Solaris: (Interstellar Space)

Solarisis a work about the strange goings-on encountered by cosmonauts on a space station that hovers ominously over the ocean-planet Solaris

By Edward Mendelowitz, PhD

"Exploring Minds"

Kristina 2/00

At the time I first wrote a sketch of my book Ethics and Lao-Tzu, everyone was talking about Kubrik's then recent death and the final film. Kubrik's deliberately soulless portrayal of future and cosmos in 2001: A Space Odyssey, however, cannot compare with the science fiction renditions of the Russian master Andrey Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky was director-as-artist par excellence; Bergman had said that he was the most important filmmaker of our time. His gorgeous and nature-bound films reflect an abiding concern with what he had called the "fundamental laws" of art, no less than those of cosmos and humankind.

A physicist (a real scientist) sends Tarkovsky a trade review of one of his early films, moved as he is by its sheer artistry, its moral imperative and staggering psychological depth:

What is this film about? It is about a Man . . . About a Man who lives on the earth, is a part of the earth and the earth is part of him, about the fact that a man is answerable for his life both to the past and to the future. You have to watch this film simply, and listen to the music of Bach and the poems of Arsniy Tarkovsky [Andrey's father]; watch it as one watches the stars, or the sea, as one admires a landscape. There is no mathematical logic here, for [that] cannot explain what man is or what is the meaning of his life.

Solaris (made in partial response to Kubrik's admittedly stunning film about man, computer, and outer space) is a work about the strange goings-on encountered by cosmonauts on a space station that hovers ominously over the ocean-planet Solaris. The psychologist Chris Kelvin is sent to investigate matters. Hard data supporting the state's official position that the mystery is attributable to hallucinations (bearing, hence, no relation to reality) will shut down the "Solaristics" project for good. The aging cosmonaut Burton—the one who, years before, had been the source of earliest reports of mysterious visitations above Solaris—pays Kelvin a visit before the psychologist's ascent in order to entreat an open mind:

Kelvin: I think Solaristics has come to an impasse because of irresponsible indulgences in fantasy. My interest is in Truth but you're trying to make me an advocate. I can't let myself be guided by emotions. I'm not a poet. I have a specific objective: either to shut down the station thus confirming the end of Solaristics or to take extreme measures, to direct strong radiation at the Ocean.

Burton: You want to destroy what we don't understand? I don't favor knowledge at any price. Knowledge is truthful only if it's based in morality.

Kelvin: Moral or immoral, it's man who makes science. Think of Hiroshima. You aren't sure yourself that what you saw wasn't a hallucination.

As Burton storms off indignantly, he passes Kelvin's father (an old friend who is, nonetheless, by no means inclined toward unthinking acceptance of Burton's weird reports and their unsettling implications) and mutters under his breath, "He's a bookkeeper, not a scientist!" Kelvin's father approaches his son and rebukes him:

Father: Why did you hurt him? It's dangerous to send people like you into space. Up there everything's too fragile. Earth has adapted itself to your kind, though at a heavy price.

And, indeed, the loss of contact with fundamental sounds and themes (breakdowns in relations within and without) and the prospects for healing the resultant breach form the abiding lynchpins of Tarkovsky's work. His slow-moving, graceful, and evocative images gather again and again around "character shifted off axis," becoming, at last, a testament to "the logic of poetry," "organic links," and the possibility of vision made whole.

The filmmaker elaborates in his book Sculpting in Time: a means of assimilating the world, an instrument for knowing it in the course of man's journey towards what is called 'absolute truth' ...Art could be said to be a symbol of the universe, being linked with that absolute spiritual truth which is hidden from us in our positivistic, pragmatic [concerns].

Art, if you will, as a kind of "hieroglyph" of awareness and consciousness, an esoteric lexicon of divinity and soul. Water, for Tarkovsky, as for Monet and Lao-tzu, is the fundamental image of movement and nature: our terrestrial sojourn within time.

Once on the station, Kelvin is stunned to learn that his friend Gibarian has taken his own life. Affixed hurriedly to the door to Gibarian's space station room is a single sheet of paper with a childlike drawing of a human being—a stick figure, arms outstretched, cruciform like Beckett's lobster. The caption scribbled beneath it reads simply: "A MAN." Inside Gibarian's room, Kelvin finds a videotape that his friend had prepared for him just before self-administration of the lethal injection. Let us listen alongside the psychologist Kelvin:

Gibarian: Here it can happen to anyone. If is happens to you just know that it's not madness, that's the main thing. I am my own judge. You should know it isn't insanity. It has something something to do with conscience. [Gibarian stares directly at the camera eye and smiles movingly as he administers the hypodermic.] I wanted you to get here sooner, Chris.

Here in outer space, psychologists and cosmonauts encounter nothing so strange as the vast inner stretches of the mind itself, space becoming the backdrop out of which the ineffable self and moral sensibility now emerge in sharper relief. Know that it's not madness, that's the main thing. It isn't insanity. It has something to do with conscience and consciousness.

"Tell me one of the words in that language," the outside voice insisted...
His work was clever and detailed and sometimes almost brilliant, and she had many times to agree with him, but the more profound he was the more profound was the silence which enveloped her. She could never get beyond the austerity of his manner or the icy logic of what he had proven, to tell him that his scalpels were intrusions into her mind just as long-ago doctors had intruded into her body, and that, furthermore, his proofs were utterly and singularly irrelevant. At the end she marshaled all of her strength, and with as good a clarity as she could give him, she said, "Please, Doctor, my difference is not my sickness." It was a last cry and it went unheard.

Hannah Green,
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

A psychiatrist has been trained to believe that, if he were to think that he thought and felt much the same as those people he diagnoses as psychotic, this would not mean that they would not be psychotic, it would mean that he was psychotic...

The differences between people, not people who are 'different'.

R. D. Laing,
The Voice of Experience

Kelvin's journey to Solaris and the further reaches of outer space becomes, not unlike Kristina's, a journey inward in the end, an odyssey to the inmost places of conscience and consciousness. ("I am that," reads the ancient Hindu teaching; "What is beyond is within," echoes the mystic Christian vision.) The "visitor" Hari, Chris's former wife, who comes to him from out of the blackness of deep space, is the archetypal feminine—symbol, perhaps, for the preferred metaphorical means of glimpsing into Infinity, Self, and Void. She reminds Chris of his failings in love, pressing him now to revisit a relationship that had ended in tragedy and also that with the mother (original embodiment of the form) who had once been both beautiful and distant. So much for the mysteries of outer space which are, in the end, no more alien or strange than those of the terrestrial plane and the infinite spaces, visages, and voices within.

As he returns from the upper realms to the gorgeous yet perishable garden of earth (that fragile "water planet" that Cousteau kept admonishing us to honor and protect), Kelvin approaches the father from whom he has been hitherto estranged, falling to his knees and embracing him. It is Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son, a reminder of the moral, indeed redemptive, evocations of visions and voices, inner voyages and art. Science, Kelvin seems gradually to have realized, can never divorce itself from inward mysteries and the (earthbound) ethical imperatives implied, must of necessity remain—as those ancient Eastern seers had already discerned—like the mosquito attempting to bite the proverbial iron elephant. Humility and wonder are urged.

If there is not something mystical in your explanation, something unexplainable to the understanding, some elements of mystery, it is quite insufficient . . . What sort of science is that which enriches the understanding but robs the imagination?...If we knew all things thus mechanically merely, should we know anything really?

Henry David Thoreau,

We have chased the solid substance from the continuous liquid to the atom, from the atom to the electron, and there we have lost it . . . Something unknown is doing we don't know what.

A.S. Eddington,
The Nature of the Physical World

In covering up being we lose just those things we most cherish in life. For the sense of being is bound up with the questions that are deepest and most fundamental—questions of love, death, anxiety, caring.

Rollo May,
The Discovery of Being

[Man] becomes conscious that this higher part is coterminous and continuous with a MORE of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of him, and which he can keep in working touch with, and in a fashion get on board of and save himself when all his lower being has gone to pieces in the wreck.

William James,
The Varieties of Religious Experience

We do not need to go to the atoms and stars to be baffled. The most ordinary events are beyond us. . . Who dare claim to have fathomed the mysteries of 'the generation and affinity of events'? We may sense that all dramas are part of one drama. But why, and how, this is so, or, if it is not, why and how the illusion arises that it is, are questions we can ask but cannot answer. It is beyond the furthest stretch of our imagination to conceive conceivable answers.

R. D. Laing,
The Voice of Experience

Science lights but cannot warm.
Herman Melville

"Green Aliens in Uncomfortable Human Suits" (Kristina's reverie and lament):

Then I keep thinking, "Why do we even care. Why do we try so hard to keep these relationships?" It's not who we are. We're not like these people, these single entities. It's like we're aliens in people suits trying to pass ourselves off as human. And sometimes our green tentacles come popping through and make people recoil. And we say, "Oh, sorry. The truth is I'm an alien—please accept me." Then the shared world says, "Oh, we accept you, but, here, let's cut off those ugly green tentacles so that I feel more comfortable with you living in my neighborhood."

The truth is that people can't accept what they don't understand. They'll sometimes go through some measured steps to make it easier to believe that they understand. For instance, "If I don't see the tentacles, then it will LOOK human. And if it LOOKS human I can more easily demand that it act human. If it acts human than I can accept it as human." And all the while the alien knows what it is and knows that the thing which the single entities accept is only a human suit with amputated green tentacles. The single entities do not accept the authentic being underneath. And it seems to me that if the single entities cannot accept the actuality of this alien being, then their caring for it is not genuine care.

So, the alien being has to decide what it will do. It can either continue living in the human suit and nurse its bleeding appendages, or wrongly believe that the acceptance doesn't stop at the uncomfortable human suit but goes deeper. Or the alien can learn how to dissociate from the need to be accepted and shed its human suit and know it will scare everyone away. The authorities might even drag it to some prison to run tests and to keep it away from the general population, since it's much easier to lock up an alien being for being misunderstood than to lock up a thousand people for misunderstanding.

We want to find
neighbors in the universe
but we don't know the names
of the neighbors next door
the unseen

Nothing holds me.
Doors and windows open
Terraces broad and empty

Franz Kafka,
Fifth Blue Octavo Notebook

Or as the Lao-Tzu himself puts it in the Tao te Ching, "Therefore the sage embraces the Oneness of the universe, making it his testing-instrument for everything under Heaven."

About the Author

Ed Mendelowitz completed his doctoral work at the California School of Professional Psychology in Berkeley where he worked closely with Rollo May. He is on the board of editors for the Journal of Humanistic Psychology and a contributor to some of the major compendiums of existential/humanistic/depth psychotherapy. He has presented numerous papers on psychology and its relationship to philosophy, religion, and the arts in both the USA and Europe. His recently published book Ethics and Lao-Tzu has been called an "extraordinary moral narrative" by Robert Coles and a "remarkable compendium of wisdom" by the psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis. His essays and talks attempt to get to the heart of the aesthetic, even spiritual, bases of psychology in their invocation of imagination, transience, possibility and awe. Dr. Mendelowitz is a part-time faculty member at Saybrook Graduate School and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of the Rockies. He lives and works in Boston.


Solaris. Directed by Andrey Tarkovsky. Mosfilm/Soviet Union, 1972.