the influence of Federovian thought on the likes of Karl Marx and the early and late communists and states that the horrific nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl was a direct consequence of such “flawed” thinking – again my terms, not Gray’s.  It’s hard to disagree with our philosopher that the legacy of Soviet Russia was a devastated environment.

Section 12: Artificial Paradises:

This is an interesting section as it recounts humankind’s enchantment with drugs and their effects.  In an article called “Mescaline, Psilocybin, and Creative Artists,” available on the internet, Stanley Krippner reports that the actor Cary Grant praised LSD for giving him "a new assessment of life," that Blues singer Ms. Ronnie Gilbert improved her mental health in LSD therapy.  I have already referred to the fact that our own Professor Ivor Browne used LSD in his early psychiatric practice here in Dublin; something that he had learnt in the States.  Needless to say, he discontinued it soon afterwards.  In Krippner’s article he reports that of all the chemical substances, LSD was mentioned by more artists than any other drug, followed by marijuana, DMT, peyote, mescaline, morning glory seeds, psilocybin, hashish, DET, and yage.  To read the article in full see the following link: Creativity and Drugs

At college we were all informed of the opium-addicted great Romantic poet and philosopher S.T. Coleridge - he was using as much as two quarts of laudanum (opium mixed with brandy, which was freely available at apothecaries in England at the time) a week. Eventually he had the good sense to put himself under the care of a Dr. Daniel in 1814 in an effort to kick the habit. In 1817, Coleridge, with his addiction worsening, his spirits depressed, and his family alienated, took residence in the home of another friendly physician James Gillman, with whom he remained for the rest of his life.  he was never to beat the habit.  If the reader has read Kubla Khan and other such poems by S.T. Coleridge, one would be little surprised if the effects of opium can be seen in these works.  Again we read concerning Yeats in Roy Foster's monumental work (W.B. Yeats: A Life, Vol 1) on Ireland’s favourite and arguably greatest modern poet that W.B. is very much of our times:  he was drug-taking (he preferred hashish to mescal) and was drawn to mysticism.  Probably one of the two activities helped the other.

These are the types of artificial paradises that Gray has in mind in this section, though he does not many any of the above authors I have alluded to, though he does mention Henry Havelock Ellis (1859 - 1939) who was a British sexologist, physician, and social reformer and who experimented with the drug Mescal (the fresh or dried button-like tubercles of peyote plant, chewed as a drug by certain Native American peoples. Also called peyote)and wrote of his experiments.  Gray argues for the legalization of drugs where the prohibiting of them has driven the practice underground and has caused an escalation in drug-related crimes. (See ibid., 140-141)  In the USA Gray sees the war against drugs as “a puritan war on pleasure.” (Ibid., 141)

All of the above is a consequence, Gray argues, of the failure of humankind to admit the “normal unhappiness of human life.”  They prefer rather to propagate myths of afterlife (Religions) and infinite human progress (Humanism)

Above the sea at Donabate, late 2007. The Sea, the Sky and the Strand are one in a great greyness (or Gray-ness) of being! Stupid Pun!

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