Science Fiction Studies

# 6 = Volume 2, Part 2 = July 1975

Edward Balcerzan

Seeking Only Man: Language and Ethics in Solaris

Translated from the Polish by Konrad Brodzinski

Lem's Solaris cannot be assessed within that system of values which the 20th-century avant-garde has evolved and implanted in our consciousnesses.

The present-day literary innovator tends to be an isolated figure, misunderstood by the general reader. He experiments as one of a group of experimenters. As a rule he "belongs" to a movement, accomodates himself within a school of thought, enters into the crossfire of various "isms." The opposite is true of the author of Solaris: today Stanislaw Lem is read, reprinted, discussed, translated, even filmed. And yet this writer works on his own. He moves almost in a "perfect vacuum," outside the current "isms," in a peculiar stratum of contrariness1 in the literary consciousness of our times. It would be futile to seek a place for Solaris in the topography of Polish postwar prose; the critical pointers are negative: lack of contexts, absence of narrative forms corresponding to the order of development, a kind of "uprootedness" of the novel as a whole. Lem himself makes sure that he stays on just such an indefinite plane: always beside or above. This is confirmed by his statements in the mass media.

In 1970 Lem published his two-volume study Fantastyka i futurologia (SF and Futurology). One might suppose that this would be the book in which he admitted his affiliation to a certain movement, with which he is prepared to share success and failure. After all, he belongs—ostensibly—to the ranks of SF writers. However, he deals and polemicises mainly with non-Polish realizations of that genre, with texts unknown to Polish readers. He presents them in "summarized" form: summarized, and perhaps at the same time parodied? One is led to suspect that it is not Lem defining himself in relation to some "ism," but an alien "ism" defining itself in relation to Lem. His next book, Doskonala próznia (Perfect Vacuum—Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1971), confirmed such conjectures. The actual state of affairs in current fiction—earlier so perceptively analyzed in the essays of Lem's book Wejscie na orbite (Entering Into Orbit—Cracow: Wyd. Literackie, 1962)—is of less and less concern to him. He does not see his own writing directly in terms of contemporary structures and sign-posts. He invents his own. Doskonala próznia contains "reviews" of unwritten works.

Naturally, Lem as theoretician is aware of the literary battlefields, and knows the objectives and means of battles fought by the multifarious avant-gardes. In practice, however—and this is particularly true of Solaris—his knowledge of the conflict between the avant- and arrière-gardes does not influence the shape of his story.

The contemporary avant-gardist needs continually to question and contest. He needs to take apart stereotypes, to break down automatisms, to dissolve conventions. Thrown into a tradition, he endeavours first of all to question the language of his predecessors. He wants his writing to be an interplay of "the old" and "the new," but the result of the game is a foregone conclusion: the "new" wins. Lem's approach is different. The structure of Solaris accommodates and reconciles the Languages of two eras: those of the 19th and 20th centuries. Reading Lem's novel we feel that all the crises, rebellions, seasonal dictatorships and similar eruptions which continually destroyed and re-formed the narrative art did not manage to violate the essential identity of the genre: the story has remained the story. Changes have turned out to be superficial: the "new" has not eliminated the "old," it functions side by side with it; the cataclysms were not fatal. These language revolts, riots and outrages are reduced in Solaris to the rôle neutral matter. Systems hitherto in conflict begin here to gravitate towards each other; they are fused into a whole.

Let us begin with "the old." Granted a great deal of over-simplification, it can be said that the prose which we now feel to be "old"—traditional or traditionalistic—and whose possibilities, if the avant-gardists are to be believed, have been exhausted, regulated reality in the novel according to the rules of common sense. Here the world-order, established by common experience and by the current state of scientific research, went unquestioned. It constituted the primary condition of a relationship between the author and his readers. Time was linear; space three-dimensional; the sequence of events continuous (or simulating continuity); the characters explained through biography; the language....the language we shall consider later. Lem has written a phantasmagorical novel, but in actual fact the world of Solaris is seen in a traditional perspective. What has changed? Time has been extended—it has run on into the future; space has been broadened—up to the furthest crannies of the cosmos. These changes are nonetheless only quantitative. The basic system of orienting and measuring has remained the same. Two suns shine on the planet Solaris—this complicates the rhythm of life, but not to such an extent as to render the situations in which the heroes of the novel have got entangled untranslatable into the language of ordinary, earthly, human experience.

17:20 hours: in fog. Altitude 200. Visibility 20-40 metres. Silence. Climbing to 400.

17:45: Altitude 500. Pall of fog to horizon. Funnel-shaped openings through which I can see ocean surface. Something is happening there. Shall try to enter one of these clearings. (§6)2

The gam gliding over the "thinking" ocean, in a landscape of strange objects: "extensors," "fungoids," "mimoids," "asymmetriads" and "symmetriads" (§8), moves about like each of us would in familiar surroundings—in the mountains, say, in a skyscraper, in an elevator. Time and space here contain none of the compressions and attenuations to be found in the contemporary novel, no unplumbed depths; everything runs according to the calendar, there is no "thirteenth month," no psychological or metaphysical labyrinths.

Lem has written an SF novel; in this peculiar genre even the boldest visions are timely entrenched in common sense, equipped with ocular and objective. They have no right to be otherwise. We perceive them as fantastic for the very reason that they exist in a non-fantastic environment, in an ocean of normality. In fact, a practical intelligence means more here than it does in "realistic" writing: it is not merely a capacity appreciated passively, without comment, it receives special protection. Thus, for example, "visitors" begin to pay calls on the members of the Solaris expedition. Who are they?—"'Hallucinations, you mean.' ''s real...'" (§1).

Kris, the hero of Solaris, would nonetheless prefer them to be just hallucinations. A healthy mind seeks explanation in illness. He can accept deviation from the norm, but he cannot believe that there are orders transcending the antinomy of "health" and "illness" by means of completely unexpected deviations within the system. "Then a curious change came over me," says Kris; "at the thought that I had gone mad, I calmed down." This makes good sense: "Assuming that I was ill, there was reason to believe that I would get better, which gave me some hope of deliverance—a hope in no way to be found in the tangled nightmares of those few hours I had just experienced, on Solaris" (§4).3

Tangled nightmares which cannot be disentangled at the given point of time, but which nevertheless are being disentangled continuously and at all cost, present a threat to the sovereignty of common sense. A game offers a form of defense: the game of common sense, or pretence that everything is as it should be. A "visitor," Harey,4 calls on Kris. This is—real. She is a girl in a white dress, betrayed only by one detail: the dress has no fastener. The game begins. Kris slits open the material—"As though it were the most normal way of going about it" (§5). The game does not end there. The "visitors" go through a process of humanization. The more human characteristics they acquire, the more sensibly they reason. A new Harey arrives, wiser, more determined. The scene with the dress is re-enacted. "This time she herself tore the stitch apart with a pair of scissors. She said that the fastener had probably got stuck" (§7).5

The power of common sense (this likewise has a somewhat antiquated air about it, foreign to present trends) finds its basis in the conceptualization of character and organization of the plot. Thus the characters' actions have plausible motives, and the plot has a clear beginning and end. A character, particularly a subordinate one, may have a fossilized personality, acting according to the same script in each situation and reproducing the same complex of characteristics (Sartorius). He may evolve (Kris, Harey), but only if such a change stays within the sphere of "real-life" feasibility. There is nothing here of Witkacy or Schulz.6 In Witkacy, protagonists change suddenly, in one leap, without explanation: "The old man changes from a meek man into a rabid psychopath and murders a little girl who has only just crept in Stage Left." Such leaps are out of the question in the convention of Solaris. Unquestionably, here too the gentle turn degenerate and the bestial become angels. If, however, they encounter an incident analogous to the old man and the little girl, they do not give in, but, recalling all their specialist reading, armed to the teeth with the latest scientific apparatus, they try to explain (to the reader and to themselves) how such a horrendous crime could have come about, why (to continue our analogy) the girl "crept" in instead of just walking in, why she crept in from the left and not from the right, and so on. All the Solarists behave in this manner: Kris, Gibarian, Snaut,7 Sartorius....

Given such a framework, the language of the narrative is surprising.

The "old" novel embodied its vision of the world in a language which was maximally self-assured, unambiguous and translucent. This was a sine qua non of the art of confirmation. The narrator of Solaris, on the other hand, has at his disposal a language which he cannot trust—just as 20th-century avant-garde writers do not trust it. However, the sub-codes of scientific cognition turn out to be quite insecure, and their ostensible purity problematic; they are liable to decay just as much as the vernacular. They become antiquated, or stray from their precise subject, or combine with alien sub-codes such as that of sensationalist journalism, or become prey to the antics of cranks and maniacs of all kinds. "Every science engenders some pseudo-science," says Kris (§6), and it has to go on as a confused language, in which it is difficult to separate truth from falsehood. He has, moreover, to use a tongue which is foreign, second-hand, even "third-hand" and "fourth-hand." It is not surprising, therefore, that "any scientist...has the indelible impression that he can discern fragments of an intelligent structure, perhaps endowed with genius, haphazardly mingled with outlandish phenomena, apparently the product of an unhinged mind" (§2).

The whole novel is search for a language—in its "uniqueness and truth."

The search ends in failure. Neither elaborate systems, which incapacitate through surfeit of words, nor sparse ones, which in turn lose the "subtle complexity of thought," satisfy the narrator. Each new phenomenon arouses a speech-forming passion, finding its place in the language as a collection of names. The "visitors" appear. In what word can one embody their existence, their extraordinariness: polytheria, succubi, phantoms, Phi-creatures? "But ultimately no terms will convey what happens on Solaris,"8, says Kris: all the terms turned out to have been "inadequate" (§8). As in the modern literary currents, the narrative constantly reviews and revises itself, reveals itself in a speech which is uncertain, contained within inverted commas, capricious, turbid.

On the fly-leaf of the first edition of Glos Pana (His Master's Voice—Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1968), Lem wrote that he himself did not understand Solaris completely. "I do not understand" means here: "My novel is not written in a language which meets with my complete approval."—"'Does your word still possess any value for you?' 'Good God, Snaut, still going on about that? It does. And I have given it to you...'" (§14).9 The "word of honour" may still have some value, but it is a subjective value, private and ethical rather than cognitive. It may be my word on any subject, but fails to become my word on something outside of me. We thus have a paradoxical novel: the world seen simultaneously in a "new" and an "old" way. Why, though, does this hybrid creature not break down, and why is such a combination of fire and water at all conceivable and admissible?

It is conceivable within a system of compromises. We are witnessing a continuous relay-race of two poetics. In some sections of the text, in episodes of concentrated action in which there is no time for reflection, the language becomes translucent as the world reverts to its norm. In other parts of the novel the opposite is true: the world constructs itself outside the norm. Then the action dies out—Kris shuts himself away in a library—and the more the language is analysed, the more violently it crumbles away and gives birth to monstrosities, symmetriads and asymmetriads, various mimoids and surrealia.... Then again: action, tempo, clarity. And so it goes on until the end of the book.

Is this good or bad? The structure of Solaris imitates the structure of the human personality, especially that of an intellectual like Kris or Snaut. Lem's novel "behaves" as everyone behaves who sees the difference between the language of empirical life and the language set apart for analytic purposes. The first must be common-sense and realistic; the second is often irrational and twisted; and yet we use both of them almost concurrently. Lem knows this: time after time he plays the critic. He cannot be subservient to the literary canons of either the 19th or 20th centuries, because his loyalty lies first and foremost with his protagonists.

This, I think, is good.

The case of Harey and Kris was known to literature long before Solaris was written, in various stories about the man-phantom encounter in a context of different sexes by, e.g., Mickiewicz, Slowacki or Syspianski. It is difficult to discuss such a theme in terms of old-fashioned versus avant-garde. A different set of concepts comes into play here: that of "originality" against "unoriginality." Lem is original. He is original in the classical sense of the word, as the author of a text which takes a theme out of its historical and literary order and radically updates it (so radically that bringing up the names of the great Romantics may seem no more than a joke on the part of the critic). To put it another way: whenever the KNOWN is perceived by us as NEW, we are dealing with originality.

The case in question is the drama of a man who is in love with someone's image and lives with it as with a "flesh and blood" person: an image deeply rooted in the memory, sketched in one's fantasies, appearing in day-dreams. Lem is not interested in the pathological aspect of this phenomenon. He is admittedly presenting an extraordinary situation, but at the same time he employs all his energy and inventiveness to convey to the reader that everyone experiences what happened to the helpless, desperate Solarists. Kris has lost a fiancée: Harey died—she did not have to die, he could simply have lost immediate contact with her; and now it appears that contact has not been lost because it still remains in Kris's memory, without Harey, but in connection with her. More than that: it emancipates itself within him, it evolves, it has periods of activity and of stagnation. What does this mean? If we are involved in a dialogue with the absent, who, or what, is our interlocutor?

"We are only seeking Man," says Snaut in chapter 6.

This is the key sentence in Solaris. Only seeking Man. If this is so, then even the image of a person (which after all has no matter, or is material in a different way) becomes not just an epistemological puzzle but a moral problem. Does not—Lem asks—demoralisation perhaps begin at the point when—in a supposedly "make-believe" way, bloodlessly, in a void—we murder the thought about another person? Just the thought, the reflection, a "Phi-creature".... These are the questions Lem asks. The rest is a fantastic story, which forces the reader to project the fictitious story of Kris the Solarist through the prism of his own biography.


1The Polish mimoism, Balcerzan's own neologism, means literally "contrary-to-ism," or "athwart-ism"; since he was probably trying to pun on Lem's "mimoids," the translator and editor throw up their hands in despair and settle for the next best.

2Changed from the Kilmartin-Cox translation of the UK and US editions to conform with the original.

3Slightly emended from the Kilmartin-Cox translation.

4In the French and English translations for unclear reasons called Rheya.

5Changed from the Kilmartin-Cox translation.

6Famous 20th-century Polish fantasy writers.

7In English translation Snow.

8Changed from the Kilmartin-Cox translation.

9Changed from the Kilmartin-Cox translation of: "'Can I rely on your word?' 'Still fretting? Yes, you can....'"


Today, Stanislaw Lem is read, reprinted, discussed, translated, even filmed. And yet this writer works on his own. He moves almost in a perfect vacuum, outside the current "isms," in a peculiar stratum of contrariness. On the flyleaf of the first edition of Glos Pana (His Master’s Voice), Lem wrote that he himself did not understand Solaris completely. "I do not understand" means here "My novel is not written in a language which meets with my complete approval." We have in Solaris a paradoxical novel: the world is seen simultaneously in a new and an old way. Why, though, does this hybrid creature not break down, and why is such a combination of fire and water at all conceivable and admissible? "We are only seeking Man," says Snaut in chapter 6. This is the key sentence in Solaris: only seeking Man. If this is so, then even the image of a person (which after all has no matter) becomes not just an epistemological problem but also a moral problem. Does not, Lem asks, demoralization perhaps begin when, in a supposedly make-believe way, bloodlessly, in a void, we murder a thought about another person? Just a thought, a reflection, a "Phi-creature." These are the questions Lem asks; the rest is a fantastic story that forces the reader to project the fictitious story of Kris the Solarist through the prism of his own biography.

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