Telex from Solaris #1: The Third Airport

by on Jun.18, 2011

[Greetings, Montevidayans. I’m going around the world alone and without kids, whee, and right now I’m in the Boston Airport.  Future stops include many other airports. Here is my first post from the third airport. Hopefully there will be airports in the future.]

Post #1: Travelling without Kids/Solaris

I have to admit I’m having a great day, trapped in an airport as if on a space station until 5 PM tonight.  Johannes is in Indiana taking care of our kids, but everytime I hear a kid whining or goofing off it’s like a puncturing of rationally conceived space—as if my tiny kids are contacting me through other kids bodies, making apertures, punching through with spills of noise to which some part of my brainstem is enslaved.

This is striking to me because I just finished reading Solaris—certainly the best novel of all time. Awesomely, my copy was a tie-in with the Hollywood remake of the Tarkovsky version of this novel—triple counterfeit—Art saturating itself with its own knockoffs, getting more and more chintzy and glamourous. Therefore (as James Wright would say), my copy features a huge embarassing closeup of George Clooney kissing the lead actress on the cover.

So, plot summary (and spoiler alert): Solaris is a planet with just one inhabitant: a huge gorgeous inscrutable ocean which is possessing the astronauts on a space station with its brainwaves. George Clooney has just landed there.  He discovers that the ocean is using humans as a media playback devices; the ocean ‘reads’ the astronauts, then externalizes and embodies their  “internal” thoughts and fantasies and inducing them to interact (physically, sexually, violently) with these material embodiments, in one guys case a weird racist sex fantasy, in Clooney’s case his dead wife who comes back in all her tanned, skinny glory. The astronauts can’t figure out what to call these uncanny, seductive, unkillable figures—visitors, ghosts,  dreams, a plague, hallucinations? They also can’t figure out how to process why they are having these visions; in internal monologues (externalized by the Solaris-like narrative prerogatives of the novel itself!) they ask themselves if they are drunk, poisoned, mad, drug addicted, sick, dreaming, hallucinating.

This list of analogs signals that the Ocean is none other than Art itself. It is fluid, forceful,  irrational, non-human. It possesses the astronaut-artists. It makes them feel like they are on drugs, sick, poisoned, mad. It  forces them to make Art, and this Art-making damages them, forces an aperture in their head and spills Art from their brains. The astronauts extrude what is normally conceived of as interiority—fantasies, regrets, memories—in external, embodied forms. This adjustment causes the astronaut-artists to have nervous breakdowns. They can’t figure out what the Ocean/Art is but they somehow associate it with drugs, poison, madness, dreams, hallucinations– all the  irrational and possessing media of Art. Finally they have to accept that this is their new ‘reality’—one that acts like drugs, poison, madness, dreams, hallucinations—that is, Art.  And they just can’t deal with that. They try to destroy it. They consider nuking the ocean. But such violence is Art’s signature; it is proof that Art has passed through them. They shit the virus of violence all over their space station. But Art, and Solaris, can’t be destroyed, even if individual artists (and artworks) can.

Pop  makes the inside the outside and the outside the inside, astronaut Andy Warhol once said, and by ‘Pop’ he meant ‘Art’ and ‘Solaris’.

2 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    Just came across this passage, where Kris investigates his Solaris-created lover Rheya with the microscope:

    “There was nothing to be seen. There should have been the ferment of a quivering cloud of atoms, but I saw nothing. A dazzling light filled the screen, which was flawlessly clear. I pushed the lever to its utmost. The angry, whirring noise grew louder, but the screen remained a blank. An alarm signal sounded once, then was repeated; the circuit was overloaded. I took a final look at the silvery desert, then I cut the current.”

    I love how the nothingness is so full of its own spectacular nothingness, making a “desert” out of itself, in a sense short-circuiting by shattering the confinement of the space station, the microscope through metaphor.

    This is totally one of the best novels ever.

    The black woman is not only a sexual fantasy but a colonial-sexual fantasy. And she outlives her fantasizer (sleeps with his dead body).


  2. A D Jameson

    Kudos to you, Joyelle, for making it through Solaris. I myself have never been able to stomach Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox’s translation (which they did from Jean-Michel Jasiensko French translation, not Lem’s original Polish) for more than a couple of pages.

    When the Soderbergh/Clooney adaptation was announced, I allowed myself to feel some hope that the novel would finally receive a proper translation to English…but the chance passed.

    …While I was fact-checking names for this comment, I came across this:

    It’s supposedly direct from the Polish and was approved by Lem’s estate. Looks like I’ve found my summer’s listening