Tag Archives: Stanisław Lem

Corona Solaris

The sun's corona seen during a solar eclipse

The sun’s corona seen during a solar eclipse

In “Corona” by Paul Celan:

“we love one another like poppies and memory,
we sleep like wine in a seashell,
like the sea in the moon’s bloody rays.”1

Even in the present tense and indicative mood, the speaker’s words contain a distance and an “if only.” The poem inhabits the utopia of a moment, whose impossibility is felt as a lament in the comparison of the retro-future and the present. We know which one we make now.

The poem’s imagery of coronae and red water reminds me of Lem’s Solaris: “The wave-crests glinted through the window, the colossal rollers rising and falling in slow-motion. […] Thick foam, the color of blood, gathered in the troughs of the waves.”2

1 Paul Celan, “Corona,” in Selections, ed. Pierre Joris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 44.
2 Stanisław Lem, Solaris, trans. Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox (San Diego: Harvest, 1987), 8.

A Retrospective Form of Appearance

[Left:] Cover of Stanisław Lem's His Master's Voice, trans. Michael Kandel (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1999); [Right:] Portrait of G. W. F. Hegel (1831) by Jakob Schlesinger

[Left:] Cover of Stanisław Lem’s His Master’s Voice; [Right:] Portrait of G. W. F. Hegel (1831) by Jakob Schlesinger

The narrator of Lem’s His Master’s Voice (1968), reflecting on the publishing of his thesis, speaks of a former rival in mathematics. I chuckled at his comparison of the rival to philosopher G. W. F. Hegel:

And yet, when I received from the publisher the fresh, stiff copies of my articles, bright as if bathed in new glory, I would have lucid moments; before me would appear Dill, dry, thin as a beanpole, inflexible, his face like a portrait of Hegel—and I hated Hegel, I could not read him, because he was so sure of himself, as if the Absolute Itself spoke through his lips for the greater glory of the Prussian state. Hegel, I realize now, had nothing to do with it; I had put him in the place of another person.1

I know this is a work of fiction, but it expresses (lucidly) a symptom of the 20th century’s thinkers’ difficulty in understanding Hegel. This incomprehension at Hegel’s confidence isn’t just restricted to fictional characters. It can be seen in many thinkers of today. This incomprehension is a necessary form of appearance which comes about due to the qualitative divide between the 20th century and the time of Hegel. As can be seen even in the decade after Hegel’s death, the split into Left- and Right-Hegelian philosophy almost immediately began to show signs of trouble in grappling with the world. Was Hegel simply wrong, “too idealistic,” too “teleological”? No. What if bourgeois society had entered into a crisis that subsequently sent tremors through an architecture set up to comprehend a different world?

In “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923), Karl Korsch points out the trouble that bourgeois historians of philosophy have with this period of the 1830s-60s.2 Marx and Engels understood that the appearance of the false certainty of Hegel is not due to a thought-error by Hegel, but rather by a fundamental change in society, namely the crisis of bourgeois society that is expressed in the Industrial Revolution. Marxism picks up the Hegelian dialectic, rather than rejecting it, which was seen in the rise of neo-Kantianism in the 1860s.

1 Stanisław Lem, His Master’s Voice, trans. Michael Kandel (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1999).
2 Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923), in Marxism and Philosophy, trans. Fred Halliday (New York: Verso, 2012), 37-38.

Unsettling Corporeal Movements

In Stanisław Lem’s Solaris (1961), a pilot is interviewed after a flight on an alien planet, as a part of a scientific investigation:

BERTON: […] While I was still some distance away, I noticed a pale, almost white, object floating on the surface. My first thought was that it was Fechner’s flying-suit, especially as it looked vaguely human in form. I brought the aircraft round sharply, afraid of losing my way and being unable to find the same spot again. The shape, the body, was moving; sometimes it seemed to be standing upright in the trough of the waves. I accelerated and went down so low that the machine bounced gently. I must have hit the crest of a huge wave I was overflying. The body—yes, it was a human body, not at atmosphere-suit—the body was moving.
QUESTION: Did you see its face?
QUESTION: Who was it?
BERTON: A child.
QUESTION: What child? Did you recognize it?
BERTON: No. At any rate, I don’t remember having seen it before. Besides, when I got closer—when I was forty yards away, or even sooner—I realized that it was no ordinary child.
QUESTION: What do you mean?
BERTON: I’ll explain. At first, I couldn’t understand what worried me about it; it was only after a minute or two that I realized: this child was extraordinarily large. Enormous, in fact. Stretched out horizontally, its body rose twelve feet above the surface of the ocean, I swear. I remembered that when I touched the wave, its face was a little higher than mine, even though my cockpit must have been least ten feet above the ocean.
QUESTION: If it was as big as that, what makes you say it was a child?
BERTON: Because it was a tiny child.
QUESTION: Do you realize, Berton, that your answer doesn’t make sense?
BERTON: On the contrary. I could see its face, and it was a very young child. Besides, its proportions corresponded exactly to the proportions of a child’s body. It was a … babe in arms. No, I exaggerate. It was probably two or three years old. It had black hair and blue eyes—enormous blue eyes! It was naked—completely naked—like a new-born baby. It was wet, or I should say glossy; its skin was shiny. I was shattered. I no longer thought it was a mirage. I could see this child so distinctly. It rose and fell with the waves; but apart from this general motion, it was making other movements, and they were horrible!
QUESTION: Why? What was it doing?
BERTON: It was more like a doll in a museum, only a living doll. It opened and closed its mouth, it make various gestures, horrible gestures.
QUESTION: What do you mean?
BERTON: I was watching it from about twenty yards away—I don’t suppose I went any closer. But, as I’ve already told you, it was enormous. I could see very clearly. Its eyes sparkled and you really would have thought it was a living child, if it hadn’t been for the movements, the gestures, as though someone was trying … It was as though someone else was responsible for the gestures …
QUESTION: Try to be more explicit.
BERTON: It’s difficult. I’m talking of an impression, more of an intuition. I didn’t analyze it, but I knew that those gestures weren’t natural.
QUESTION: Do you mean, for example, that the hands didn’t move as human hands would move, because the joints were not sufficiently supple?
BERTON: No, not at all. But … these movements had no meaning. Each of our own movements means something, more or less, serves some purpose …
QUESTION: Do you think so? The movements of an infant don’t have much meaning!
BERTON: I know. But an infant’s movements are confused, random, uncoordinated. The movements I saw were … er … yes, that’s it, they were methodical movements. They were performed one after another, like a serious of exercises; as though someone had wanted to make a study of what this child was capable of doing with its hands, its torso, its mouth. The face was more horrifying than the rest, because the human face has an expression, and this face … I don’t know how to describe it. It was alive, yes, but it wasn’t human. Or rather, the features, as a whole, the eyes, the complexion, were, but the expression, the movements of the face, were certainly not.
QUESTION: Were they grimaces? Do you know what happens to a person’s face during an epileptic fit?
BERTON: Yes. I’ve watched an epileptic fit. I know what you mean. No, it was something quite different. Epilepsy provokes spasms, convulsions. The movements I’m talking about were fluid, continuous, graceful … melodious, if one can say that of a movement. It’s the nearest definition I can think of. But this face … a face can’t divide itself into two—one half gay, the other sad, one half scowling and the other amiable, one half frightened and the other triumphant. But that’s how it was with this child’s face. In addition to that, all these movements and changes of expression succeeded one another with unbelievable rapidity. I stayed down there a very short time, perhaps ten seconds, perhaps less (80-83).

Solaris: Communication, Perception, and Imperfection

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).

Imagined Scientific Practices

It’s always kind of interesting to find the parts of science fiction in which fictional sciences are discussed. Here are a couple of my favorites that come to mind:

Shevek’s work in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, specifically his “General Temporal Theory.” He attempts to tie a physics of time to philosophy and ethics:

The Anarresti hoped to restore the fertility of that restless earth by replanting the forest. This was, Shevek thought, in accordance with the principle of Causative Reversibility, ignored by the Sequency school of physics currently respectable on Anarres, but still an intimate, tacit element of Odonian thought. He would like to write a paper showing the relationship of Odo’s ideas to the ideas of temporal physics, and particularly the influence of Causative Reversibility on her handling of the problem of ends and means.

Next up is Hamid Parsani’s study of the “Telluro-Magnetic Conspiracy Towards the Sun” in Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia:


An essayist in Cyclonopedia writes:

For a long time now the magnetosphere, this ultra-ancient cocoon around the planetary body, has enriched the earth’s tellurian insurgency, telling the earth forbidden stories from the Outside, teaching it how to reach immanence with the Sun, and ultimately completing the hatching process of its inner black Egg, or the treacherous Insider. In Tellurian Insurgency, everything—whether stratified or not—assists the earth in hatching its xeno-chemical Insider.

Finally, as the second part of Stanisław Lem’s Imaginary Magnitude, is the introduction to fictional author Reginald Gulliver’s Eruntics—a work on bacterial linguistics:

The biochemical action of Gulliveria coli prophetissima behaves then as a transmitter linking various space-time intervals. Bacteria are a hypersensitive receiver of certain likelihoods, and nothing more. Bacterial futurology has admittedly become a reality, though it is fundamentally unpredictable in its consequences, since the future-tracking behavior of bacteria cannot be controlled.

This kind of inventive science can be fun to think about. I think it kind of influenced my input on the Data and Algorithm projects.

Being Introduced to Stanisław Lem

About a month ago I saw a great short film, Golem [above], on vimeo of morphing computer-animated forms set with an entrancing voice-over that directly addresses the viewer. The video’s description pointed out that it was based on the short story, “Golem XIV”, in Imaginary Magnitude by Stanisław Lem. Shortly after seeing the film, I picked up the book, but it wasn’t until today that I finally opened it. Apparently the book is made up only of introductions, in such a way that they present imaginary worlds. It’s a fantastic idea—one that embraces the awe-inspiring qualities of science fiction. In the first introduction, which may be an additional level of fictional introduction, Lem declares, “So I shall show you Introductions as one shows a richly carved doorframe chased in gold and surmounted by counts and griffins on a majestic lintel. [. . .] What will you gain? Supreme liberty, for no words of mine will obtrude upon your ear in your pure upward flight. I shall take you only as a pigeon-fancier takes a pigeon, and slings it like David’s stone, like a rock in the path, so that it may fly off into this immensity—for eternal enjoyment.”1

Looking back, I find that this is not entirely my first meeting with Lem’s work. I’ve seen two adaptations of Lem’s 1961 novel, Solaris: Andrei Tarkovsky’s from 1972, and Steven Soderbergh’s from 2002. Apparently there is another adaptation that precedes both of these, which came out in 1968, and was directed by Boris Nirenburg. I enjoyed the two films I saw, and now it seems I have more incentive to read the original novel, given the exciting opening of Imaginary Magnitude.



1. Stanisław Lem, Imaginary Magnitude, trans. Marc E. Heine (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), 9.