Science Fiction Studies

#57 = Volume 19, Part 2 = July 1992

Manfred Geier

Stanislaw Lem’s Fantastic Ocean: Toward a Semantic Interpretation of Solaris1

Translated by Edith Welliver; Edited by ICR

It is a commonplace that human consciousness can refer to things it does not perceive directly. Merely imagined or conceived objects can exist at varying degrees of distance from immediately perceived reality. Concepts can refer to things which were once capable of being experienced as present and are now absent ("Monica no longer lives here, she lives in Hamburg"); or to a reality which exists elsewhere and the existence of which I do not doubt, although I have never experienced it as a fact with my own senses, having knowledge of it only through reports or the daily news ("Two Israeli military aircraft were fired upon while flying over Palestinian refugee camps in the southern part of the Lebanese capital"); or to a non-existent world created by a poetic imagination, the world of a novel, for example, whose fictional personae and events I can experience while reading as if they were real ones2 ("One morning at eight o’clock a young man stood before the door of an isolated, seemingly well-tended house"); or, finally, to a fantastic reality like those constructed and imagined in, among other places,3 SF ("The Invincible, a space cruiser of the heavy-weight class, the largest ship at the disposal of the fleet based in the constellation of the Lyre, flew with photon drive through the outermost quadrants of the star group").4 In all of these cases the object of consciousness is a conceptualized, imaginary reality, which is re-presented or cast in language. Of course, consciousness is intentional in any case; it is conscious of Something. But here its object appears only as the linguistically meant object, whose real point of reference is not present or non-existent.

In all these cases language plays a preeminent role. It is language that allows consciousness to remain focused upon something, precisely when it has freed itself from connection to a perceptible situation. Only because of this can we have the understanding between people which is produced socially and sustained by separation from an immediate situation.5 Mutual agreement about what is absent or elsewhere is not problematic here, since the corresponding, indicated phenomena are present as linguistically expressed points of reference. (The fragments and experiences of reality indicated by "Monica," "Hamburg," "Palestinian refugee camps," "Israeli military aircraft," and "flight over the Lebanese capital" are asserted to exist, which is shown by the fact that the corresponding assertion can be true or false). The literary or fantasized text does, however, pose the question of what the indicated phenomena refer to, and indeed of whether or not they are signaling the fact that the supposed reality (the "young man at the door of the well-tended house," the "space cruiser with photon-drive") does not exist. We are dealing with fictional utterances which possess the same linguistic form as statements which can be true (Roman Ingarden speaks of "quasi-statements"6) but which do not refer to actual objects. The statements do not raise the question of truth, only of semantic correctness or coherence.

We are posing the intentionality question here as a semantic question about how an SF novel makes intelligible sense. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris serves as an example, and is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting, best conceived, and most suspenseful novels in all SF. We will focus especially on the fictional description of the ocean, the fantasized object which is at the thematic center of the novel, and inquire, in Gottlob Frege’s words, what is its "mode of presentation" that makes it comprehensible to us? The following analysis can then be understood as a contribution to the "totality of interpretations" (Lem, Phantastik und Futurologie 373),7 that Solaris has evoked, and about which Lem himself has said: "A fantastic work that has not yet been stabilized semantically by its recipients can become a screen on which readers project those meanings they consider important and urgent" (372). Even an interpretation such as "the difficulties in establishing contact between the people and the ocean...may represent relations between the individual and society" (Ibid.) is possible, although it is not convincing, according to Lem. It "can be felt to be inadequate, but it cannot be considered nonsensical, because Solaris has not yet been able to produce a solid, ‘closed’ crystallization of meanings in the totality of interpretations" (373).

A. The Problem: "And what does all this mean?"

Before attempting to answer the more difficult questions concerning the intelligible sense of the linguistic construction of the ocean, let us examine the problem of reference as it presents itself within the novel itself. We will approach it as if we were dealing with an objective fact—and, in terms of the linguistic representation, a realistic statement. Inasmuch as we initially enter the literary fiction in precisely this way by reading it quasi-realistically, we can deal with the same problems that Kris Kelvin and the other Solarists face. For they also, human beings on an alien planet, are pursued constantly—like paranoids—by a question that is central to their existence, their thinking and feeling: "So what does all this mean?" (Solaris 143/122)8. This question, on which Solaristic research has foundered and from which Kelvin can escape only through the speechless and motionless intensity of an unio mystica with the ocean, is posed in the novel from a double perspective: first, as a question referring to an object, i.e., about the meaning of the ocean itself; second, as a semantic question, about the meaning of the linguistic attempts to describe and explain it.

The allusion to paranoids, who perceive meanings where there aren’t any, refers to the tension in which the Solaris cosmonauts find themselves in relation to a reality that confronts them as mere existence. The manifestations of the ocean (with their complicated, confusing multiplicity and supposed causal relationships) exhaust themselves in being. But those who want to explore this oceanic being are not satisfied with that. For them the manifestations of the ocean must mean something. Experimental attempts to establish contact are undertaken, "signals" are registered which should be understood as signs, even if they resist interpretation:

but what does all that mean? Perhaps they were data about the ocean’s state of agitation at the time? Perhaps impulses which its gigantic formations created somewhere thousands of miles away from the researchers? Perhaps reflections of the eternal truths of this ocean, transferred into unfathomable electronic networks? Perhaps its art works? (28/21)

The experiments support none of the available hypotheses. Since the ocean does not react regularly, it does not accommodate itself to the repeated experimental attempts at establishing contact. Never does the same stimulus produce the same reactions twice (28/21). Inquiry into the "purposeful intent" (30/24) of the oceanic creativity is also futile. In the end, the question about the meaning of the ocean is good only for an anecdote: on one occasion Kelvin, stimulated by the horrible occurrences at the collapse of symmetriads, remembers that during a school class’s visit to the Aden Solaris Institute a "plump, perhaps fourteen-year-old girl in glasses with an energetic, comprehending glance suddenly asked the evocative question: ‘And what is the whole thing for?’ And during the embarrassed silence which followed, the teacher just looked sternly at her rebellious pupil; none of the accompanying Solarists (I was among them) had an answer" (143/122). Ultimately, it is the question of the purpose of the oceanic constructions, of their production and dissolution, which cannot be answered and which calls into question whether the ocean can have a meaning for human beings. Purposelessness implies meaninglessness. That is one of the insights that places the Solaris research program fundamentally in question. The materializations of the Phi-creatures also occur without a recognizable purpose:

It has thus taken the memories that are most clearly etched into us, most intimately, most completely, and most deeply imprinted, you understand? But it must absolutely not have known what that is to us, what meaning that has. It is as if we understood how to create a symmetriad and threw it into the ocean, understanding in the process all about its structure, its technology, and its building materials, without, however, understanding what precisely it is for, what purpose it serves, what it means for the ocean.... (226/193)

This purpose/meaning for someone cannot be understood because the existence of the ocean has nothing to do with human beings. It is outside the realm of human activity with its purposes and motives. "It is Being that exists first for science fiction just as it does for science, and we carry values into this being with us" (P&F 115). Searching for purpose then appears to be "anthropomorphism." "Where there are no people, there are also no humanly comprehensible motives" (Solaris 157/134). In view of the ontological alienness of the ocean in relation to human beings, its "meaning" can only be determined negatively: it consists of holding up before human beings a mirror of their own anthropomorphic and geocentric limitedness. If there is any purpose/meaning at all, it lies in the attempt to conquer Solaris, not in Solaris itself. In his important essay on futurology and the fantastic Lem makes the claim this way:

It remains to be considered whether fantastic worlds—regarded as empirical hypotheses—mean something and, if so, then what. As objects they mean nothing, just as a galaxy means nothing: it simply exists. But when human beings conquer it, they become entangled in processes and phenomena which subject their initial axiology (their morality, their customs and conceptual world) to a powerful pressure, to distortions and alterations, and it is in regard to these that their activity will mean something—as a result of the collision with the uncertain and the unpredictable; as ruins of those firmly rooted judgments and new impulses; and perhaps also as a desperate lamentation over the rubble of a semantic system which is inadequate for the cosmic undertaking and therefore is totally shattered. (P&F 116)

Inasmuch as the ocean "means nothing as an object," but simply exists, efforts at naming, describing, and explaining it confront the paradox of expecting meaningful signs to refer to realities which fundamentally escape being designated by language. This is shown instrumentally by the fact, among others, that the ocean does not accommodate itself to any of the Solarists’ experimental approaches. No experiment is repeatable, no generalization determinable. Under these conditions the designatable object would have to be understood as something singular in each and every case, which fundamentally contradicts the essence of human language. As a "pure object" without an understandable or experimentally delimitable purpose, the ocean either elicits a kind of epistemological optimism (i.e., the ocean exists and produces phenomena in just the way the Solarists describe and explain it, so that at least one of the descriptions will surely be the right one) or it confirms a pessimism which demolishes the attempts at naming by viewing them as mere projections. Since the Solarists are human beings who can perceive through the lenses of their language only what is known and understood by them through the verbalizable experience of their own world, the ocean is for them an alien, and therefore necessarily incomprehensible existence. "And so one has always moved in the circle of earthly, human conceptions..." (Solaris 145/123). It must then be pessimistically admitted that "no terminology (can) reproduce what happens on Solaris" (129/111). There remains the possibility, albeit one disavowed critically as a form of helpless geocentrism, of a kind of mutilated metaphorical language which indeed shows that the signs mean something other than their literal meaning, but also that this other cannot be designated. The "thing" is designated as if it were an ocean, a brain, a protoplasmic machine, a gelatine, although everyone knows that "it" is none of these. The library of the Solaris station, a rubble heap of semantics, displays in a thousand volumes the shattered attempt to overcome the "impossibility...that the reality might be totally alien" (192/164).

If language lacks an objective-meaningful point of reference, then the solid meaning of its signs appears to be a fiction also. What do "ocean," "plasma," "mimoid," "slime," "gelatine," "brain" mean in the context of descriptions of Solaris? Logically, communication among the Solarists themselves must become a problem: in the midst of the signifiers of their language, the signified objects begin to flow away, to glide like the "liquid" ocean under the metallic colossus of the station. "Veubeke, who was Director of the Institute back in my student years, asked one day: ‘How do you expect to communicate with the ocean when you do not even understand each other?’; there was a good deal of truth in this joke" (29/22).

This internal problematic of meaning in the novel, which we have identified as a double question of the meaning of the named reality and of the linguistic naming itself, reads like a literary formulation of the relationship between objective meaning and symbolic meaning as it has been developed theoretically by Klaus Holzkamp. Kelvin’s question about the ocean, "And what does all that mean?", can be reformulated as a question about its "objective meaningfulness";9 in the same way, the problematic of the meaning of the word "ocean" can be read as a question about the "symbolic meaning" in which the experienced qualities of the ocean in its ideal form are meant and designated. From this critical-psychological perspective we can discern more clearly the aporias which must necessarily result from the SF-reality of an alien world into which human beings come only as curious "visitors."

The meaninglessness of the ocean, to which people vainly want to attach their earthly meanings, points to a fundamental difference: the wish of the Solarists that the ocean should mean something objectively can be traced to the fact that they can experience their own world as "meaningful." In the latter world, questions about purposeful intention and motivation, about usefulness and the satisfaction of needs, have a place, whereas such questions are senseless, mere projections, with regard to the extraterrestrial ocean. With this, Lem’s novel treats a phenomenon which is central to Klaus Holzkamp’s critical-psychological analysis of human perception: the conditions of perception of the human world are meaningful to human beings (i.e., they are not merely bundles of sensations or constellations of stimuli). Human perception distinguishes itself specifically from the merely organic orientation of animals through precisely this "objective meaningfulness" of perceptible phenomena in the world. In perceiving, human beings orient themselves to objective meaning, which objects possess in relation to people’s vital activity.

Holzkamp derives this concept from the socio-historically reconstructable circumstance "that the meanings of objects originate through objectifying work. By virtue of this quality, locating meanings in objects is exclusively a characteristic of the human world" (Holzkamp 119). Human beings, themselves a physical force in nature, encounter natural materials through work, in which they accomplish their conscious purposes and their values based on need; the exchange of matter between human beings and nature, which is itself mediated, regulated, and monitored by human work, is an objectifying transfer of conscious, ideally anticipated goals, an appropriation of nature for the purpose of satisfying social needs.10 With this materialist reference to the uniqueness of human work, the meaningfulness of the world’s phenomena is explicable insofar as "generalized human purposes appear in objective, perceptible form" in them (Holzkamp 118). The "human world" is meaningful in that it is an objectification of human beings’ valuation of usefulness and hence of human power.

Under these circumstances, it is obvious that the ocean of the planet Solaris can have no meaning; the perceptions of the cosmonauts must consequently also lack orientation, insofar as the ocean possesses no characteristics connected to vital human activity. It confronts human beings as alien in principle, and for this reason the exchange of matter between the ocean and human beings is fatal for the latter; nothing about it originated in objectifying work; its phenomena have nothing to do with generalized human purposes; it thus resists any appropriation for the satisfaction of human social needs.

The general determinations of usefulness, which are objectified as objective meanings, can and must (because of the necessity of an accumulation, evaluation, and independent transmission of social knowledge) be established in language. In symbolic meanings (Holzkamp 147ff.) the conscious objective meaningfulness of the human world is symbolically "introduced into a concept" (151). Symbolic meaning distinguishes itself from the objective meaning of earthly phenomena in that it is meaningful through its reference to something outside itself, while the meaning of objects is tied by the senses to the facts of perception itself.

However, the fact that the objective point of reference is "external" to language does not mean that it is therefore foreign to it. The differentiation of objective from symbolic-linguistic meaning, which is implied by the "referential character" of the linguistic sign, is not a strict separation. On the contrary, the relationship between language and world as such remains comprehensible precisely through the posited assumption that the world’s phenomena are meaningful for human beings themselves. In contrast, the assumption of a meaningless reality outside language would make the referential possibility of linguistic form inexplicable:

As long as one proceeds from the position that human beings confront a world which has nothing to do with them, one will never understand how human beings can ever reach the world with their symbol.—Actually, the symbol and the subject have an inner connection to each other, even if they are not immediately similar in their natures. The world of human beings is a world they appropriate through objectifying, social work. Meanings lie "in" things, because human beings have objectified meanings in them through a historical process of cooperative production. A meaningful world is by no means first created by symbolic meanings. Instead symbolic meanings are abstract explications of the meanings of objects created by work. (Holzkamp 151f.)

This formulation can lead to an explanation of the linguistically critical pessimism of Kelvin and the other Solarists. Because the ocean must be regarded as meaningless, since it stands in no relationship to vital human activity through work, the linguistic symbols must, so to speak, ricochet off of it. Human beings can never reach this world with their language. Just as meanings do not lie "in" the phenomena of the ocean (since nothing about it is an objectification of the human valuing of usefulness and human power), the ocean cannot be constituted as meaningful through human language.

B. Textual coherence, isotopies, practical lexicology.

Nevertheless, the novel is not senseless. It is a text which can be understood. Even if the ocean and its designations are meaningless from the perspective of the Solarists within the narrative, they are not for the reader, who can read the Solaris reality "from the outside" as the intended story in an understandable text. This means not only that the individual words, expressions, or larger textual units can be understood; it also means that readers are guided by the references in the text to a story (albeit a fictional one) of which they can create an image for themselves. They can read the text as a "referral,"11 i.e., they can be referred by means of it to certain objective happenings in the reality on Solaris. Text and reading are structured paradoxically: the linguistically inexpressible meaninglessness of the ocean is at the same time the subject of a story which can be represented as objective reality by means of meaningful textual references. We can to a certain extent complete and understand the projections which the Solarists adopt in capturing their experiences in language. How is that possible?

That Solaris is understandable points, first of all, to a foreknowledge which is shared by readers of the text and the (fictional) Solarists—a foreknowledge that linguistic signs (and the reality meant by them) out of which the text is constructed are meaningful. We speak the same kind of language as the first-person narrator, Kris Kelvin, or as Lem, his author. The world of Solaris as it appears to us in the novel is not a fully autonomous world. It is instead a model of reality—although a projected one—created by an unusual arrangement of linguistic elements about which there exists significant foreknowledge among competent readers. All the elements are understandable words in appropriate syntactical combinations. Even the most extravagant fictional creation remains related to the contents of experience established in its linked signifiers; consequently it is also related to the knowledge of possible reality and story models symbolically articulated in the linguistic expressions and textual connections. Lem has discussed this complicated relationship between fictional and realistic language, using the SF problem of constructing entirely autonomous worlds (P&F 392ff). Such a world would have nothing to do with our world and our meanings. As an "autonomous, visionary world" (411) it would have to demonstrate a fully self-sufficient autarchy, which would have to be the result neither of secret borrowing nor of mere modifications of our world. "If one is constructing a reality that is supposed to replace the real world and not refer to it semantically at all, then it must be able to stand on its own legs and withstand all the tests of stability to which we expose it" (400). The point is clear: an autonomous world cannot be constructed—either the constructions slide in the direction of "miserably prepared artifacts (that is, the author proves to be an incompetent competitor of the Creator) or they mean something with respect to a real ‘zero degree’-world" (Ibid.) (i.e., the universes of SF prove to be specific transformations of the author’s world [Suvin 93]). If the actual, complete creation of an autonomous world were possible, it would mean nothing and its linguistic representation would be incomprehensible. "Every final conclusion about meanings that the semantics of a work locks in and thus makes into a system which is fully separated from the world is like an illusion. One can almost fully enclose the world in a work; to actually seal it hermetically, however, means to take all meaning from it" (P&F 109). Even the most illusionary SF-writers must rely on the semantic potential of their language, for which a priori meaningfulness must be assumed. A visionary world "which is perfect in its autonomy ceases to be a semantic apparatus" (412). It is, one might say, as unthinkable as a pure object without any significance.

Besides the foreknowledge about the meaning of individual linguistic signifiers, readers also have at their disposal a knowledge of possible referential stories to which the text makes reference. Authors must also orient themselves to this knowledge. The fictional reality of SF must, even in the case of a structure very far from the empirical zero-world, be coherent to the extent to which it is created by means of textual connectedness. Solaris displays a definite semantic coherence (from the basic theme to the individual sentences of dialogue), although this does not refer, as does a semantic order in the sense of a potentially truthful statement-structure, to the connectedness of worldly things and facts. It is rather a coherence which is logical within the text and technically useful for story-telling and which manifests itself in certain possibilities for combining and connecting linguistic signs. It deals with syntactical relationships which are possible in the internal universe of the fantastic work and are perceptible as readable connectedness. The linguistic creation of the ocean modifies and partially injures, it is true, certain "lexical solidarities,"12 in that, for instance, the protoplasmic machine is constructed as a living, thinking being. Within the framework of the description itself, however, there are limitations and possibilities which are constituent elements of the textual coherence of the novel. Situations are constructed within the framework of the semantically chosen limiting conditions.

It is one of the distinctive characteristics of Lem’s prose that it creates coherence through the purposeful connection of remote meanings (P&F 381). Its fantastic objects originate through the contamination of linguistic signs which could not be linked unproblematically in "normal" truth-affirming language. One could express this phenomenon graphically by saying that the SF-text is like an opaque mosaic window which possesses, in contrast to the transparent window of speech representing the real world, a self-contained structure belonging to it alone (15f.). "It is not that which is located behind the window that determines the coherence of what is perceived, but the specific character of the mosaic window itself" (16). Solaris-reality would disperse into nothingness if the linguistic layer of the novel Solaris were destroyed. The question posed at the outset can now finally be put precisely as a semantic problem: How can the semantic coherence of a text like Solaris be produced and read, when it consists of newly arranged contaminations of meanings that are drawn from categories remote from each other and which are thus syntactically incompatible in the zero-degree language employed?

To answer this question, it is worthwhile to take an excursion into the area of structural semantics. The concept of isotopy, as it has been developed by A. J. Greimas in his Structural Semantics, offers an especially useful aid because it refers to just those factors which are relevant for the meaning content of an understandable text.

One of the most important conditions of textual coherence is the availability of isotopies, semantic structures which connect meaningful lexical units (lexemes13) to form sensible texts. Greimas, as a structural semanticist, tries to establish the cause of this coherence on the basis of elemental semantic components which are "smaller" than those manifest in the lexemes joined in the text: it is a question of atomic units, so to speak, of "semantic characteristics," that Greimas calls sememes (24ff.), which together, combined into bundles, yield the meaning of the various lexemes and determine their possible uses in the text. The combinability of lexemes into a coherent text is based on a partial commonality (identity, contiguity, equivalence) of their sememes. Isotopy can be defined as the repeated (recurrent) appearances of semantic characteristics in a text, i.e., the recurrence of sememes. Through these recurrent sememes (which cannot be perceived directly on the surface of the text, but are effective as hypothetical constructs in the reading) larger meaning units are produced on the syntactic level.

A trivial example for clarification: a sentence like "The fish is bad" appears as well formulated in contrast to something like "The triangle is bad," because "fish" and "bad" are semantically compatible with each other and syntactically combinable as a consequence of certain sememes. "Fish" bundles together such sememes as /concrete/, /organic/, /alive/, /animal/, /preparable as food/...; for "bad" in the sense of "rotten," "spoiled," sememes like /physical condition/, /result of a process/...can be assumed. The semantic compatibility of the two lexemes results from an isotopy which is supported by a sememic recurrence of /organic/, /physical condition/, /changeable/.

One can clarify the emergence of isotopies especially well with the example of semantic equivalence between defined lexemes (Greimas speaks of "denomination") and defining expansion, as it occurs in the case of a definition. This equivalence is produced by a bundle of isotopies which repeats and enumerates all the decisive sememes in the defining, expanding syntax (that as a rule is longer than the denomination) (Greimas 63-65). The lexeme "fish," for example, can be defined as "animal being, which is concrete, organic, alive, supplied with gills, lives in water, and..." François Rastier (158), following Pottier (239) and Greimas, calls such a condensation metasemy, showing via the example of crossword puzzles that this (denominative) metasemy need not necessarily be present in the text itself (Rastier 158; Greimas 80f.). The task of the puzzle solver, reversing that of a dictionary user, consists in first finding and inferring the metasemy from the expanded crossword puzzle definition.

If one joins these notions from structural linguistics with the earlier consideration that texts are understood as referrals oriented to a referential story as a reality model, then we can form the following hypothesis to guide our semantic interpretation of Solaris:

that the characteristics primarily responsible for the emergence of referrals in the text appear in a majority of lexemes (i.e., they dominate in these and thereby make the emergence possible in the first place) in semantically homogeneous groups. Consequently each referral implies a certain search process on the level of the connection. This recognition can be clothed in a rule of thumb: "If you want to understand a text, first sort its lexemes according to the groups in which a (common) semantic characteristic clearly dominates all other characteristics." (Kallmeyer et al. 1:146)

The sememes capable of dominance are, so to speak, conditions for the possibility of coherent texts, which refer to understandable stories.

Complex isotopies make the reading of a text more difficult. This concept also comes from Greimas, who means by it "the presence of several isotopic planes in one and the same utterance" (87). They emerge because the semantic combination of lexemes rests on various semantic characteristics. Structurally they can be analyzed by identifying the sememes whose presence defines the semantic polysemy (multiple-meaningfulness) of the corresponding lexemes. This assumes that the semantic polysemy of the corresponding lexemes is not dissolved and reduced to "monosemy" by the text itself, as is usually the case, but rather flows on into various isotopies. In the example sentence "The fish is bad," a somewhat unusual isotopy could be assumed on the basis of "bad" in the sense of "inactive," "lazy." Thus a complex isotopy is available which is responsible for the multiple meanings of the sentence. The text is thereby, so to speak, open for several possible interpretations. Its reading allows an interpretation through which the various isotopic levels coexisting in the text are exposed.

C. Three Readings of Solaris

(1) Plasmatic reading. We have introduced some of the basic categories we can employ for an initial semantic interpretation of the ocean-text. The attempts to name categorically the "thing" that washes over almost the whole planet appear in certain designations which condense the vivid scientific experiences the Solarists have of the ocean. These designations, which come from diverse symbolic and objective fields and have been contaminated for the purpose of creating the fantastic object, the ocean, are expanded in the novel into ever newer descriptions.

Let us briefly enumerate the main designations and some of their most important expansions. Already at the outset they point to a series of recurrent sememes, which provide the reader with an orientation.

Ocean: its surface consists of troughs which move, of waves which move rhythmically; foam forms in the pockets between the waves; smoke and fog rise from its surface; it is fluid with shallows, depths and islands, a great sea.

Prebiological formation: an organic formation, a biologically primitive structure, gelatinous, a single, monstrous, overgrown cell, syrupy gelatine, formless mush, expanding like a cancer tissue and growing out beyond the cell walls, slimy and exuding slime.

Plasma: an extraordinarily highly organized physical structure with its own active metabolism, physically comprehensible as a mechanism, capable of goal-oriented activity, generating eruptive new forms out of itself, a plasmatic production-mechanism.

Brain: a protoplasmic brain-sea, which signals huge amounts of information, a source of electrical, magnetic impulses, thinking in the form of an incomprehensible, gigantic monologue, capable of being modeled by means of the most abstract branches of mathematical analysis and measurement, possibly endowed with consciousness, endlessly productive.

This semantic material, which comes from various scientific disciplines and research areas, is drawn together and applied to a single object, whose "fantastic" character is the result of this contamination of categorically remote meanings. At first the contamination appears to be arbitrary. Why precisely this connection and no other? But the arbitrariness is only apparent, for already during this first reading we note a certain linguistic sign which plays a key role for the SF-contamination as a point of intersection: the lexeme "PLASMA." Most (if not all) the descriptions which stem from the ocean’s semantic potential are compressed into this polyvalent lexeme. The text unfolds the meaning-structure which belongs lexically to the polysemic lexeme "plasma." Ordinarily the relationships in texts are exactly the reverse: a lexeme which in isolation possesses several meanings is made monosemic by the text; i.e., it is limited to a certain textual meaning. In contrast, Lem exploits the lexical polysemy of "plasma" by picking up its various meanings in the text and developing them further. This linguistic polyvalence is used to construct a single object. The "trick" then consists in deducing one possible object from one word which has multiple meanings.

A glance into a dictionary will verify that the lexeme "plasma," etymologically from Greek "plásma" ("constructed, formed, construct"), has various meanings:

1. Biology: living substance, also "protoplasm" (from Greek "protos": "first; earliest; existing at the beginning"; means something like "original material, original substance of life"), the substance of the living cell, surrounded by the cell membrane, in which all processes of life transpire. From a chemical standpoint the plasma is not a uniform material, but an organized colloidal mixture of numerous chemical compounds, especially water, among which more solid and more fluid components can be distinguished. Colloid chemistry provides further clarification. "Colloid": "diffuse construct which, depending on the state of the diffusion medium and the phase of diffusion, is differentiated according to colloidal systems" (Brockham’s Encyc. 10:356). Such colloid systems include: fog, smoke, foam, emulsion, solid foam, brine. "If the particles are bound to each other in a network by forces working among them so that they have lost their freedom of motion, then a gel exists with gelatinous or slimy consistency... When cooled or on partial withdrawal of the solvent, the fluid brine becomes a gel, which is no longer fluid but still contains much solvent. This transition is reversible" (Ibid.). Gelatine is that "tough elastic mass in a solidified fluid state, which colloids acquire when they come into contact with water...It has the capability under certain conditions, e.g., under cooling, to rigidify homogeneously" (Ibid. 6:734). (Incidentally, in biology one speaks also of a gelatine or colloid cancer as a cancerlike new construction, "which is characterized by a slimy or gelatinous quality. The gelatine cancer occurs through a slimy change of the cancer cells" [Ibid.]) The term "plasma stream" means "the probably autonomously generated flow of plasma within the cell" (Ibid. 14:668.)

2. Physiology: fluid, runny components of blood and milk; for example, blood plasma, muscle plasma ("the liquid, containing protein, obtained by pressing upon the living muscle" [Ibid. 667]).

3. Mineralogy: leek-green, dense aggregate of microcrystalline silicic acid.

4. Physics: "an ionized gas which contains free ions and electrons besides neutral particles...In plasma, reactions between particles can occur which lead to a release of energy in the form of radiation" (Ibid.). In nature one finds plasma "in the highest strata of the atmosphere, in outer space, in the atmospheres of stars and inside stars." Plasma electric waves in interstellar matter are probably a source of the emissions observed by radio astronomy.

These various dictionary readings of the lexeme "plasma" show the dominant semantic material with which the writer’s fantasy can work. The creation of the fantastic ocean through the polysemy of "plasma" has to be entirely nongraphic. It is a confusing game with semantic units whose combination allows no unified pictorial image. Lem speaks of it in P&F in this way: "it is not true that I first perceive the fantastic object with the ‘mind’s eye’ and thereafter describe in language what I imagined. During the writing I see nothing, but I form a situation in my thoughts analogous to the limiting circumstances set up through corresponding decisions" (32). The "decision" to choose the lexeme "plasma" as the semantic focus of the fictional text implies "limiting conditions" which provide a direction for the semantic coherence of the text. Within this framework everything that is offered by the decision to begin from the designation "plasma" can now be expanded and narratively ornamented; in the process, visual vividness develops through the pictorial shaping of the semantic possibilities. The process of oceanic movements, with waves and rhythm, is to be unfolded from the "plasma stream." Even as detailed a picture as "Bits of slimy foam with the color of blood gathered in the troughs between the waves" draws its material from there, adapting the physiological concept of blood plasma and the colloidal state of foam in the process.

In the descriptions of the ocean as a "prebiological formation," the sememes bundled in the conception of biological plasma are unpacked and used in a literary way, each with its particular pictorial content. The colloidal systems (from mist to foam and brine) produce fantastic descriptions of magnificent natural processes. The reversibility of the transition from a solution to a gel manifests itself in the multiple metamorphoses of the ocean. The solidifying of the gelatine or its transition to a solution is described as a planetary event of gigantic proportions. Even the explanation of the ocean as nothing but a huge cancer tissue which formed inside former inhabitants is based on the biological, medical conception of "gelatine or colloid cancer." The convection of the ocean as a muscular mountain of flesh recalls the physiological concept of muscle plasma.

Ultimately, the existence of the ocean as a reality of the planet Solaris is conceived in terms of physical "plasma," which refers to material phenomena in space and the interior of stars. Radiation detectable through radio-astronomy, the electrical waves of interstellar material, are also exploited for literary purposes in the novel: they possess their fictional counterpart in the signals of the ocean, which are to be interpreted as products of its thinking (the ocean consequently appears as a thinking "brain"). And finally the name "Solaris" itself picks up, besides the Latin sol (sun), the chemical concept "sol," which designates a colloidal system that exists in a reversible relationship with the gelatinous consistency of the gel.

Now one might already speak here of a complex isotopy insofar as the sememes of "plasma" belong to various systems—the biological, physical, chemical, physiological. It seems sensible, however, still to speak here of one isotopy, and consequently also of one interpretation, to the extent that the polysememe "plasma," as a natural scientific concept, is fundamental.

(2) Vaginal reading. The plasmatic is not the only possible interpretation. We can also identify other isotopies which refer, in part, to the same recurrent units of the text. Further, many textual elements which appear confusing and chaotic through the lens of a plasmatic reading can be related homogeneously to each other. The plasmatic isotopy is merely the simplest and most obvious because it can be supported by a series of semantic elements of the lexeme "plasma," which are manifest in the text. At the same time it comports well with the preconception that Solaris is a scientific SF-novel.

However, the simplest interpretation is not necessarily the most stimulating and most productive one. In the following section we will examine an interpretation which is not the most obvious, but certainly one of the most interesting. This second interpretation involves the same textual units as the first one. However, in contrast to "plasma," their metasemic condensation is not manifest in the text itself. This second reading is thus only possible when, like a crossword puzzle solver, one finds the metasemy which is a "hidden presence" in the text. Some of the relevant lexemes whose recurrent meaning connection also served as a basis for the plasmatic isotopy are: "troughs," "stream," "blood," "slime," "foam," "water," "muscle," "flowing," "life," "cell." Secondly, some additional lexemes and lexeme connections refer to the same metasemy but are not contained in the isotopy produced by "plasma." They turn up especially in Giese’s taxonomy of oceanic phenomena: "floods," "a material which has on the surface a gelatinous-foamy consistency," but is in the interior like "a taut muscle," "lips which draw together like living, muscular, closing craters," "abortive mimoid," "umbilical cords," "release of the off-spring creation from the control of the mother-piece," "avalanche of births," "shrinking narrow passages," "fruit of the body," "streams of rosy blood"; André Berton’s report mentions "slimy creations," "veined swellings," a "naked infant, as if new born." All these lexemes and syntagms can be coherently related to each other through the adoption of the sememes /corporality/, /sexuality/, /the feminine/. Their referential direction, which implies a definite direction to the search for connections, is supported by the semantic homogeneity of the metasemy "VAGINA."

The ocean, which is "meaningless" in its productivity and, as an alien reality, cannot be reduced to a concept in human symbols, can be interpreted as a projected construction, whose dominating semantic potential stems from the area of feminine sexuality summarized in the single lexeme "vagina." "One can, in fact, distinguish the appearance of objects, as well as their conditions of sensibility, only by referring to the sum of actual experiences; the unknown is transposed into partially similar experience," writes Lem (P&F 34), thereby describing an act of projection which functions in the construction and reading of an SF novel. Lem’s experiences as a former gynecologist doubtless had some influence in the orientation of the fantastic ocean to, as Freud put it, the "complicated topography of the feminine sexual organs," which are symbolized "very often as landscape" (Freud Vorlesungen 158).

It is not only this topography, however, that forms the basis for the comparison of ocean and vagina. The oceanic events (and the emotions accompanying them) become intelligible through the isotopy of "vagina." André Berton’s experience is indeed nothing other than the occurrence of a birth, even if it appears as senseless plasmatic creativity. In blood and slime, calling forth disgust in Berton, a child arrives, slippery, shiny, damp, from the agitated waves of the ocean. Other processes can be read as descriptions of coitus: on the flight to the ocean, "which bubbled vehemently, as if driven upward by strong convection currents," Berton tries to stay in the "middle of a "hole"’; finally he lets himself down here, "as best I could." The ocean cooperates in establishing contact: "it modified certain elements of apparatus immersed in it so that the recorded rhythms of the discharges changed." These processes turn up repeatedly in Giese’s taxonomy also: "the plasma opens the way: it separates before the foreign body"; it behaves "not aggressively" toward the penis-like intruders so that only "he who especially risks it through his own carelessness or thoughtlessness can die" in its eddies.

The emergence of the mimoids reads like a birth, prepared by forceful pains: "The observer would swear that a violent struggle raged beneath him, for like lips which draw tightly together endless rows of concentric circular waves flow together here from the whole surrounding area like living, muscular, closing craters"; "from the horizons concentric rows of waves rush in, exactly the sort of muscular craters that accompany the birth of the mimoid."

Finally the collapse of a symmetriad appears as a superdimensional orgasm of gigantic proportions: the oceanic processes then endure "intense acceleration...everything begins to rush. The impression becomes overwhelming that the colossus, in the face of the danger threatening it, presses on by main force toward some fulfillment." Then the oceanic motion collapses "horribly": "forced out as if through gasps of agony, the air rubs against the shrinking, narrowing passages, raising among the collapsing ceilings a gurgling as if from some monstrous throat overgrown with stalactites of slime." The novel itself expressly invokes the orgasm as a possible interpretation—although with defensive and depreciating reservations. Kelvin’s diploma thesis in psychology, with which he has made a name for himself in Solaristic research, concentrates on "discharges from oceanic streams" that stand in striking analogy to certain components of the oceanic cortex’s processes "which accompany the strongest emotions, despair, pleasure, pain." "This had sufficed to make my name turn up very rapidly in the tabloid press under sensational titles like: ‘The despairing gelatine’ or ‘Planet in orgasm’..." (Solaris 205/175).

This reading cannot conceal the debt it owes to Freud’s psychoanalysis. The various, partially overlapping isotopic planes that elicit differing interpretations recall Freud’s differentiation between manifest and latent texts, whereby the latent text, in our case the vaginal isotopy, can be seen as "unconscious." A few short allusions must suffice here to clarify this category of the "unconscious" in the traditional psychoanalytic sense. They should at the same time help in answering the question of why the vagina is not named in Lem’s text, but can only be interpretively revealed as a hidden meaning.

"If one wished to summarize the Freudian discovery in one word, it would be that of the ‘unconscious,’" say Laplanche and Pontalis pointedly in their vocabulary of psychoanalysis (536). The therapeutic experiences had, in fact, shown that the conscious mind does not fill up the space of the psyche, that there are psychic contents ("evidence of drives") which are accessible to consciousness only after overcoming resistance; that these contents are ruled by mechanisms (such as fictionalizing, rearranging, and symbolizing) which themselves work unconsciously; and that they are constituted essentially of infantile experiences which are not registered in the consciousness of individuals and their language.

Freud conceived of these contents and mechanisms of the unconscious as lacking language and he tried to understand them by means of his early distinction between fact-imaging and word-imaging. For psychology, as he understood it in his study of aphasia of l891, the word counts as a unit of the language function. It is defined as a psychic object composed of various associated concepts (sound-, writing-, reading- and motion-images). Associated with this word-imaging as a rule, i.e., in the case of a language used between two subjects, is a fact-image, which is again thought of as a complex, composed of visual, acoustic, tactile elements, although the order of the fact’s associative elements is open in principle, in contrast to the word-image (Freud, Auffassung 75). In his later writings Freud used this classification to produce the concept of the unconscious, when he was stimulated especially by his examination of the utterances of schizophrenics.

What we might call conscious object-imaging subdivides itself for us now into word-imaging and fact-imaging, which consists of filling in, if not direct images from memory of the fact, then more remote traces of memories derived from memory of the fact. We now believe that we know what distinguishes a conscious image from an unconscious one...The conscious image embraces the fact-image plus the word-image belonging to it; the unconscious image is the fact-image alone. The system of the unconscious contains the attributions of fact to the object, the first and actual appropriation of the object; the system of the preconscious originates when the fact-image is further appropriated through association with the corresponding word-image. (Freud, Das Unbewusste 300)

Freud’s "unconscious" is the conceptualization of the "fact," which cannot be contained in words.14 It lacks the links with the (corresponding) words through which it can become an object of consciousness. Freud has also shown in his practical work that this unconscious can only be discovered when it is decoded in interpretation and explanation as the latent meaning of an assemblage of signs. Especially in the Interpretation of Dreams he has elucidated how certain tell-tale marks of the dream-text can be read as traces of the unconscious. Freud understands that dream-language also says something other than what it literally says, and therein lies the difference between latent (unconscious) dream-thoughts and manifest (conscious) dream-content (Freud, Die Traumdeutung 283ff.). On the basis of the narration of manifest dream-content, the analyst, guided by the patients’ associations with the individual elements of their dreams, reconstructs the latent thought which, as opposed to the overtly confusing chaos of the content, generally can be read and understood as a coherent and sensible, although unconscious, "text." Paradoxically the interpretation thus first leads to a homogeneous sense, which is understood by Freud to be "normal" and "fits in" as a "fully weighted, equally valued link in the chain of our mental actions" (100). On the other hand, the manifest text, if we try to understand it literally, strikes us immediately as incomprehensible, confused, not of full value. The hidden, latent meaning, the unconscious thought, which is derived from traces of memory not transposed into language, is comprehensible. Its illumination consequently counts as a "translation" of an incomprehensible type of expression "into the normal."

The vaginal interpretation of Solaris fits smoothly into this Freudian perspective. The undeniable question about the meaning of the ocean, which can also be posed as a question about the confusing meanings of the manifest "novel content," can be answered by demonstrating the manner in which the unconscious fact-imaging expresses itself in it only in code and emerges only through the detection of close associations. Able to be experienced with all the senses, the "fact-imaging" of the vagina as "primary" expression of the female sex does not attain conscious recognition through connection "with the corresponding word-images." It expresses itself instead in the manifest content of a description which concentrates on an unknown and agnosticized object and tries to name it linguistically in ever new, ever futile attempts. Only the "translation" of this incomprehensible speech about an unimaginable fantastic object into the normality of a "vaginal interpetation" leads to a latent thought which is effective as a "fully weighted" element in human mental experience.

In psychoanalytic theory this latent meaning pattern of the unconscious normal is more precisely identified by its content as the expression of a wish. Dream interpretation tries to demonstrate that the dream represents a certain situation just "as I might wish it to be; its content is thus the fulfillment of a wish; its motive is a wish" (Freud, Psychanalytische Bemerkungen 269). Wishing, which operates on the basis of a pleasure-pain principle, is a "stream aiming at pleasure in the apparatus" (Ibid.) of the psyche, a stream which flows along those memory tracks in which certain experiences—as a rule satisfying ones, but also repressed ones—are unconsciously retained. In dream-thinking the wish finds fulfillment in the hallucinatory reproduction of perceptions that are associated with the indestructible memory track of need creation and satisfaction. It follows logically that the decoded normal would be the uninhibited, unrepressed articulation of the wish in question in its linguistic unambiguousness, an articulation which, because of psychological censoring mechanisms, can only manifest itself encoded and can only be fulfilled scenically on the level of fantasy.

This digression on Freud puts us on the track of why the latent thought about the vagina as the object of wishes (Freud) or the meta-textual isotopy constituted by the metasemy "vagina" (Greimas) does not appear openly, why the "readable," but unusual, "meaningless," partially absurd construction of a fantastic ocean with its countless metamorphoses and frightening phenomena has taken the place of an "unreadable," but comprehensible, clear, and "normal" description of female sexuality. It is certainly not unreasonable to assume that one is dealing here with an example of that repressed masculine fantasy through which feminine sexuality, reduced to an organ, the vagina, is imagined as a forbidden and anxiety-generating object of wishes, which is articulated as a censored thought in the streaming, bleeding, flooding, and slimy metamorphoses of the ocean.

Klaus Theweleit, in his monumental investigation Male Fantasies, has traced the linguistic manifestations and causes of these masculine fantasies. He has shown how the fantasized body of woman becomes a fantastic scene of action in which the confrontation of men with feminine sexuality occurs, a site foreign to them and made foreign by them. Using innumerable examples from European and European-influenced literature, Theweleit has discovered that "desire, if it flows at all, flows in a certain sense through woman" (272), and is presented in an enormous number of images, of which the ocean is a dominant one. The ocean of Solaris, this sea of movable flesh, whose flowing looks "like the slow tensing of a muscular, naked torso," is also an object of the desire which seeks to be released and fulfilled in the feminine and is expressed in a kind of "oceanic feeling" (Freud, Das Unbehagen an der Kultur 422f.; Theweleit 252-54).

But this construction of a feminine territory occupied by wishes is only one aspect of male fantasy. It possesses a complement (and also—as Theweleit has shown—a social-historical cause) in a development of civilization in which the masculine ego "armors" itself against the woman and from its perspective of self-discipline and muted feelings sees feminine sexuality as a dangerous threat (Theweleit 300ff).15 For this civilized ego, which seeks to ground itself not last of all in a language true to reality, the feminine, imagined in the masculine fantasy of the oceanic streaming, flowing, released and releasing, appears as the other, which is to be feared, fought, named, and conquered. The ocean, the phantasmagoric extension of the vagina into the sea of seas (Theweleit 346-48), is an "eternal challenge" (Solaris 201/172), disgusting, horrible, and yet fascinating, marvelous, and fantastic. Protected in the dry order of the metallic station, armored against the influences of the oceanic life, the men hover over it in order to gain control over its production process and to be able to comprehend the unknown territory.

That this feminine principle cannot be linguistically comprehended and designated by name (as all exertions to describe the ocean in language fail miserably in the face of its unworldly strangeness) points finally to a basic cultural structure which plays a central role in the recent discussion of French feminist theorists. Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and Julia Kristeva, to name only the best known, have subjected the sexual imagination of men to a fundamental critique, recognizing in it a phenomenon complementary to women’s exclusion from the "symbolic order" determined by men.16 Insofar as masculine imperialism has excluded woman from the symbolic order, which is also the organization of man’s societal power, she is situated as an object of man’s wishes in the position of not-knowing, in the position of the unknown and the secret. Within this sexual imaginary realm, founded in the Name of the Father on the armored might of man, woman is nothing other than "a more or less cooperative support for the staging of masculine fantasies" (Irigaray et al. 9).

What is the ocean other than precisely such a staging? What tireless exertions are undertaken by the men exploring Solaris in order to recognize, name, and rule that unknown being, the ocean. Even masculine brain waves, "converted into the oscillations of a bundle of beams," are driven into the "depths of this immeasurable, shoreless monster" (Solaris 182/176), the ocean, in order to force an answer there. And behold, after the emission of Kelvin’s EEG (which is also a "complete record" of the "unconscious processes" that no one is able to decipher), the ocean halts its production of Phi-creatures and adopts a new virginity ("The black disappeared, covered by little skins that were pale rose at the indentations and a pearly, shimmering brown in the depressions" [212/181]). This metamorphosis remains mysterious, however. The ocean withdraws in principle from imperial advances. Only occasionally, in hours of desperation, do the men themselves formulate insights that allow a breach in their imperialism: "We," says Snaut, the man, "need no other worlds. We need mirrors. We do not know what to do with other worlds...We want to find our own idealized image" (87/72). The wish for knowledge runs up against that "other world," to which woman has been sentenced and confined by man’s symbolic order.

These feminist considerations have been stimulated and provoked not least of all by a male theorist, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The generality of the linguistic (social) order counts for him, in fact, as being possessed by man. This order, a condition for the possibility of every meaningful articulation, is conceived from the position of man and his (phallic) representations. "Woman," who, in Lacan’s logic, cannot exist "because she is not, in her nature, every woman,"17 is excluded here. She is repressed into the flowing, agnosticized realm of the unconscious, which, in the name of man, is removed by a clear separation from the symbolic order (of consciousness).

The experiences of women, insofar as they are conceived and formulated by men, have no place within the medium of a generalized linguistic order, according to Lacan. On occasion Lacan’s conception can attribute a private pleasure "beyond the phallus" to woman (Lacan 162)—which, as such, is, however, incapable of being articulated. Logically then, when it is a question of woman’s particular pleasure, the word is "Let’s say nothing!"—and the summary in Solaris is no different. What remains is, possibly, mysticism: the speechless experience of a pleasure beyond the phallus, excluded from the meaningfulness of language and its meanings. To whoever stands beyond the symbolic on the side of woman (and that can also be individual men), there remains only an experience about which he or she knows only "when it comes," an experience, however, which is not utterable (Ibid. 163).18 It is an experience which, after all the vain attempts at technical and linguistic control of the ocean, nevertheless becomes possible for Kelvin alone in the end as a private wish fulfillment. Prepared through erotic play with a (naively budding and growing) clitoral wave of the ocean—not coincidentally, it is typical of the sexual imaginings of the men that they give preference to the clitoris, "which they regard as a trusted and reliable agent that works for them in hostile terrain" (Lyotard 57)—the encounter with the vaginal machinery of the ocean, the masculine occupation of its terrain, ends in Kelvin’s speechless feeling "that it comes."

(3) Schizophrenic reading. After this exposition of one of the strongest, although veiled "structures, which are somehow ‘personally absent’ in the text, yet whose informing qualities are determined on great detours through the text" (P&F 387), I would like now to conclude with a third and last interpretation of the text: in terms of the structure of the productive power which functions within Lem’s novel and manifests itself in its chain of signified meanings. This is the productive power of the unconscious itself.

The interpretive definition of the ocean as a masculine fantasy of feminine sexuality has so far determined only one metasemic content of this unconscious. Just as the original text on a palimpsest can often still be discovered under the new script, the unconscious masculine fantasy had left behind its legible traces in the description of the ocean. It was thus still a question about the interpretation of the intended meaning of an unconscious content, not of the mechanism of the unconscious itself. But the ocean is not only the formulation of a certain representation in the content (which can be decoded interpretively as a possible reading) but of the unconscious as a machine-like process. To find this assumption plausible, we must once more commit ourselves to the internal textual relations of the novel; i.e., we must proceed from an understanding that the productions of the ocean are indeed somehow goal-oriented, but are "meaningless" for human beings and beyond their linguistic efforts at signification. For the unconscious as a mechanism is modeled, as shall be shown here, in the meaningless productions and products of the ocean. This unconscious, which is only partially Freudian,19 is similar to the conception developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in Anti-Oedipus.

For the French psychiatrist Guattari and the philosopher Deleuze, the unconscious is a production process. It possesses its productive powers in "desiring-machines."20 Against Freud, in contrast to whose conception of the primary process and its unleashed energies they orient themselves (Freud also, incidentally, repeatedly expressed the functioning of the psyche’s "apparatus" in mechanical imagery21), they raise the criticism that he restricted and channeled the unconscious production-process socially by applying (oedipal) meanings and names to it: "father," "mother," "son," "daughter," "incest wish," "patricidal wish," "castration threat," "guilt feeling," etc.

The great discovery of psychoanalysis was that of the production of desire, of the productions of the unconscious. But once Oedipus entered the picture, this discovery was soon buried beneath a new brand of idealism: a classical theatre was substituted for the unconscious as factory; representation was substituted for the units of production of the unconscious; and an unconscious that was capable of nothing but expressing itself—in myth, tragedy, dreams—was substituted for the productive unconscious. (Deleuze/Guattari 24)

In contrast, Deleuze/Guattari try to free the unconscious from its oedipalizing meanings once again. As a "mechanical" production process, it precedes its meaningful representations, which, as such, are always already manifestations of a social repression of desire. (They can therefore accuse Freud of having pacified and repressed the explosive productive power of the unconscious.) They say pointedly:

The unconscious poses no problem of meaning, solely problems of use. The question posed by desire is not "What does it mean?" but rather "How does it work?" How do these machines, these desiring-machines, work—yours and mine? With what sort of breakdowns as a part of their functioning? How do they pass from one body to another? How are they attached to the body without organs? What occurs when their mode of operation confronts the social machines? A tractable gear is greased, or on the contrary an infernal machine is made ready. What are the connections, what are the disjunctions, the conjunctions, what use is made of the syntheses? It represents nothing, but it produces. It means nothing, but it works. Desire makes its entry with the general collapse of the question "What does it mean?" (Ibid. 109)

The point of orientation for this notion of the desiring-machines is, just as it was for Freud’s, the experiences of the schizophrenic—these form the basis on which the production of desire and of the desiring-machines can be demonstrated and analyzed. In the process, Deleuze/Guattari play especially on Daniel Paul Schreber’s Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken [Memoirs of a Nervous Illness]. From this schizophrenic text, which also provided Freud with the material for his theory of paranoia, they cite three syntheses of the desiring-machine’s production: (l) connective, (2) disjunctive, and (3) conjunctive.

Lem’s novel can serve us as a fantastic example for pursuing these three syntheses of the schizophrenic, non-oedipalized unconscious (the schizo-unconscious does not withdraw from the triad of work, language, and love). Let us read it, then, as an unfolding of the literary from the known reality of schizo-analysis: in each case it is a question of three similarly structured syntheses of the production of the desire-image Harey and of the desiring-machine, the ocean.

The basic pattern of the production of the Phi-creature "Harey" is the binary exchange of presence and absence and renewed presence and renewed absence, an ongoing Gone/Here game (Freud, Jenseits 11ff.). She is subject to the law of connective synthesis: "and...and then...," of an apparently merely mechanical succession without understandable purpose and sense. The productive connections of her being-here and being-gone work in the process like a "paranoid machine." After Kelvin has realized with a shock that Harey is not a dream-image ("Harey," I croaked out, "that can’t be..." [Solaris 68/56]), he feels he is being persecuted by her ("I no longer told myself: ‘That is a dream’; I had long since stopped believing that. Now I thought: ‘I must defend myself.’" [69/57]) and develops a plan to get rid of her. And then he locks her into a rocket capsule and shoots her into a Solaris orbit; and then Harey comes again, a new Harey of the same production-process, exactly as Snaut had predicted to Kelvin:

"Listen, Snaut, a few questions. You know that...for some time. This...this...what will become of her?"

"You mean, will she come again?"


"She’ll come again, but without coming again."

"What does that mean?"

"She’ll come again as in the beginning...on the first visit. She will simply know nothing." (83/69)

And then Harey, after she has learned what she is, wants to kill herself with liquid oxygen and then is regenerated again amid frightful agonies and then resorts finally to a last means of annihilation: she disappears ("A lightning flash. A burst of air. A weak burst of air. Nothing else." [223/190]) And then new metamorphoses of the ocean seem to have quieted its guest-producing power.

Into this binary order of productive connections, linked by a repeated "and then," persecuting and threatening in their mere succession, disjunctive syntheses have (almost unnoticeably) streamed in: these are efforts to explain and give sense to Harey’s existence which refer to the connections and want to lend them meaning. Harey, the product of the ocean, becomes the object of analysis, experimental examinations, and reflections. As the object of the sense-giving, she functions as a "miraculation-machine" (Deleuze/Guattari 10-11), a "wonder-machine." The riddle of her material structure cannot be solved; the scientist can only state his wonder:

Everything is normal, but this is just a disguise, a mask. In a certain sense it is an ultracopy: a reproduction, more perfect than the original. Because at the point where we hit the limit of granularity, the limit of structural divisibility in a human being, the way here leads further because these are constructed out of subatomic material!(...) It follows that all the proteins, cells, and cell nuclei are only masks! The real structure which generates the functioning of the "guest" is hidden deeper. (119/101)

The meaning of her existence remains undeterminable. A confusing profusion of contradictory explanations is possible; none is convincing. Either the projective productions that are the Phi-creatures want to hold up to human beings a mirror of their guilt and ugliness, or they want playfully, masked, to confuse them, or finally they are only a blind, meaningless process without purpose and motive. "Perhaps your appearance is supposed to be a torture, perhaps a favor, perhaps only a microscopic examination. An expression of friendship, a malicious blow, maybe scorn? Maybe all at once, or, which seems to me most probable, something totally different" (171/ 145). The attempts at explanation are synthesized in the disjunction of "either...or...."

The disjunctive attempts seek to explain the production process and to include themselves in it as productions of notations; but they do not exhaust the possibilities of approaching and understanding the Phi-creatures. Kelvin is not only the theoretical head who gets caught up in the disjunctive syntheses of the explanation. He is also a corporeal subject, who is capable of enjoyment and love. There remains the possibility of a third synthesis: that of reconciliation and love, driven by a remnant of consumption-energy which has not depleted itself in the theoretical efforts at explanation. The first appearance of his guest already evokes a kind of mechanical eroticism: "My body committed itself to Harey, wanted her, drew me to her, beyond understanding, beyond the arguments and the fear" (71/59). The joys of a bond suggest themselves intensively, an "I feel" which is finally stronger than the love for the original Harey. "‘And you are sure that it’s not her but me that you...? Me?’ ‘Yes. You. I don’t know. I’m afraid, if you were really she, then I couldn’t love you!’" (171/146) . The possibility of this love, which can and wants to be lived and not explained by arguments, expresses itself as a conjunctive synthesis of the form: "So that is/was that"—without "that" being determinable or representable as a particular meaning. It is a form of mystical reconciliation, which lives entirely through the speechless intensity of an "I feel it."

At first the ocean is also nothing other than a restlessly running production-machine. In an endless succession the metamorphoses of the plasmatic machine develop and pass away; mimoids, symmetriads, and asymmetriads are created, accompanied by strong birth pangs, they stabilize themselves in confusing phenomena and find their "horrible" end, only to originate again by the billions in new formations. In continuously new connective syntheses ("and then"), an "inexhaustible multiplicity of Solarian forms" (129/111) is produced, production and product at the same time. Here all is mechanical motion, "unceasing formulation, in which the formulation is simultaneously the formulating" (Deleuze/Guattari 141). It is a question of productive connections: and it flows in free, stable conditions and then bodies, swellings, thickenings form and then, after phases of rigidification, everything dissolves again in the mechanical senselessness of the oceanic movements.

Human beings direct their investigatory interest toward this production of production. "Explanations" are applied to the oceanic production process, "myriads of hypotheses are set loose on it" (Solaris 192/164). The ocean enters the area of designations, explanations, and records, according to the law of disjunctive syntheses and their assignments of meaning. The library is the place where they are kept. Here the experiments are written up to explain the ocean and to name and organize its phenomena in continuously new taxonomies. From the library the ocean appears as an object of wonder: either as a living, or a thinking organism, or as a plasmic machine, as a geological formation, as a syrupy gelatine, a gigantic brain, or a fleshy colossus. That "either..or...or" characterizes the countless efforts, which, all differing from each other, still lead to the same result: the ocean as an alien world remains an eternal wonder for the human being. The disjunctive synthesis of the significant notations ricochets off this "miraculation machine."

Here too, however, there is still a third possibility. Driven by that remaining energy which is not used up in reading, experiment, and explanation, Kelvin finally draws near to the ocean itself. Landing on the mimoid, he leaves behind him everything which could limit and smother a "feeling" in representational, linguistic forms. Contact with the living waves of the ocean happens as erotic play, as "naive" experience of pure intensity, stripped of every meaning. In the sensuous play of retreating and approaching, a speechless link with this "fluid, blind colossus" reaches realization "in the ever intensifying self-annihilation" (238/203). As the expression for this mystical reconciliation, there remains only the conjunctive synthesis: "So that is it." Nothing is now still representational; all is only still felt. "Without the least effort, without words, without a single thought" (238/ 203-04), Kelvin can forgive the ocean everything, even if the "time of cruel miracles" (238/204) may not yet be past.

This interpretation of the novel has revealed two triads with parallel structures of connective, disjunctive, and conjunctive syntheses. They can be formulated in the three statements:

(1) IT produces/pursues me.

(2) IT makes me wonder.

(3) I feel IT.

This result certainly does not suffice to explain and to make entirely comprehensible the meaning of the quotation from the Anti-Oedipus which has stimulated and provided the orientation for this last reading. But perhaps it has become sufficiently clear what sort of experience Deleuze and Guattari are referring to when they symbolize the schizophrenic unconscious as a production process of desiring-machines that begins its work with the general collapse of the question "What does that mean?" (even if this question, as the disjunctive syntheses show, should catch up with it again repeatedly). "The question posed by desire is not ‘What does it mean?’ but rather ‘How does it work?’" (Deleuze/Guattari 109), how this nameless and meaningless IT pursues, inspires wonder, and seduces, how IT, expressed in the categories of the Anti-Oedipus, synthesizes its connective productions, disjunctive notations, and conjunctive consumptions.

Thus, if it is true that the schizophrenic production of desire and of the desiring-machine is beyond and freed from any meaning (especially the oedipal), and that the schizophrenic unconscious functions and breaks down free from any representation/socialization, then Solaris is its literary model: for here indeed nothing is presented other than the production process of a protoplasmic machine, whose functioning evades the social question: "And what does all that mean?" What the schizophrenic experiences is nature, not as nature or as a world of objective meaningfulness, but as a production process:

There is no such thing as either man or nature now, only a process that produces the one within the other and couples the machines together. Producing-machines, desiring-machines everywhere, schizophrenic machines, all species of life: the self and the non-self, outside and inside, no longer have any meaning whatsoever. (Deleuze/Guattari 2).

The ocean/Harey/Kelvin: a molecularly coupled multiplicity—productive, wondrous, erotic—which means nothing; it functions. (The text too functions like a schizophrenic machine.) On Solaris, if it existed, Deleuze/Guattari’s schizophrenic would feel at home. For Solaris is an "eternal challenge to the human being" (201/172) only if one looks for meanings or wants to implement one’s purposes, only if one wants to keep on living according to the laws of social consciousness even in the "other world" of the schizophrenic.


Instead of arriving at a "solid crystallization of meaning in the totality of interpretations," the path we have traveled—through critical-psychological, structural-semantic, psychoanalytic and schizoanalytic orientations—has led to differing possible coherent semantic structures. We have woven together three different readings—plasmatic, vaginal, and schizoanalytic—which are based on an interference of mutually overlapping isotopic levels. Solaris does not stand on the rock of a hard and fast meaning, but on complex isotopies, which are responsible for the "capacity for multiple interpretations" of the novel.


1. This essay originally appeared in German as "Stanislaw Lems Phantastischer Ozean: Ein Beitrag zur semantischen Interpretation des Science-Fiction-Romans ‘Solaris’," in M. Geier, Kulturhistorische Sprachanalysen (Köln, 1979), 67-123. [ICR]

2. Cf. the essays of Wolfgang Iser, Roman Ingarden, and Felix Vodicka in R. Warning (ed.), Rezeptionsästhetik (Munich, 1975). [MG]

3. Other examples would be, for instance, fairy tales, horror and ghost stories, heroic fantasy. Cf. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic (New York, 1973); Roger Callois, Au coeur du fantastique (Paris, 1965). [MG]

4. The differentiation of these various imaginative possibilities draws on Jean-Paul Sartre, The Psychology of the Imagination (New York, 1948). (The SF example is taken from the opening sentence of Lem’s The Invincible.) [MG/ICR]

5. Cf. especially A. N. Leontjew, Probleme der Entwicklung des Psychischen (Berlin, 1971), Pt. II, Ch. II/III. [MG]

6. Roman Ingarden, Vom Erkennen des literarischen Kunstwerks (Tübingen, 1968), 11f. [MG]

7. References to Phantastik und Futurologie, the German translation of Lem’s Fantastyka i Futurologia (Science Fiction and Futurology), which has not been translated into English, will be abbreviated as P&F. [ICR]

8. Stanislaw Lem, Solaris, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1975. The numbers in parentheses following the quotations refer to the page numbers of the quotations in the German edition. Because Geier’s argument is based on this translation of Lem’s novel we have translated Geier’s German quotations directly, without substituting the corresponding English versions from the translation available to English readers. We have, however, added page references to the appropriate passages in the 1987 reprint of Solaris by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; these follow the German references, which are in boldface. We have kept the original Polish text’s character names whenever the English text conflicts with them (e.g., Harey for Rheya, Snaut for Snow). [ICR]

9. Klaus Holzkamp, Sinnliche Erkenntnis (Frankfurt, 1973), 25f, 105ff. [MG]

10. Cf. Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vol. I, MEW, 192f. [MG]

11. Cf. W. Kallmeyer, W. Klein, R. Meyer-Hermann, et al., Lekturekolleg zur Textlinguistik, Vol. 1: Einführung (Frankfurt, 1974), 134f. [MG]

12. Eugenio Coseriu, "Lexikalische Solidaritäten" in Poetika 1:293-303, 1967. [MG].

13. One understands this to mean a lexical unit which, as a "word," is an element in the vocabulary with a relatively independent meaning of its own. Greimas understands the lexeme to be an assemblage of sememes which are linked to each other through hierarchical relationships. [MG]

14. Jacques Lacan especially has raised objection to this speechless unconscious. Cf. J. Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection (New York, 1977). [MG/ICR]

15. Cf. Theweleit, p. 379ff. Theweleit draws his orientation here especially from Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process (New York, 1978). [MG/ICR]

16. Cf. Julia Kristeva, "Une(s) Femme(s)," in Essen vom Baum der Erkenntnis (Berlin, 1977), 37ff.; J. Kristeva, Revolution in poetic language (New York, 1984); Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One (Ithaca, 1985); Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman (Ithaca, 1985); Hélène Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa," Signs 1.4 (1975). [MG/ICR]

17. Jacques Lacan, "La Femme n’existe pas," in "Das Lächeln der Medusa," Alternative, 108/109:161. [MG]

18. Ibid., 163. Directed against this are the attempts at a "feminine writing style and productivity" as they have been developed as a possibility in the works of Irigaray, Cixous, and Kristeva. [MG]

19. It refers especially to the unconscious insofar as it has been handled thematically by Freud in concepts of strength (and not of sense). On this dialectic, cf. Paul Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations (Chicago, 1974). [MG/ICR]

20. Anti-Oedipus. especially Ch. 1. [MG]

21. In the "draft" from 1895 it is a question of a "neuron-machine"; in Traumdeutung of an "optical machine," similar to a telescope; later of a "wonder-block" (1925). [MG]


Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus. Minneapolis, 1983.

Freud, Sigmund. "Jenseits des Lustprinzips." Gesammelte Werke (G.W.), Vol. XIII.

—————. "Psychoanalytische Bemerkungen über einen autobiographisch beschreibe nen Fall von Paranoia (Dementia parnoides)," G.W., Vol. VIII.

—————. "Der Realitätsverlust bei Neurose und Psychose," in G.W., Vol. XIII.

—————. Die Traumdeutung, G.W., vol. II/III.

—————. "Uber den Traum," G.W., Vol. II/III.

—————. "Das Unbehagen an der Kultur," G.W., Vol. XIV.

—————. "Das Unbewusste," G.W., Vol. XIII.

—————. Vorlesungen, G.W. Vol. XI.

Greimas, A.J. Strukturale Semantik. Brunswick, 1971.

Kallmeyer, W., W. Klein, R. Meyer-Sieber, at al. Lektürekolleg zur Textlinguistik, Vol. 2. Frankfurt, 1974.

Laplanche, J. and Pontalis, J.-B., Das Vokabular der Psychoanalyse. 2 volumes. Frankfurt, 1973.

Lem, Stanislaw. Phantastik und Futurologie, Pt. 1. Frankfurt, 1977.

—————. Solaris. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1975.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. Das Patchwork der Minderheiten. Berlin, 1977.

Pottier, B. Présentation de la linguistique. Paris, 1967.

Rastier, Francois. "Systematik der Isotopien." Kallmeyer, Klein, Meyer-Sieber, et al.

Schreber, Daniel Paul. Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken. Frankfurt/Berlin/ Vienna, 1973.

Suvin, Darko. "Zur Poetik des literarischen Genres Science Fiction." Science Fiction. Ed. E. Barmeyer. Munich, 1972.

Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies. Vol. 1. Minneapolis, 1987.

Abstract.—Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris vividly embodies the problems surrounding the semantic status of fantastic utterances. It poses the problems as two related questions: what is the "objective" meaning of the notion of the Solarian ocean for the Solarist researchers in the novel, and what is the "symbolic" meaning of the novel’s fantastic ocean for its readers. Since the diegetic planet Solaris

has no objective relation to the meaning-producing dynamics of human work, the Solarian ocean is a projection of familiar human meanings. As for the fantastic ocean represented for the reader, it can be approached via several semantic interpretations, none of which are fully adequate. Three such approaches are the plasmatic, i.e., the different descriptions of the ocean are instances of the dominant metasemic lexeme "plasma"; the vaginal, i.e., the ocean is a displaced image of female sexuality; and the schizophrenic, i.e., the ocean is an instance of a schizophrenic "miraculation-machine" (derived from Deleuze-Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus). (ICR)

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