Every once in a while, in the course of my ever-expanding investigations into the history of everything, I run across some obscure figure who seems worth writing about. The latest is Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov (or Fyodorovich Fyodorov, if you prefer); I gather he’s not that obscure in Russia, but I’d never heard of him. He was born in 1828 (according to my reference books) or 1829 (according to various online sources), the illegitimate son of Prince Pavel Ivanovich Gagarin (as was customary in such cases, he was given the name and patronymic of his godfather); he had a decent education (though he was expelled from the Richelieu Lyceum of Odessa) and became a peripatetic teacher of history and geography before finding library work in Moscow in 1868. A decade later he joined the staff of the Rumyantsev Museum (now the Russian State Library), where he spent the next quarter of a century writing religio-philosophico-quasiscientific tracts that apparently impressed the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (though he published nothing during his lifetime—did they get manuscripts, or was it all word of mouth?). What he’s best known for is his insistence that mankind must become immortal and bring everyone who ever lived back to life, which sounds like standard-issue kookery but was apparently taken seriously in the Soviet period, influencing “scientific research… and even government policy” (according to S.V. Utechin). But the details! James Billington, in his indispensible The Icon and the Axe, says (on p. 443): “He also returned periodically to the idea that the assertive, artificial world of men contains less wisdom than that of animals, and that of animals less than that of the composed and earth-bound vegetable world.” So next time you eat a carrot, remember—it may be wiser than you! And according to the Russian Wikipedia entry, he refused to allow himself to be photographed or painted; the only existing representation was surreptitiously drawn by Leonid Pasternak, the poet’s father.
What has this to do with language, you say? I’ll tell you: according to Stephen Lukashevich’s N. F. Fedorov (1828-1903): A Study in Russian Eupsychian and Utopian Thought (pp. 144 ff.), Fedorov thought language began as an attempt to communicate with the dead fathers in the sky, and writing was “another fictitious resurrection of the dead fathers”:
As the evolution of mankind was accompanied by a process of secularization, the written language gradually lost its sacred, resurrectional character and its pictorial expression, until it became phonetic and alphabetical. Yet apparently this process of the secularization of the written language met with resistance, as witnessed by the fact that the writers and copyists of the Middle Ages continued to embellish their texts with a calligraphy and illuminations that often were as complex as the hieroglyphics and ideograms of the past. Moreover, their penmanship continued to retain its sacred character to the extent that it was possible to speak of a Gothic or of a Byzantine style of writing, just as one could speak of Gothic or Byzantine church architecture. But with the appearance of the cult of progress, which repudiated as evil all that was past, the written language lost its sacred, resurrectional character and became a means for preparing legal and commercial documents. Furthermore, as repudiation of the past and of the ancestors (fathers) was also a repudiation of fraternity, so too the written language, which helped the cause of progress, became a vehicle for the unfraternal relations that reigned in the modern world. Accordingly, the complex calligraphy and the intricate styles of penmanship yielded, first to plain, official writing, then to soberly efficient printing, and, finally to shorthand and stenography.
Fedorov called modern writing “the work of men who have stopped being human and who have become typewriters.” The quote is from his (posthumous) magnum opus, Философия общего дела [The Philosophy of the Common Task], originally published 1906-13 and available in English in What Was Man Created For? The Philosophy of the Common Task: Selected Works, ed. E. Koutiassov and M. Minto (Lausanne, Switzerland: Honeyglen/L’Age d’Homme, 1990). Besides the Wikipedia articles linked above (the Russian one has links to many of his writings in Russian), this webpage has a convenient summary of his views. I don’t know why, but I have an unreasonable fondness for these unaffiliated crackpots, burrowing away at their obsessive analyses of Life, God, and Meaning, glaring with half-seeing eyes at the world around them and scribbling, scribbling, scribbling. If his project for mass resurrection gets underway, I look forward to having a chat with Nikolai Fedorovich.