Wittgenstein’s Lion And Solaris

Kris Kelvin, Snow, Gibrarian, and Sartorius are all puzzled and perplexed; as other educated and intelligent residents of Station Solaris–a sophisticated scientific laboratory–have been before them. They are stumped and bewildered by their interactions with the planet Solaris, with the ocean that covers its surface, the one that plays host to mimoids and symmetriads and asymmetriads and vertebrids extensors and fungoids and other strange and wondrous physical forms, which seems to be able to conjure up, out of its own chosen raw materials, facsimiles of the human form–like Kelvin’s former, dearly beloved, and now sadly departed love–that are good enough to induce genuine confusion about their identity on the part of those who would interact with them.

Does the ocean live, is it conscious, does it have a body or a mind? Is it intelligent? Is it communicating with human beings? Does it speak a language? Does it possess knowledge of mathematics or computation? Does the surface of the ocean on Solaris engage in computations; is that what the changes in its physical form signify?Are these human forms, the ones that look like the ones we love, are they forms of communication on the part of the planet? Has it scanned our brains, discovered our obsessions and physically realized them in an attempt to establish contact with us? Has it performed a series of vivisections on our brains and psyches, treating us flippantly like objects for experimentation–the way we have treated physical materials and other species on this planet?

The planet is, of course, Wittgenstein’s lion. It has spoken and we do not understand it. All that the scientists on Station Solaris can bring to bear on their interactions with the planet is their knowledge of themselves and other human beings–and their interactions with each other; this knowledge–of their particular ‘forms of life’–forces them into a particular interpretive stance with respect to the planet, one whose prisoners they remain, and which does not afford a unique and determinative understanding of what the nature of the planet is, and or what it might be trying to say–if it is trying to say anything in the first place. The planet has its own ‘form of life‘ that regulates and determines the form and content of its interactions with the human beings engaged with it; there is little guarantee that this communication is set up to enhance, or even make possible, understanding on the part of its human interlocutors.

Kelvin and Snow and Sartorius and Gibarian have come to realize that these concepts they trade in–life, mind, consciousness, thought, persons, intelligence, brain, language–find their meaning with respect to a particular form of life and being–they do not transcend it. They do not allow for the determination of whether the planet, a ‘being’ perhaps radically similar or dissimilar to them, traffics in similar concepts, or anything like them. If they were to ascribe a ‘life’ or a ‘mind’ to Solaris, it would be an asterisked one–‘life as we know it’–and perhaps that’s all we can or should aspire to.

Ghost From The Machine: Once Again, The Dead Return

Matt Osterman‘s Ghost from the Machine (2010)–originally titled and known internationally as Phasma Ex Machina--is touted by its marketing material as a ‘supernatural thriller’. A low-budget indie, it uses a cast made up of genuine amateurs who sometimes look distinctly uncomfortable and self-conscious on camera, and wears its modest production values on its sleeve. The story sounds hokey enough: a young man, an amateur inventor of sorts, tries to bring his dead parents back to life by building an electrical machine that changes the electromagnetic field surrounding it (I think.) The parents, unsurprisingly, do not return from the dead, but other folks do: a widowed, fellow-garage-tinkerer neighbor’s long-dead wife, and a pair of murderous old folk. (The return to life of this latter bunch makes the movie into a ‘horror’ or ‘ghost’ film; bringing back the garage-tinkerer’s wife would only have made it ‘supernatural.’)

For all that PEM manages to often be genuinely thought-provoking. It is so because its treatment of its subject matter invites immediate analogizing–not comparison–with two cinematic classics: Alfred Hitchcock‘s Vertigo and Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Solaris. In Vertigo, Scottie brings back from the ‘dead’–via an uncanny, painstaking reconstruction–the haunting subject of his obsession, Madeleine, and in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the dead–in particular, the scientist Kris Kelvin’s dead wife, Hari–come back to life as physical manifestations of long-held, deeply-felt desires and fantasies. In Phasma Ex Machina, the garage inventor’s wife comes back to life; she is, as Hari is in Solaris, made manifest–imperfectly–as his previously unfulfilled desires.

The fantasy at the heart of these movies is similar: primarily, it is that of beating death at its grimly inevitable game. In each case, the agency that makes it so differs. In Vertigo, Scottie makes the immortalizing happen; he forces his new girlfriend–via a kind of physical mortification of bodily appearance and clothing–into the desired mold. This return is only figurative–since Madeleine has never died, Judy brings her back to life by assuming her form. In Solaris, the reconstructing agency is possessed by the mysterious planet–a strange, inexplicable, natural phenomenon, a force field that populates the world with the desires of its inhabitants. In Phasma Ex Machina a similar force field is present, but it is the result of the inventor’s tinkering; it is his mastery of the subversion of nature that brings about the return of the dead.  (The wishing for the parents’ return to life is of course, an especially primeval fantasy; the premature loss of a parent is a particularly terrible loss, perhaps only exceeded in its poignancy by the loss of a child to the parent. Here, the fantasy is made more affecting because the central character–the ‘inventor’–believes himself to have been responsible for his parent’s death. We might even see the death of the parents as an earlier fantasy having gone terribly wrong; the son might have fantasized about his father’s death, but his successful wishing so brought his mother’s death in its wake. Oedipus never stops screwing things up.)

In each of the three movies noted here, the effect of the reconstruction is deeply flawed: the resurrected dead are only real insofar as they are objects of someone’s subjectivity–in each case, the fantasy is shattered. (As Žižek notes in the The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema–in referring to Solaris–this is a “low form of male fantasy’. Here, woman exists only in the imagination of man, her flaws and defects exist insofar as they are present in the male conception of her, the visible shortcomings of which her ultimately make her return so deeply, terribly, frightening.) In PEM too, the dream becomes a nightmare. While the son might only have wished to bring back his parents to life he does a great deal more–as the unexpected appearances of murderers shows. The world then, becomes just a tad more terrifying. For it is revealed to not be indifferent; instead, the world and the natural order might actually respond to our prayers and entreaties but with their own idiosyncratic interpretation of the form and content of our fantasies. Perhaps we might fear the incompletely realized fantasy more than we fear the indifferent world. In one case, we confront a world deaf to our importunations; in the latter we take the chance the world might hear a prayer we had never directed toward it.

One might read some old-fashioned moral instruction into both Vertigo and Phasma Ex Machina–an indictment of the Frankensteinian arrogance and ignorance of the scientist, who blunders on, attempting to remake reality into a form more amenable to him. But I think the movie says more than that.

There is a curiously mixed sensibility–perhaps Nietzschean, perhaps religious–at the heart of Phasma Ex Machina–it preaches to us the virtues of a Stoic acceptance of our fate, of the hand dealt to us, to take on, and not reject, all of our selves, past and present, along with their imperfections and flaws. It suggests an amor fati of sorts: a taking on, an acceptance, of our older lives and actions, of absorbing the consequences of our actions into the lives we choose to live. The young inventor, who with his machine aims to violently disrupt the very fabric of space-time, is urged–by an internal conscience during a moment of internal reckoning–to accept, internalize, and resolve his guilt over his parent’s death, which was not ’caused’ by him, but which invites such an analysis from the grief-stricken. He is urged too, to return to the daily particulars of his life, which include the responsibilities he owes to his younger brother, whose guardian he now is. (PEM gratuitously makes it the case that ceasing his experimentation, destroying his beloved machine, will also have the positive side-effect of saving his younger brother from the murderous attention of the former residents of their house.) This life’s work, its relationship with the living await; attending to the dead is a non-virtuous turning away.

These comparisons with Vertigo and Solaris have only been hinted at here by me; much more, I think, could be said, about the recurring cinematic fantasy of bringing the dead back to life.