Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Perfect Vacuum by Stanislaw Lem

Do you consider it probable that owing to the principle of fireworks and kicking, people will soon be taking walks upon the moon, while their perambulations will at the very same moment be visible to hundreds of millions of other people in their homes on Earth?  Do you consider it possible that soon we will be able to make artificial heavenly bodies, equipped with instruments that enable one from cosmic space to keep track of the movement of any man in a field or on a city street?  Do you think it likely that a machine will be built which plays chess better than you, composes music, translates from language to language, and performs in the space of a few minutes calculations which all the accountants, auditors, and bookkeepers in the world put together could not accomplish in a lifetime?  Do you consider it possible that very shortly there will arise in the center of Europe huge industrial plants in which living people will be burned in ovens, and that these unfortunates will number in the millions?

Stanislaw Lem's A Perfect Vacuum is a collection of book reviews, but only of books that don't exist.  There's a rich tradition of this sort of thing, going back to Carlyle's Sartor Resartus and Jorges Luis Borges' story "Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote."  Like those books, Lem's having a little bit of fun--imagining books that would be too outrageous, or else too tedious, to actually write, but using them as a foundation for some difficult ideas as well.

The first review in the collection is one of the most fun.  It purports to be a review of a French take on Robinson Crusoe called Le Robinsonade, about a shipwrecked man who peoples his island with fictitious servants, friends, and would-be lovers.  These invented people refuse to do what the shipwrecked man wants, and he finds himself dismissing his servant, who somehow continues to prowl around the island.  He invents a beautiful women, and then is forced to invent a way to prevent himself from actually sleeping with her, since she's not real:

I am Master, here I can do anything!--he says to himself immediately, for courage, and takes on Wendy Mae.  She is, we conjecture, and allusion to the paradigm of Man Friday.  But this young, really rather simple girl might lead the Master into temptation.  He might easily perish in her marvelous--since unattainable--embraces, he might lose himself in a fever of rut and lusting, go mad on the point of her pale, mysterious smile, her fleeting profile, her bare little feet bitter from the ashes of the campfire and reeking with the grease of barbecued mutton.  Therefore, from the very first, in a moment of true inspiration, he makes Wendy Mae... three-legged.

The shipwrecked man isn't mad, Lem argues, he's just caught in a bind: the more realistic his inventions, the more difficult it becomes to maintain the fantasy of illusion.  The book becomes more and more obscure as the shipwrecked man gets more and more trapped in his own inventions, which produces a sentence that I'm inducting into the great sentence hall of fame:

From this point on, we must confess, the book grows more and more difficult to understand and demands no little effort on the part of the part of the reader.  The line of the development, precise till now, becomes entangled and doubles back upon itself.  Can it be that the author deliberately sought to disturb the eloquence of the romance with dissonances?  What purpose is served by the pair of barstools to which Wendy Mae has given birth?  We assume that the three-leggedness is a simple family trait--that's clear, fine; but who was the father of these stools?  Can it be that we are faced with the immaculate conception of furniture?

Elsewhere, Lem uses these parodies to make critical statements about both literature and science.  Gigamesh is a really hilarious parody of James Joyce's Ulysses, in which the structure of the book (a retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh, just like Ulysses retells the Odyssey) is jam-packed with so much arcane meaning that it actually encapsulates all of human knowledge.  Lem goes off on long, riotous parodies of academic jargon:

Opening the book to random, we find on page 131, fourth line from the top, the exclamation "Bah!"  With it Maesch refuses the Camel offered to him by the driver.  In the index of the Commentary we find twenty-seven different bahs, but to the one from page 131 corresponds the following sequence: Baal, Bahai, Baobab, Bahleda (one might think that Hannahan was in error here, giving us an incorrect spelling of the name of the Polish mountaineer, but no, not at all!  The omission of the c in that name refers by, the principle already known to us, to the Cantorian c as symbol of the Continuum in its transfiniteness!), Bapohmet, Babelisks (Babylonian obelisks--a neologism typical of the author), Babel (Isaac), Abraham, Jacob, ladder, hook and ladder, fire department, hose, riot, Hippies (h!), badminton, racket, rocket, moons, mountains, Berchtesgarden--the last, since the h in "Bah" also signifies a worshiper of the Black Mass, as was, in the twentieth century, Hitler.  [Berchtesgarden was Hitler's mountain retreat in Bavaria.--ED.]

All this is in the service of mocking the elitism of literary critics whose work suggests a privileged kind of reading not accessible to everyday readers.  In another review, Lem talks about the rise and fall of a DIY book called U-Write-It, which would allow readers to rearrange classic works of literature.  There's much handwringing about what this will do to the classics by professors of English, but the project is a failure: "No one cared to play U-Write-It, not because he nobly forebore to pervert quality, but for the simple reason that between the book of a fourth-rate hack and the epic of Tolstoy he saw no difference whatever."

The most thought-provoking of these is a review of a science book called Non Serviam, about the (fictional) science of personetics.  Personetics involves creating mathematical models of human beings inside computed mathematical space, and recording the way that they interact.  This serves as a backdrop for the story of a mathematically-modeled civilization who begins to wonder who their creator is , engaging in the same kind of theological arguments that human beings have engaged in for centuries.  They conclude that God does not love them, and that they owe him nothing, and insofar as it's some schlub scientist in a lab, they're right.  In other reviews, Lem takes on the Einsteinian understanding of the universe and the idea of probability.

Lem's methods can seem a little cheap--after all, where's the good faith in taking down books no one has written, and taking down arguments no one has made?  Or to present half-assed ideas he wouldn't want to commit to?  But A Perfect Vacuum becomes an image of a man laying out his own conflicted visions, talking to himself--hence the title.  And besides, Lem makes the very same point from the beginning, when he opens the book with a critical review of A Perfect Vacuum itself.  "Did Lem really think he would not be seen through in his machination?" Lem writes.  "It is simplicity itself: to shout out, with laughter, what one would dare not whisper in earnest."

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