A Fountain of 'Knowledge'
Man’s relationship with the cosmos, and by inversion, himself, is a joke: other worlds would never be so simple as to harbour life similar to our own, and it is insane arrogance on the part of humans to assume that we will find our own image, easily manipulated, beyond our own planet. And that which does resemble us will do so in a way that we cannot possibly understand, or even recognise. But Lem doesn’t let the issue rest here, his position is that of a sceptic rather than a nihilist. He signposts our biases, our arrogance, and our conceits. Indeed, clichéd though the term may be, Solaris is in many ways an existentialist treatise. Just as Jean-Paul Sartre dismissed the conceit that science alone is capable of capturing the essence of the world, Lem holds a similar disposition: the research station’s library is filled to the brim with books, reports, recordings – it is a fountain of “knowledge”. But this knowledge has proven useless in understanding the Solarian Ocean.
In the Tarkovsky adaptation, there is a bust of Socrates in the library, calling to mind the infamous slogan “all I know is that I know nothing”. The point is that human knowledge is superficial; we have accumulated so much of it, but it has only enabled us to understand the world insofar as we can conceive of it as an elaborate mechanism. But the transcendental part of our selves evades categorization; human knowledge, as manifested in science, cannot capture it. Our relationship with our own planet, our own history, is called into question.
Indeed, human knowledge itself is confined by the restrictive environment in which it has evolved. Science, according to Lem, is not objective, but a provisional discipline contingent on the subjectivity of the scientist – it is mind-dependent, and the mind is not reliable. The mind is itself embedded in society, and thus influenced by society’s ideals: science, therefore, is a product of society, and can be deformed by ideology to the point that it resembles quasi-religious faith. “Solaristics” – the school of thought that emerged from the study of the Solarian Ocean – exemplifies the ‘science-as-faith’ conceit against which Lem warns us. Science alone can only take us so far; measuring phenomena according to abstract hypotheses does not necessarily result in understanding; there is something far deeper involved. The saying “one cannot put a foot into the same river [or ocean] twice” is perhaps appropriate here: the world is caught up in a perpetual state of flux, the causal process forever ongoing; as such epistemological certainty cannot be acquired through grounding concepts and theories in the propositions of formal logic, which are indifferent to reality’s shifting landscapes.
(US DVD: 29 Jul 2003)
Although this idea has Marxist-Hegelian affinities, this is not to say that Lem conforms to the Soviet paradigm of literature. Granted, like a great deal of the literature that emerged from the Eastern Bloc, Solaris is shamelessly philosophical and saturated in an otherworldly mysticism, but Lem was first and foremost a Pole. Due to the relative literary freedom Polish authors enjoyed at the time, Lem was able to draw on ‘exotic’ influences: his hometown Lwow, for example, where he spent the first twenty-five years of his life, had just three years before his birth been the Habsburg city of Lemberg. It had been caught in a crisis of identity so common to many old imperial cities at the time: always a liberal, cosmopolitan city, steeped in intellectualism and culture, Lem’s Lwow ultimately knew not whether it was Polish or Ukrainian – it no longer had the security imposed upon it by the vanished Empire. Nonetheless, Lwow retained its cultural heritage, and the artistic aromas that had drifted in from Vienna and Prague: Kafka’s disillusioned visions of a shapeless world pulsing with uncertainty; Mach’s positivistic conception of a world governed by purely empirical processes, rather than an underlying metaphysic; Freud’s exposure of a civilization made up of individuals characterized by repressed, unconscious urges – Lem’s immediate literary palate abounded with colours. He was able to transcend the socio-political circumstances in which he wrote, submerging in the text ideas that were philosophically subversive in the USSR. Where Marxist dogma maintained that Communism, as realised by socialism, would be human society perfected, Lem posited that if man is alone in the cosmos, alienated not only from his peers but additionally himself, his perceptive faculties defective, his thoughts and ideas farcical, how could ‘perfection’ be anything other than an absurd ideal?
Lem’s outlook is undoubtedly cynical. Humans, he claims, fight and will continue to fight a Sisyphean struggle in space; something which similarly holds true for our own inner struggle. But this is not to say it is a waste of time; Lem isn’t altogether nihilistic. Indeed, although our predicament is absurd, the search for knowledge is quite simply constitutive of the makeup of our species. Karl Marx spoke of how “the animal is immediately at one with his life activity”; how “it does not distinguish itself from it” since “it is its life activity”. Man, on the other hand, “makes his life activity itself the object of his will and consciousness. He has conscious life activity”. Whilst in many senses this is certainly true, there is a way in which man cannot fully distinguish himself from the life activity that is his search for knowledge; a search that cannot have an end point in time, just as the life activity of the animal has no determinate end point – mindless life activity is only cut short by death; we cannot help but to engage in it. Although the human mind, in all its narrowness, can only find itself at odds with the enigma that is the wider universe, it is necessarily determined to pursue the impossibilities that are certainties.
Lem may not be alone in his cynicism; other writers similarly doubt the capacity of science and technology to ultimately emancipate humanity. But Lem’s sober existentialist meditation is particularly unique: although Solaris expresses such a profound pessimism regarding the discovery of new worlds, and the ability of humans to adapt to them ‘spiritually’, the final note is not a sour one; Lem leaves us with Kelvin, who, freed from the planet’s clutches but alienated from Earth, descends to its surface while the research team prepares to leave. Rheya is gone; he vainly tried to cling to her, to that crystallisation of his mind’s residue, but as the clone came to terms with what she was, she had herself destroyed so as not to be a mutant, an instrument of the ocean’s mysterious will – she loves Kelvin, after all.
Knowing he will never be the same, Kelvin snakes through the remains of an old “mimoid” protruding from the ocean – it resembles, from above, an ancient Moroccan town. It is known that mimoids are formed by the accumulation of and the friction between the crawling, glutinous waves, and that their formation is prompted by the passing of a cloud. Their function, it seems, is to process and imitate, within its textures, external objects. But this one has since died, and so Kelvin sits at its shore, gazing out to the horizon, contemplating the infinity stretching out before him: despite his endless studies of this elusive but omnipresent ocean, he has never been in such close proximity to it. He sinks his hand into it, and soon, quietly, a wave envelops his hand in an air-tight glove, as if to mimic its form, before washing away.
Suddenly, through this innocuous moment, he is face-to-face with this invisible intelligence. He does not try to understand or ‘know’ it; he simply yields to the silent yet indelible presence of that which is beyond him. He is changed by this.