Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius: The Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Russia’s Unknown da Vinci by Avril Pyman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
We seem to have a fascination with imagining the end of society. We like to talk as if we’re at the end of an era, the twilight of Western civilization or something similar. This appears in our rhetoric, but it also appears in the glut of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies and books of late. I often find myself wondering if the Byzantines felt the same way in the late 1300s, or the early Britons in the face of the Norman invasions, or anyone at all during the long twilight of Rome.
The truth seems to be that society goes through transitions– some quite painfully abrupt and others so gradual as to be unapparent until years or centuries later. For Christians, ideas about these collapses or transitions often take the form of fantasies of persecution or monastic retreat. We wonder what the Church might look like, how it would endure or be transformed, in such transitions. Ironically though, we forget that we have examples from the recent past of what the Church looks like when society collapses or transforms abruptly beyond recognition. Besides the more relevant example of Christianity in the Middle East today, we have the story of the Orthodox Church in Russia. It’s a story that I still don’t know all the details of, the collapse of an old order and the transition from one form of civilized society to another very different. What did the Bolshevik Revolution mean for the practicing faithful and for the institutional Church itself?
Pyman’s book doesn’t answer all these questions. In fact, it assumes the reader already has the context in which to situate the story she’s telling: that of the life of Pavel Florensky (1882 – 1937), a Russian scientist and intellectual, a father, a priest, and ultimately a declared enemy of the Soviet state. This was one of my primary frustrations with the book: I was dropped into a narrative that I still don’t have enough bearings to navigate. Pyman discusses Florensky’s early work in a plethora of Russian names I don’t know, and when the drama of the cataclysmic revolution that would have such an effect on the Church and Florensky’s life within it take place, again the reader is assumed to already understand the contexts of the events being alluded to. It’s difficult to understand the nature of Florensky’s role and reactions to these transformations if, for instance, you don’t already have a grasp on the role the Church played with respect to the government under the last Tsar and a basic knowledge of its hierarchical structure. All this knowledge is assumed. Indeed, not having much of the context of late Tsarist and early Soviet Russia made Florensky’s eventual brushes with the Soviet authorities seem to me perhaps as arbitrary and obscure as they must have to the new Soviet citizens who found themselves in a wash of acronyms, bureaus, committees, and police services that seemingly sprang up overnight.
But Pyman is not writing a book about social transformation or the plight of the Church after the revolution as it found itself in an increasingly and militaristically atheistic society. (If someone could recommend such a book, I would be interested.) Rather, Pyman’s book is about a man, Pavel Florensky, who came to age in the flourishing of the pre-revolutionary intellectual and literary scene and shocked many of his avant-garde social circle by coming to faith and ultimately joining the Church, an organization thought to embody many of the oppressive, traditionalist forces the young guard were rallying against. His first major work, The Ground and Pillar of Faith, which I have not read, is an intellectual apology for faith (something along the lines of a Russian Mere Christianity) lived in the life of the Orthodox Church and still influential today.
Florensky was also recognized and highly regarded as a scientist, and when the theological schools at which he taught were closed after the Soviets came to power, he worked and published extensively as an electrical researcher on behalf of the state. He ultimately lost his parish and in many ways his priestly vocation, but he famously retained his beard and cassock working and lecturing on science in an increasingly hostile environment. His life is the story of intense learning and service, but also of a rear-guard action, a long defeat, trying (for instance while serving on the board of antiquities for Russia’s most revered monastery) to save the traditions and artifacts of the Church (even, according to this account, smuggling away the head of a saint whose tomb was to be desecrated) in an increasingly grim time.
It’s the story of a long failure, as Florensky is finally arrested, does more scientific work for a time in a Siberian camp, writes his wife and children beautiful letters from a crumbling monastery converted in a labor camp and prison on the North Sea, and is ultimately shot on obscure charges and buried in a mass grave outside Moscow. It is in these final days that Pyman’s account becomes most poignant, balancing a despairing narrative of the wearing away of individuality in the gulag archipelago with passages of hope from Florensky’s letters home.
I’m stuck by the deep Christian heritage there is to draw upon in the Russian tradition. Florensky the scientist and father was a contemporary of the Athonite monk St. Silouan, whose work I’m also reading now. Silouan represents a deeply contemplative, mystical approach to faith lived out in obedience and humility in a Russian monastery on Athos. Florensky, on the other hand, was an intellectual (though also with a mystical bent), a family man, with a wife and five children, writing and teaching in the tumult of Moscow. Florensky and Siouan lived very different embodiments of the common faith, and Florensky’s life gives some hope in the possibility of living in grace in the context of home and science.
As far as Florensky’s actual scientific contributions, Pyman does a good job documenting his career and giving summaries of his theological work, but her treatment of his mathematical and scientific works are less satisfactory. We’re told he was a great mathematician, that he anticipated certain developments in quantum mechanics even, and that he drew on this to construct some kind of theology of number, but none of this is expounded on, and as far as his context among Russian science in general, very little is said. This is likely due to the writer’s background, but it leaves the true extent and lasting influence of Florensky to be taken on faith by those outside the Russian scientific sphere. (The question of Florensky’s influence is one I would have liked to have heard more about. The narrative stops abruptly with his death, offering no discussion of the fate of his family or how his writings and influence began to make themselves felt during the long Soviet thaw.)
For those who are trying to practice a life of faith lived out in writing, in intellectual dialogue, teaching, and service– and this in the spheres of both family and asceticism– the account of Florensky’s life, successes, and long fading will be inspiring and poignant. They will recognize a kindred spirit. And for those who bemoan the uncertainty of the times, the transitions or dissolutions of the culture, and the fate of the Church within all this, they will find an example of what a life of faith looked like played out in a “post-apocalyptic” society.
Take heart, little flock.