Monday, November 24, 2003

The Future is a Genre
(and therefore iterable)

On Solyaris (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem).

Kris is a psychologist charged with considering the possible conclusion of the Solaris space project. Before departing he meets Berton, who was ejected from the mission after reporting on all sorts of queer visions while on a mission to rescue a fellow cosmonaut who had been lost on the planet. Berton has some insight, hardly communicable to someone with "the mind of an accountant," as he claims Kris has. He urges Kris not to recommend bombarding the Solaris -- it would not be a moral thing to do, Berton claims.

Here are two summaries from

Summary by Dan Ellis:
> The Solaris mission has established a base on a planet that appears to
> host some kind of intelligence, but the details are hazy and very secret.
> After the mysterious demise of one of the three scientists on the base,
> the main character is sent out to replace him. He finds the station
> run-down and the two remaining scientists cold and secretive. When he also
> encounters his wife who has been dead for seven years, he begins to
> appreciate the baffling nature of the alien intelligence.

Summary by Philip Brubaker:
> This film probes man's thoughts and conscience, as it follows a
> psychologist who is sent to a space station situated over the mysterious
> Solaris Ocean. The two other scientists there tell the psychologist of
> strange occurrences in the station, and the Ocean's eerie ability to
> materialize their thoughts. After being in the station for a while, the
> psychologist finds himself becoming very attached to it's alternate
> reality...

After a short while at the station, Kris meets an apparition of his late wife, who had committed suicide after he left her. She is very much flesh and blood. They watch a film from his childhood that he had brought with from earth. In the film, there are images of Kris' mother in a fur coat.

In KRIS' cabin: KHARI watching herself in a mirror.

I don't even know my own self. Who am I? As soon as I close my eyes I can't recall what my face looks like. Can you?


Do you know who you are?

Yes, all humans do.

Ah... (pause) That woman in the fur coat, she hated me.

That's your imagination. That woman died long ago, before we even met.

I remember her very clearly. What makes you deny it? I tell you I do remember. I came over for tea, and she told me to leave the house. So I left at once, I remember it very well. And what happened after that?

After that I went away and that was the last time we ever saw each other.

Where did you go?

To another city.


I was transferred.

But why didn't you take me with you?

It was you who refused to come.

Ah... Yes, now I remember.

The issue of "Khari"'s true identity is further complicated as the head scientist of the station, Dr. Sartorius, demonstrate that she does not have blood in her veins, and that can not be killed. He is propagating bombarding the planet, as that must be the source of the cosmonauts' delusions. Kris, who originally championed the same solution to the problem of Solaris, now has second thoughts. Nothing Sartorius says can alter the fact the he loves his wife.

Dr. Snaut, the third cosmonaut on the station, has invited his colleague to his birthday party, to be held in the library, the only space in the station without windows. It is decorated with all sorts of contraptions of European High Culture. Kris brings Khari to the festivities, which Dr. Sartorius does not approve of. Dr. Snaut recommends Kris not to worry about the bookkeeping of science, but rather to delve in texts that will provide understanding, such as Don Quixote. He opens the book in front of Kris and Khari, and quotes from Sancos Pancha's Ode to Sleep:

Senor, I know only one thing, and this is when I... (pause) and that is when I sleep I know no sadness, no fear, no hope, no blessing, no work. Praise be the gentle sleep's creator. That currency [...] has only one defect for it lacks too much of death.

Dr. Sartorius reminds Kris that he is a scientist, and that that entails certain obligatory relations to objects of observation:

In the library.

At least I know why I'm here. I am here to work. Nature created man so that he might gain knowledge. (Slams his hand holding his glasses in the table so the glasses fall out of their frame. Continues calmly.) In his ceaseless march to truth man is condemned to knowledge. The rest is of no consequence. (pause) If you will permit me to inquire about a colleague, exactly what are you doing on Solaris?

What a question.

It can't be your work that brought you here. Except for your trust with your ex-spouse absolutely nothing here seems to interest you. Your time is spent in bed discussing scientific ideals. And I'm supposed to appreciate the great job you're doing. I fear you've lost contact with reality. If you ask me you're plain lazy.

Oh, stop it.

This scene is followed by a confrontation between Dr. Sartorius and Khari and the exchange of some harsh words:

I'm not finished. I'm a woman! Treat me with consideration.

Woman? How can you say that? You're not even a human being. Try to understand that, if in some way you are capable of understanding. KHARI is dead. She doesn't exist. As for you, you're only a reproduction, a mechanical repetition of the form, a copy from a matrix.

Yes. Perhaps, yes. But I... I have become a human being. I can feel just as deeply as any of you, and I feel pain.


  • How we imagine the future is structured by the genre of future (cf. software companies' etc. scenarios of "the future", Sid Meyer's Civilization prominently; the dependecy of Luc Besson's Fifth Element on Ridley Scott's Blade Runner etc.).

  • We know what we're coming from by not where we're going. (Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.)

  • On teaching Aristotle's Ars Poetica: In some elementary textbooks it is the claimed that we can imagine all sorts of odd curves in a drama (i.e., that the drama doesn't have to be structured as exposition, increasing tension, crisis, decreasing tension, climax/catastrophe, but that the order may be different or some other such change). In other words, these books are inventing Aristotle. But what's the purpose of the curve? It is as if these textbooks assume (with Boileu) that it was a prescriptive tool?