THE SUBLIME SIMULACRA:
REPETITION, REVERSAL, AND RECOVERY IN LEM'S SOLARIS
by Neil Easterbrook, copyright Heldref Publications, 1995 Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem, in "Reflections on My Life," an essay on the nature and focus of his work, published in the collection Microworlds, assigns Solaris to the second of his three "periods." The first, Lem says, consists of conventional but immature works; the third, of mature and unconventional works; and this second, perhaps most accessible, period of works both mature and generally conventional. I would like to suggest the ways in which Lem's classifications must be both respected and rejected, especially when applied to a novel like Solaris, which seems to invite an extremely conventional psychoanalytic interpretation but which contains a series of radically unconventional devices that deflect or defer any possibility of employing a traditional, especially psychoanalytic, hermeneutic strategy.
In Solaris, Kris Kelvin encounters the ghostly double of his dead wife Rheya while stationed on the planet Solaris, "a touchstone of individual values" (23), whose all-too-alien Ocean (1) performs "psychic vivisections" (192) on human minds in order to produce living copies of their deepest, usually darkest, memories. After his dreamwork comes alive, he eventually prefers the specter to repression, embracing his female double as a means to relive and then release remorse over past failure. Kelvin arrives hoping to discover anything and finds something, which in a final erasure of unveiling reveals itself as nothing.
Kelvin is a xenopsychologist who travels to Solaris to study its ocean, a yeasty colloidal(2) stew capable of assembling "paroxysms of extravagant brilliance" (116), fantastic clusters or agglutinations called "mimoids" (113), enormous symmetrical and asymmetrical forms that immediately strike humans as portentous - full of some implicit but occult purpose. It is, consequently, the first extraterrestrial life-form ever observed that may be a candidate for consciousness. Discovered 130 years ago, the ocean had been the object of a raging scientific debate - is it, or is it not, sentient? As George Steiner notes, "the logic of the occult is autistic" (34), which suggestively describes he difficulties humans have understanding the alien Ocean. Despite humanity's repeated attempts at communication, the ocean has failed to make a coherent response; because no "contact" was made, study of the planet has now been abandoned to a small team of academic specialists, whose work becomes increasingly marginal as it becomes increasingly arcane: "The question appeared as a contemporary version of the problem of squaring the circle" (24). Entire libraries have been devoted to this seemingly fruitless end, and one must be fully trained in the scholarship before being allowed to travel to the research station. Content to analyze existing scholarship, most devotees of Solaris oceanology and ecology - Solaristics - think additional original research unnecessary, although Solaristics is an academic industry that produces more material yearly than any individual can consume. Kelvin, however, will not be restricted by the failures of previous imaginations; his obsessive fascination with the ocean drives him to join the small contingent on the planet.
Kelvin arrives on Solaris to supplement the station's complement of Gibarian (the commander and senior scholar), Sartorius (a physicist), and Snow (a cybernetician). Arriving, he finds the station disordered, chaotic; Snow unkempt and paranoid, given to cryptic commentary and enigmatic answers; Sartorius mysteriously sequestered, probably barricaded, in his lab (34). Gibarian, Kelvin soon learns, committed suicide that very morning. Warned that he may encounter "anything" (10) and quickly accumulating a host of "morbid apprehensions" (14), Kelvin goes in search of clues concerning the cause of Gibarian's death, starting with a comprehensive search of his cabin. Kelvin next encounters a stranger who takes no note of him, "a giant Negress" (30) walking the station's halls; later he discovers Gibarian's frozen body in the cold store, with the living "Aphrodite" (30) "flattened across his body" (47). Kelvin knows this "Amazon" still lives because he touches her foot. The mere fact that she survives inhuman conditions poses more questions than can be solved by the uncovering of Gibarian's body, as is always the case in Solaristics: explaining one enigma only leads to "another, perhaps more baffling" (19).
Gibarian has left behind some fragmented notes and a tape-recorded journal, but Kelvin must rest after his long journey from earth and his taxing encounters with the station's taciturn crew - not to mention Gibarian's curious companion - which make him question his sanity (48-51). Waking after a restless sleep, he finds the living image of Rheya in his cabin. Terrified of her because he recognizes that she is not Rheya, although she herself believes she is (57), he discovers that she too is terrified and cannot bear being without him. Ten years ago Kelvin abandoned her, and, depressed, she committed suicide (70). These facts frighten Kelvin more because (as soon becomes clear) even now he fears the truth of his own life more than the occluded truths of others'. He quickly, almost unconsciously resolves to "escape" (60) this ghostly manifestation; he accomplishes this by "killing" her, exploiting her innocence and naivete to maneuver her alone into a small shuttle that he abruptly rockets into orbit (63-65).
Subsequently, the now more talkative and direct Snow congratulates Kelvin on his remarkable efficiency, then tells him that there are things more horrible than shock over the return of a dead wife:
What is more horrible still is what hasn't happened, what never existed ... perhaps something, a phantasm, rose up from somewhere within [someone], ten or thirty years ago, something which he suppressed and then forgot about ...And now suddenly, he comes across this thing... this thought, embodied, riveted to him, indestructible. (71; third ellipsis in the text)
Sartorius's "visitors" are mysterious but vaguely humanoid, but Snow's - apparently derived from an aberrant moment rather than from fantasy or reality - must be a good deal more ominous than either Gibarian's or Kelvin's. Perhaps this is one reason why "everyone" has called Snow "Ratface" (9). We learn little of Sartorius's companion, except that it emits "little short footsteps... an imitation of a child's" (42); its "child's laugh" and "shining yellow disc" (44) of a "straw hat" (105) only corroborate that guess. All of the visitors appear linked either to erotic fantasy or erotic guilt: Gibarian's Hottentot goddess (3); Snow's disquisition on the erotic fetish, aberrant infatuations "no one had dared to externalize" (71); even Kelvin conceives of the visitors as expressly gendered, at one point wondering aloud why the Ocean is "sending succubi" (73). So, too, the Ocean itself is gendered female, for in Kelvin's brief dream of "contact" the Ocean is female: "this creature - a woman?" (179),
Kelvin's own doctoral thesis, which gained him sufficient scholarly recognition to merit his inclusion in the search station on Solaris, was based on the work of two psychologists "who had succeeded in isolating and 'filtering' the elements of the most powerful emotions ... out of e mass of general mental processes" (175), a project reminiscent of Freud's. Devoted to new observations of the ocean's behavior and employing psychologistic analogues, the thesis was grotesquely ridiculed by the popular press as "The Planet in Orgasm," which may actually suggest the particular relation between Kelvin's work and the latency of some erotic fantasy that each visitor manifests. Although Snow will later offer a more telling analysis, Kelvin's immediate diagnosis is right - these visitors do not cause suicidal depression, but instead invoke serious paranoia from their human counterparts (33) bringing about a general panic (60, 121) of self-awareness, which in turn leaves them utterly exhausted (44, 37), unable to think clearly or act efficiently.
When another copy of Rheya - one absolutely identical to the first double and utterly ignorant of the previous day's events - awaits him when he wakes the following morning (91), Kelvin comes to feel this second repetition, this third Rheya is "the real Rheya, the one and only Rheya" (93). Consequently, he begins to change (107). From alternating anger, bitterness, and indifference, he comes gradually to understand himself as Rheya's tormentor - as a coward and a murderer (71, 157) - a self-realization that is simultaneously incapacitating and empowering.
Throw Phi-(sic) to the Dogs
The rest of the narrative is devoted to resolving the mystery of what Snow enigmatically names "Phi-creatures" (100). Although they are variously called "polytherian forms" (10), "strangers" (49), "visitors" (46; 67), "doubles" (74), "others" (74), "ghosts" (150), "phantasms" (71), "phantoms" (100), "copies" (101), "super-copies" (101), "projections" (102), "monsters" (106), "twins" (121), "puppets" (134), "shadows" (136), and "counterparts" (178), Snow prefers the appellation "Phi-creature." He nowhere offers an explanation of this term; it therefore invites speculation.
The term lacks any compelling reason to prefer a single, definitive interpretation. Consulting the OED yields few fruits, although its identification of the physicist's "phi scale," a measure of the diameter of subatomic particles, sheds some light. Optics offers the resonant "phi-effect," the deceptive remnant of some now-absent visual stimulus (4). If, as Snow suggests, the Phi-creatures are a sort of emotive cathartic, either of the Ocean or humans, then phi suggests a general remedy, a strong physic of purgation. The irony of this explanation is that any phramakon may double as a poison, as Derrida has shown in Dissemination's "Plato's Pharmacy." However, other readings seem equally intended, equally plausible, and may actually be more hermeneutically satisfying.
That the earliest and most prestigious explorer of Solaris, "the father of Solarist studies and Solarists" (161) - Giese - "loved" the ocean's mimoids (113), suggests that these are love creatures, from the Greek prefix philo (to love), as in philosophia. This conjecture seems to be confirmed by the fact that, independently, both Kelvin and Snow name visitors "Aphrodite."(5) The immediate pun rests on phylo, to bring forth or to grow, whence phusis - nature, the natural (for the Greeks, all that is not human or associated with the gods). Phusis (from phuein, to push or to grow) is also the source of physic. Perhaps Phi also invokes the Greek verb phainein: "to bring to light, make known, display"; the words fantasy, phantasm, and phantom derive from a similar verb: "to make visible Tracing the thin line of philology far enough, we also find the biologist's conception of the phenotype, "an individual that looks like another, but may be genetically different underneath it all" (Humez 157, 6). More properly, perhaps the term should be phenocopy.
In a footnote to an essay on Solaris, the always-illuminating Istvan Csicsery-Ronay notes that Lem's selections of proper names for both characters and spaceships seem irresistibly portentous, although there can be no proper correspondence, no allegorical reading of these words.(7) Yet the propriety of names precisely names the novel's central problematic: what to call these ghostly apparitions, originals or copies, humans or aliens? As Derrida comments on an analogous matter, "Can one give a proper name (for example Aphrodite) to such a diverse, polymorphous, ungraspable phenomenon?" (Post Card 399).
In order to grasp the phenomenon, the scientists perform experiments of several kinds, from blood tests and spectroscopic analyses on the Phi-creatures to sanity tests on themselves. Sartorius conducts a subatomic inquiry, and launches a scheme to "destabilize" (109) the Phi-creatures. He also concocts another plan. Because the Doppelgangers began appearing only after Gibarian bombarded the ocean with high-energy x-rays, perhaps a second beaming on similar wavelengths of someone's (Kelvin's) conscious electroencephalogram will provide the "Contact" they so desperately seek (127).
As the days pass while the scientists make their preparations, the third Rheya waits, eventually compiling enough information to awake, to become fully self-conscious, rightly concluding, "I'm not Rheya" (141). Kelvin hated the second Rheya as a parasitic copy, believing the "real" Rheya resides only within memory (65). The double is "uncannily precise" (53), but its precision fails to penetrate either the physiological or psychological surface. Yet after Rheya recognizes herself as a double-goer, he comes to love her as "herself' (153).
Throughout the novel, Kelvin's dreams - of Gibarian, Rheya, and the alien Ocean - are particularly telling. While Sartorius records the electroencephalogram, Kelvin daydreams of Giese's photograph and his dead father; this is the brain pattern beamed into the ocean and repeated twice--an original beaming, which is already a copy twice removed, and two repetitions (17-77). In his next and final dream, Kelvin has a visitation and makes Contact with the alien (179). No more visitors follow this dream (191). When Rheya can no longer live, suspecting that she cannot return to Earth with Kelvin, she has Snow disintegrate her while Kelvin sleeps - drugged, dreamless. When the crew is to rotate back to Earth, Kelvin stays, hoping without hope to recover that lost companion.
Kelvin's personal ignorance, personal loss, and personal guilt are the narrative's main thrust; however, much of the text is given to a grand rehearsal of all the various scientific theories devoted to the data collected about Solaris. Despite their radical differences, all of the varying theories share an ethnocentric or geocentric bias (111)--an anthropomorphic basis--something that fundamentally distorts any attempt at authentic contact and leads to the novel's main theme: humanity's basic arrogance, its hubris, its naive belief that Contact with the Other is possible-on our own terms. The easiest interpretative terms for Rheya's behavior (as well as Kelvin's, for the electroencephalogram scene is staged as his session on the couch) issue from psychoanalytic theory: it is Freud's repetition compulsion coupled to the death-drive. Freud thought the repetition compulsion was a recapitulation of a primal torment that allows an individual psyche to recapture some lost original. The psychoanalytic model now requires attention.
Freud's often-cited but infrequently read essay on this subject, "The Uncanny," proves pivotal for understanding both the semiotic structure of the Phi-creatures' appearance(s) and the dread they engender. Published in 1919 (when Freud was 63), "Das Unheimliche" examines "that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar" (220). The "uncanny" is the displacement or ironized inversion of the familiar (the homely, domestic, evident) and the unfamiliar (the foreign, alien, occult). What most interests Freud--and us--is that "heimlich ... comes to be unheimlich," that the single word signifies two very different but not altogether contradictory things: "on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight" (224-25). Freud's discovery is that "heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich" (226). When the feeling of belonging becomes estranged, alienated, or displaced onto the alien, it results in the uncanny--and vice versa, when the alien is domesticated. Uncanniness can occur only in the recurrence of "discarded belief' (248), and so only those beliefs repressed (not refuted or discredited) from conscious thought can return to evoke uncanny dread, fear, or loathing. Here, repression is to be understood in its strict psychoanalytic sense, for Freud will exploit the fact that in German, unheimlich also means "concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know of or about it, withheld from others" (223).
Freud closely studies several textual examples, most notably E.T.A. Hoffman's tale "The Sand-Man," his novel The Devil's Elixir, and Friedrich von Schiller's poem "The Ring of Plycrates." The uncanny problematics of these texts "are all concerned with the phenomenon of the 'double" (234); in every instance, the "extraneous" double repeats features of the protagonist's life, creating a certain ambiguity between self and other, original and copy, primal event and psychic repetition.(8) After tracing "the manifest" meaning of doubling within psychoanalytic interpretation, Freud goes on to identify its specific function in creating uncanny dread: it is "the repetition of the same" (226), of "involuntary repetition" (237) that uniquely marks the unheimlichkeit. How "involuntary repetition" determines the uncanny derives from "infantile psychology," which becomes a mechanism as familiar as the uncanny itself: "the compulsion to repeat" (234). Four pages of "Das Unheimliche" (234-38) condense and repeat the larger argument, displaced from Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
In psychoanalytic thought (either in Freud or Lacan), the circuit of desire is irremediably (ineluctably?) linked to repetition, for it is only in the repetition of Oedipal triangles that desire structures itself; and it is only the repetition of desire that structures the need for repression--an originating gesture that opens the unconscious; and only in repetition/recovery of the repressed can desire be realized or relieved. Beyond the Pleasure Principle traces that "infantile psychology The general structure of the repetition compulsion can be understood in the child's pleasure in playing the fort/da game with an empty wooden spool. It is a staged repetition of the mother's coming and going. First gone (fort) then here (da), the spool vanishes and returns--a yo-yo pattern that precisely doubles the mother's appearance and disappearance--and both events are delightfully exclaimed to any onlooker. Where desire--following Barbara Johnson's analogy--"is located 'in' a symbolic structure, a structure that can only be perceived in its effects, and whose effects are perceived as repetition" (141), Freud identifies the hidden mystery of the repetition compulsion with the death drive, a desire to regain a lost past. It is not my current purpose to assess Freud's connection, only to explain why the compulsion to repeat has a "demonic" character. In "The Uncanny," Freud discusses exactly this demonic or terrifying character of repetition, as manifest in literature's (or phantasy's) articulation of the phenomenon of the double. The third section of "The Uncanny" begins with a recapitulation of the first two sections, then turns specifically to address the uncanny in literature, which is "a much more fertile province than the uncanny in real life" (249). As Derrida reminds us, "Das Unheimliche" continually indicates "literary fiction's eternally renewed resistance to the general law of psychoanalytic knowledge" (Post Card 426-27). In fact, that turn toward ambivalence articulates the literary problematic of the double, which Derrida defines as "Unheimliche" relations of duplicity which unfold without limit within a dual structure" (460). In "The Uncanny," we therefore seem to have an economic model for Kelvin's situation, his dread, the reemergence of his repressed guilt, and his final loss. The novel is continually marked by uncanny doubles and doubling, repetitions and reversals, estranged familiars, and native exotics. Of such oxymorons, Freud reminds us that
this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression. This reference to repression enables us, furthermore, to understand Schelling's definition of the uncanny as something which ought to have remained hidden but which has come to light. (241)
This also links the Phi-creature to the Greek verb phainein: "to bring to light, make known, display." The uncanny economy of Freud's unheimliche is underscored, domesticated by another etymological link: the Greek for economy is oikonomikos, law or management of the home, from oikos, the household, the dwelling.
A General Disturbance
The home economics of Solaris continually exploit psychoanalytic models. From this point of view, Rheya is the return of Kelvin's repressed guilt over his responsibility in her suicide, which results from the fact that Kelvin failed to take her seriously (70): "... in my sleep, I tried to relive what she had gone through; as though I hoped to turn back the clock and ask her forgiveness" (55). She reappears, he recognizes his guilt, works through it, and when the third Rheya's suicide signals that there are also events that escape his responsibility, he experiences the absolution, or catharsis (however painful), Freud thought necessary, as is made plain in the name he first gave "psycho-analysis": "Cathartic Therapy." Because Kelvin resolves his confrontation with the return of the repressed, his "faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past" (204) seems, from this point of view, rather foolish. Because once the repressed has been recognized as the repressed, it cannot reemerge as a "problem"; Rheya cannot return.
Even Lem's self-descriptions apparently support this allegory. The author describes his writing of Solaris as unconscious, or spontaneous invention: "I found myself, during the writing, in the position of the reader" (Microworlds 20). This author/reader inversion is particularly curious because it also helps structure the human/alien patterns within the novel. In the novel, the figure of the reader is initially Kelvin, who visits the library and seeks out mysterious volumes like The Little Apocrypha, but quickly becomes the Ocean, who "reads" the human unconscious "like a book." This reader reads humanity's reading of itself; for Kelvin's life is composed of "chapters" (175), and Snow names the revelation of reality as turning pages (72). When Kelvin rummages the library for clues, one hears uncanny echoes of Freud's remark, ". . . but the dictionaries we consult tell us nothing new, perhaps only because we ourselves speak a language that is foreign" (221).
The pattern reverses again through the novel's image-identifications, Kelvin, in the midst of the dream of Contact, will later declare, "I am that alien matter" (179). Or later still: "I identified myself with that dumb, fluid colossus" of the ocean (203).(9) Kelvin becomes the reader, the interpreter of the Ocean, becomes the thinly disguised allegory of the psychoanalytic self-reader (placing Kelvin in the patriarchal role of Freud or Lacan) most comfortable within his "egg," isolated "in the great steel shell" in the exact center of Solaris station-the library (110).
In fact, the reading-egg (and the egg-reading) is intimately linked to Kelvin's landing on Solaris and his complete metamorphosis on the planet. Encased within the narrow capsule that will take him from the starship Prometheus to the station, Kelvin dons a space suit that restricts his movement: "There I stood, or rather hung suspended, enveloped in my pneumatic suit and yoke" (1). The brief journey is one of reorientation, of the reversal of orientation. After he "tried in vain to orient myself' (2), he passes "that imperceptible frontier" (3) that demarcates one world from the next; and he falls to the surface. The imagery here is of rebirth: "scorched during flight," the brown capsule bursts like a "cocoon," and Kelvin, pushed "gently from behind," emerges into the new life, as if awaiting baptism, into the station that resembles a "cathedral nave" (5). The images, indeed, call for reorientation. Instead of arriving into a green spring, he finds "no sign of life" on the station. He arrives expecting scientists, robots, life-and finds nothing, nothing but chaos, disorder. It is an uncanny arrival: "the orchestra plays an overture, the music resounds in the hall, a bit unheimlich simply because the place is so empty" (Kierkegaard 165). This result is prefigured in the imagery surrounding the capsule, which vaguely resembles a casket as soon as a crew member from Prometheus seals its eight screws, leaving Kelvin "in the dark" (1) and his "body rigid" (2). The imagery is consistent throughout--for later Kelvin's first glimpse of his face reveals the mirror's image: "masked by dark glasses, it was deathly pale" (28). The visitors' newborn skin, "soft, like that of a child" (57), and the gigantic child that appears to an early explorer (81-82) both parody life/death imagery. The planet's orbit itself is delicately structured on the constant interplay of opposites, such as stability and instability (16).
Such ironic loops--which repeatedly substitute author and reader, alien and human, event and repetition-become even fuzzier if one takes into account another moment when Lem invokes the figure of the reader. In "The Structural Analysis of Science Fiction," Lem argues:
Science fiction profits from th[e] paralysis of the reader's critical apparatus,
because when it simplifies physical, psychological, social, economic, or
anthropological occurrences, the falsifications thus produced are not immediately and unmistakably recognized as such. During the reading one feels instead a general disturbance; one is dissatisfied.... (Microworlds 41)
What is even stranger is that this critical apparatus constitutes the means by which imperceptible frontiers can be demarcated. Obviously then, Solaris's image-patterns attempt not only to shut off the reader's rationality but to disable it in the course of repeating some primal drive-and this is consonant with the psychoanalytic reading, though not entirely.
Another reading of the novel's end might jettison the Freudian reduction of Kelvin to a case study even as it requires the notion of the unconscious. Although the Phi-creatures first appear after a high-energy x-ray bombardment, and stop returning after a second (which is actually three), there is evidence neither that Kelvin's catharsis is complete nor that either x-ray blast "caused" any response from the Ocean. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. In fact, it is equally plausible that the general pattern of the ocean's alternating "interest" and "boredom" (203) with humans-how it first responds to their presence and then ignores them-should be replicated by the Phi-creatures; having read the human unconscious several times, perhaps the Ocean would simply grow "tired" and stop. It is also possible that the Ocean actually acquired what the humans desired-Contact with the Other - and decided against additional exchanges, judging the humans x, y, or z. Kelvin does say that when the telescope is reversed, "everything look[s] meaningless, trivial, and ridiculous" (153). And evidence? What possibility is there that evidence might alter our reading?
Procession of the Simulacra
Why does Kelvin remain, stay, stay on, stay put - unless to remain a visitor himself? After all, the Phi-creatures are hardly "visitors" in any but the most relative way, for although they are the most intimate relatives, it is the humans who "visit" the planet Solaris. Kelvin is both the alien stranger and the xenophobe, something of which both Rheya and Snow, alien and human, remind him by asking "Who are you?" (34, 141); it is a question Kelvin has asked of himself when he dreams of Gibarian: "And how do you know what you are?" (134). The uncertain, invading alien is the human presence, which Kelvin acknowledges by calling Solaris station "our ghost ship" (125).
Or is it, as Freud wrote in his own final paper, a confirmation of the interminable nature of analysis? However much the novel appears to invoke a psychoanalytic allegory, and however much Lem's own practice in writing the novel was "unconscious," the novel also attacks attempts either to psychoanalyze the Ocean or the book. After all, Kelvin is a follower of Gibarian, who "opposed anthropomorphizing interpretations, and the mystifications of the psychoanalytic, psychiatric and neurophysiological schools" (174). In fact, the novel conducts an extraordinary attack on humans for invoking geocentric or anthropomorphic models for "reading" the Ocean's behavior. If, as Lem said in an interview, Solaris "is a gnosseological drama whose focal point is the tragedy of man's imperfect machinery for gaining knowledge" (Zivikovic 259), it would be ridiculous to try to offer an interpretation that identifies the "real" reason for the Ocean's behavior, and because the novel so thoroughly identifies the Ocean with Kelvin, it would be equally foolish to say the novel reveals Kelvin's "real" motivation and causes, or that a properly tuned critical telescope could unveil an Ocean's, an author's, or a book's intentions.
What can be said with some certainty is that the novel deflects conventional readings, that it problematizes, scrambles, or provides a general disturbance of conventional hermeneutic categories. For instance, the classical conception of repetition is that it is a secondary, derivative, or prior presence or substance.
But sometimes, according to a logic that is other, and nonclassical, repetition is 'original', and induces, through an unlimited propagation of itself, a general deconstruction: not only of the entire classical ontology of repetition ... but also the entire psychic construction, of everything supporting the drives and their representatives.... (Post Card 351-52)
Derrida goes on to argue that the fort/da game is already a narrative reciting (or repeating) an origin that is itself a speculation, or a narrative desire structured to recite an everywhere absent origin (370). Solaris's narrative paradigm, then, is not Freudian or modernist but poststructural - in the manner of Soren Kierkegaard's repetition, or perhaps of Derrida's deconstructive dissemination (Dissemination 268), or something drawn from Baudrillard's "age of simulation" (167). It is, in other words, simulacrum - a word Kelvin uses to describe Rheya (65).
The much discussed and intentionally provocative French social critic Jean Baudrillard's hyperbolic assessments of the simulacra provide an extremely useful analytical tool for conceptualizing the Phi-creatures. The simulacrum displaces or short-circuits the hegemony of psychoanalytic models, its economies of transference and countertransference, its Lacanian account of itself as a secondary revision of the real, which is itself always already a narrative (see Baudrillard 184, n5). And it also short-circuits the model of empirical rationality that Freud thought structured psychoanalysis. It is irrelevant whether or not Baudrillard's analysis is "right" or "correct" & "true." What matters is whether or not Solaris's semiotic functions according to the code it delineates. It does. In every respect. Like Kelvin, we have "crossed a point of no return" (157).
Baudrillard's simulacrum is the predicate of "simulation": "no longer that of ... a referential being or substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal" (166). What has vanished is not the real itself but the demarcating "difference" - the imperceptible frontier - between the real and the model, between the primary and the secondary, between the original and the copy, between the realistic and the fantastic. Such a subversion of difference derives from the fact that "simulation['s] operation is nuclear and genetic, and no longer specular and discursive" (167); by this Baudrillard means that, like Derrida's "differance,"(10) simulation both participates within the forms of its surpassed paradigms and subverts them, but as a semiotic model it, strictly speaking, logically precedes(11) them:
Simulation is characterized by a precession of the model, of all models around the merest fact-the models come first, and their orbital (like the bomb) circulation constitutes the genuine magnetic field of events. (175)
So Kelvin blasts the simulacrum into orbit (65): addresses his future self as merely a series of copies (196); uncovers a phenocopy that takes himself as its genotype; and comes to love this Rheya without confusing her for a copy of his dead wife. In this series of events (or of repetitions), Kelvin follows the history of "the four successive phases of the image," as traced by Baudrillard:
(1) It is the reflection of a basic reality
(2) It masks and perverts a basic reality
(3) It marks the absence of a basic reality
(4) It bears no relation to reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum. (170)
The horrible dread, the "hideous desire" (Solaris 62), and "metaphysical despair" (Baudrillard 169) Kelvin feels from Rheya's first (re)appearance comes not from the pretense of the ultimately empty unreality of the copy, but from the fear that she conceals nothing at all, that she is "actually [a] perfect simulacra forever radiant with [her] own fascination" (169). And when this fear is confirmed, that the simulacra are "actually made of nothing" (99), Kelvin is freed from the dread that this Rheya is a counterfeit, an impostor.
Are There Any More at Home Like You?
The novel's thinly veiled psychoanalytic allegory is subverted by these simulacra, which, like everything the Ocean does, are alien; humanity's geocentrism, its insistence on anthropomorphic epistemological paradigms, makes communication impossible. As Snow argues, humanity's latent motive in space exploration is not communication with aliens, but rather a "mirror .. . an ideal image of our world" (72). Indeed, one of Kelvin's teachers had once remarked, "How do you expect to communicate with the ocean when you can't even understand one another?" (22) - or perhaps even more relevant to this narrative, when we cannot understand Contact ourselves?
Yet because the Ocean is so prolific, producing not just Phi-creatures but also its gigantic and portentous progeny--the mimetic mimoids that, for example, duplicate the model or image of any organic form (but never reproduce organic matter, whether alive or dead ), the ocean remains fascinating, irresistibly compelling, especially for the way it both (almost simultaneously) attends to and ignores humanity. All of its mimoids are in various ways simulacra, copies of copies rather than copies of originals, and the allegory, therefore, shifts from the psychoanalysis of one man's duplicitous guilt to the question of the possible distinction between origins and ends, originals and copies, presentations and re-presentations, mimesis and diegesis.
In fact, the principle structuring Solaris's rhetoric, its fractal "architectonic" (120), is repetitive reversal. At almost every turn, some duplicate repeats or parodies an original; there are mirrors (13), maps (25), books, suns, plans (27), dresses (93), audio tapes (88), and physical models (38, 9) - or needlessly redundant space equipment (13). It is an ominous doubling, for even Kelvin's hand casts "a double shadow" (27), and one suicide note prefigures another (56, 190). Doubles are themselves underscored by the frequent presence of halves, as in half-sunburned or half-concealed faces (28), or faces masked (43, 139), or comments on the impossibility of such division (83). There are double illusions (50, 119) and pseudo-resurrections (133). Phi-creatures possess "a dual-level structure" (103) yet remain structurally indivisible (101). And this inventory of doubles and halves is complemented by an equally long catalogue of image reversals, such as the almost constant slippage between "alien" and "human" (34, 141, 139, 107, 189), initially suggested by the reversal of orientation effected by the planet's gravity on reentry, necessitated by Kelvin's journey to Solaris station.
Attentive readers soon realize that the narrative is also structured on thematic reversals. Kelvin arrives in a cocoonlike transport capsule that bursts not to metamorphosis but to "no sign of life"; Kelvin is initially horrified by the simulacrum, and murders it; Kelvin later loves the simulacrum, which then commits suicide; left alone (189), Kelvin's behavior precisely doubles the simulacrum's behavior in similar circumstances (59, 94); and the imagery of Rheya's "red dot, the mark of a hypodermic needle" (55) repeats Kelvin's own enigmatic "small pink scar" (57) and casts an altogether more ironic tone on Snow's comment that Kelvin should know all about lethal injections like Gibarian's (33).
Such repetitive reversals simply underscore a more subversive allegory, for the novel itself suddenly looms as a simulacrum, obviously the copy not of any original but a phantasm, a monstrosity, a dark nightmare come to life. It is a pattern evoked by the mise en abyme of the novel's title - for it is a title, a planet, an Ocean, and the ocean's effects. First and foremost, however, it is a book, a text, something scribbled on paper and held in the hand, a pattern reiterated by what we hold in our hand: a book translated from French translated from Polish, a book that is itself a textual replicant, a simulacrum. Throughout the novel, this textuality is repeatedly privileged. Snow's Doppelganger makes the "rustling" sound of "papers stirred by the wind" (150) and Sartorius's is accompanied by the "rustling of papers" (42). Rustling also precedes Rheya's second arrival (89) and marks her presence in the dark (134); when she attempts suicide by drinking liquid oxygen, her labored breathing is "a dry sound like tearing paper" (139). As the Ocean "read[s] us like a book" (193), readers realize the allegory: where the book is "a sea of ink" (171), "an ocean of printed paper" (169), it is the Ocean's analogue. Readers now mimic Kelvin. Rather than a Freudian resolution of torment (once it is recognized), there is only the repeated poststructural terror:(12) Kelvin exists, "is" only through repetition, "like a book" - in the crew, in Rheya, and especially in us, where readers are the only ones capable of (re)living Kelvin's torments, Kelvin's (all too) human pain. But in fact Kelvin is not real, not human - he is only and expressly a character in a book - and whatever meaning or feeling we find in him and his pain comes from us, our empathy, just as Snow reminds Kelvin of Rheya: "she is a mirror that reflects part of your mind" (154). The mirror held up to us is the book Solaris. The problem it reflects - the search for "the key, the philosopher's stone of Solarist studies" - is hermeneutic: "solve it, and the back of the problem would be broken" (169). And the ideal image this speculum reflects bears no relation to reality whatsoever it is its own pure simulacrum.
The novel's narrative voice is exclusively first-person present, except on the page immediately preceding contact: "When I look back on those moments today ... (178), Kelvin says, a narrative anachronism that disrupts the novel's entire chronological signature. The comeuppance of such a narrative disruption is to textualize the entire scene (179-80) as something narrated. Such displacement signifies Kelvin's loss of the mimetic within diegesis, and so the resultant dissolution or dispersal of self (180) is textual, an allegory of the narrative, held intact only by a readerly act.
The book, therefore, is the reader's ghostly Doppelganger, and "when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us--that part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence--then we don't like it anymore" (72). Both Solaris and Solaris force us to confront that repressed absence, that lack of reality (which Kantian aesthetics terms "the suspension of disbelief'), that is in reality our compulsion to anthropomorphism: "an illusion produced by our compulsion to superimpose analogies with what we know" (114), to anthropomorphize language - the squiggles and serifs on the page. In the moment of Contact, Kelvin confronts the fact that "I have no body, I am that alien matter" (179) and comes to see his psyche as textual, a narrative (175), or a "hackneyed tune" (204). Ultimately, Kelvin is himself an allegory of allegory, no more than an arbitrary scale (yet of the absolute), a simulacrum of the human, which we poor disgusting pitiful creatures "repeat like a hackneyed tune..."
After the Contact, Kelvin spends three weeks inactive, almost in shock. Rheya has became self-conscious, aware of how her being is a narrative of reciprocal repetition, and now it is Kelvin's turn. It takes some adjustment. It is like the shock of retrospective illumination in Velasquez's "Las Meninas," recognizing that "we" are the King and Queen of Spain, painted images in a painted mirror, and plural, not individuals, as we believed ourselves to be. Solaris, therefore, presents the unpresentable, allegorizes the poststructural sublime.
What we can no longer pass over in silence are the now unstable oppositions presupposed by a rigid distinction between self and other, human and alien, text and psyche, knowledge and ignorance (and so forth). All these collapse, crumble back into the loam of life, the procession of becoming--just as the Ocean's mimoids decay and fall back into the ocean. The simulacrum is horrible (93) because it demystifies Kelvin's notion of self-identity and exposes his problematic desire for a "real" he has actually manufactured (65). The horror is not that "she was not trying to deceive me; it was I who was deceiving her," or even that "I am a murderer" (157); the horror is the recognition (204) of "meaningless, mechanical replay" (Beehler, "Dis-covery" 8), which precisely doubles the recognition that makes the third Rheya prefer disintegration to re-integration into human relations with Kelvin.
And indeed, after a fleeting contact with the Ocean's alien consciousness, which is a contact with self - a moment of recognition - the repetitions end, which is the deepest tragedy, the real horror: all the simulacra vanish, fail to return as they previously had. "What is tragic," Derrida writes, "is not the impossibility but the necessity of repetition" (Writing 248). The moment of unveiling-when the nothing nothings, to adapt Heidegger's phrase--is commemorated by Rheya's suicide note (190); after signing it "Rheya," she "had crossed [it] out Rheya's last words to Kelvin: "Nothing ... nothing ... nothing" (188). The final word, the proper name, placed under erasure, emerges as a palimpsest as its unveiling is re-covered: ironically, this is Kelvin's only moment of absolute clarity (190).
In the final scene, Kelvin resolves to stay on the planet, awaiting the repetition of the nothing that was Rheya:
Must I go on living here then, among the objects we both had touched, in the air
she bad breathed? In the name of what? In the hope of her turn? I hoped for
nothing. And yet I lived in expectation. Since she had gone, that was all that
remained. I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures
still awaited me. I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past. (204)
Kelvin loves the simulacrum as a simulacrum (146), as the repetition of something for which no original exists, and his response indicates the presence of hope, the absence of which turned the third Rheya to despair. Or more accurately, it is her recognition that, because inhuman, she cannot hope to possess hope that in turn turns her to despair, suicide - a return to nothingness. s the novel ends, Kelvin turns only to care, to faith without hope; lives on in expectation of the repetition of that Heideggerian "nothing" that may, perhaps, be the return of love and the true beginning of self-knowledge. As Snow says, "It might be worth our while to stay. We're unlikely to learn anything about it, but about ourselves ..." (77)
Kelvin's nothing is ironic reinscription - of the Ocean's narrative, whose interest and power come and go, wax and wane.
Like the book. We pick it up; we put it down. Make lunch. Take a walk. Meet friends. Come home. Here and gone. Gone, then here. Here: here is the book.
1. Throughout this essay, I have adopted the convention of referring to the colloidal sea as the "ocean" and to the alien entity as the "Ocean," even though it is difficult to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. Similarly, I will use "contact" to identify mundane communication and "Contact" to denote the grand project of "exchange" (145) Sartorius describes as mankind's "mission" (160), which compels Snow to ridicule him as "the last knight of the Holy Contact" (184). It is no mere coincidence at Solaris also uses capital letters in a consonant fashion, or that the Contact scene itself chooses a lower case c (179).
2. "Colloid" (112) derives from the Greek kolla, for glue; it denotes a substance of small, insoluble, nondiffusible particles, in suspension amid surrounding particles.
3. Kelvin's description of this woman is that she "resembl[es] one of those steatopygous statues in anthropological museums" (30); steatopyga denotes a marked protuberance of the buttocks "due to an abnormal accumulation of fat ... found ... as a racial characteristic of certain peoples, especially the Hottentots and Bushmen of South Africa" (OED 16:604). In primitive statuary, "the disproportionate breadth and fullness of the posterior" is a characteristic of the primordial good mother (Neuman 97). See also note 7 below.
4. The phi-effect designates the overlap between the perception of an image and "the time it remains imprinted on the retina" (Burnet 104); among other things, this phenomenon is responsible for the cinema's illusory motion, for cinema is in fact a series of stills at twenty-four frames per second.
5. Aphrodite, of course, is the Greek goddess of love, who, as in the famous image by Botticelli, emerges from the ocean. Kelvin invokes her name for Gibarian's visitor (30) and Snow renames Rheya this (184). See also note 7 below.
That Gibarian was unable to "murder" (134) his visitor (taking his own life instead) indicates that, like Kelvin, he must have loved the Phi-creature, a parallel that Snow identifies. Late in the novel, when Kelvin, having previously confessed his love for Rheya, stops shaving, Snow comments "Believe me, you're making a mistake . .. that was how it started with him" (183).
6. Phenotype denotes the total manifest characteristics of an organism: it signifies the showing forth of a type. Phenotype is juxtaposed to genotype, which denotes an organism's latent, genetic characteristics: its fundamental constitution.
7. See Csicsery-Ronay (20 n5). He also notes the translators' "inspired improvement" of renaming Rheya, which recalls the ancient Greek Titan Rhea, sister/wife of Kronos, though she should not be confused with Gaia, the Earth Mother. In the original Polish text, Rheya is named "Harey" (and Snow is "Snaut"). There are resonances, however: Rhea not only gave birth to the Olympian gods, but she also is the one who reassembles Dionysus after his dismemberment by Hera. In this connection, it should be mentioned that our word ocean derives from another Titan, Okeanos, the "outer sea," the river surrounding the world (not the "near sea," which was the Mediterranean). Okeanos is Rhea's brother, child of Gaia and Ouranos (the Sky Father, castrated by Kronos).
In a stimulating and ingenious but monologically reductive essay, Yossef argues that the Latin solaris names our sun "Sol"; hence Solaris's Ocean hides nothing (55). He goes on to discuss the roles various names play, finding proper names even in adjectives; in "steatopygous statue" Yossef reads "Astarte, the oriental goddess of fertility," Similarly wild inductive leaps lead him to conclude that Sartorius's visitor is "a retarded boy" and Snow's "pudenda only" (55).
8. Freud's "repetition" uncannily traces Derrida's debt to psychoanalysis. In his famous study of "The Wolf-Man," Freud called "retroactivity" (Nachtralichkeit) that operation that transforms the repetition of an event into a simulacrum by recasting the original as an instance of the repetition--inverting the temporality of events according to the metaphoric law of displacement. "Retroactivity" is, therefore, metaleptic, unlinking the causal chain but opening up a field of semiotic and hermeneutic play, the sort of affirmation, if one can call it that, we know as deconstruction.
9. Kelvin originally plans to return with the others to Earth (186), but after a visit to the "Old Mimoid" leads to a full identification with the Ocean, he, like Snow, decides to stay (202).
10. Derrida discusses simulacra in Dissemination (206-07); he discusses repetition in Dissemination (168-9, 191, 258), The Post Card (351-53, 370-73, 383, 397), and Writing and Difference (232-50). For a discussion of differance, see of Grammatology (23-26, 65, 93, 143, 179-88, and 244-68). Beehler's "Border Patrols," which I read only after finishing this essay, contains a remarkable discussion of Rheya as an emblem of poststructural differance demarcating the sublime border between original and copy: "She is the betweenness of the border in which articulation and disarticulation, message and noise, are inextricably interwoven" (33-34).
There are good reasons to prefer Derrida's vocabulary, but I will follow Baudrillard's in interests of concision. I want, however, to disassociate myself from what Baudrillard believes should follow from his "hyperreal": nothing (see 207-19); in this regard, I am in complete agreement with Norris.
11. This sense of logical priority--the deconstructive always-already--should not be mistaken for a priori conditions. Readers curious to explore the arguments concerning this position should consult Gasche (x-xi). If the uncanny is the reappearance of "discarded belief," then both the inscription of psychoanalysis in poststructural thought and Kelvin's final invocation of divinity are examples of unheimlichkeit par excellence.
12. The poststructural dilemma is that while what happens precedes any question about or interpretation of it, that which happens is already a repetition, a simulacrum, and this is terrible. "What is more terrible," as Snow said, "is that which hasn't happened" (72). Here we have the essence of poststructural terror: the terrible, Lyotard argues, is "despair that nothing further will happen" ("The Sublime" 210) or, as Derrida would have it, that "immediacy is derived" (of Grammatology 157). Lyotard goes so far as to associate this feeling with the Kantian sublime (211), the presentation of the unpresentable: what happens is a kind of nothing, although Lyotard refrains from citing Heidegger. See also Lyotard's discussion of the connection of simulacra to the Kantian sublime and possible distinctions between a modernist and a poststructural (or postmodern) sublime (Postmodern 77-81).
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