Still from Steven Soderbergh’s film adaptation, Solaris (2002)
I just finished Stanisław Lem’s novel Solaris (1961) a month or so ago. The driving force of the novel is the attempt to comprehend, and have a meaningful dialogue with an alien entity. The ambiguities of communication are also troubling among the main characters themselves as they try to make sense of the object of their study.
After the crew on the station beamed Kris Kelvin’s brainwaves as x-rays into the ocean, Kelvin experiences dreadful, incredibly lucid dreams, which may well have happened:
I have never had visions of that kind before or since, so I decided to note them down and to transcribe them approximately, in so far as my vocabulary permits, given that I can convey only fragmentary glimpses almost entirely denuded of an incommunicable horror.
A blurred region, in the heart of vastness, far from earth and heaven, with no ground underfoot, no vault of sky overhead, nothing. I am the prisoner of an alien matter and my body is clothed in a dead, formless substance—or rather I have no body, I am that alien matter. Nebulous pale pink globules surround me, suspended in a medium more opaque than air, for objects only become clear at very close range, although when they do approach they are abnormally distinct, and their presence comes home to me with a preternatural vividness. The conviction of its substantial, tangible reality is now so overwhelming that later, when I wake up, I have the impression that I have just left a state of true perception, and everything I see after opening my eyes seems hazy and unreal.
That is how the dream begins. All around me, something is awaiting my consent, my inner acquiescence, and I know, or rather the knowledge exists, that I must not give way to an unknown temptation, for the more the silence seems to promise, the more terrible the outcome will be. Yet I essentially know no such thing, because I would be afraid if I know, and I never felt the slightest fear.
I wait. Out of the enveloping pink mist, an invisible object emerges, and touches me. Inert, locked in the alien matter that encloses me, I can neither retreat nor turn away, and still I am being touched, my prison is being probed, and I feel this contact like a hand, and the hand recreates me. Until now, I thought I saw, but had no eyes: now I have eyes! Under the caress of the hesitant fingers, my lips and cheeks emerge from the void, and as the caress goes further I have a face, breath stirs in my chest—I exist. And recreated, I in my turn create: a face appears before me that I have never seen until now, at once mysterious and known. I strain to meet its gaze, but I cannot impose any direction on my own, and we discover one another mutually, beyond any effort of will, in an absorbed silence. I have become alive again, and I feel as if there is no limitation on my powers. This creature—a woman?—stays near me, and we are motionless. The beat of our hearts combines, and all at once, out of the surrounding void where nothing exists or can exist, steals a presence of indefinable, unimaginable cruelty. The caress that created us and which wrapped us in a golden cloak becomes the crawling of innumerable fingers. Our white, naked bodies dissolve into a swarm of black creeping things, and I am—we are—a mass of glutinous coiling worms, endless, and in that infinity, no, I am infinite, and I howl soundlessly, begging for death and for an end. But simultaneously I am dispersed in all directions, and my grief expands in a suffering more acute than any waking state, a pervasive, scattered pain piercing the distant blacks and reds, hard as rock and ever-increasing, a mountain of grief visible in the dazzling light of another world (178-180).
While the excerpt above reminds me vaguely of various philosophical approaches to the problem of understanding perception, e.g. those of René Descartes and G. W. F. Hegel, it also reminded me of creation myths, with ideas such as there being something that sprouts out of a void.
Of course the excerpt above expresses a sense of imperfection in the narrator’s ability to comprehend this interaction, and, in fact, it’s merely another episode of many in the novel, in which the characters are constantly confounded by their findings in their “Solaristics” research. Obviously communication is an imperfect relation of exchange of ideas, but when no meaningful (to the scientists) findings arise throughout the novel, they come to an acceptance of this frustrating imperfection as it emerges from human communication itself. Characters reflect on the narcissism of humans highlighted by their anger at Solaris’s refusal to affirm humanity in the ways they had hoped. The scientists’ visitors on the station, which are brought about by their own memories, challenge them to ask if they really can handle inhuman communication or even self-reflection via an inhuman mediation.
Slavoj Žižek has written on Solaris, and come to some interesting conclusions in his essay, “The Thing from Inner Space” (Mainview, 1999). The concept he wishes to explore in this essay is the trauma of experiencing an impossible, indiscernible materialization of the Real within a subject.
Here is a short video clip from his film The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), in which he talks about the self-reflection that goes on in Solaris, using material from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation, Солярис [Solaris] (1972).