Solaris and the Death Drive

I’ve been listening to Prof. Paul Fry’s literary theory podcasts (Yale) in preparation for my GRE subject test. His talk on Freud and the death drive made me think of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (new translation by Bill Johnston, 2011). The new translation is currently only available as audiobook but I’ve listened to it three times since the summer release.

In Kris Kelvin’s observations of ocean phenomena and his interpretation of those observations recorded in the vast “Solaricist” archives, frequent references are made to “death throes,” particularly in regards to the enormous structures called symmetriads and assymetriads that are born and die into the ocean’s neutrino-based plasma. Fry eloquently explains Freud’s death drive (and this is still new for me so I apologize for any stating of the obvious) as the evolution of the organism (human) towards death on its own terms. Fry speaks of the “arabesque” that takes place between birth and death, as well as the retraumatizing rituals of people with PTSD as a dysfunctional attempt to control the outcome of that which is inevitable by repeatedly reinacting some version of their trauma (Freud’s uncanny), a disorder that also prevents the evolution of the arabesque like a skipping record.

Human suffering and the root of it are a major themes in Solaris, although the communication barriers between human and non-human, between creator and created, prohibit Kris and the ocean from understanding the causes of their mutual suffering. For Kris, he is retraumatized by the arrival of Hari – the Solaris-generated replica of his dead wife (his “guest”) who appears to him in her pre-suicidal state of mind precisely because this is the memory of her Solaris has extracted from his subconscious during sleep. That she is a complete mask of the original Hari down to her subatomic structure (but stabilized by a “neutrino field”) complicates the question of how human is human further. In Professor Timothy Morton‘s article “Ecologocentrism: Unworking Animals” (Project Muse, SubStance, Issue 117 (Volume 37, Number 3), 2008, p. 83), he writes:

“Kris’s ethical dilemma is about learning to treat the replica of his ex-lover as a unique person who just happens to possess all the memories and characteristics of the woman from his past— a person who is also an interface for the planet-brain.”

For Kelvin, death ceases to be death on his own terms, and he eventually succumbs to an excruciating boredom and apathy. For the ocean, the opposite is true; the “death throes” do not signify the end of “life” as the end of consciousness. Fry describes the death drive as the return “home” or the return of consciousness to the inanimate, the inorganic. Matter and consciousness can never be separated in the sentient ocean and it is precisely because it is always in control of the outcome, of its own architectural omnipotence as well as its own material decay (the result of the latter is a flat mood vs. an arabesque) that Solaris appears to Kris, a psychologist, to be in the agony of perpetual death throes.

The arabesque may be suggested, ironically, to begin only at the end of the novel when Kris has finally abandoned his desire for the eternal Other (I’m borrowing here from Fry’s Žižek lecture) and the sentient ocean takes a baby step from unconscious imitation towards external awareness and into duality. I think of Timothy Morton‘s writing on the Longinian sublime during this final moment in the novel when Kris makes something like an authentic alien encounter, which is a remarkably different sort of moment than those in both the Tarkovsky and the Soderbergh film adaptations.


In the Tarkovsky film, the final encounter is between Kris and his father, and tends, in comparison to the novel, towards the Oedipal or atavistic. Morton writes: “A conservative reading suggests that at the end Kris decides to stay on the planet to be reunited with a transcendent god or father—an abstraction of mind” (87). In the Soderbergh ending, Kris’ final encounter is a reunion with his wife (here called Rheya) but now on his own terms; that is to say, the sentient ocean intuits (via encephalogram) Kris’ desires by tapping into his waking consciousness and thereby ends the retraumatization caused by suicidal, despairing Rheya by putting a more perfect Rheya in her place. Morton says:

“Soderbergh’s version is in one sense more disturbing than Tarkovsky’s, because instead of God, the sentient ocean is a metaphor for consumerism. Soderbergh’s version is the nihilist misreading, just as Tarkovsky’s is the theistic misreading. Kris becomes a solipsistic consumerist who gets sucked into the vortex of narcissistic enjoyment. At the end we are told that all has been forgiven. Kris gets to have his cake and eat it too by joining with the planet and possessing Rheya all over again, now capable of acting as if the suicide never happened” (88).

The ending of the novel is, in my opinion, is the most interesting ecologically of the three endings. While the “old mimoid”– described in great detail as a sort of beautiful and ancient desert city – decays all around him, Kris’ turns his attention at last towards the sentient ocean. However, this time Kris desire to understand the ocean comes from a position of openness that arises not so much from despair but the liberation from self – one possible climax of the death drive. I think, although I can’t totally articulate why yet, that this is also a critique of late capitalism or, at the very least, a merging horizon insofar as it is an encounter in which Kris finally sees beyond what Fry calls (in his lecture on reactions to Marxist literary criticism) the “bankrupt aesthetic of realism.” Solaris, although capable of producing infinite identical objects, is itself aura without object. Or the reverse?

I welcome comments and feedback!



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