J.G. Ballard: The Fragile World

I felt strongly, and still do, that psychoanalysis and surrealism were a key to the truth about existence and the human personality, and also a key to myself.

– J. G. Ballard,  Miracles of Life

Ballard enters one’s blood like a virus that is forever replicating its noxious programs in the neuronal filaments of the mind. As a young man I came upon his stories of bleak Martian landscapes where the voice of Ballard drifts over the alien world revealing a history of past atrocities in such allusive poetic elegance that one is almost tempted to forget the dark truth it presents:

At the Martian polar caps, where the original water vapour in the atmosphere had condensed, a residue of ancient organic matter formed the top-soil, a fine sandy loess containing the fossilized spores of the giant lichens and mosses which had been the last living organisms on the planet millions of years earlier. Embedded in these spores were the crystal lattices of the viruses which had once preyed on the plants, and traces of these were carried back to Earth with the Canaveral and Caspian ballast (366).1

In such passages Ballard offers the keen eye of a scientific naturalist with the caustic yet elliptic truth of a deadly but visible underworld of viruses that will bring to the homeworld of earth not an Edenic  resurrection of ancient life forms but instead the merciless agents of its own final apocalypse. At the end of this bleak tale Bridgeman one of the few who never left earth for the great adventure looks out on a sea of black obsidian dust, the plenum of the viral infestation that has now turned the homeworld into one giant desert:

He watched the pall disappear over the sea, then looked around at the other remnants of Merril’s capsule scattered over the slopes. High in the western night, between Pegasus and Cygnus, shone the distant disc of the planet Mars, which for both himself and the dead astronaut had served for so long as a symbol of unattained ambition. The wind stirred softly through the sand, cooling this replica of the planet which lay passively around him, and at last he understood why he had come to the beach and been unable to leave it. (372)

He didn’t need to leave it, Mars had come to earth with a vengeance.

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Stanislaw Lem: Aura of the Real

I remember well my feelings when I read Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow. Now, I thought that book very good— so good that I have read it several times. Indeed. But most of the things that Mr. Bellow attributed to his hero, Mr. Sammler, in recounting his experiences in a Poland occupied by the Germans, didn’t sound quite right to me. The skilled novelist must have done careful research before starting on the novel, and he made only one small mistake— giving a Polish maid a name that isn’t Polish. This error could have been corrected by a stroke of the pen. What didn’t seem right was the “aura”— the indescribable “something” that can be expressed in language perhaps only if one has experienced in person the specific situation that is to be described. The problem in the novel is not the unlikeliness of specific events. The most unlikely and incredible things did happen then. It is, rather, the total impression that evokes in me the feeling that Bellow learned of such event‹ from hearsay, and was in the situation of a researcher who receives the individual parts of a specimen packaged in separate crates and then tries to put them together. It is as if oxygen, nitrogen, and water vapor and the fragrance of flowers were to be mixed in such a way as to evoke and bring to life the specific mood of a certain part of a forest at a certain morning hour. I do not know whether something like this would be totally impossible, but it would surely be difficult as hell. There is something wrong in Mr. Sammler’s Planet; some tiny inaccuracy got mixed into the compound. Those days have pulverized and exploded all narrative conventions that had previously been used in literature. The unfathomable futility of human life under the sway of mass murder cannot be conveyed by literary techniques in which individuals or small groups of persons form the core of the narrative. It is, perhaps, as if somebody tried by providing the most exact description of the molecules of which the body of Marilyn Monroe was composed to convey a full impression of her. That would be impossible.

– Stanislaw Lem, Microworlds 

Stanislaw Lem: Skeptic, Iconoclast, Materialist

“Each of us is aware he’s a material being, subject to the laws of physiology and physics, and that the strength of all our emotions combined cannot counteract those laws.  It can only hate them.  The eternal belief of lovers and poets in the power of love which is more enduring than death, the finis vitae sed non amoris that has pursued us through the centuries is a lie.  But this lie is not ridiculous, it’s simply futile.  To be a clock on the other hand, measuring the passage of time, one that is smashed and rebuilt over and again, one in whose mechanism despair and love are set in motion by the watchmaker along with the first movements of the cogs.  To know one is a repeater of suffering felt ever more deeply as it becomes increasingly comical through a multiple repetitions.  To replay human existence – fine.  But to replay it in the way a drunk replays a corny tune pushing coins over and over into the jukebox?”

            – Stanislaw Lem, Solaris

In a 1992 interview with Peter Swirski, Stanislaw Lem commented that, if he were to state his philosophical affiliation in terms of the “accepted nomenclature,” he would rank himself “in a large measure with the skeptics” (Stanislaw Lem Reader 42). In the same context, Lem expressed his irreverence for the natural sciences – an irreverence matched, however, by his dismissal of various religious and philosophical belief systems. Lem further characterized himself as “a kind of wide-ranging heretic”. Although he contended that it is not possible “to prove solipsism false”, he affirmed the mind-independent reality of the external world.1

Lem tells us in an interview that he never had the urge to “speak my piece” to the world at large, “as far as philosophy goes. Perhaps this disinclination comes from my conviction that the time of crafting seamless, unified philosophical systems is long past. This is so, I claim, because the results of the new “hard” sciences, led by physics, begin to exceed the abilities of reasoning — the various events and descriptions of states which fly in the face of visual perception as well as any other human sense or intuition, all that stuff conjured by the human mind”. Another in a long line of anti-philosophical writers Lem adds “if the scientific results exceed the horizons of human intellectual comprehension, then human philosophy must be left behind, limiting itself to reflection on the way the world is thoroughly known to us as a niche for a certain thinking species or to considerations of the human position in this world, its correctness and dangers.” How sad the wit of such a writer fell into his own pessimism. Maybe Schopenhauer was right after all: “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”

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