terça-feira, 21 de outubro de 2014

Scientific Ideas their Origin and Effects by Max Planck

It will be well to begin with some words of ex­planation on the subject of the present chapter. The origin and effect of scientific ideas may seem a somewhat general and also a somewhat arrogant theme; it might even be suggested that it would have been better had I confined myself to the ideas of natural science. Yet if I had so confined myself the ideas with which I propose to deal would have been restricted in a manner which I consider un­necessary and unnatural. Looked at correctly sci­ence is a self-contained unity; it is divided into various branches, but this division has no natural foundation and is due simply to the limitations of the human mind which compel us to adopt a divsion of labor. Actually there is a continuous chain from physics and chemistry to biology and an­thropology and thence to the social and intellectual sciences, a chain which cannot be broken at any point save capriciously. Again, the methods used in the various branches are found, if closely con­sidered, to have a strong inner resemblance, and if they appear to differ, it is only because they have to be adapted to the different subjects which they treat. This inner resemblance has become more and more evident in recent times, to the great ad­vantage of the whole of science. Hence I consider myself entitled to begin with considerations apply­ing to the whole of science; although of course when I pass to more particular applications I shall tend to confine myself to my own subjects.

Let me begin by asking how a scientific idea arises and what are its characteristics. In asking these questions I cannot attempt, of course, to analyze the delicate mental processes taking place in the investigator’s mind and, what is more, largely in his subconscious mind. These processes are mysteries which can be revealed only to a limited extent if at all, and it would be equally foolish and rash to attempt any study of their inmost nature. The most that we can do is to begin with the obvious facts, which means that we investigate those ideas which have actually proved their leavening force for any branch of science; and this in turn means that we ask in what form they first occurred and what was their content at that time.

The first result of such an investigation is the discovery of the following rule: any scientific idea arising in the mind of a scholar is based on a con­crete experience, a discovery, an observation, or a fact of any kind, whether it is a physical or an astronomical measurement, a chemical or a bio­logical observation, a discovery among the archives or the excavation of some valuable relic of an earlier civilization. The content of the idea consists in this experience being compared and being brought into contact with certain different experiences in the mind of the scholar, in other words, in the fact that it establishes a link between the old and the new, so that a number of facts which had hitherto co-existed loosely are now definitely inter-related. The idea becomes fruitful and hence attains value for science if the interconnection thus established can be applied more generally to a series of cognate facts: for the establishment of an interconnection creates order, and order simplifies and perfects the scientific view of the universe. What is most im­portant, however, is that the task of applying the new idea in its entirety shall lead to new questions and hence to new studies and to new successes. And this is true of the physicist’s hypotheses no less than of the interpretations established by the phi­lologist.

I propose now to exemplify the above in some detail, and in doing so I desire to confine myself to my own subject of physics. The angle of vision may appear somewhat restricted; on the other hand I shall be able to throw a clearer light upon the subject.

A classical example of the sudden emergence of a great scientific idea is found in the story of Sir Isaac Newton who, sitting under an apple tree, was reminded by a falling apple of the movement of the moon around the earth and thus connected the acceleration of the apple with that of the moon. The fact that these two accelerations are to each other as the square of the radius of the moon’s orbit is to the square of the earth’s radius, sug­gested to him the idea that the two accelerations might have a common cause and thus provided him with a foundation for his theory of gravitation.

Similarly, James Clerk Maxwell, on comparing the strength of a current measured electromagneti- cally with the strength of a current measured electrostatically, found that the ratio between these two magnitudes agreed numerically with the speed of light, and thus formed the idea that electromag­netic waves are of the same nature as light waves. This agreement became the starting-point of his electromagnetic theory of light.

We thus find that it is a characteristic of every new idea occurring in science that it combines in a certain original manner two distinct series of facts; and this can be traced in every instance, though certain differences occur with regard to con­tent and formation. These differences in turn bring about differences in the effect and the fate of the different scientific ideas. Some of them eventually become the common property of science, are taken for granted and cease to be stressed. Such has been the fate of the two ideas just mentioned: of New­ton’s idea about the similarity between the accelera­tion of the moon and the gravitational acceleration on earth; and of Maxwell’s idea about the electro­magnetic nature of light. It is true that a good deal of time had to elapse before the latter idea won acceptance; at first, it tended to be disregarded, especially in Germany, where Wilhelm Weber’s theory, which was based on the assumption of immediate action at a distance, held the stage. It was not until Heinrich Hertz made his brilliant ex­periment with ultra-rapid electric oscillations that Maxwell’s theory obtained the recognition it de­served.

Other ideas which have become the lasting heri­tage of science are those which hold that sound waves are of a mechanical nature and that rays of light and heat are identical. Teachers of physics tend to deal all too briefly with these ideas, and they should be reminded that there was a time when these ideas were far from being common­places. The second of the two just mentioned was indeed for years the subject of fierce controversy. It may be mentioned as a curiosity that the scientist whose experiments contributed most to its success —the Italian physicist, Macedonio Melloni—began by being one of its opponents, an instructive ex­ample showing that scientific values are independ­ent of their theoretical interpretation.

But most of the ideas which play a part in science are different from those enumerated. The latter were perfect when they first took shape and will always retain their validity unchanged; these others assume their final form gradually, retain their value for a time and eventually either die or are modified to a more or less considerable degree. Frequently enough they resist modification and this resistance tends to be obstinate in proportion to their past successes: there have been occasions when this resistance has sensibly hampered the progress of science. Physics offers some instructive examples which it may be worth while to discuss in detail.

I propose to begin with the idea of the nature of heat.

The first stage in the development of the theory of heat consisted in calorimetry. It was based on the assumption that heat behaves like a delicate substance which flows from the hotter to the colder body whenever there is contact between two bodies having different temperatures. No quantitative change is supposed to take place during this proc­ess. This hypothesis worked well so long as no mechanical effects entered into play. A difficulty consisted in the production of heat by friction or compression, and this it was sought to overcome by assuming that the capacity of bodies for heat was variable, so that heat could be pressed out of a body under compression, like water being pressed out of a wet sponge, during which process the quantity of water remains unchanged. Later, when the invention of heat-utilizing power systems made more urgent the question of the laws governing the production of mechanical work from heat, Sadi Carnot tried to formulate the production of work out of heat on the analogy of the production of work out of gravity. As the falling of a weight from a greater to a less height can produce work, so the transition from a higher to a lower temperature can be used for the same purpose; and as the work obtained from gravitation varies as the weight of the body and the difference in height, so the work produced by heat varies as the amount of heat transferred and the difference in temperature.

This materialist theory of heat received a shock from the empirical fact that a body’s capacity for heat remains practically unaffected by compression and by friction; and it was finally refuted by the discovery of the mechanical heat equivalent, the significance of which consists in the fact that heat is dissipated in friction and new heat is produced in compression. The older theories of heat were thus reduced ad absurdum and it became necessary to build up a new theory. This task was under­taken by Rudolf Clausius and it was fulfilled in a number of classical works in which the second main principle of thermal dynamics was estab­lished. This principle presupposes that there are irreversible processes, i.e., processes which cannot in any way whatever be reversed. Now the conduc­tion of heat, friction, and diffusion are among these processes.

Carnot’s theory to the effect that the transition from a higher to a lower temperature was analogous to the falling of a weight from a higher to a lower level was not, however, to be so easily refuted. There were physicists who considered Clausius’ ideas unnecessarily complicated and vague and who objected particularly to the introduction of the idea of irreversibility, by which a unique position among the various kinds of energy was assigned to heat. Accordingly they formed the theory of energetics in opposition to Clausius’ thermo-dynamics. The first principle of this theory agrees with that of Clausius in enunciating the preservation of energy; the second principle, however—that which indi­cates the sense of events—postulated a thorough­going analogy between the transition from a higher to a lower temperature and the falling of a weight from a higher to a lower level, or again, the passing of electricity from a higher to a lower poten­tial. Hence it came about that irreversibility was declared superfluous in order to prove the second principle, and that the existence of an absolute zero was denied, it being pointed out that tem­perature resembled levels of height and levels of potential in that only differences and nothing abso­lute could be measured. The fundamental distinc­tion which consists in the fact that a pendulum swings past the position of equilibrium before coming to rest and that a spark passing between two conductors having opposite charges oscillates, whereas there is no such thing as an oscillation of heat between two bodies between which heat is passing, was considered irrelevant by the energetist school and was passed over in silence.

I myself experienced during the ’80’s and ’90’s of the last century what the feelings of a student are who is convinced that he is in possession of an idea which is in fact superior, and who discovers that all the excellent arguments advanced by him are disregarded simply because his voice is not powerful enough to draw the attention of the scientific world. Men having the authority of Wil­helm Ostwald, Georg Helm, and Ernst Mach were simply above argument.

The change originated from a different side altogether: atomism began to make itself felt. The atomic idea is extremely old; but its first adequate formulation took shape in the kinetic gas theory which originated more or less contemporaneously with the discovery of the mechanical heat equiva­lent. The energetists at first opposed it vigorously, and it led a modest existence; towards the end of last century, however, experimental investigation led to its rapid success. According to the atomist idea the transference of heat from the hotter to
the colder body does not resemble the falling of a weight; what it resembles is a mixing process, as when two different kinds of powder in a vessel, having first constituted different layers, eventually mingle with each other if the vessel is continually shaken. If this happens the powder does not oscil­late between a state of complete mixture and com­plete isolation of the constituent powders; what happens is that the change takes place once in a certain sense, viz., in the direction towards complete mixture, and is then at an end: the process is an irreversible one. Seen in this light the second prin­ciple of thermo-dynamics is found to be of a statis­tical nature: it states a probability. The arguments supporting this view and indeed raising it beyond any doubt have been well stated by my colleague, Max von Laue.

The historical development here described may well serve to exemplify a fact which at first sight might appear somewhat strange. An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradu­ally winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiarized with the idea from the beginning: another instance of the fact that the future lies with youth. For this reason a suitable planning of school teaching is one of the most important conditions of progress in science. Accordingly, I should like to deal briefly here with this point.

What is learned at school is not as important as how it is learned. A single mathematical proposi­tion which is really understood by a scholar is of greater value than ten formulae which he has learned by heart and even knows how to apply, with­out, however, having grasped their real meaning. The function of a school is not so much to teach a business-like routine as to inculcate logical and methodical thought. It may be objected that ulti­mately it is the ability to do things rather than knowledge that matters; and it is true that the latter is valueless without the former, just as any theory is ultimately important only by reason of its particular applications. Yet routine can never be a substitute for theory, for in any cases that fall outside the rule, routine breaks down. Hence the first requisite, if good work is to be done, is a thorough elementary training; and here it is not so much the quantity of facts learned as the manner of treatment that matters. Unless this preliminary training is acquired at school, it is hard to obtain it at a later stage: training colleges and universi­ties have other tasks. For the rest, the last and highest aim of education is neither knowledge nor the ability to do things, but practical action. Now practical action must be preceded by the ability to act, and the latter in turn demands knowledge and understanding. The present age, which lives at such a rapid rate, and shows so much interest for every innovation having an immediate sensational effect, provides us with instances where scientific training tends to anticipate certain exciting results before they have properly ripened; for the public is favorably impressed if the curriculum of an inter­mediate school already contains modern problems of scientific investigation. Yet such a practice is exceedingly dangerous. The problems cannot pos­sibly be dealt with thoroughly, and the consequence may easily be to induce a certain intellectual super­ficiality and empty pride in knowledge. I should consider it extremely dangerous if the intermediate schools were to deal with the theory of relativity or the quantum theory. Specially gifted scholars always require exceptional treatment; but the cur­riculum is not designed for such, and I would definitely condemn any attempt to take such a ques­tion as that of the universal validity of the prin­ciple of the preservation of energy—which, of course, to-day is seriously regarded as an open one in nuclear physics—and to treat it as debatable before pupils who cannot have properly grasped the meaning of the principle involved, much less its potential scope.

The results of such an up-to-the-minute method of teaching become all too plain when we consider the way in which the breakdown of the exact sciences is occasionally spoken of to-day. It is char­acteristic of the prevalent confusion that there are numbers of inventive minds busying themselves to-day upon devices which aim at the unlimited production of energy or the utilization of the fashionable mysterious earth rays. And it is even more surprising that credulous persons provide ample funds for such inventors, while really valu­able and hopeful scientific investigations are hampered or actually stopped by lack of means. A thorough school training might here prove a useful remedy, and this would apply to the patrons no less than to the inventors.

Zdeněk Pešánek: Light-kinetic sculpture on the building of Edison transformer station in Prague, 1929–30. Iron, glass, electrical circuits, color electric bulbs, pneumatic piano. Height ca 4 m, length ca 4 m

After this educational digression I should like to deal briefly with another physical idea whose varying fate may prove even more instructive than the changes undergone by the theory of heat. What I have now in mind is the idea of the nature of light.

The study of the nature of light began with the measurements of the speed of light. The idea which led Newton to his emanation theory established a comparison between a ray of light and a jet of water; the velocity of light was compared with the velocity of particles of water flying in a straight line. This hypothesis, however, failed to give an account of ihe phenomenon of light interference, i.e., of the fact that two rays of light meeting at a point can in certain circumstances produce dark­ness at this point. Accordingly the emanation theory was given up and its place was taken by Huygens’ theory of undulations, where the under­lying idea is that light is propagated like a wave of water which spreads concentrically in all directions from its point of origin at a velocity which, of course, is not connected in any way with the velocity of the particles of water. This theory succeeded com­pletely in accounting for the phenomena of inter­ference: two waves on impinging on each other can cancel each other whenever the crest of one wave impinges on the trough of another. However, this theory, too, did not last longer than a century. The undulation theory failed to explain the effect at a great distance of a ray of light having a short wave length. The intensity of light decreases as the square of the distance, so that if light is radiated equally in all directions it is impossible to under­stand how a ray is capable of producing, even at a very great distance, a quantity of energy which is entirely independent of its intensity, and which is relatively very considerable in the case of short waves like those of Röntgen rays or Gamma rays. Such powerful effects combined with extremely feeble intensity become intelligible only if we imagine the energy of light to be concentrated upon distinct, unchangeable particles or quanta. In a sense, this is a return to Newton’s hypothesis of light particles.

At present, then, the position is an exceedingly unsatisfactory one. We have two theories facing each other like two equally powerful rivals. Each possesses keen weapons, and each has a vulnerable spot. It is hard to foretell the ultimate issue, but it is probably correct to say that neither theory will prove completely victorious. It is more likely that in the end a higher standpoint will be reached, where we shall be able to survey clearly the claims and the deficiencies of each of the two hypotheses.

Such a standpoint can probably be found only if we intensify our search for the source of all ex­perience, which would mean in the present case that we would turn our attention to the measure­ment of optical phenomena. This in turn would imply that we would turn our investigation upon the actual measuring instruments, a step which, in principle, is of enormous importance since it may be described as the introduction of totality into physics. According to this principle the laws of an optical phenomenon can be completely under­stood only if the peculiarities of the process of measurement are studied as well as the physical events at the points where the light originates and spreads. The measuring instruments are not merely passive recipients simply registering the rays im­pinging upon them: they play an active part in the event of measuring and exert a causal influence upon its result. The physical system under con­sideration forms a totality subject to law only if the process of measuring is treated as forming part of it.

How progress is to be made by this road is a difficult question and of much importance for the future. In order to appreciate its significance I pro­pose to extend the scope of my survey, to go beyond the special conditions of optics and to approach the problem from a more general point of view.

Is it at all possible to predict with confidence the mutations of any scientific idea? Is it possible to claim that there is so much as an approximate law governing the development of scientific ideas ? Looking back on the historical development of events one is tempted to suspect such a law, on con­sidering that many important ideas began by existing in the dark, uncomprehended by the many and at best dimly foreseen by a few students who were in advance of their age; but that once mankind had become ripe for them, they came to life suddenly and simultaneously in a number of different places. The principle of the preservation of energy can be traced back for centuries in a rudimentary form; but it was not until the middle of last century that the principle was given a scientifically prac­tical foundation, more or less simultaneously, by four or six students between whom there was no connection whatever. We may probably assert that even if Julius Robert Mayer, James Prescott Joule, Ludwig August Colding, and Hermann von Helm­holtz had not been living at that time, the principle of the preservation of energy would, nevertheless, have been discovered only a little later. I would even venture to assert much the same of the origin of the modern theory of relativity or the quantum theory, were I not reluctant to face the obvious re­joinder that such prophecies after the event are somewhat cheap. I consider the inevitable element of such a process to consist in the fact that with the spread of experimentation and the improve­ments in methods of measurement, theoretical in­vestigation has been forced in a certain direction almost automatically.

Yet there could be no greater mistake than to assume that the laws governing the growth and effect of scientific ideas can ever be reduced to an exact formula valid for the future. Ultimately any new idea is the work of its author’s imagination, and to this extent progress is tied to the irrational element at some point even in mathematics, the most exact of the sciences; for irrationality is a necessary component in the make-up of every intellect.

If we bear in mind that any given idea is due to a given experience, we shall find it natural that the present time, so rich in numbers of new events, has proved a fruitful soil for the production and pro­mulgation of new ideas. If, further, we consider that whenever an idea is formulated a relation is estab­lished between two different events, we shall find, even by the formal rules of combinations, that the number of possible ideas exceeds by an order of magnitude the number of available events.

Another circumstance explaining the vast output of scientific ideas at the present day possibly con­sists in the fact that owing to the spread of unem­ployment there are many lively intellects which ex­perience a desire for productive work, and welcome a pre-occupation with general theoretical and philosophical problems as a cheap and satisfactory escape from the emptiness of their everyday exist­ence. Valuable results, unfortunately, are rare ex­ceptions. I do not exaggerate when I say that hardly a week passes in which I do not receive one or more papers of varying length from members of every profession—teachers, civil servants, writers, law­yers, doctors, engineers, architects—with a re­quest for my opinion. A thorough examination of these would take up all and more than all of my spare time.

These communications can be divided into two classes. The first is entirely naive and their authors have never considered that a new scientific idea to be valuable must be based on certain facts, so that specialized knowledge is essential for their formulation. The authors of these contributions, on the other hand, imagine that they have a fine prophetic gift enabling them to guess the truth direct, never suspecting that every important dis­covery is preceded by a period of hard individual work. These people, on the other hand, imagine that a happy fate has allowed the desired fruit to drop into their lap in the way in which Newton, sit­ting under the apple tree, received the idea of universal gravitation. What is worse is that these visionaries float above the surface, never pene­trating to the depths, and are too ignorant scientifically to be capable of seeing their error. The dangers which flow from them should not be under­estimated. It is satisfactory to note that modern youth shows a growing interest in general questions and in the acquisition of a satisfactory view of life; but for this very reason it should never be forgotten that such a view is baseless and doomed to sudden destruction unless it has a firm foundation in reality. Anyone desirous of obtaining a scientific view of the world must first acquire a knowledge of the facts.

Light Sculpture by Makoto Tojiki

Today the individual student can no longer form a comprehensive view of every department of science and in most instances he must take his facts at second-hand. It is all the more important that he should be master of one trade and have an inde­pendent judgment on his own subject. Personally, as a member of the philosophical faculty, I have always asked that candidates for a philosophical doctorate should give evidence of special knowl­edge in one given special science. Whether this department belonged to the natural sciences or to the intellectual sciences is not important: what is important, is that the candidate should have ac­quired by actual study an idea of scientific method.

It is generally easy to demonstrate the worthless­ness of the type of papers just mentioned; but there is another class which requires much more serious attention because the authors are careful students turning out excellent work in their special field. The scale of scientific work being such as it is to-day, specialization continually becomes more in­tense and consequently the more serious student experiences a desire to look beyond the limits of his own subject and to apply the knowledge acquired to other departments of science. There is thus a tendency to link two distinct departments by one idea which seems convincing to the student, who in this way transfers the laws and methods with which he has grown familiar within his own sphere to an alien one whose problems he thus tries to solve. There is especially among mathemati­cians, physicists, and chemists, a tendency to em­ploy their own exact methods in order to throw light on biological, psychological, and sociological questions. Yet it must not be forgotten that such a new intellectual bridge to be sound requires both its pillars to be securely founded: it cannot fulfill its purpose unless the further pillar, too, has a proper foundation. In other words, it does not suffice for an ingenious student to be thoroughly acquainted with his original subject; if his more widely ranging ideas are to be fruitful, he must also have some knowledge of the facts and problems of the other sphere to which he is applying his idea. This deserves all the more emphasis because every expert tends to exaggerate the importance of his special field in proportion to the length of time spent on it and to the difficulties encountered. And once he has discovered the solution of a problem, he tends to exaggerate its scope and to apply the solution to cases of a totally different nature. Those who feel the desire to take up a higher stand­point than that which their own restricted field allows them, should never forget that there are students at work in other departments of science who are working with equal care and under equal difficulties although with different methods. The history of every science shows how frequently this rule is disregarded. In selecting my examples, how­ever, I shall take care to confine myself to physics in order to avoid the mistake I have just been criticizing.

Among the more general ideas of physics there is practically none which has not been transferred with more or less skill to some other sphere by means of some association of ideas, an association depending frequently enough merely upon such contingent externals as terminology. Thus the term “energy” leads students to apply the physical con­cept of energy and with it the physical proposition enunciating the preservation of energy to psychol­ogy, and serious attempts have been made to subject the cause and degree of human happiness to certain mathematically formulated laws. The same must be said of attempts to apply the prin­ciple of relativity outside physics, e.g., in esthetics, or even in ethics. Yet there could be nothing more misleading than the meaningless statement that everything is relative. The proposition does not apply even in physics. All the so-called universal constants—the mass or the charge of an electron or a proton, or Planck’s quantum—are absolute mag­nitudes: they are the fixed and unchangeable components of which the structure of atomism is built up. Of course a magnitude which once was considered absolute has often been found to be relative later; but whenever this happened another and more fundamental absolute magnitude was substituted. Unless we assume the existence of absolute magnitudes no concept can be defined and no theory can be formed.

The second principle of thermo-dynamics, the principle of the increase of entropy, has frequently been applied outside physics. For example, at­tempts have been made to apply the principle that all physical events develop in one sense only to biological evolution, a singularly unhappy attempt so long as the term evolution is associated with the idea of progress, perfection, or improvement. The principle of entropy is such that it can only deal with probabilities and all that it really says is that a state, improbable in itself, is followed on an average by a more probable state. Biologically in­terpreted, this principle points towards degenera­tion rather than improvement: the chaotic, the ordinary, and the common is always more probable than the harmonious, the excellent, or the rare.

Besides the misleading ideas which we have been considering there is another class which consists of those ideas which, looked at carefully, are seen to have no meaning at all. These play a fairly im­portant part in physics, too. A comparison between the movement of an electron around a proton and the movement of a planet around the sun has caused investigators to study the velocity of the electron, although later investigation showed that it is completely impossible to answer these two questions simultaneously. Once again we see the danger of applying ideas and propositions which have proved their value in one department of sci­ence to another, and we perceive how great is the need of care in testing and formulating a new idea.

Yet there is also a theoretical side to the matter, of which it is now high time to speak. If a new idea were to be admitted only when it had definitely proved its justification, or even if we merely de­manded that it must have a clear and definite mean­ing at the outset, then such a demand might gravely hamper the progress of science. We must never forget that ideas devoid of a clear meaning fre­quently gave the strongest impulse to the further development of science. The idea of an elixir of life or of the transmutation of base metals gave rise to the science of chemistry; that of perpetual mo­tion to an intelligent comprehension of energy; the idea of the absolute velocity of the earth gave rise to the theory of relativity, and the idea that the electronic movement resembled that of the planets was the origin of atomic physics. These are indisputable facts, and they give rise to thought, for they show clearly that in science as elsewhere fortune favors the brave. In order to meet with success it is well to aim beyond the goal which will eventually be reached.

Looked at in this light the ideas of science wear a new aspect. We find that the importance of a scientific idea depends, frequently enough, upon its value rather than on its truth. This applies, e.g., to the concept of the reality of an external world or to the idea of causality. With both the question is not whether they are true or false, but whether they are valuable or valueless. This fact will appear all the more striking if we consider that the values of an objective science like physics are, to start with, wholly independent of the objects to which they relate; and the question arises how it comes about that the importance of a phys­ical idea can be fully exploited only if we take its value into consideration.

In my opinion the only possible method avail­able here is that which we followed when dealing with optics, a method applicable not only to physics, but to every department of science. We must go back to the source of every science, and we do this when we remember that every science requires some person to build it up and to communicate it to others. And this means once again the introduc­tion of the principle of totality.

In principle a physical event is inseparable from the measuring instrument or the organ of sense that perceives it; and similarly a science cannot be separated in principle from the investigators who pursue it. A physicist who studies experimentally some atomic process interferes with its course in proportion as he penetrates into its details, and the physiologist who subdivides a living organism into its smallest parts injures or actually kills it; by the same token the philosopher, who in examining a new idea confines himself to asking to what extent its meaning is evident a priori, hampers the further development of science. Hence a positivism which rejects every transcendental idea is as one-sided as a metaphysics which scorns individual experience. Each method has its justification, and each can be carried through consistently; but if carried to an extreme they paralyze the progress of science be­cause they prohibit the asking of certain funda­mental questions, although they do so for opposite reasons: positivism, because the questions are meaningless, and metaphysics, because the answer to them is already available. The rivalry between the two parties will never be decided in favor of either, and in the course of history success has always wavered between the two. A century ago metaphysics enjoyed a hegemony which was fol­lowed by a melancholy collapse. To-day positivism is striving after the leading position, which it will fail to obtain just as metaphysics failed.

Nobody had a deeper sense of this persistent antagonism than Goethe, who struggled with it all his life and has given it masterly expression in a number of different forms. He tried to overcome this antagonism by rising to the concept of totality, the introduction of which does justice to both views. Yet even Goethe’s all-embracing mind was subject to the limits of time; he declined to admit the dis­tinction between the rays of light in external space and the sensation of light in consciousness, and hence was prevented from doing justice to the bril­liant progress made by physical optics in his time. Nevertheless, on observing the modern introduc­tion of the idea of totality in physics, he might see in this change a confirmation of his way of thought.

Thus we observe, what we have already observed on several occasions, that there is an irrational core at the center of science which no intelligence can solve, and which no modern attempt at limiting by definition the tasks of science can remove. At first such a state of affairs may appear strange and un­satisfactory; on reflection, however, it will be seen that it could not be otherwise. For a close examina­tion will show that every science really tackles its task at the center and not at the beginning, and that it is compelled to grope its way more or less laboriously towards the beginning without any hope of ever quite reaching it. Science does not find ready-made the concepts with which it operates: it has to form them artificially and their perfecting is a gradual process. It draws its material from life and it reacts upon life; its impulse, its consistency, and its vitality came from the ideas at work in it. It is the ideas which place before the student the problems with which he deals, which impel him to work without cease, and which enable him correctly to interpret the results he obtains. Without ideas investigation becomes aimless and the energy ex­pended upon it is wasted. Ideals alone make a physicist of an experimenter, an historian of a chronicler, and a philologist of a graphological ex­pert. We have already seen that the truth or falsity of an idea and the question whether it has a defi­nite meaning is relatively unimportant: what mat­ters is that it shall give rise to useful work. In science, as in every other sphere of cultural de­velopment, it is the work done which is the sole certain criterion of the health and the success of the individual as well as of the community. Accord­ingly, I wish to conclude these observations on the growth and effect of scientific ideas by quoting words in praise of work as applied to science; words which the Association of German Engineers, justly appreciating its theoretical and practical value, has made into its motto: “What is needed is investi­gation.”
Light Sculpture by Diet Wiegman

In: The Philosophy of Physics. New York, 1936, pp. 87-126

Two Notes on the End of the World by Hans Magnus Enzensberger

The apocalypse is part of our ideological baggage. It is an aphrodisiac. It is a nightmare. It is a commodity like any other. You can call it a metaphor for the collapse of capitalism, which as we all know has been imminent for more than a century. We come up against it in the most varied shapes and guises: as warn­ing finger and scientific forecast, as collective fiction and sectarian rallying cry, as product of the leisure industry, as superstition, as vulgar mythology, as a riddle, a kick, a joke, a projection. It is ever present, but never “actual”: a second reality, an image that we construct for ourselves, an incessant product of our fantasy, the catastrophe in the mind.

All this it is and more, as one of the oldest ideas of the human species. Thick volumes could have been written on its origins, and of course such volumes actually have been written. We know like­wise all manner of things about its checkered history, about its periodic ebb and flow, and the way these fluctuations connect with the material process of history. The idea of the apocalypse has accompanied utopian thought since its first beginnings, pursuing it like a shadow, like a reverse side that cannot be left behind: without catastrophe no millennium, without apocalypse no para­dise. The idea of the end of the world is simply a negative utopia.

But even the end of the world is no longer what it used to be. The film playing in our heads, and still more uninhibitedly in our unconscious, is distinct in many respects from the dreams of old. In its traditional coinings, the apocalypse was a venerable, indeed a sacred, idea. But the catastrophe we are so concerned with (or rather haunted by) is an entirely secularized phenomenon. We read its signs on the walls of buildings, where they appear overnight, clumsily sprayed; we read them on the printouts spewed forth by the computer. Our seven-headed monster answers to many names: police state, paranoia, bureaucracy, terror, economic crisis, arms race, destruction of the environment. Its four riders look like the heroes of Westerns and sell cigarettes, while the trumpets that pro­claim the end of the world serve as theme music for a commercial break. Once people saw in the apocalypse the unknowable aveng­ing hand of God. Today it appears as the methodically calculated product of our own actions, and the spirits whom we hold respon­sible for its approach we call reds, oil sheikhs, terrorists, multina­tionals; the gnomes of Zürich and the Frankensteins of the biology labs; UFOs and neutron bombs; demons from the Kremlin or the Pentagon: an underworld of unimaginable conspiracies and mach­inations, whose strings are pulled by the all-powerful cretins of the secret police.

The apocalypse was also once a singular event, to be expected unannounced as a bolt from the blue: an unthinkable moment that only seers and prophets could anticipate—and, of course, no one wanted to listen to their warnings and predictions. Our end of the world, on the other hand, is sung from the rooftops even by the sparrows; the element of surprise is missing; it seems only to be a question of time. The doom we picture for ourselves is insidious and torturingly slow in its approach, the apocalypse in slow motion. It is reminiscent of that hoary avant-garde classic of the silent cinema, in which we see a gigantic factory chimney crack up and collapse noiselessly on the screen, for a full twenty min­utes, while the spectators, in a kind of indolent comfort, lean back in their threadbare velvet seats and nibble their popcorn and pea­nuts. After the performance, the futurologist mounts the stage. He looks like a poor imitation of Dr. Strangelove, the mad scientist, only he is repulsively fat. Quite calmly he informs us that the at­mospheric ozone belt will have disappeared in twenty years’ time, so that we shall surely be toasted by cosmic radiation if we are lucky enough to survive until then; unknown substances in our milk are driving us to psychosis; and with the rate at which world population is growing, there will soon be standing room only on our planet. All this with Havana cigar in hand, in a well-com­posed speech of impeccable logic. The audience suppresses a yawn, even though, according to the Professor, the disaster looms immi­nently ahead. But it’s not going to come this afternoon. This after­noon, everything will go on just as before, perhaps a little bit worse than last week, but not so that anyone would notice. If one or another of us should be a little depressed this afternoon, which cannot of course be ruled out, then the thought might strike him, irrespective of whether he works in the Pentagon or the under­ground, irons shirts or welds sheet metal, that it would really be simpler if we were rid of the problem once and for all; if the catastrophe really did come. However, this is out of the question. Finality, which was formerly one of the major attributes of the apocalypse, and one of the reasons for its power of attraction, is no longer vouchsafed us.

We have also lost another traditional aspect of the end of the world. Previously, it was generally agreed that the event would affect everyone simultaneously and without exception: the never- satisfied demand for equality and justice found in this conception its last refuge. But as we see it today, doom is no longer a leveler; quite the opposite. It differs from country to country, from class to class, from place to place. While it is already overtaking some, others can watch it on television. Bunkers are built, ghettos walled in, fortresses erected, bodyguards hired, on a large scale as well as a small. Corresponding to the country house with burglar alarms and electric fences, we have whole countries, on the international scale, that fence themselves in while others go to ruin. The night­mare of the end of the world does not end this temporal disparity; it simply radicalizes it. Its African and Indian versions are over­looked with a shrug of the shoulders by those not directly af­fected—including the African and Indian governments. At this point, finally, the joke comes to an end.


Berlin, Spring 1978

Dear Balthasar,

When I wrote my comment on the apocalypse—a work that I confess was not particularly thorough or serious—I was still un­aware that you were also concerned with the future. You com­plained to me on the telephone that you were “not really getting anywhere.” That sounded almost like an appeal for help. I know you well enough to understand your dilemma. Today it is only the technocrats who are advancing toward the year two thousand full of optimism, with the unerring instinct of lemmings, and you are not one of their number. On the contrary, you are a faithful soul, always ready to assemble under the banner of utopia. You want as much as ever to hold fast to the principle of hope, for you wish us well: i.e., not only you and me, but humanity as a whole.

Please don’t be angry if this sounds ironic. That isn’t my fault. You would have liked to see me come rushing to your aid. My letter will be disappointing for you, and perhaps you even feel that I am attacking you from behind. That isn’t my intention. All I would like to suggest is that we consider things with the cuffs off.

The strength of left-wing theory of whatever stamp, from Ba­beuf through to Ernst Bloch, i.e., for more than a century and a half, lay in the fact that it based itself on a positive utopia that had no peer in the existing world. Socialists, Communists, and anarchists all shared the conviction that their struggle would in­troduce the realm of freedom in a foreseeable period of time. They “knew just where they wanted to go and just what, with the help of history, strategy and effort, they ought or needed to do to get there. Now, they no longer do.” I read these lapidary words re­cently in an article by the English historian Eric Hobsbawm. But this old Communist does not forget to add that “In this respect, they do not stand alone. Capitalists are just as much at a loss as socialists to understand their future, and just as puzzled by the failure of their theorists and prophets.”

Hobsbawm is quite correct. The ideological deficit exists on both sides. Yet the loss of certainty about the future does not balance out. It is harder to bear for the Left than for those who never had any other intention but to hang on at any price to some snippet of their own power and privileges. This is why the Left, including you, dear Balthasar, go in for grumbling and complaining.

No one is ready any more, you say, or in a position either, to put forward a positive idea that goes beyond the horizon of the existing state of affairs. Instead of this, false consciousness is ram­pant; the stage is dominated by apostasy and confusion. I remem­ber our last conversation about the “new irrationalism,” your la­menting over the resignation that you sense on all sides, and your tirades against the flippant doomsters, shameless pessimists, and apostles of defeatism. I shall be careful not to contradict you here. But I wonder whether one thing has not escaped you in all this: the fact that in these expressions and moods there is precisely what you were looking for—an idea that goes beyond the limits of our present existence. For, in the last analysis, the world has certainly not come to an end (or else we could not talk about it); and so far no conclusive proof has reached me that an event of this kind is going to take place at any clearly ascertainable point in time. The conclusion I draw from this is that we are dealing here with a utopia, even if a negative one; and I further maintain that, for the historical reasons I mentioned, left-wing theory is not partic­ularly well-equipped to deal with this kind of utopia.

Your reactions are only further evidence for my assumption. The first stanza of your song, in which you bewail the prevailing intellectual situation, is promptly followed by the second, in which you enumerate the scapegoats. For such an old hand at theory as yourself, it is not difficult to lay hands on the guilty parties: the ideological opponent, the agents of anticommunism, the manipu­lation of the mass media. Your arguments are in no way new to me. They remind me of an essay that came to my attention a few years back. The author, an American Marxist by the name of H. C. Greisman, came to the conclusion that “the images of decline of which the media are so fond are designed to hypnotize and stupefy the masses in such a way that they come to see any hope of revo­lution as meaningless.”

What is striking in this proposition is above all its essential de­fensiveness. For a hundred years or so, as long as it was sure of its ground, classical Marxist theory argued the very opposite. It did not see the images of catastrophe and visions of doom of the time simply as lies concocted by some secret seducers and spread among the people, but sought rather to explain them in social terms, as symbolic depictions of a thoroughly real process. In the 1920s, to take just one example, the Left saw the attraction that Spengler’s historical metaphysics had for the bourgeois intelligent­sia in precisely this way: The Decline of the West was in reality nothing more than the imminent collapse of capitalism.

Today, on the other hand, someone like yourself no longer feels his views confirmed by the apocalyptic fantasy, but instead feels threatened, reacting with last-ditch slogans and defensive gestures. To be quite frank, dear Balthasar, it seems to me that the result of these obeisances is rather wretched. I don’t mean by this that it is simply false. You do not, of course, fail to resort to the well- tried path of ideological criticism. And it is child’s play to show that the rise and fall of utopian and apocalyptic moods in history correspond to the political, social, and economic conditions of the time. It is also uncontestable that they are exploited politically, just like any other fantasy that exists on a mass scale. You need not imagine you have to teach me the ABCs. I know as well as you that the fantasy of doom always suggests the desire for mirac­ulous salvation; and it is clear to me, too, that the Bonapartist savior is always waiting in the wings, in the form of military dic­tatorship and right-wing putsch. When it is a question of survival, there have always been people all too ready to place their trust in a strong man. Nor do I find it surprising that those who have called for one more or less expressly, in the last few years, should include both a liberal and a Stalinist: the American sociologist Hellbroner and the German philosopher Harich. It is also beyond doubt that the apocalyptic metaphor promises relief from analyti­cal thought, as it tends to throw everything together in the same pot. From the Middle East conflict to a postal strike, from punk style to a nuclear-reactor disaster, anything and everything is con­ceived as a hidden sign of an imaginary totality: catastrophe “in general.” The tendency to hasty generalization damages that resid­ual power of clear thought that we still have left. In this sense, the feeling of doom does in fact lead only to mystification. It goes without saying that the new irrationalism that so troubles you can in no way solve the real problems. On the contrary, it makes them appear insoluble.

This is all very easy to say, but it does not help matters all that much. You try and fight the fantasies of destruction with quota­tions from the classics. But these rhetorical victories, dear Bal­thasar, remind me of the heroic feats of Baron von Miinchhausen. Like him, you want to reach your goal alone and unafraid; and to avoid departing from the correct straight line, you too are ready in case of need to leap onto a cannonball.

But the future is not a sports ground for hussars, nor is ideolog­ical criticism a cannonball. You should leave it to the futurologists to imitate the boastings of an old tin soldier. The future that you have in mind is in no way an object of science. It is something that exists only in the medium of social fantasy, and the organ by which it is chiefly experienced is the unconscious. Hence the power of these images that we all produce, day and night: not only with the head, but with the whole body. Our collective dreams of fear and desire weigh at least as heavy, probably heavier, than our theories and analyses.

The really threadbare character of customary ideological criti­cism is that it ignores all this and wants to know nothing of it. Has it not struck you that it has long ceased to explain things that do not fit our schemas, and started to taboo them instead? With­out our having properly noticed, it has taken on the role of watch­dog. Alongside the state censorship of the law-and-order people there are now ranged the mental-hospital orderlies of the Left in the social and human sciences, who would like to pacify us with their tranquilizers. Their maxims are: 1. Never concede anything. 2. Reduce the unfamiliar to the familiar. 3. Always think only with the head. 4. The unconscious must do what it is told.

The arrogance of these academic exorcists is surpassed only by their impotence. They fail to understand that myths cannot be re­futed by seminar papers, and that their bans on ideas have a very short reach. What help is it to them, for example, and what use to us, if for the hundredth time they declare any comparison be­tween natural and social processes inadmissible and reactionary? The elementary power of fantasy teaches millions of people to break this ban constantly. Our ideologists only raise a smile when they attempt to obliterate such ineffaceable images as flood and fire, earthquake and hurricane. Moreover, there are people in the ranks of natural scientists who are in a position to elaborate fan­tasies of this kind in their own fashion and make them productive instead of banning them: mathematicians drafting a topographical theory of catastrophe, or biochemists who have ideas about cer­tain analogies between biological and social evolution. We are still waiting in vain for the sociologist who will understand that, in a sense that is still to be decoded, there is no longer any such thing as a purely natural catastrophe.

Instead of this, our theorists, chained to the philosophical tra­ditions of German idealism, refuse to admit even today what every bystander has long since grasped: that there is no world spirit; that we do not know the laws of history; that even the class strug­gle is an “indigenous” process, which no vanguard can con­sciously plan and lead; that social evolution, like natural evolu­tion, has no subject and is therefore unpredictable; that consequently, when we act politically, we never manage to achieve what we had in mind, but rather something quite different, which at one time we could not even have imagined; and that the crisis of all positive utopias has its basis precisely in this fact. The proj­ects of the nineteenth century have been discredited completely and without exception by the history of the twentieth century. In the essay I already mentioned, Eric Hobsbawm recalls a congress held by the Spanish anarchists in 1898. They sketched a glorious picture of life after the victory of the revolution: a world of tall shining buildings with elevators that would save climbing stairs, electric light for all, garbage disposers, and marvelous household gadgets. . . . This vision of humanity, presented with messianic pathos, now looks strikingly familiar: in many parts of our cities it has already become reality. There are victories that are hard to distinguish from defeats. No one feels comfortable in recalling the promise of the October revolution sixty years ago: once the capi­talists were driven out of Russia, a bright future without exploi­tation and oppression would dawn for the workers and peas­ants. . . .

Are you still with me, Balthasar? Are you still listening? I am nearing the end of my letter. Forgive me if it has gotten rather long, and if my sentences have taken on a mocking undertone. It’s not me who injected this; it’s a kind of objective, historic mock­ery, and the laugh, for better or worse, is always on the losing side. We all have to bear it together.

Optimism and pessimism, my dear friend, are so much sticking plaster for fortune-tellers and the writers of leading articles. The pictures of the future that humanity draws for itself, both positive and negative utopias, have never been unambiguous. The idea of the millennium, the City of the Sun, was not the pallid dream of a land of milk and honey; it always had its elements of fear, panic, terror, and destruction. And the apocalyptic fantasy, conversely, produces more than just pictures of decadence and despair; it also contains, inescapably bound up with the terror, the demand for vengeance, for justice, impulses of relief and hope.

The pharisees, those who always know best, want to convince us that the world would be all right again if the “progressive forces” took a strong line with people’s fantasies; if they them­selves were only sitting on the Central Committee, and pictures of doom could be prohibited by decree of the party. They refuse to understand that it is we ourselves who produce these pictures, and that we hold on to them because they correspond to our experi­ences, desires, and fears: on the motorway between Frankfurt and Bonn, in front of the TV screen that shows we are at war, beneath helicopters, in the corridors of clinics, employment offices, and prisons—because, in a single word, they are in this sense realistic.

I scarcely need reassure you, dear Balthasar, that I know as little of the future as you do yourself. I am writing to you because I do not count you among the pigeonholers and ticketpunchers of the world spirit. What I wish you, as I wish myself and us all, is a little more clarity about our own confusion, a little less fear of our own fear, and a little more attentiveness, respect, and modesty in the face of the unknown. Then we shall be able to see a little further.

Yours, H.M.E.

Translated by David Fernbach

In. Critical Essays, eds. Reinhold Grimm and Bruce Armstrong, Continuum: New York, 1982, pp. 233-241.

The Aesthetic of the Machine and Mechanical Instrospection by Enrico Prampolini

In the aesthetic phenomenon of the evolution of the plastic arts the necessity, of considering the Machine and Mechanical elements as new symbols of aesthetic inspiration, has not been sufficiently taken into account.


We Futurists were the first to understand the marvellous mystery of inspiration which ma­chines possess with their own mechanical world.

In fact, Marinetti in his first Manifesto on the Foundation of Futurism pub ished in the Figaro in 1909 stated: “We shall chant the vibrant nocturnal fervour of the arsenals and ship-yards lit by their violent electric moons, the bridges like giant gymnasts striding the rivers, the daring steamers that nose the hori­zons, the full-breasted locomotives that prance on the rails like enormous iron horses bridled with tubes, the gliding flight of the aeroplanes whose screw flutters in the wind like a flag or seems to applaud like an enthusiastic mob. The racing automobile with its explosive breath and its great serpent-like tubes crawling over the bonnet—an automobile that whizzes like a vol­ley from a machine gun is more beautiful than the victory of Samothrace.”

From the appearance o the first Futurist Manifesto of Marinetti up until today, there has been a ceaseless searching and questioning in the field of art. Boccioni in his book, Futur­ist Sculpture and Painting (1914) stated that the era of the great mechanical individualities has begun; that all the rest is paleontology. Luigi Russolo (in 1913) with his invention of the noise-makers constructed new mechanical instruments to give value to new musical sounds inspired by noise, while Luciano Folgore in his poem the Chant of the Motors (1914) exalted the mechanical beauty of workshops and the overpowering lyricism of machines. Later, in my manifesto entitled Absolute Constructions in Motion-Noise (1915), I revealed by means of new plastic constructions the unknown con­structive virtues of the mechanical aesthetic.

While the painter Gino Severini confirmed by means o’ an admirable theoretical essay in the Mercure de France (1916) the theory that “the process of the construction of a machine is analogous to the constructive process of a work of art."

This Futurist exaltation of ours for the new era of the machines crossed the Italic frontier and awoke echoes among the Dutch, the Rus­sian, the Germans and the Spanish.

Fernand Leger recent y declared his painting to be concerned with the love of those forms created by industry and the clash of the thou' sand coloured and persuasive reflections of the so called classical subjects.

Guillermo de Torre, the daring Spanish poet and founder of the Ultraist movement, an­nounced in his manifesto “Vertical” in 1918 the forthcoming epoch of the new and mechanical world.

Today we see a new tendency manifesting itself at the recent international Artists Congress of Düsseldorf. This is the movement of the “Constructionists” as exemplified in the works of the Russian, Dutch, German, Scan­dinavian and Roumanian painters among whom we mav note Theo Van Doesburg, Richter, Lissitzsky, Eggelin and Tanco. The Construc­tionists, though they take as their starting point an extremely clear theory, announcing the con' structive exaltation of the Machine, become inconsistent in the application of their doctrine, confusing exterior form with spiritual content.

We today—without ignoring the attempts that have been made in the course of the last years by ourselves and certain Futurist friends of ours—intend to reassume and synthetize all that which has been expressed individually and incidentally in order to arrive at more complete and more concrete results, in order to be able to realize more fully new aesthetic values in the field of the plastic arts.

Our experience has convinced us of the truth of cert ain of our plastic truths and has allowed us to perceive the errors that lie in others.


In the history of art throughout the ages the symbols and elements of inspiration have been suggested to us by the ancient legends and classic myths created by modern imagination. Today, therefore, where can we look for more contingent inspiration than among the new symbols which are no longer the creation of the imagination or the fantasy—but of human genius?

Is not the machine today the most exuberant of the mystery of human creation? Is it not the new mythical deitv which weaves the le­gends and histories of the contemporary human drama? The Machine in its practical and ma­terial function comes to have today in human concepts and thoughts the significance of an ideal and spiritual inspiration.

The artist can only pin his faith to the reali­ties contingent on his own life or to those ele­ments of expression which spiritualize the at­mosphere he breathes. The elements and the plastic symbols of the Machine are inevitably as much symbols as a god Pan, the taking down from the Cross, of the Assumption of the Vir­gin, etc. The logic, therefore, of aesthetic verities becomes self-evident, and develops paral­lel with the spirit which seeks to contemplate, live and identify itself with reality itse t.


We, today, after having sung and exalted the suggestive inspirational force of the Ma­chine—after having by means of the first plastic works of the new school fixed pure plastic sen­sations and emotions, see now the outlines of the new aesthetic of The Machine appearing on the horizon like a fly wheel all fiery from Eternal Motion.


1. The Machine to be the tutelary symbol of the universal dynamism, potentially embody­ing in itself the essential elements ot human creation: the discoverer of fresh developments in modern aesthetics.

2. The aesthetic virtues of the machine and the metaphysical meaning of its motions and movements constitute the new font of inspira­tion for the evolution and development of con­temporaneous plastic arts.

3. The plastic exaltation of The Machine and the mechanical elements must not be con­ceived in their exterior reality, that is in formal representations of the elements which make up The Machine itself, but rather in the plastic- mechanical analogy that The Machine suggests to us in connection with various spiritual reali­ties.

4. The stylistic modifications ot Mechanical Art arise from The Machine-as-interferential-element.

5. The machine marks the rhythm of human psychology and beats time for our spiritual ex­altations. Therefore it is inevitable and conse­quent to the evolution of the plastic arts of our day.


(Translated by E. S.)

Reprint from Little Review.

quarta-feira, 24 de setembro de 2014

The Book is the Alien: On Certain and Uncertain Readings of Lem’s Solaris by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr

1. Contemporary science describes a world that is neither a rational cosmos, nor a roiling cosmos, but something in between: a source of paradox, allowing for complementary, but contradictory, interpretations of humanity’s relation­ship with non-human reality. The “classical” myth of the rational cosmos had shared with the prescientific myths underlying humanistic culture the concep­tion that the human and natural realms were in some ways co-ordinated. Both worked according to intelligible, self-consistent, determining laws. In the system of modern atomic physics, however, scientists have succeeded, accord­ing to Planck, in purging science of determinism and ‘ ‘all anthropomorphic ele­ments” (Arendt: 269). But as Heisenberg observed, in such a deanthropomor­phized universe human beings always “confront themselves alone” (ibid., p. 277).

Since every answer they attain in their investigations into nature is a specific answer to a specific question, the sum of these answers allows the appli­cation of otherwise quite incompatible types of natural laws to one and the same physical event. Science’s answers reflect the questions scientists are impelled to ask of nature; and thus anthropomorphism is reintroduced at the level of hypothesis formation that preselects the data to be studied. Beyond this, it remains extremely problematic whether the seemingly unbridgeable gulf be­tween the languages of human culture and quantum physics’ purely probabilis­tic and mathematical expressions of the universe will produce “an appropriate widening of the conceptual framework” to resolve all the present paradoxes and disharmonies in a new “logical frame,” as Niels Bohr hoped (see Arendt: 277)—and as radical holistic physicists like Fritjof Capra have proposed—or whether the gulf is inherent in the new physics. The conclusions of the 20th century’s science have thus introduced an alienation from the cosmos more radi­cal than any previously conceived in human culture. Whether this alienation is the beginning of a dialectical process of conceptual synthesis or an enormous stalemate, we cannot know. We cannot summarily reject either historical hypothesis.

SF characteristically transforms scientific and technological ideas into metaphors, by which those ideas are given cultural relevance. It works very much like historical fiction in this respect. It takes a body of extratextual propo­sitions believed to be true, with no inherent ethical-cultural significance, and endows it with meaning by incorporating it in fictional stories about characters representing typical values of the author’s culture. Although the historical facts limit what can happen in historical fiction (in the realistic mode, at least), these facts are embedded among purely fictional facts to imply a metaphorical mean­ing beyond historiography’s customary function of describing “what really happened.” In historical fiction, history is no longer true history, even if it is in fact true. It is metaphorical, and hence “more than true”; it is culturally significant.

The same can be said, mutatis mutandis, about SF. Furthermore, in works of artistic interest, we also expect the fictional action and the process of reading to correspond analogically to the fiction’s metaphorized scientific ideas. Read­ing the fiction should act as a metaphor for the process of cognition implied by the science. In general, it is futile to look for this sort of harmony of scientific ideas and aesthetic design in contemporary SF. Several commentators have noted that SF writers usually adhere to the paradigms of romance (cf. Rose: 7; Frye: 49). The paradigmatic forms of SF are usually more archaic, indeed prescientific, than much of so-called mainstream fiction.

One book is an exception, however: Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, one of the philosophically most sophisticated works of SF. Lem has often dismissed the suggestion that SF should be judged by criteria different from the rest of litera­ture.1 Yet most of Solaris’ commentators have discussed the novel as a work of “meta-SF,” a virtuoso example of generic criticism and the exploration of the possibilities inherent in the genre.2 In these pages, I will consider Solaris somewhat differently, as an elaborate metaphor for the cultural and philosophi­cal implications of scientific uncertainty for Western culture.

2. Solaris invites several parallel, and even contradictory, interpretations. It can be read as a Swiftian satire, a tragic love story, a Kafkaesque existentialist parable, a metafictional parody of hermeneutics, a Cervantean ironic romance, and a Kantian meditation on the nature of human consciousness. But none of these readings is completely satisfactory, and Lem intended it to be so. The simultaneously incompatible and mutually reinforcing readings make the pro­cess of interpreting the text a metaphor for the scientific problem of articulating a manifestly paradoxical natural universe.

This inbuilt indeterminancy notwithstanding, most of Solaris ’ commenta­tors agree on a common reading of the novel’s action and point. According to this reading, Solaris is about the problem of whether human beings will ever be able to make contact with a truly alien intelligence, and thus transcend the anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism apparently inherent in human cogni­tion. In the novel, a century of attempts by the most advanced human scientists to understand the mysterious, sentient ocean-planet, Solaris, has produced only a chain-reaction of paradoxes. The instruments that the early Solarists take to the planet to measure certain phenomena return to them physically transformed by Solaris; the researchers thus cannot know what it is they have measured (Solaris, 2:27).

The methodological paradoxes produced by the exploration of Solaris, which are extrapolations of classical scientific method, come to occupy most of the Solarists’ time. The inscrutable and opaque planet gradually be­comes a macrocosmic mirror of the human image. The Solarists’ obsession with the mysteries of Solaris dissolves into the broader struggle to understand human reflection and identity. When it appears impossible that human scientists will ever break out of the enclosure of human consciousness, their space exploration appears to be a religious quest for “Contact,” mystical union with a godlike intelligence that might reveal the purpose of the “mission of Mankind” in the universe, and redeem it from cosmic alienation.

By the time the narrator, the Solarist psychologist Kris Kelvin, arrives on Solaris Station, hovering a mile above the planet’s surface, the theoretical para­doxes of Solaristics have taken on an unnerving solidity. The Solarist pro­tagonists are “visited” by human simulacra, which appear to be incarnations of the scientists’ repressed erotic and guilt fixations. We cannot know the pur­pose of these Visitors, as the Solarists euphemistically call them, or how they arrived on the space station. They merely appear when their hosts awaken after a dream-filled sleep. They may be gifts from the planet, or instruments of ex­ploration, or merely augmentations of the scientists’ unconscious thoughts. The Visitors disorient the scientists completely by displaying the quintessence of each man’s subjectivity in the form of an inscrutable object. Each Solarist deals with his confusion in a different way. Kelvin’s friend and teacher, Gibarian, unable to contemplate “murdering” the quasi-human beings, kills himself in­stead; the pedantic physicist Sartorius locks himself in his laboratory, emerging only after he has invented a device to annihilate the Visitors; the cyberneticist Snow3 takes to drink, irony, and self-pity—in fear and trembling. Only Kelvin proves open and “innocent” enough to attempt to accommodate the presence of his Visitor, a replica of his young wife Rheya, for whose suicide ten years earlier he has carried a deep sense of guilt.

At first, the Visitors are indestructible, and appear to be material copies of an ideal template. When they are ejected into space, new versions of them reappear on the station later. They know only what their hosts remember, and for obscure reasons they must stay within sight of those hosts. In time, however, they become increasingly autonomous, and seem to develop human conscious­ness. In the central love story between Kelvin and Rheya, Rheya appears to become even more human than the true human Solarists—by willingly accept­ing her death in order to free her lover from his grotesque attachment to her.

The transformation in the novel occurs with Kelvin’s disillusionment: his recognition that Rheya is not a human being, and that his inappropriate loyalty to her, which was motivated by earthly guilt and love, has kept him from the work to which he had devoted his life: encountering the Other—the planet Sola­ris. Kelvin is compelled to recognize that in a world defined by the encounter of the human with a non-human intelligence, the most noble human values may be only quixotic illusions. His awareness of his diminution comes in stages, with great suffering. First, he must renounce his romantic faith. At the end of the novel, still mourning Rheya, he prepares to return to Earth “a sadder and wiser man”; “I shall never again give myself completely to anything or any­body. . .and this Kelvin will be no less worthy a man than the Kelvin of the past, who was prepared for anything in the name of the ambitious project called Contact. Nor will any man have the right to judge me” (14:206).

Like all the positive assertions made by the protagonists of the novel, this self-diminution quickly turns ambiguous. In order not to return to Earth without having ever physically touched-down on the planet, Kelvin descends to the sur­face before he leaves. There he plays the game of extending his hand to the ocean, which responds by enveloping it, without actually touching it. Although no physical contact is made, Kelvin is deeply affected, and feels “somehow changed.”

I had never felt the gigantic presence so strongly, or its powerful changeless silence, or the secret forces that gave the waves their regular rise and fall. I sat unseeing and sank into a universe of inertia, glided down an invisible slope, and identified myself with the dumb, fluid colossus; it was as if I had forgiven it everything, without the slightest effort or thought. (14:210)

Kelvin does not leave after all. He allows himself to believe in “a chance, perhaps an infinitesimal one, perhaps only imaginary” (14:211), that some new manifestation of contact or shared creation will occur. We surmise his egoistic projections are spent: “I hoped for nothing, and yet lived in expectation. I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures awaited me.

I knew nothing and persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past” (14:211).

Most critics agree that in his concluding words Kelvin has attained a new state of alertness and awareness. His formerly aggressive drive for Contact has given way to a more serene receptivity. Stephen J. Potts (p. 51) believes that at this point Kelvin ‘ ‘has become... an empty slate ready to receive the universe on its own terms.” For Mark Rose, Kelvin finally comes to the recognition that the Other does in fact exist separately from himself: “he knows that the ocean is real and he is willing to commit himself to whatever the future may bring” (p. 95). For Darko Suvin, “Kelvin wins through to a painfully gained, provisional and relative faith in an ‘imperfect god’ ” (p. 220). Even David Ket- terer, who argues persuasively for the hermetic closure of Solaris, writes that “Kelvin does learn something of man’s limits: they are circumscribed by the reality of Solaris” (p. 197).

The gist of Solaris in this reading is that human consciousness could not proceed to a new cognition as long as it was trapped in its own human-centered, egocentric conception of reason. Only a cathartic encounter with an alien reality insistent and intrusive enough to violate the membrane of self-sufficient human self-awareness could dissolve the scientists’ repressed emotional fixations and initiate a new receptivity to the universe outside the self—a knowledge that something Other not only exists, but can transform the self. This reading (which I have admittedly fleshed out a bit) involves not so much a paradox as a hidden contradiction. If we are to believe that Kelvin is actually purged of illusions at the end of the tale, we must accept the reality of Solaris as a determinate Other, whose ‘ ‘not-humanness” defines Kelvin for himself, and the reader. But how did Kelvin come by this new ability to see himself objectively, if human cognition is a priori anthropomorphic? To see himself determinately—that is, “to learn something of man’s limits,” as Ketterer writes—Kelvin must have been able to see himself as a “not-human,” an ability that he could only have learned from contact with Solaris. The critics who hold that Kelvin arrives at a new state of humbled and purified cognition consequently also approve the quest for “Holy Contact,” since only the acquisition of the Other’s point of view could have both dispelled Kelvin’s illusions and given him knowledge of himself. If this is true, then Kelvin has redeemed the romantic impulses of Solar- istics by proving their truths. His identification with the alien might be read as the necessary inversion that concludes the successful religious quest, just as the discovery of the Grail was to end in translation and absorption into God.

Before coming to Solaris Station, Kelvin’s contribution to Solaristics had been the discovery of possible correlations between encephalographic patterns indicative of certain human emotions with formally similar patterns taken from Solaris (11:182-83). To put it another way, Kelvin had discovered what could be construed as ‘‘personal” and emotional activity in the planet. At the conclu­sion of the novel, the situation is reversed. He substitutes for the personification of the alien his own self-identification with the alien—i.e., alienation from the human. The quasi-religious quest for Contact, rather than being an illusion to keep humanity from despair, apparently paid off after all: miracles have oc­curred, even if they are cruel ones, and Man has placed one foot beyond his human limits, albeit into a mysterious and undefined dimension. It is an apo­calypse, of sorts. Therefore, man’s knowledge is not limited to himself and his creations.

But is this reading valid? Is Kelvin really as empty at the end of the novel as Potts claims, “ready to accept the universe on its own terms”? Does not the universe include Kelvin, and the human species, among its terms? Doesn’t Kelvin’s identification with the alien leave us once again with no way of deter­mining where the human ends and the Other begins?

Only Patrick Parrinder has, to my knowledge, challenged the prevailing idea that Kelvin ultimately succeeds in breaking out of the anthropocentric hall of mirrors to the doorway of new cognition. For Parrinder, Kelvin’s decision to stay by the alien planet parallels Gulliver’s infatuation with the rational horses in his last journey. The novel’s ending, Parrinder writes, shows

the fate of a man who has abandoned humanity for the alien, and so is tragic but also absurd, a symbolic gesture holding at bay the recognition of despair. Kelvin has followed through the logic of the scientist-explorer in the liberal-humanist tradi­tion, until he is finally a victim of an isolating romantic obsession, (p. 54)

To carry Parrinder's reading a step further: Kelvin deserts humanity in order not to face the despair of knowing that his species is a singularity in the cosmos, and that reason, desire, love, and truth—even the ideas of self and other—are merely tautologies in the isolated, self-reinforcing system of the “human.”

If, as Kelvin tells us, he is completely committed to awaiting new interac­tions with Solaris, are we to admire his renewed spirit of sacrifice and dedica­tion in the cause of Contact, or to suspect it? How are we to judge what we read? To choose either interpretation, Kelvin as Grail Knight or as Gulliver, we must have a standard against which to compare each interpretation—and that is precisely what we cannot have in Solaris, just as the Solarists have no reality against which to compare humanity and the ocean-planet.

Solaris’s alienness is so threatening to the Solarists’ scientific egoism that none of their conscious hypotheses regarding the planet can be taken at face value. Still, there is evidence in the novel to support the idea that some myster­ious and significant contact has been achieved between Kelvin and the planet. There are moments in the action not interpreted by the protagonists (particularly having to do with Rheya, and with Kelvin’s dreams), and these bear hints of a special, non-rational relationship between Solaris and Kelvin that could easily go by the name of Contact. In the first place, Rheya appears to be the co­operative creation of Kelvin and Solaris: if she is a projection, she is a projection of both, since her form is produced by Kelvin’s unconscious memory and her suhstance is produced by the planet.

We cannot know exactly what the Visitors’ purpose is, but Rheya believes she may be “an instrument” (4:51) of some sort (perhaps analogous to the Solarists’ instruments transformed by Solaris in the early stages of exploration). On the assumption that Solaris may have “read off ’ the Visitors from the dreams of the sleeping scientists after they had begun bombarding the planet with x-rays at night (6:82), the Solarists encode some of Kelvin’s waking thoughts and broadcast these by day, to “inform” Solaris of how much suffering the Visitors are causing. The idea is farfetched, and it seems to be a way of distracting Kelvin’s attention from Sartorius and Snow’s attempt to invent a neutrino-annihilator to be used against the Visitors—a device Kelvin would like to sabotage, to prevent Rheya’s destruction. As Kelvin’s encephalographic patterns are broadcast, however, he becomes increasingly sensitive to direct intuitions of “an invisible presence which has taken posses­sion of the Station” (12:186). Moreover, the annihilated Visitors do not reap­pear after the emissions have been completed, implying that the message must have “gone through.”

Most suggestive of all is Kelvin’s weird “dream” in Chapter 12 (“The Dreams”). The language of the dream passage is worth close attention, but here I can only note that the entire dream can be read as if it were being narrated by either Kelvin or Solaris, which is for a while humanly “informed” by Kel­vin’s thoughts. To make sense of this dream, for which Kelvin provides no com­mentary, we are invited to conclude that Kelvin and Solaris penetrate each other to create a being—“a woman?” (12:187), doubtless Rheya—and then to exper­ience the excruciating suffering of a mysterious dissection. At the dream’s con­clusion, the narrator observes his/its suffering as “a mountain of grief visible in the dazzling light of another world’ ’ (ibid.). Whoever the observer here might be, this indeterminate process of incarnation implicates both Kelvin and Solaris—as if each were perceiving it through the other in some inarticulable way.

If these are moments of direct contact bypassing the mediations of egocen­tric rationality, then we can conclude that some exchange actually does occur between the human and the alien, the self and the Other. Snow speculates that through the Visitors Solaris may be learning about mortality, and the increasing human autonomy of the Visitors may serve just this purpose. (“It implores us to help it die with every one of its creations” [12:192], he tells Kelvin.) Since Solaris’s power to stabilize matter extends from massless neutrinos to its own orbit around two suns, it is possible that the planet experiences the pain of death for the first time through the annihilation of the Visitors. (This speculation is justified also by the “piercing scream which came from no human throat” [12:190], probably the death-agony of Sartorius’s Visitor, that awakens Kelvin one night.) Through Rheya specifically, Solaris may have learned the ethical and affective essence of the human, the ability to transform necessary death into liberating self-sacrifice for the sake of loved ones. Kelvin, in turn, appears to loosen his clutch on his narcissistic self-projections, and comes to identify himself with the planet and to “forgive” it, attaining an almost super-human patience.

3. These are suggestive passages, and they resist interpretation as anything other than moments of non-rational, non-conscious exchange—true moments of contact so surpassing the common run of human communication that they could well be mistaken for religious inspiration. Still, the fundamental indeter­minacy of Solaris will not let us accept any interpretation based only on what Kelvin, our sole informant, tells us. Once the question is raised whether we can “see” something that is not a projection of human consciousness, we cannot make a purely rational or objective determination one way or the other. Readers of Solaris are Solarists, too—the phenomena of the novel’s action reach us in the language of a Solarist and psychologist whose own reflections on how hypo­theses are generated anticipate and subsume most of the hypotheses the reader might come up with independently. Just as the indeterminacy of Solaris deflects its explorers back into doubt about their methods of interpreting phenomena, the indeterminacy of the evidence in Solaris deflects us back into doubt about our own methods of reading.

Lem has constructed Solaris in such a way that every apparently significant element in the text corresponds to other significant elements, creating a hall of mirrors with no windows from which to observe some privileged non­corresponding structure of things. Rose and Ketterer have demonstrated in their readings of the novel that symbolic images reflect one another to a suffocating degree; in Solaris, Ketterer writes (evoking Heisenberg), “man confronts only analogues of his own image” (p. 201). Allusions to the literature of illusion extend this doubling from the internal action of the tale to the status of the book and reader in the world outside the text. For example, Lem requires us to accept Romanticism’s favorite devices of doubling and self-reflection simply to follow the manifestly realistic plot. Ghosts, mirrors, dreams, unconscious memories and impulses, a web of symbolic correspondences, eerily enclosed spaces and sublime voids all function as empirically concrete “objects” in a scientific mystery. Names appear to be allusive, and perhaps even allegorical: Kelvin, Rheya,4 Sartorius, Snaut, Andre Berton, Fechner, die designations of the space­ships (Prometheus, Ulysses, Laocdon, Alaric), even Solaris itself. But since we cannot be sure exactly how these allusions work or whether they all work the same way, or even whether they are arbitrary red-herrings just imitating allusions,5 the extratextual things to which they refer also lose their solidity, and are absorbed into the book’s world of indeterminate elements. We know only that they correspond. We do not know what these correspondences mean.

To create even broader ironies, Lem invokes a whole library of romance, satire, and myth: Don Quixote, Gulliver, Poe’s phantom lovers, the Grail Quest, the tale of Eros and Psyche, Echo and Narcissus, the Passion and the Creation. Since the manifest problem of the Solarists and readers is how to determine whether human consciousness can know anything other than itself, each of the myths and stories invoked in the book becomes a version of the same problem—and thus each is transformed into a version of Solaris. Again, we are shown Western culture’s problems and the creations responding to them reflecting one another. But what do these reflections signify? The infinite play of mutually reflecting projections, or the appropriation of transcendental knowledge?

The problem is raised vividly, never to be dispelled, when Kelvin comes upon the dead Gibarian’s Visitor, a gigantic African woman, who reclines soft and warm and alive next to Gibarian’s corpse in the space station’s freezer. Thrown into a panic, Kelvin wonders whether what he is seeing is reality or a hallucination. He tries to concoct a controlled experiment to test his sanity, but he knows that his conclusions can prove nothing. A deranged mind’s illu­sions of certainty are indistinguishable from a sane mind’s knowledge. Con­sciousness can never make an object out of itself for objective observation. Kel­vin lands on an apparent solution: he sets up a complicated problem of calcula­tion, which he then matches with the precalculated conclusions of an indepen­dently orbiting satellite-computer, on the assumption that he would not be able to match the computer’s speed even in a hallucination.

When the numbers mesh, he believes he has demonstrated the reality of the Visitors. It is a persuasive tactic, but once the seed of doubt has taken root it cannot be pulled up. Could not Kelvin have dreamed the satellite’s results as well? Who can determine the limits of the mind’s power of projection? Never in reading Solaris can we estab­lish a hierarchy of phenomena or significations stable enough for us to interpret events unambiguously. We can never tell what is the ‘ ‘real’ ’ structure of events and what are the deviations. None of the protagonists’ conscious assertions is above suspicion. The Solarists are desperate men. They are faced not only with an alien reality resistant to their reason, but also, in the Visitors, with their most familiar and unattractive selves out in the light of day.

In the final analysis, we have no way of determining whether Solaris is not the collective hallucination of the whole human species, like the “monsters of the id” in the film Forbidden Planet. Or, inversely, whether the human spe­cies is not the hallucination of the dreaming “ocean-yogi” Solaris, corres­ponding to the Hindu notion of maya. We cannot tell what is the referent and what is the referring term. Our inability to determine Kelvin’s fate one way or another is part of the necessary irony of the epistemological problem created by Lem’s alien. No definition of the Other (and, of course, of the self) is possible without reference to a standard that transcends both the self and the Other. But how can such a thing be conceived “scientifically”? In Solaris's maze of cor­respondences, enclosures, and reflections, what we and the Solarists lack is something that would be non-corresponding, a “meta-alien” structure that would not mean anything: something as determinately different from the dialec­tical unity of self and Other as self and Other are from each other. But, of course, that is what neither science nor the reader can have.

4. In the conclusion of his book Fantastyka i futurologia (Science Fiction and Futurology)6 Lem discusses the techniques he believes are appropriate methods for expressing authentically the semantic problems of scientific- technological culture in contemporary fiction. For Lem, modem literature evolves through the conflict between the ruling cultural codes of empiricism and the writer’s need to have a coherent set of normative rules of social conduct upon which, or against which, to base artistic norms. Western culture’s domi­nant empiricism is in fact a set of anti-codes. “For empiricism,” Lem writes, ‘ ‘the only inviolable barrier is the totality of attributes of nature it calls the body of natural laws. Thus, observing the human world from an empirical standpoint necessarily leads to the complete relativization of cultural norms everywhere where they impose ‘unfounded’ imperatives and restraints” (“Metafantasia”: 62).

Traditionally, art worked with structures derived from mythical-religious concepts that antedated scientific rationalism. These concepts reinforced certain social codes by presenting the culture and its axioms as sacred and unquestion­able. The realm of human decisions was viewed as part of a cosmic order and was given value because of its cosmic resonances. Empiricism, according to Lem, was Western culture’s “Trojan horse,” because of its success in dissolv­ing from within those cultural norms not based on utility and comfort. Artists in the modem age have been unable to find new axiogenic structures to replace the sacred-mythological ones that secular science eroded. Hybridization tech­niques abound but original, self-consistent ethical and aesthetic structures can not develop where norms are constantly subject to rational criticism and techno­logical innovation.

Parody of myth is one obvious and already traditional solution; but it is purely critical, and entirely dependent on the myths it parodies. Lem believes that two radical methods of “cunning structuration” (“Metafantasia”: 64) are particularly appropriate for 20th-century writers in the age of indeterminacy. The first is to give ‘ ‘the total structure of a work a multidimensional ‘indetermi­nacy,’” a technique Lem associates with Kafka’s The Castle. The writer seals up different modes of signification in the work’s structure in such a way that the reader is given all the clues necessary to accept that the work signifies in a unified way, but not how to determine the significance of that unity, i.e., what the work means. “Kafka’s The Castle,” according to Lem,

can be read as a caricature of transcendence, a Heaven maliciously dragged down to Earth and mocked, or in precisely the opposite way, as the only image of tran­scendence available to a fallen humanity_____ Works like this do not expose those main junctures that could reveal their unambiguous ontological meanings; and the constant uncertainty this produces is the structural equivalent of the existential secret. (“Metafantasia”: 64)

The other approach Lem singles out is the manifest interpenetration of incongruous structures and paradigmatic forms—some harmonious, some dis­sonant, and some changing their relations in the course of the fiction’s develop­ment. Like Kafka’s technique, such writing denies the reader an absolute system of relations by which to interpret relative systems. Some of the struc­tures might be so divergent that they distort and “damage” the information produced by the other structures; at other times, convergences might occur for­tuitously. The most radical model of this technique, in Lem’s view, is the French nouveau roman, and especially the work of Robbe-Grillet, where even chance enters as a constitutive structure to create a clash between the paradigma­tic forms of order and chaos (“Metafantasia” : 65).

Both of these techniques of “cunning structuration” are adequate to the philosophical problems raised by indeterminacy. For the writer who weakens the reader’s sense of certainty by weakening the culturally privileged conven­tions of fiction also weakens the reader’s sense of certainty about the world to which the fiction’s language is believed to refer.

Because of this systematic refusal to speak plainly, the reader begins to feel unsure whether he or she really understands what the description is concretely about, and this gives rise to the semantic wavering that characterizes the reception of modem poetry... .These approaches have a common origin: as the level of the reception’s indeterminacy rises, the reader’s own personal determinations begin to waver. In practice, it is often impossible to determine whether a given narrative structure is only very indirect and elliptical, but essentially homogeneous, or one deliberately damaged by ‘chance noise, ’ or even perforated, softened and bent by another, dis­cordant structure. Furthermore, since one can also create multilayered structures, even the concrete quality of the described object or situation can be transformed beyond recognition and reshaped from one level of articulation to another. Thus, it is often impossible to determine categorically whether the basic structure of de­scription is an image of order or of chaos. (“Metafantasia”: 67).

Many of the problems of interpreting Solaris evaporate in the light of Lem’s meditations on modernism, for Lem conflates these two ways of creating semantic indeterminacy in the design of his novel. The similarity of Solaris to The Castle is readily apparent: the planet is Kelvin’s Castle. Whether it will yield its secret or not, Kelvin insists that it has a secret to yield, and that he has been “called” to plot its dimensions, like the land-surveyor K. Instead of opening the transcendental significance of the cosmos to him, Solaris remains opaque, ‘ ‘communicating’ ’ with him through inscrutable messengers, the Visi­tors. Once these obstructive messengers are cleared away, Kelvin believes he is, just as Potts puts it, an empty slate ready to be inscribed upon by the demiur­gic Other. The alien intelligence provides humankind with a glimpse of its long- sought Archimedean point in the universe only to show how inaccessible it is. Solaris might be profitably read as a gloss on Kafka’s remark that Man “found the Archimedean point, but he used it against himself; it seems he was permitted to find it only under this condition” (Arendt: 278). At the same time, since the Other is (by definition?) totally inscrutable, Kelvin, like K., accepts that his human cognition and his knowledge of his place in the universe are corrupt in their essence. Both Kelvin and K. follow the lead of Gulliver, who would rather be a horse.

Lem punctuates and deforms this Kafka-like ambiguity with a version of ihe other “system of indeterminacy” he associates with literary modernism, the mutual interference of narrative structures which outside the text appear as clear and distinct, even mutually contradictory. This method creates the inverse effect to the impenetrable mystery of “the structural equivalent of the existential secret.” The reader is made to feel that the elements of narrative are all familiar, “taken from the repertoire of culturally known situations” invoking ‘ ‘the repertoire of possible issues appropriate for [them] ’ ’ (“Metafan­tasia”: 66); yet in their incongruous conflation, they seem “perforated, soft­ened and bent’ ’ by one another (ibid., p. 67). The hard opacity of the unyielding secret is complemented by the nauseating fluidity of the familiar when facing that opacity.

5. This sense of distortion through “softening” of order comes about spon­taneously in the action of Solaris. The various self-consistent models that the protagonists—and readers—of the novel use to interpret the mysterious action lose their distinctions. These putatively sharply-defined systems for articulating reality are transformed into a single fluid process whose only articulation is its difference from the sentient planet.

In a world ruled by positive rationality (the implied epistemology of West­ern consciousness in Solaris), certain culturally privileged structures of cogni­tion through which writers make sense of the natural and social worlds (such as physics, biology, psychoanalysis, psychochemistry, romantic love, religious faith, mythology, “fantomology,”7 to mention the most prominent ones in Solaris) appear to be all-explaining and mutually exclusive from within those structures. From the standpoint of contemporary culture as a whole, they appear to be parts that, when ideally combined, come closer to articulating the truth about reality than any single one of them. This view implies that human cogni­tion operates by maintaining a great variety of possible techniques for world- describing (and the possibility of syntheses among these), some of which are certainly expected to assimilate whatever reality has in store. All such privi­leged models of explanation are based on the positive faith that truth exists ‘ ‘out­side” consciousness and must be appropriated by it. When confronted by a concrete existing thing that resists all strategies of appropriation, the common character of these strategies comes out in relief: all are projections of human qualities, as if they could exist outside human limits.

Of course, Lem cannot create a truly alien creature to make us see this para­dox from outside human consciousness. Though he takes great pains to evoke the sense of Solaris’s strangeness through vividly detailed, and yet barely intel­ligible, descriptions of the planet and its excrescences, we always see the planet through a human observer’s language as it strives to assimilate an a priori non- assimilable object. Our only evidence that there is a truly alien intelligence is that all the intrahuman distinctions between modes of thought and types of dis­course either disappear (as in Kelvin’s strange love story) or, when they retain their distinctiveness, they become absurd anachronisms, personified by Sar- torius’s pedantic devotion to his positivistic ideals and personal discipline. In the face of that-which-does-not-correspond, the most diverse and contradictory ways of making sense become a single self-reflecting set of correspondences, an amorphous mythoscience thrashing in its inability to articulate the alien.

Lem constructs this ironic “alienation” of cognition by at every turn denying the Solarists and readers the opportunity to complete the structure of signification that they were invited to expect by the text’s allusions. Lem, and Solaris, evoke certain structures particularly privileged in Western culture, only to distort them through other structures alien, and even inimical, to them. In other words, hypotheses are made possible and projected by modes of thought that contradict those hypotheses. In this way, the failure of the positive science of Solaristics (which already encompasses all the existing branches of science and has produced a multitude of new branches by the time Kelvin arrives on the station) to appropriate Solaris gradually leads the scientists to act as if the “Solaris project’ ’ were the projection of something more archaic (i.e., both older and more generative) than science. At one moment it is religious longing and messianism. Kelvin discovers this view fully elaborated in the writings of the Solarist Muntius, who had written that “Solaristics is the space era’s equiva­lent of religion; faith disguised as science... .Exploration is a liturgy using the language of methodology; the drudgery of the Solarists is carried out only in the expectation of fulfillment, of an Annunciation, for there are not and cannot be any bridges between Solaris and the Earth” (11:180).

Solaristics as messianism and as science may, however, be only a projec­tion of erotic repression and narcissism, which founders when the Solarists have to confront their Freudian ghosts, the repressed “others” inside themselves. Snow tells Kelvin:

We think of ourselves as Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need for other worlds. We need mirrors_______ We are searching for an ideal image of our world_____ 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 the Earth in primal innocence. (6:81)

Like the Solarist commentators, we can go further. All these ideological and psychological projections may be the inevitable projection of the physical definition of the human body onto the universe. So the eccentric Solarist Gras- trom speculates in discerning the anthropomorphisms “in the equations of the theory of relativity, the theorem of magnetic fields, and the various unified field theories” (11:178). The ideal systems of reason come gradually to be seen as versions of human limitation disguised as transcendence. Lem’s Solarists, all men of science and hard common sense, are compelled to entertain an idea that necessarily casts grave doubts on the basis of their lives as scientists: that there is no clear line between reason and unreason, reality and illusion.

6. Because readers of Solaris approach it as fiction, and expect the science to be metaphorical, an educated reader cannot be as upset by the idea of science as a systematized form of despair as the Solarists are. The literary form offers a kind of comfort, deriving from the sense that the story’s order is distinct from that of the ideas it “uses.” And since these ideas are transformed by fiction into metaphors at the outset, the reader already starts out expecting some of the collapse of quasi-rationalistic systems into one another that the professional scientists of the tale experience in the action. As the possibility of a realistic interpretation of Solaris dissolves for the reader, and the scientists themselves seem to turn to religious and psychoanalytic explanations, the reader looks for clues of more traditional mythic structures. Lem provides such clues abundantly in various kinds of allusions: in names, situations, and explicit speculations. But these mythic structures, too, are subject to the novel’s underlying indeter­minacy. They also suffer the same mutual deformation and incongruous moti­vation as the quasi-rationalistic explanatory models.

The whole Solarist enterprise seems trapped in a Myth of the Will—a myth designed to explain and support humanity’s appropriation of the material uni­verse. This myth appears gross and absurd when confronted by a manifestly more powerful alien being. Into this stalemate come the Visitors, whom Lem clearly identifies with Myths of Love. Although we never learn who Snow’s and Sartorius’s Visitors are, we can infer from Gibarian’s African woman and from Rheya, as well as from some of Snow’s guarded comments, that all the Visitors are incarnations of repressed objects of erotic desire. The situation implies that the Solarists have drawn their power to explore and their love of adventure from this repression, and that the shock of seeing their shadow-selves so concretely in front of them saps their egoistic resolve. The ironic exception is Sartorius. His sadistic hatred of the Visitors, and the unbending scientific egoism associated with it, is sufficient to sustain him until he succeeds in invent­ing the neutrino-annihilator that “kills” the simulacra. While Kelvin, and to a lesser degree Snow, come to accept the Visitors’ and Solaris’s right to be real, Sartorius’s whole existence is predicated on the destruction of everything that interferes with his positive ego-science.

Rheya in particular seems to carry the values of non-scientific mythic- religious mediation, albeit in a way that deforms distinct mythic structures of mediation by conflating them. Rheya gradually takes on the role for Kelvin of a personal mediator sent to him for inscrutable reasons by a deific intelligence. She offers him the opportunity to redeem the guilt and shame of his life with the original Rheya, an absolution of the Old Kelvin, a vita nuova. But the exact value of Rheya’s mythic-religious character in Solaris depends on how we inter­pret Kelvin’s decision to stay by the planet at the end of the novel.

Rheya begins as a mere embodiment of Kelvin’s erotic desire. She seems like an indestructible goddess attached to a mortal lover. Her physical structure appears to be so stable that she might never grow old. Her anomalous neutrino- based body, however, makes it doubtful that she could remain stable away from her heavenly abode near Solaris. These associations are not lost on Snow, who refers to Rheya once as a “fair Aphrodite, child of Ocean” (12:192), much to Kelvin’s annoyance—although he himself had earlier called Gibarian’s Visi­tor “a monstrous Aphrodite” (3:37). As Rheya becomes increasingly human in her feelings and quandaries, the character of her love appears to change also. It gradually becomes less arbitrary, clinging, and childlike, and increasingly faithful and altruistic. She becomes a doubly-inverted, paradoxical image of Christ, a materialistic version of the transcendental mediator. She is a human form of Solaris, and a Solarian form of the human. As she mysteriously evolves into a conscious, free agent, again and again acting against her physical limits (by drinking the liquid oxygen, keeping her distance from Kelvin, and lying about listening to Gibarian’s cassette [9:143]), she fulfills—Lem implies— essential cognitive, axiological, and ontological conditions of being human. She is conscious of her ignorance of her origins; she is willing to sacrifice her life for a loved one; and she is, in the end, able to die. The goddess freely chooses to accept death to liberate Kelvin from his guilt. Since Sartorius and Snow will not be swayed from their determination to annihilate the Visitors, they have the force of fate for Rheya. Her acceptance of death re-enacts the tragic grace of Christ’s passion on Solaris Station.

However, Rheya can only recapitulate the myth of Christ if the whole mythic structure of Christ’s mediation is complete in Kelvin’s life. Her death makes sense as a quasi-religious mediation only if Kelvin at the end has been emancipated from his egoism and the burden of his past sins into a condition of new hope. Rheya’s act would then imply a version of transcendental grace, validating the religion of Contact and affirming the ‘ ‘personal” relationship be­tween the godlike Solaris and the human Kelvin. But if, with Parrinder, we view Kelvin as a man stuck in the hall of mirrors of narcissistic self-reflection, then the character of Rheya’s mediation changes from emancipatory to ironic. Instead of Christ, she becomes Echo, the loveliest and most concrete of Kelvin’s fated self-reflections. Although she is the only one of his echoes capable of loving Narcissus, her love can do nothing to save him from drowning in the unfathomable ocean-pool whose surface reflects his face throughout the cos­mos. These two mythic structures are inimical to each other. A myth cannot simultaneously validate transcendental grace and transcendental fatedness. And yet we cannot discard either structure in reading Solaris.

The paradoxes of interpretation stem not only from the way these incompa­tible myths associated with Rheya are shaded into one another. The reader is also deprived of ways to determine the ontological status of the myths and mythic beings. The realistic ontology of the tale seems fixed. We are never led to entertain magical or mythical explanations literally. The role of the mythic is never emphasized in Solaris. Its presence seems only to represent the natural tendency of people to create structures of explanation even when empirical and rationalistic conditions for one cannot be met. Myth then is an explanation of something that does not cease to be considered mysterious as a result of that explanation. Rheya’s physical existence can be explained in materialistic terms: as a “form” taken from a “psychic tumor” in Kelvin’s cerebrosides, as a neutrino-based anthropomimetic structure, as an “instru­ment” of Solaris. In a sense, then, her supernatural character is merely a par­ticularly objective projection of unconscious human (and Solarian?) needs. The mythology she evokes is closer to Freud’s and Feuerbach’s than to Golgotha’s and Attica’s. But, as usual in Solaris, the materialistic explanation leads only to its own limits and to the necessity of inferring a form inconceivable in mate­rialistic terms. The familiar form of the Visitors, Kelvin tells his colleagues, is only a camouflage: “the real structure, which determines the functions of the Visitors, remains concealed” (7:111). Solarists can determine that the pla­net is composed of atoms. How it can produce a human being formed from neutrinos is beyond the comprehension of Solaristics.

7. In Solaris, Lem built into his design both of the literary ‘ ‘systems of inde­terminacy” he discusses in his “Metafantasia”—hermetic ambiguity and mutual distortion of structures—to represent the cultural implications of the contemporary cognitive paradoxes. Each “system” is an actual, culturally- sanctioned ideological interpretation of those implications. Hermetic ambiguity implies that there are possible resolutions; but, in Kafka’s words, they are “not for us. ” Opposed to this inverted transcendentalist model, the mutual deforma­tion of narrative structures attempts to reflect the view that human conscious­ness and nature are immanentiy “impure,” indefinite processes. Lem does not opt for one or the other of these radical solutions. He is essentially a realist. He adopts his clashing paradigms from the actual historical evolution of West­ern culture, which has proven to be a more exact prototype for his drama of cognizance than more subjective models might have been. It embodies, by defi­nition, the strictest determinism (it has already happened) and the most complete openness (we can never be sure what happened, because it is not over). Just as Solaristics includes idealistic hypotheses that the planet is an “imperfect god” or “ocean-yogi,” materialistic hypotheses that it is a “plasmic mecha­nism,” and syntheses, like the “homeostatic ocean” theory, a true image of indeterminacy in reading includes both the quasi-transcendentalist and quasi­immanentist paradigms of uncertainty—each of which re-enacts prescientific ideologies in the language of science. Solaris cannot be made intelligible from only one of these mutually contradictory perspectives. Both Solaris and Solaris are the product of integrating certain clues into structures that cannot remain stable and closed: since myth and science, metaphor and realistic mimesis, motivate one another, no privileged way of reading emerges. Whether Kelvin, the representative ofhuman culture, is on the verge of “widening [a] conceptual framework” as Bohr hoped the science of the future would, or on the verge of an unbridgeable gulf between human culture and the universe, we cannot know. Lem leaves his readers at the station where he believes the 20th century’s quantum-Solarists arrived just before them.


1. Lem’s collected critical works available in English are scheduled to be published in 1985 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, under the title Microworlds, edited by Franz Rottensteiner.

2. English-language commentaries on Lem include Rose (pp. 82-95), Suvin (in Solaris, pp. 212-23), Ketterer (pp. 182-202), and Potts.

3. To avoid confusion, I will use the English translators’ versions, Snow and Rheya, for Lem’s Polish originals, Snaut and Harey.

4. In the original Polish version, Lem names Kelvin’s wife and Visitors ‘ ‘Harey. ’ ’ The English translators’ decision to rename her “Rheya” strikes me as an inspired improvement over the original. The linking of this ambiguous mediator with the Earth goddess reinforces and intensifies the irony of Kelvin’s decision not to return to the Earth.

5. The reader who tries to piece Solaris together from apparent allusions is in for a hard time. Does the novel’s Fechner, the first explorer to die on Solaris and the possible source of the gigantic child witnessed by his colleague Berton, hint at the great German psychophysicist, Gustav Theodor Fechner, who was equally well known for his ‘ ‘hard’ ’ work in psychological quantification and his theosophical speculations on the angelic nature of planets? Is Andre Berton a distorted allusion to the manifester of Surrealism? Should Kelvin be associated with Lord Kelvin and the only absolute currently available to science? Is there significance in the names of the spaceships mentioned by Kelvin, and in their order of appearance : the glorious ascetic resolve of the Prometheus followed by the Ulysses ’ connotations of cunning and homesickness, which is then followed by the Laocdon’s passive suffering for misreading the gods, and finally the Alaric's purely destructive power of conquest? These and many other names seem to call out for inter­pretation, but we cannot be sure that they are not arbitrary. (In correspondence, Lem claims that all the names in the novel came to him unconsciously, with the exception of Sartorius, who is named for a tiny muscle.)

6. The concluding chapter of the book has appeared in English as “Metafantasia: The Possibilities of Science Fiction” (see “Works Cited”).

7. In his Summa Technologiae, Lem gives this name to the study of artificial reali­ties “that are in no way distinguishable from normal reality by the intelligent beings that live in them, but which nonetheless obey rules deviating from that normal reality” {Summa, 4:171).


Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future (NY, 1968).

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1971).

Ketterer, David. New Worlds for Old (Bloomington, IN: 1974).

Lem, Stanislaw. “Metafantasia: The Possibilities of Science Fiction,” SFS, 8 (1981): 54-70.

_____________ . Solaris, trans. Joanna Kilmartin & Steve Cox (NY: Berkley, 1970).

_____________ . Summa Technologiae (Budapest, 1976).

Parrinder, Patrick. “The Black Wave: Science and Social Consciousness in Modem Science Fiction” Radical Science Journal, no. 4 (1977), pp. 37-61.

Potts, Stephen J. “Dialogues Concerning Human Understanding: Empirical Views of God from Locke to Lem, ” in Bridges to Science Fiction, ed. George Slusser (Car- bondale, IL.: 1979).

Rose, Mark. Alien Encounters. (Cambridge, MA: 1981).

Suvin, Darko. “The Open-Ended Parables of Stanislaw Lem and Solaris,” in Lem’s Solaris, ed. cit., pp. 212-23.


Istvan Csicsery-Ronay. Le livre est l’extraterrestre: ä propos de lectures certaines et incertaines du Solaris de Lem.— Solaris invite ä deux lectures au moins, contradic- toires mais complementaires: le recit du contact realise avec la planete-ocean et la satire de l’illusion que VAutre puisse jamais etre vraiment connu. Toute tentative du lecteur de chercher une lecture unifiee est homologue ä la quete donquichottesque exposee dans le recit lui-memet qui espere que la « Solaristique» parviendra ä une connaissance seien- tifique unifiee de Solaris. Lem inscrit cette contradiction complementaire dans son recit par la technique de lf« indetermination semantique» qufil decrit dans les conclusions de son ouvrage Fantastyka i futurologia: Vambiguite hermetique qu 'on associe du Cha­teau de Kafka et I ’interference des structures narratives propre au «nouveau roman» frangais. (IC-R)

Abstract.— Stanislaw Lem ’s Solaris invites at least two contradictory, but complemen­tary readings: as a romance of achieved Contact with the alien planet, and as a satire on the illusion that the Alien-Other can truly be known. The reader’s attempt to find a unified interpretation of the novel corresponds to the Solarists ’ quixotic efforts to arrive at a unified scientific understanding of Solaris. Lem inscribes this complementary con- tradictoriness in the novel through the literary techniques of ‘ *semantic indeterminacy ’' he describes in the conclusion of his Fantastyka i futurologia: the hermetic ambiguity associated with Kafka ’s The Castle and the mutual interference of narrative structures associated with the French nouveau roman. (IC-R)