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 his 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.
In his stunning book Sculpting in Time, the filmmaker elaborates: “Art . . . is 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.
Kelvin’s journey to Solaris and the further reaches of outer space becomes 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 darkness 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.