The Many Masks & Faces of Stanisław Lem
Stanisław Lem was a bundle of opposites: a technocrat but also a humanist. The oddest part, however, is that Lem held in low esteem the genre he worked in. Why?
In the beginning of the 50s Stanisław Lem put on the mask of a science fiction writer. Within this style the debuting author found refuge from the then enforced doctrine of socialist realism which he didn’t intend to abide by. That’s why he chose to construct futurological plots.
These unfolded in a different space and time, so the censors didn’t become suspicious of them. Moreover, the ultra-modern technologies the heroes of his books regularly make use of were in line with the authorities’ programme of industrializing Poland. Years later the author became critical of his early works as he came to believe they were socialist realist, even though they didn’t in any way propagate the ideology of the time in which they were written.
Lem curbed the enthusiasm toward the development of science and technology by warning against its influence on the physical and spiritual condition of man. He advised that an artificial intelligence providing the human race with illusionary prosperity would lead it to passiveness and degeneration. He was also scared of the possibility of major data loss which would effectively cause mankind to regress and at the same time he was terrified by the ease with which data can be multiplied electronically, convinced that this overflow would make finding the right content rather problematic.
The list of seeming contradictions should also include Lem’s stance toward religion. ‘High technology doesn’t exclude beliefs of a religious character’, he wrote in Fiasco (1987). The fascination with theology that one can find in the works of the openly atheistic author of His Master’s Voice (1968) is on a level unattainable to many creators manifesting close ties to religion.
I’m an atheist because of moral reasons. I believe that we acquaint ourselves with the creator through their work. In my opinion the world is constructed awfully, so I want to believe it wasn’t made by anybody.
[Excerpt from the interview Two Ends of The World for The Missouri Review, winter 1984]
The appreciation for technological advancement present in so many of Lem’s books didn’t determine his everyday life – he never learned how to use a computer and remained forever faithful to his typewriter. Nevertheless, the power of the written word, especially in print, was a source of anxiety for him. Only once did he decide to go to the Frankfurt Book Fair, whose hugeness he commented on as follows:
It’s a great toilet clogged with paper.
Stanisław Lem’s literary works have been transferred to the silver screen many times. The writer is known to have been critical about many of these film adaptations. He didn’t beat about the bush when he expressed his impressions regarding the 1960 East German/Polish production First Spaceship on Venus directed by Kurt Maetzig:
Thank God nobody remembers this movie anymore. First Spaceship on Venus was absolutely dreadful, a socialist realist disaster. A very sad experience for me that was. The only up side of making this flop was the opportunity to visit West Berlin. At the time the Berlin Wall hadn’t been built yet, so during breaks in the constant fighting with the director I would sneak over to the western side.
[Excerpt from an interview at www.lem.onet.pl]
Work on the 1972 picture Solaris directed by Andrei Tarkovsky was also marked by dissonance. The writer got angry over the script, in which Tarkovsky expanded the earthly prologue by giving Kelvin a whole family. The Russian director wasn’t at all interested in the science fiction in Lem’s prose, instead he saw it as addressing similar issues to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
At that point we were like two horses pulling the same cart in opposite directions.
[A statement given to Savva Yamshchikov, Rublow w plenerach, Ekran (magazine), 1965, no. 40]
According to Lem the 1978 film Hospital of the Transfiguration directed by Edward Żebrowski was full of ‘elementary nonsense’
The Germans slaughter the entire hospital in the movie, but even during World War II commanders of German units couldn’t just kill anybody at will. Most probably the Germans would’ve killed the patients but not the doctors, who had a certain chance of surviving. There’s much more of such silliness in the film, whereas I, a doctor by education after all, simply couldn’t afford to put irresponsible medical lies into writing. All these shortcomings seem, however, secondary in a film that’s foremost a very bold allegory of human fate in times of subjugation. Any subjugation.
[Excerpt from an interview at www.lem.onet.pl]
Lem was entirely satisfied only with Andrzej Wajda’s Layer Cake from 1968. He wrote the script for it himself – based on a short story of his own entitled Do You Exist, Mr Jones? – and he followed the making of the film.
As a viewer Lem preferred artistic cinema, especially films by Luis Buñuel. The writer’s favourite pop pictures included several King Kong movies, the James Bond series, and Star Wars as well as the Star Trek TV series. The latter, however, he criticized for disregarding the basic laws of physics.
A gasket from Mrożek
He earned his driver’s licence a few months before the outbreak of the World War II, but unfortunately he didn’t have the occasion to enjoy it. During the occupation he worked as a car mechanic. While Poland was under the Communist regime, he drove the following models: AWZ P70, Wartburg 1000, Fiat 1800, Fiat 125p, Mercedes-Benz W126. The writer’s nephew, publisher and bookdealer Michał Zych, reminisces about his uncle’s passion:
When there was nothing to talk about, for example, with a plumber, because plumbing was obviously out of the question and literature would’ve been too tricky, he had the perfect topic: cars. Stories about how they break, are fixed, discussing the advantages of certain models. In our family it all started with the famous and now legendary P-70, later there were two Wartburgs and finally there came something absolutely unique: a Fiat 1800, an original, finned Italian automobile, very beautiful. That was a huge leap in quality.
[Małgorzata I. Niemczyńska, Mrożek: Striptiz neurotyka [Mrozek: Neurotic Striptease, editor's translation] a biography, Warsaw 2013]
To Lem’s despair the Fiat had a tendency to break. Fortunately Sławomir Mrożek was already living in Italy and could order the required part, a gasket. Eventually Lem sent his friend some money as a special fund for further spare parts.
Lem was a driver with a temperament. He liked to overtake and race from traffic lights, he always pulled into his garage quickly. He worked on his cars himself, if needed he would ask his neighbour, a mechanic, for help.
Journeys that didn’t take place
The author of The Astronauts, who sent the heroes of his books on interstellar missions so willingly, was known to be a stay-at-home himself. Mrożek tried to convince him to go on a scholarship to America. He declined on the pretext that his English wasn’t good enough. Prof. Jerzy Jarzębski on the other hand tried to send him Stockholm.
I begged him on my knees, tempting him with a Nobel Prize, but, of course, he didn’t go. It was the same with America, where you could really make a career – a speculative fiction writer especially can’t live without America. Still, Lem managed to never go there, thanks to which, by the way, Philip K. Dick could form accusations that he doesn’t actually exist and that his books are written by penmen hired by the KGB to make American literature look repulsive.
[Małgorzata I. Niemczyńska, Mrożek: Striptiz neurotyka [Mrozek: Neurotic Striptease, editor's translation], a biography, Warsaw 2013]
Curiously enough, Philip K. Dick was one of the few science fiction writers whose books Lem liked, which he expressed in his 1970 monograph Science Fiction and Futurology. Dick backed his absurd denunciation of Lem to the FBI by pointing to the Pole’s numerous writing styles and the broad thematic scope of his works, imprinted with an unusual, non-Slavic surname which supposedly was a cryptonym for some secret cell. Dick’s behaviour can be explained by the fact that at the time he was going through a nervous breakdown.
Lem loved sweets, especially halva and chocolate-covered marzipan. He didn’t give them up even when, toward the end of his life, he fell ill with diabetes. In the mid-80s due to health problems he stopped smoking. According to his son, Tomasz Lem, after the writer’s death his family discovered a huge pile of tinfoil wrappers behind his bookshelves, which went all the way up to the ceiling.
Author: Janusz R. Kowalczyk, October 2013.