Philosophy, Fantasy and Film
The Absolutely Other – Within and Without
2001: A Space Odyssey – VCV 402 (Dir. Stanley Kubrick
– novel by
Solaris – VCV 1778 (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky’s
adaptation of the novel by
1. Xenophobia and Extra-Terrestrial Alterity
After having looked at the issue of gender difference / alienation / alterity as explored in the milieu of science fiction, this week we are going to take a look at how this form of hyper-narrative also aims beyond the Other as the embodiment of a merely local difference to the vacuum that opens up in the face of the Absolutely Other.
The two cinematic examples of this exploration of
Absolute alterity, which I have chosen, deal with transcendent and implacable
forms of extraterrestrial intelligence that are not automatically treated as a threat,
unlike the usual xenophobic films of this genre. Excluding
Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, and their avatars, have explored xenophobia (fear of strangers / difference) in the face of contact in which the threat is either imaginary or real. In the case of benign visitors arriving on Earth, who have to deal with terrestrial fears based on misunderstanding, we still find that the extraterrestrials are, in many respects, anthropomorphic – and so there is always the possibility of some degree of communication.
But, what about the possibility of the Absolutely Other? Consider a scenario in which there is such a radical difference that meaningful communication could not take place. It is generally assumed that mathematics would be a base of communication between different, but intelligent beings. This assumption carries with it the idea that a common ground for communication between entities from radically different environments can be attained through a very human ideal of science – cosmology and mathematics. It does not take account of kinds of difference that are not necessarily amenable to such a rationalistic outlook. For example, how would one begin to communicate meaningfully with a dolphin? What would it mean to speak of the possibility of conversing with a humpback whale? Although these aquatic mammals have significantly larger brains than ours, and they appear to communicate with one another in incredibly complex ways, it does not appear to be so evident that they have an equal appreciation of the significance of mathematics.
At first glance, we find two distinct types of encounter in the traditional treatment of extraterrestrial contact. Both involve the xenophobic tendencies in humanity. The first qualifies this fear through genuine threat and the other treats it as a barrier to communication with extraterrestrial beings that are, in fact, benign.
The sci-fi film Independence Day, which was basically a re-make of War of the Worlds (the George Pal adaptation of Orson Welles’ contemporary reading of H.G. Wells’ novel), falls into the first category. And, it was a huge success. John Carpenter’s excellent film Star Man, which traces the adventures of a highly sophisticated and gentle extra-terrestrial observer who is shot down and hunted by Earth authorities, falls into the second category (which is in stark contrast to Carpenter’s earlier horror film about alien malevolence disguised in human form, The Thing – based on the classic tale “Who Goes There?” by John W. Cambell, Jr.). Tim Burton’s film Mars Attacks, which parodies this whole genre, has a fresh perspective on the idea of the alien as the implacable Other, where contact becomes conflict through mis-communication. In this sense, it participates in both categories and hints at a third, but it still remains in an anthropomorphic mould.
There is a third form of contact that holds the most intrigue. This is where the Other life form is so different, so completely transcendent that we are faced with the issue of confronting our values and ideas about ourselves in the face of a huge gap in language and a de-centering (of Copernican proportions) of humankind from its position as the archetype of sentience.
2001: a Space Odyssey and Solaris are two films that explore this degree of difference and what it means to the relation between humanity and its ideal of itself. And, they do this non-theologically – for, of course, before the current fashion in philosophizing about mysterious little green men, the name of this Absolute Other was God.
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey – violence and creativity
Released in 1968, the film 2001: a Space Odyssey (novel publication – 1968) grew out of a writing collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and the great science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke. It draws its principal inspiration from a short story by Clarke, called The Sentinel (1951). In this story, an artifact is found on the moon, which was deliberately placed there by a non-human race of technologically advanced, space-faring beings. The object is encased in a substance that is virtually impregnable, which the discoverers attempt to break through. Eventually, they succeed, which triggers a signal to beam out of the exposed device – a message to the mysterious originators of the transmitter that another evolving species, which has achieved a required level of technological advancement, has discovered the waiting sentinel.
This idea of an artifact that has been left buried precisely in order to be discovered is the kernel of the story of 2001: a Space Odyssey. This incarnation, in all its instances, is simply called the ‘monolith.’ It is a pure geometrical form – an ambassador to Earth at the “Dawn of Man” and tutor to the proto-human race. The very alien-like quality of this geometrical form consists in a simple, but powerful formal presence in the absence of pure geometrical forms in nature. Looking like the box in which the United Nations Building was shipped, the monolith stands out strikingly against the primitive deserts and roughly hewn rock formations of a young Earth. Arthur C. Clarke’s and Stanley Kubrick’s vision of the stark difference between the natural landscape and the unnaturalness of a simple, but perfect, geometrical object is a minimalist, but outrageously impressive, contrast between the natural and the artifactual.
The alien artifact teaches the proto-humans of a young Earth how to utilize tools (bones and rocks) for killing and feeding. And, it is this difference that acts as the ‘catalyst’ to the evolution of humankind's creativity and dominion over nature. In a simple visual cut from a flying bone, which has been wielded in an act of murder, to a falling space station orbiting the Earth, the development of humankind’s technology is shown to be inescapably caught up with its gift for destruction.
A shot of a space clipper with a Pan Am logo is an indication of how speculative fiction fell into error through the Lockerbie wild card that contributed to the dissolution of the company, which Clarke and Kubrick could never have predicted. In this vessel, a lone passenger is being transported from Earth to a massive, rotating space station in orbit. The name of this passenger is Heywood Floyd, a VIP of the space administration that has uncovered an unfathomable mystery on the moon – a monolith that appears to have been buried deliberately. It is this very deliberateness that points to the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. The discovery is shrouded in bureaucratic obfuscation and state secrecy for fear of the possible shock to humanity that the evidence of other life – of a more advanced order – might produce.
At a certain point of solar and planetary convergence, the monolith transmits a powerful radio beam towards Jupiter (in the novel, it is Saturn). The simple act of unearthing the monolith is the signal itself. It is a kind of alarm, a signal that the proto-humans have developed the necessary level of technology to reach their moon – that they have survived and evolved, perhaps as suitable candidates for contact.
A massive spaceship, called “Discovery” is sent to Jupiter in the wake of the transmission. It carries three scientific passengers in a state of hibernation, two flight technicians, by the names of Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, who take it in turns to monitor the ship’s systems and carry out experiments, and an artificially intelligent computer, called Hal 9000.
Humanity's ambassadors are caught between the Absolute alterity of the alien race, which buried the monolith precisely in order that it might be discovered by its progeny, and the computer, as alter-ego and descendant of the technological leap that allowed humankind to murder, and thus to survive and evolve.
Hal 9000 eliminates what it perceives to be a threat
to the success of “Discovery's” mission to Jupiter – to study the receptor to
the signal from the monolith that was uncovered on the moon. Only the three
occupants of the cryogenic casks and Hal had knowledge of the actual reason for
the mission. The concern about the potential for an extreme xenophobic response
on Earth had meant maintaining strict secrecy. Unfortunately, this had meant
programming Hal to lie to Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, who were not aware of
the true nature of the mission. Along with the stress of making an erroneous
fault prediction in a communication module, this induces a form of psychotic
paranoia in the computer. And, when Hal discovers Bowman and
3. Becoming the Other
The next sequence in the movie is Bowman’s trip through the Star Gate. This whole final and spectacular passage of the film is extremely ambiguous. One really needs to read Arthur C. Clarke’s novel in order to understand what is actually happening. Bowman finally finds himself in an apartment or hotel and watches himself grow old. As he lies on his deathbed, the monolith appears to him. Bowman slips into death and finds himself on the other side of his previous life – transformed into a Star Child – an ambassador to the human race.
We are left in the dark as to what the ambassador will do next (unless, of course, you happen to have seen Peter Hyams’ film sequel: 2010, or read the three other books that Clarke has written in the series: 2010: Odyssey Two , 2061: Odyssey Three , and 3001: The Final Odyssey ).
There is a considerable contrast between the stark realism of the visualization of human technology and the trippy sequence that accompanies Bowman’s flight through the Star Gate, which is a visual feast. One cannot help feeling that Kubrick was well attuned to the 60’s LSD sub-culture. The stunning visuals might well have had a musical accompaniment by Pink Floyd. This sequence became extremely popular amongst late night cinema-going, tripping, sci-fi buffs. And, for a number of years after the initial release of the film, it could still be seen playing at late-night shows. It became a kind of convention, taking ‘trips’ with the movie – like wearing lingerie, taking squeezy bottles of water, candles, and confetti to a late-night viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The essential point of the metamorphosis of
The transition from 2001: a Space Odyssey to Solaris involves a profound psychological inversion of the form of this interplay between ourselves and the Absolute Other.
4. Solaris – an extraterrestrial journey into the heart of ourselves
Stanislaw Lem is a kind of maverick among science fiction writers. As well as being an outstandingly original contributor to this genre, he is also one of its most outspoken critics. His writing embraces heterogeneity in the face of the increasing homogenization of the literary stereotype that determines the kind of science fiction that we may consume.
In Section Five, “Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case – with Exceptions” (in the book of essays, entitled Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy), Stanislaw Lem writes,
The Substance that fills the entire milieu of science fiction, and upon which the work of its authors feeds, is kitsch. It is the last degenerate form of myths. From them was inherited a rigid structure. In myth the story of Ulysses is the preestablished structure of fate: in kitsch it becomes a cliché. Superman is a spoiled Hercules, the robot, a golem, even as kitsch itself is the simplified, threadbare, prostituted, but original constellation of values central to a given culture. In our culture, kitsch is what was once holy and / or coveted, awe-inspiring, or horrible, but now prepared for instant use. Kitsch is the former temple that has been so thoroughly defiled by infidels for so long that even the memory of its ancient untouchability has been lost. When hitherto untouchable idols get the status of mass products, through mechanical reproduction, and become obtainable as everybody’s objects of enjoyment, we observe how the originally sublime is degradingly transubstantiated into kitsch. The venerable paradigm is reworked in order to make it easily consumed and as simple as possible. And – quite important – kitsch does not present itself as such to its consumers; it believes in its own perfection and wants to be taken seriously. Even the psychic process that originally kept the mass of the uninititiated at a distance from the object of worship, because it was an obstacle that had to be overcome, comes wrapped up with the goods as an appetizer. Kitsch, free from all difficulties of consumption, is a product that has been prechewed for the consumer. In literature, kitsch results when all the complexity, multisidedness, and ambiguity of the authentic product is eliminated from the final product (P.67-8).
Kitsch is intrinsically non-threatening. It is the embodiment of the comfort that is to be had with an easy kind of familiarity with the complex, the strange, the sublime, or the transcendent. Kitsch is the occultation of the Other – an antidote to the anxiety that arises out of contact with alterity. The Other is not what we actually want. Our quest to discover the unknown does not really extend beyond the desire to fulfill an otherness that is nothing more than the reflection of our ideal selves. We shy away from true alterity because it forces us to look at who we really are.
In seeking new horizons, we merely desire to obtain a novel perspective on where we already come from. We are driven from the familiar to the familiar by simply extending it into the unknown, thereby filling the void with our own idealized projections. However, in contrast to that sense of otherness which inhabits dreams about our idealized selves, there is also an otherness within, a more primordial Other that we prefer to ignore. This internal alterity is both the condition of the possibility of our authentic self-relation and the mark of our own self-limitation (inauthenticity) regarding what is permissible to entertain about ourselves.
And, with this theme, we now turn to the story of Solaris.
5. The Solarian Encounter of Another Kind
Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation (1972) of Stanislaw
Lem’s novel Solaris (1961) is an inside-out exploration of Absolute
alterity. When it was first released, it was known as “
Earth scientists are intrigued by this phenomenon and
establish a research facility in low orbit about the planet. They speculate
that something on the planet is constantly adjusting to the gravitational tides
and, perhaps, acting upon them in some way. It eventually becomes apparent that
the Ocean, which covers the entire surface of the planet, behaves rather like a
mental organism. However, the rest remains a complete mystery. Over many years
of intense study, all further research leads to dead ends. With waning interest
in the project and the inevitable decrease in budget, some scientists suggest
cutting the Gordian Knot by exposing the
It is at this late stage, after many years of fruitless research, that a psychologist, named Kris Kelvin, enters the story. It is his mission to examine the psychological condition of the remaining three scientists aboard the space station in order to determine whether it is time to bring about closure to the programme.
Stanislaw Lem gives us a detailed history of the era of research – which ultimately failed to unravel the mysteries of this super mind, this unfathomable and Absolute Other – through Kris’s investigations during his stay on the space station. Whereas the novel begins with his arrival aboard the space station orbiting Solaris, Tarkovsky’s film adaptation gives us a more linear account by beginning the film on Earth during the last twenty-four hours before his departure. Most of this background information is provided by a friend of Kris’s father, an ex-pilot named Henri Berton, in the form of old videotaped recordings of his account of the strange phenomena that he experienced while serving with the Solaris research team. Kris remains skeptical regarding the validity of Berton’s testimony and he expresses this to him, which causes friction between his father and himself, the former declaring that such insensitive and inflexible people as Kris should not be allowed into space. He suggests that his bias against his old friend has more to do with the fact that Berton would be on Earth to attend his funeral, whereas Kris, his own son, would not. In this scenario, the problem with such long-distance, high velocity space travel across different star systems is that it involves many years – the time differences that are produced at relativistic speeds mean that the traveller must leave their former life behind. However, Kris’s particular extra-terrestrial assignation ultimately allows his former life to finally catch up with him…
…all of this against the background sound of Bach’s haunting Choral Prelude in F minor.
When Kris arrives at the station, he learns that one of the last three scientists (Gibarian) working on the Solaris project has recently committed suicide. At the very moment of his arrival, Kris begins to experience inexplicable phenomena and an eerie feeling of presence beyond that of himself and his two remaining colleagues, Snow and Sartorius.
Snow, the wise old genius of the research team, who has managed to retain some sense of sensitivity and humanity, refers to the manifest moments of this presence as ‘the visitors.’ At first, Kris does not understand his meaning in a literal sense. Snow is purposefully vague, but warns Kris not to harm anything or anyone that he might encounter. It turns out that the living Ocean / mind on Solaris is somehow attuned to unconscious states, memories, engrammes, which it can materialize in physical space. After the first bombardment of the Ocean by X-rays, all the researchers had been prone to such visitations, which had eventually driven Gibarian to commit suicide. The members of the team had been forced to bear witness to the manifestation of their darkest memories and fantasies.
6. The Visitors
Kris manages to get some sleep. When he awakens, he finds that his wife, Hari, has returned to him from the dead (in the book, her name is Rheya). He had not thought about her consciously for years, partly in avoidance of the guilt that had always been associated with her suicide. Although he understands on an intellectual level that she is one of the ‘visitors’ and merely a projection of his own idealized memory of her, he is gradually drawn into the emotional tangle that her ‘re-incarnation’ inevitably inspires. It becomes impossible for him to maintain the cool attitude of objectivity by which he has come to define himself. She is the Absolutely Other manifested as the most intimate.
The ‘visitor’ needs to be in constant proximity with Kris. At first, he decides to trick her into getting into a space capsule and manages to fire it into orbit, but then another manifestation appears. He resigns himself to her constant presence, which becomes a sweet torture. The longer that they are together, the more human she becomes.
She gradually learns how to sleep and finally achieves sentience, developing the capacity for independent thought. There is a moment when she drifts into reverie while looking at a work of art, a moment at which she can be alone with her aloneness. However, she does not seem to be able to extend beyond the fundamental drive to commit suicide. This pattern is written into the fabric of who she is as a projection of Kris’s scarred psyche. The horror of this situation is that it is repeated because she is always re-generated after she dies. Finally, she allows herself to be completely annihilated by Sartorius. But, perhaps this represents a higher level of self-sacrifice, since she does this less out of despair than for the sake of Kris’s sanity.
7. Anthropomorphism and the Other
An encephalogram of Kris’s thoughts is beamed by X-ray to the great Ocean of Solaris. It is an attempt at ‘conscious’ communication, which succeeds in making an impact on the Solarian life form. Its response is indicated by the disappearance of the ‘visitors,’ while the surface of the Ocean begins to form little islands.
Kris is simultaneously relieved and overcome by a profound sense of loneliness at the loss of his re-incarnated wife. And, with the conclusion of his mission, he is left with no one on Earth to whom he can return. Even if ‘this’ Hari had not chosen complete annihilation, she could never have left the station because her existence depended on the energy field emanating from Solaris’s Ocean.
The final moments of the film are breathtaking in their depiction of Kris’s return to his father’s house. As he falls to his knees to embrace his ‘living’ father, the camera slowly pulls out from the scene to reveal that he is really on the artificially created surface of an island in the middle of the Solarian Ocean – an island of memory. This is the only way that Kris can return ‘home.’ The journey to the outermost frontier becomes a journey into his own interior. Contact with the Other is nothing more than the reappropriation of himself.
Humanity requires the familiar and homely...
...And yet, it is not at home with itself!
Snow is the one who finally characterizes this aspect of the human condition when he says...
We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all show. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin. We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don’t want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, of a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past. At the same time, there is something inside us which we don't like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don’t leave Earth in a state of primal innocence. We arrive here as we are in reality, 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 (Solaris. p. 72-3)
Kris listens to Snow patiently, but then exclaims, But what on earth are you talking about?
[Snow] I’m talking about what we all wanted: contact with another civilization. Now we’ve got it! And we can observe, through a microscope, as it were, our own monstrous ugliness, our folly, our shame!
His voice shook with rage (Ibid).
Ironically, it is the living Ocean / entity of Solaris, the implacable and impenetrable Other, which puts the scientists in touch with themselves. It is the mediator between them and what they have forgotten – their heart of darkness. It is the silent Other, manifested only as guilty self-relation, holding up a mirror to the gaze that resists being open to the Other as Other. But here, we do not find fulfillment in a narcissistic gaze, since it is one that is generated out of self-alienation through the interiorization and occultation of oneself. As mediator, the Solaris Ocean puts the explorers in touch with their own alterity, that intimate Other which dwells at the heart of their own existence, their repressed selves.
Lem and Tarkovsky give us a picture of humanity that dwells in both narcissism and self-alienation. With Solaris as Absolute Other, the intrepid space explorers finally – and only – meet themselves.
* * *
Clarke, Arthur C. (and Kubrick, Stanley)
2001: a Space Odyssey. 1968. Orbit.
Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Edited by Franz Rottensteiner. 1984. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.
Solaris. 1961. Translated from the French by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox. 1970. By Faber and Faber. A Harvest Book. Harcourt, Brace & Company.
2001: A Space Odyssey – VCV 402 (Dir. Stanley Kubrick).
Solaris – VCV 1778 (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky).