23 March 2003

Solaris, directed by Steven Soderbergh

Man has gone out to explore other worlds without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.
—Stanislaw Lem, 'Solaris', translated by Joanne Kilmartin and Steve Cox

Earth? I thought of the great bustling cities where I would wander and lose myself, and I thought of them as I had thought of the ocean on the second or third night, when I had wanted to throw myself upon the dark waves. I shall immerse myself among men. I shall be silent and attentive, an appreciative companion. There will be many acquaintances, friends, women - and perhaps even a wife. For a while, I shall have to make a conscious effort to smile, nod, stand and perform all those gestures which constitute life on Earth, and then those gestures will become reflexes again. I shall find new interests and occupations; and I shall not give myself completely to them, as I shall never again give myself completely to anything or anybody.
—Stanislaw Lem, 'Solaris'

What can I usefully say about this film except ‘watch it’? It is, to my mind, one of the best and most poignant films released in some time, with more than a passing relation to Kieslowski’s Three Colours Blue. I read Stanislaw Lem’s book (which was written in 1961) a few years ago and was so moved that I was unable to scribble a few words about it onto the back of a postcard, as I was trying to do at the time with all the books that I read. It was captivating, but also one of those books (or ideas) that when you try to summarise end up sounding tacky or sentimental. So here goes. What Lem achieves in this book is to confront us with the limits and arrogance of ourselves by confronting us with ourselves; not with our greed or avarice, but with our love and guilt. All the people on the Station are confronted not with their wickedness but with their loved ones, who in some way they feel they have betrayed. So Lem avoids moralising about the weakness and frailty of humans, and instead asks a question which addresses all of us: how would we react when faced with the resurrection of someone we loved but who has now gone, and who we know we hurt? This is an painfully difficult question, and it requires imagination to consider.

Lem plays masterfully with the genre of science fiction, since the genre necessarily demands a certain suspension of belief (there aren't any aliens and space ships that we know of), but he uses this suspension to present us with a truly human question without having to divulge how it is possible. In a ‘realistic’ drama the audience will demand some kind of explanation, but here Lem can just indicate that the planet is responsible and this will be accepted. Indeed, a large portion of the book is concerned with telling the reader why there is no further explanation. It is a masterpiece of the genre and truly closer in conception to Shakespeare than Star Wars.

And so too is the film, which is a skilful rendition of the book as well as a variation on its themes. The attention to detail is impressive: at one point Rheya (Natascha McElhone) noticeably blinks - as if in answer to Kris's question in the book about whether she even did so. The initial transmission from Gibarian asking for help does not occur in the book, but it is broadcast via the Prometheus, the ship on which Kris (George Clooney) arrives at the Station in the book. Much of the dialogue is lifted directly from the novel. There are necessarily changes, since no film is able to capture the breadth of such a work: most obvious is the lack of history (in which the book is a clear kin of the 1936 novel War With The Newts, by fellow master science fiction writer and inventor of the word ‘robot’, Karel Čapek). In the novel, Lem is at pains to describe the origin and development of ‘Solaristics’ - the study of the ocean which covers the planet - partly to give us a sense of place, in which he succeeds tremendously, and partly to show us the continued failure of the human mind, firstly to make Contact with the alien ocean, and secondly to understand why the attempts keep failing. The sense of place is there in the film, as we look over the frankly beautiful graphic depiction of the ocean, accompanied by Cliff Martinez's excellent near-minimalist score. But the film focusses on the two central characters: Kris’s struggle to come to terms with Rheya’s presence and his own past, and, endowed as she is with all the human faculties of understanding, Rheya’s deepening sense that she is herself somehow not right and her inability to live with this realisation. The result is a bitter turmoil of emotions, all of which culminates in Rheya’s first attempted and then successful suicide. Kris, having lost Rheya, seemingly regained her, and lost her again, remains in the Station, unable to re-enter everyday life.

At this point the film takes its largest departure from the book: in the book Kris accepts that “I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.” In the film, the Station is in the process of crashing into the planet and Kris chooses death. Kris, by dying in the ocean becomes part of it, he and Rheya finally reunited. At the end of the film, as at the end of the book, I was still captivated.

War at last!

Is the War in Iraq the final nail in the coffin of the Enlightenment?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pro-war. When Michael Moore argued at last night’s Oscars that George W. Bush was a fictitious president leading America to war for fictitious reasons, I couldn’t agree more, and I think he found the most lucid summary of the present situation I’ve yet heard. But that’s not my point here, and I’m going to try to avoid letting that particular inclination get in the way of what I want to say.

The Enlightenment was, in essence, based on the idea that by the use of reasoned argument and the education of the mind it would be possible to strip away all idle prejudice from humanity and move on to better things. This project has suffered a number of near-fatal blows over the years, for instance that Nazis were able to appreciate classical music and then still commit atrocities in concentration camps. The shock involved here was that classical music was thought to appeal to the intellectual rather than the sensual side of our nature and so to raise humanity above the level of savage beasts. Thus anyone acquainted with such high art would be incapable of the acts which the Nazis perpetrated. We have still not learnt the lesson from this today: that art, be it high or low, will not make anyone a better person. And whenever anyone points out the logical fallacy in the claim that Marilyn Manson (or whoever is the un-popular scapegoat of the time) is responsible for the behaviour of the youth of today, they are quietly ignored. The truth of the matter is that neither reason nor culture will ever overcome blind prejudice, and the current war is perhaps the final proof. In brief, my argument is this: that from start to finish, this war and the build-up to it have consistently illustrated our inability to listen to, or employ, reason.

Let’s start with the most obvious point: everybody, and I mean everybody, has always known that this war would take place. George Bush senior led America in the first Gulf War in 1991. I’m old enough to remember this: at the time I said with utter conviction that if there was military draft, I would rather go to prison. And yet I nevertheless felt that, having started the job, Bush should have finished it, and I’m certain the Iraqis who, on the back of the war, rose up against Saddam Hussein only to be crushed under his repressive thumb thought pretty much the same. I remember the increasing frustration of the inspectors before they called it a day, held up at the Iraqi borders and arguing to be let in and do their UN-approved jobs before being turned away yet again. I also seem to recall, though I can't back this up, that before the presidential election people asked George Bush about Iraq. So why is it a surprise when, in the post-September 11 world of heightened sensitivity to dangers, George Bush decides to finish his father’s job and invade Iraq? Answer: it isn’t. Everybody saw this coming. And what is more, nobody doubts the real motivation for the invasion. Maybe they should. But if it is so clear to all and sundry that George Bush is invading Iraq because of the oil and familial responsibility, then precisely how did anyone expect to stop it? Did anyone honestly think that protesting on the streets, demanding a reason about why Iraq and why now, or the French threatening a veto, would make the slightest dent in the conviction to go on? Only one thing would dent that conviction, and that is regime change (and perhaps not even that). So what I want to know is this: what were we all doing wasting our time arguing about it for the last 8 months?

Any justification of this war would be as superficial as it would be senseless. The are two sides to this. Firstly, we are all perfectly aware of the genesis and evolution of this war. Any attempt to justify it and actually give an argument for it would necessarily diverge from this genesis, because it would look for a logical explanation and try to accumulate evidence, and would not constitute a description of the evolution of this war. This is one reason why Tony Blair’s efforts to justify the war have fallen on deaf ears: because he didn’t say, ‘Well boys, remember Bush’s dad?’ The other reason is that, despite Tony Blair's desire to be staunch ally of George Bush (and even a discerning influence), nobody really wanted to hear it from Blair; and Blair’s care and attention to detail have only served to highlight the singular failure of Bush to do so and his bullishness in all things international.

Secondly, the truth is we all think we know the truth, and are so caught up in our own presumptive fortifications that when Bush (or anyone else for that matter) says something that doesn’t coincide with what we happen to believe is true, we know they must be lying. What if George Bush’s reasons for being in Iraq are indeed humanitarian? Does anyone want to hear that? No. Why? Because we know it isn’t true. Bush could argue tirelessly about the humanitarian cause which he is fighting for; he could argue in all conviction; it could actually be true: and no-one would listen. If Bush turned round to the general public of the world and said, ‘Yup, it's all about the oil’, would that make us happy? No. If he was to admit what we all know to be true, would that appease anyone? Or would we all go on protesting? Of course we would. But look at it from Bush’s perspective for a moment: no matter what he does, we’ll go on protesting. If he doesn’t tell us the truth, we’ll protest about deception. If he does tell us the truth, we'll protest with vindication. If he packs up his armies and goes home, we'll complain about him leading us on for so long, about him being incompetent and all bark and no bite. You can't beat a good protest. So again, why should we be surprised that response is, 'What the heck, let's just get on with it'?

The Enlightenment project demands two things: a lucid and sophisticated teacher, and an open and receptive listener. With regard to the war in Iraq, we have neither. Bush has at every turn failed to give the kind of account of himself which a reasonable and unprejudiced member of the public (if such exists) could follow. He has painted himself into a corner so that he is now unable to back out and save face with either friends or foes. But Bush is not my point, and this is why I said at the start that my personal feelings about the war are not relevant. What truly concerns me is the behaviour of us, the public: I have never witnessed such far-reaching mass stupidity as in the current world situation.

The previous high-point for me was during last year’s parliamentary elections here in Germany when the foreign affairs minister Joschka Fischer came on a rally to Jena. While he was on stage he was continuously heckled by a group of punks (who in Germany tend to be anarchist left-wingers) for ‘lying’ about the atrocities in Kosovo and so on. (It goes without saying, but although the punks were avidly waving flags of the PDS, the ex-East German communist party, they didn’t show up to support the ex-leader of the PDS, Gregor Gysi, when he held a rally in Jena a week later.) Fischer fought back to strong applause from the crowd; the clinching insult which the punks in question could come up with was ‘Ami-Freund’: in other words, American-Friend. This struck me as a trait more often associated with fascism: hatred of someone because of their race. At that moment I wished that I had been American (rather than British) and could have walked up to the punk and told him exactly what he could do with his ‘Ami-Freund’ (probably not a good idea, though). This attitude is now prevalent on the streets of every country in the world. The English edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which is sold along with the International Herald Tribune in Germany, carried a cover photo of a group of normal-looking teenagers burning the American flag. I’m sorry, maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t that what they do in places like Iran (or did under the Taliban in Afghanistan)? You know, a bit like burning a book in public and sentencing the author to death?

George Bush’s regime are now referred to as Nazis by members of the public with startling frequency. When I discussed the war last Thursday morning with my students, most were sure that Saddam Hussein was innocent, that he had done nothing wrong: ever. He does not persecute his own people. He does not - and never did - pose any threat to anyone. And my students are worried that, in response to American fascism, Hussein is calling for a holy war. Somehow the facts seem to have passed huge sections of the public by: for instance, the only reason that Saddam Hussein is such a thorn in America’s (and Britain’s) side is because we sponsored him during the 1980’s when his decidedly western-orientated state (in which women do not wear burkas) was fighting the decidedly Islamic fundamentalist state which is Iran. The fact that, whatever you may think about the consequences of the job George Bush senior did, he was responding to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait has somehow not sunk in. Again, it has not been noticed that the only reason there are any Kurds left in Iraq at all is because they live in a UN and American protected zone in the north. And I’m quite sure that, even in the context of American aggression, large sections of the Iranian public are thinking, ‘You mean, after fighting a war with our country for the best part of a decade and killing thousands of Iranians because of our religion, you want us to overcome our denominational differences and join in a holy war to save your butt? Think again, my friend.’

A large part of the responsibility for this lies with Bush and his regime, but a significant part of it lies with the media. On the morning the war started, Germany’s largest selling daily, Bild, carried a headline which declared that America’s mission was clear: Kill Saddam. Underneath this, when opening the broadsheet format, was the daily dose of female nudity; on the back there was an article about the death (murder?) of a talking fish. Clearly the most informative with regard to the everyday world at large was the nude. With press coverage like this, is it any surprise that people know nothing? When serious issues like the war are sloganed together with conversant pisces and the latest sensation, can we really be shocked when people regard it as simply The Latest Sensation? Surely we cannot object that the public are woefully ill-informed about the war when they know everything they need to know: it is, as well you know, The Latest Sensation.

But, as I’ve already indicated, it isn’t just the media's fault. They're only spooning us what we want to be fed. The other morning on the radio I heard a journalist talking to a protester in Britain. The protester protested that this was the end of Blair, and when the journalist asked him whether he would change his mind if Saddam Hussein was indeed found to have weapons of mass destruction, our hero said, ‘No.’ The implication of this answer is as follows: if this person, who is on the streets protesting against an unjust war, found out that the war was indeed just and that they had been wrong all along, they would still want to be rid of the person (Tony Blair) who they falsely accused in the first place. (I hear echoes of Monty Python - 'But she’s not a witch! - Burn her anyway!') When this is the face which protesters (some of whom might be there for the right reasons) give to the media, the rest of the public and politicians, is it any wonder that politicians studiously ignore what such people have to say and carry on as planned? Is it really so strange that politicians are increasingly detached from the concerns of the public, when the public’s utterances are increasingly incomprehensible?

And as for Jacques Chirac: you do have to grimace when you hear about ‘Freedom Fries’ in American restaurants. I mean, is that the best they can come up with? Take this for example: 'Next year I’m going to Freedom for my holidays.' - 'Oh, so where do you live now?' I’ve heard of playing into their hands, but that’s ridiculous. On a more serious point, I hold Jacques Chirac responsible for much of the current situation. Not because I’m pro-war, but because Chirac went along with the game until he could see more mileage in claiming to be pro-peace. And now all those protesters love him for it, and Americans boycott their chips (see, in England we call ‘em chips; the other things are crisps). But just what is it that Chirac wants? O-I-L. France has any number of contracts with Iraqi oil companies which it is worried will be ignored if America goes charging in. All those people carrying placards with the slogan 'No Blood For Oil' may as well be carrying placards saying 'Peace For Oil'. But no-one wants to put two and two together because Chirac is saying what they want to hear. And now the French government is saying it will not help in the rebuilding Iraq after a war; I appreciate that you shouldn't have to tidy up someone else’s mess, but it says a lot about how much they really care about all the Iraqi people that Chirac is so eager to protect.

And just what did all the negotiation of the last 8 months achieve? What did the threat to veto any new UN resolution achieve? The UN is in tatters, the EU is in tatters, NATO is in tatters. All the critics who complain that America is unilateralist have succeeded in making it even more so. What are the odds on George Bush never talking to the UN again? Diplomacy probably demands engagement, but at what distance? And for what? For a lost cause. The second Gulf War is, and always was, a lost cause. It was always inevitable; the question was never really if but when, and all we have done, along with obstructionist governments like Chirac’s, is squander the chance of stopping some future war or problem that could be stopped. As such I think it was about time it started: every passing day without war was, perversely, making matters worse. At least now we can hope for a swift outcome so that we can start trying to pick up the pieces.

The only politician, as far as I am aware, to emerge from all this with any dignity (though whether he has a career remains to be seen) is the German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. At least he said from the beginning that he would oppose a war in Iraq, and has remained opposed, in general quietly. There have been no fanfares of pseudo-opposition, no veto-wielding threats, and surprisingly little political mileage. Even though he said what he thought and has stuck to it, and indeed, what he said concurs with what the public want, they are still unimpressed: Schröder, according to most, doesn’t really mean it and he only said it to win votes. Which raises a question: which is better (from the public's perspective): a politician who you vote for and then does what you want, or a politician who you vote for and then does what he or she wants? The answer: you can't protest about the former as much.

So is this war a symbol of the end of the Enlightenment, of the idea that by clarity of thought and culture humanity could progress into something less bestial? If I’m honest, I think that the Enlightenment was always a non-starter: it is a matter of faith and belief that we are ultimately going somewhere, that there is some point in trying to drag ourselves kicking and screaming away from the abyss. Belief in the power of reason is still a belief, and all believers can have a crisis of faith. But you have to hold on to possible alternatives, even at extremities: as Roy Harper (no relation) sang after the last Gulf War:

The Fourth World is here
soon there'll either be none
or one global village
with faces as bright as the sun.
Here's hoping.