Pavel Florensky, A Quiet Genius: The Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Russia’s Unknown da Vinci

Pavel Florensky, A Quiet Genius: The Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Russia’s Unknown da Vinci

Avril Pyman
New York: Continuum, 2010. xxiii + 304 pages, hardcover, $29.95.

One of the most remarkable but least known figures in the Russian spiritual renaissance of the early twentieth century, Pavel Florensky (1882–1937) was a polymath genius. An ordained Russian Orthodox priest, he made wide-ranging and seminal contributions to mathematics, physics, electrodynamics, folkloristics, philology, marine botany, art history, earth science, philosophy, theology, and esotericism that were part of his lifelong quest for a comprehensive worldview that would unite science, religion, and art; reason and faith; Orthodox tradition and futuristic thaumaturgy. Works by and about Florensky, long suppressed, have only in recent years begun to reappear, and Avril Pyman’s fine book is the first extensive study of him in English.

Especially valuable are her chapters on Florensky’s family and early years, disclosing the Armenian, Georgian, and Azerbaijanian contributions to his breadth of culture and soul. Pyman also describes Florensky’s deep Platonic friendships with a series of brilliant young men; his unromantic but happy marriage to a good woman from a simple peasant background; his devotion to his family; his happiness in daily service as parish priest; and later, after his arrest in Stalin’s terror, his iconic stature among his fellow gulag prisoners. In all this, Pyman helps us see Florensky not only as an extraordinary genius but also as an exceptionally good man.

Although the book generally gives a clearer picture of the man than of his ideas, Pyman does provide valuable guidance to Florensky’s difficult spiritual classic, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, and helps unravel his profound but challenging ideas, such as the connection between discontinuity in non-Euclidian mathematics and the semiheretical Russian spiritual practice of imiaslavie (name worship). Indeed, Florensky’s great theme was the relationship of the latest advances in mathematics and physics to the deepest traditions of mystical Orthodox spirituality. The image that sticks is of Father Pavel in a worn white priest’s cassock lecturing about electrification projects to workers and uniformed communists in a village classroom with a bust of Lenin beside the podium.

Florensky died in Stalin’s gulag in 1937. The publication that led to his last arrest and eventual execution was a paper arguing that the geometry of imaginary numbers predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity for a body moving faster than light is the geometry for the kingdom of God. Even while serving his sentences in Siberia and in the furthest north, Florensky continued to conduct important scientific research on permafrost and on the extraction of iodine from seaweed. Though unable to conduct religious services in the gulag, he did serve as shepherd, friend, and comforter to his fellow inmates.

If, as it should be, this excellent book is eventually reprinted, a few minor errors could be corrected. In the useful glossary of names, and elsewhere in the text, the birth year of the Russian thinker Nikolai Fedorov should be 1829; the name of Fedorov’s friend and follower should be Vladimir Aleksandrovich (not Valentin Alekseevich) Kozhevnikov; and the birth year of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel should be 1770.

George M. Young

The reviewer, a specialist in Russian literature and thought, is adjunct in English and language studies and fellow of the Center for Global Humanities at the University of New England.