7 January 2008

The Other in Solaris (1972)

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 1:16 pm

[I know, I know, I said I was done with Ktismatics. But this isn’t really a Ktismatics post — it’s a sort of demo for a possible new collective blog focusing on movies. Maybe if two or more people write the posts then the diversity of perspective gets interesting, and the pressure on any one blogger (me, for instance) to write posts is alleviated. I’m particularly interested in cinematic portals: objects/places/people that occupy two realities at the same time, allowing transport between the two.]

It’s the planet itself that’s portalic in Tarkovsky’s Solaris. I haven’t read the novel on which the film was based, so I can’t really say whether the Solaris that Tarkovsky created is true to Lem’s vision. You could ask the same question about the planet Solaris: does it accurately capture humans’ memories and fantasies, or do the humans adapt themselves to Solaris’ representations? Solaris makes fantasies real. Kris, the psychologist sent to the space station to investigate reported anomalies, goes to sleep, dreams about his dead wife Hari and voila! he awakens to find her, alive, in the room with him. She’s not really his wife, of course; she’s a replicant created by Solaris, her substance made not from atoms but from neutrinos. But Solaris isn’t a robot-manufacturing facility; it’s a living being, a seething sea of intelligent goo. Presumably this living planet is allocating parts of itself to materializing the cosmonauts’ fantasies.

solaris hari

Why is the planet doing this? It’s hard not to think of Solaris as a physical extension of the human unconscious: I imagine something, and the planet expresses my imagination materially. The humans try to distance themselves from their uncannily replicated “guests,” visibly struggling to reconcile desire with repulsion. The cosmonauts try to kill the guests, but the simulacra always regenerate themselves, and we interpret this perpetual resurrection as the power of the unconscious, the eternal return of repressed desires, which are also our deepest dreads.

But what about the guests themselves? Hari, though not really human, is the most vibrant character in the film. She’s trying to build a self out of Kris’ fragmented memories. At first she’s barely self-aware: she doesn’t know if she even looks like herself. But gradually she “remembers” more about her past – how can that be? Presumably being confronted by a physical manifestation of Hari triggers more of Kris’ memories, which then find their way into Solaris’ simulacrum of her. She comes to realize that she died ten years ago, that Kris didn’t really love her then, that she killed herself because of it. Kris acknowledges as much: I didn’t love you then, but I love you now. Is it the guilt at being complicit in her suicide that makes him love her now; or is it because now, as a physical representation of his censored mental represention of her, this resurrected Hari manifests only those parts of her that he used to love? Again, though, we’re thinking about her from his perspective.

Why does Hari want to kill herself again? Is it because she did it before, in real life, and it’s part of her destiny, or her DNA, or Kris’ image of her as already dead? Is it because she realizes that her uncannily undead presence torments Kris, that if she stays he will end up killing himself because of her? Again, though, all these ideas of motive come from our human subjectivity. We are confronted with the problem that she isn’t real, that she’s a projection of human fantasy, and that she has to react as a projection might react.

Just because she isn’t really human doesn’t mean she isn’t real. She is a manifestation of Solaris, and Solaris is real, an embodied intelligence. But Solaris is so different from us, so entirely other. The planet is trying to make contact with human intelligence, and it does so by making itself intimately familiar to the humans it encounters. But Solaris’ projection into human awareness works all too well: contact between human and Solaris is reduced to contact between human and human, which ultimately devolves into a solipsistic encounter of the human self with its own memories, fantasies, transferences. There is no relation between self and other this way. Maybe that’s why she kills herself: in trying to make contact she’s lost her own Solaristic identity without really taking on an autonomous human self; she’s only a projection of another. Or is that too just a projection of how we would feel if we were in her shoes (though she never does find her shoes)?

solaris planet

Maybe that’s not what Solaris had in mind. Maybe these were experiments that Solaris was conducting on the human visitors: probe their memories and fantasies, simulate other humans on the basis of these mental representations, then observe how the humans respond. And by becoming the simulation, Solaris learns from the inside what it feels like to be human – or nearly human.

We never really find out what Solaris is thinking. The astronauts seem completely incapable of making contact, of projecting themselves out of themselves and into the other. They bombard the planet’s surface with X-rays, presumably to see what’s inside the impenetrable surface of the other. Later they transmit their own human electroencephalagram outputs electronically to the planet, as if they’re trying to implant their human consciousness directly into Solaris. They observe the guests the planet generates, and later they observe that the liquid surface of Solaris is beginning to generate islands, but they never try to understand these manifestations as anything other than the materialization of their own fantasies. They never come to any understanding of Solaris as a sentient other.

I suppose that’s the question Solaris leaves us to consider: do we ever encounter the other on his or her own terms, or do we always transform the other into a reflection of our own selves? And can we ever stop this sort of solipsistic reflection about the other from within our own heads and consider what it’s like to be the other to the other, to be encountered only as the reflection of the other’s fantasies and fears and not on our own terms?



  1. My whole day went downhill after putting up this post. This is a mistake: just because I’d be writing on a collective blog doesn’t take away the reasons I stopped writing Ktismatics. It seems like I should be able to write a blog while working on a book, but I can’t do it.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 January 2008 @ 10:13 pm

  2. Here’s my dream from last night. Apparently I’ve written a bunch of songs, and I’m taking the sheet music to an expert in evaluating music, arranging, and producing albums. The way it works is, this music expert brings in several aspiring songwriters to a sort of tryout. He takes one person at a time. The main part of the tryout takes place in a batting cage: the expert pitches baseballs and the songwriter tries to hit them with a bat. Somehow in the midst of this batting practice session the expert looks at the songs and comments on them. He’s complimentary to some songwriters, harsh to others. And also sometimes he pitches the baseballs at a moderate speed, sometimes really fast. I’m waiting my turn, watching everyone else, and I’m getting nervous. I’m not sure I can hit the fastest pitches. I wonder why I didn’t write harmony parts for my songs.

    I get distracted by some sort of activity, I don’t remember what. When I return my attention to the music and baseball I discover that the batting cage is being dismantled, that somehow the session is over. I didn’t get my turn. I’m running around trying to figure out what’s happening, trying to find the expert. Anne, my wife, shows up: she’s insisting to someone that they need to reassemble the batting cage so I can have my turn. I tell her to forget it. I realize that the expert has all my sheet music, and I wonder how I’ll get it back from him. I wake up.


    Comment by ktismatics — 8 January 2008 @ 6:56 am

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