Tuesday, November 14, 2006

"Futurological Congress" by Stanislaw Lem (an introduction)


Walter Wink, in his book "Naming the Powers" talks about the "powers of the air", referring to
"the invisible but palpable environment of opinions, beliefs, propaganda, convictions, prejudices, hatreds, racial and class biases, taboos, and loayalties that condition our perception of the world long before we reach the age of choice... It "kills" us precicely because we breathe it in before we even realize it is noxious. Like fish in water, we are not even aware that it exists, much less that it determines the way we think, speak, and act".
We've seen the awareness of this sort of "reality" analogously portrayed in movies like The Matrix and The Truman Show, and in music such as that made by Radiohead and Beck (as David Dark writes about in greater detail in his book "Everyday Apocalyptic"). In Stanislaw Lem's book "The Futurological Congress", the character Ijon Tichy finds himself in a similar environment / future reality (and Wink's concept of the "powers of the air" is portrayed as quite a literal concept here). It is a world in which reality itself has been commodified, by means of next-generation hallucinogenic drugs - “Mascons” specifically:
"Narcotics do not cut one off from the world, they only change one’s attitude towards it. Hallucinogens, on the other hand, blot out and totally obscure the world… But mascons falsify the world"
- which the society itself requires for it’s very existance and survival. Commodification comes in both the Truman show / 1984 sense (aka: imposed on one from the outside), and also in the Brave New World sense of voluntarily sought by the society itself
"The fiendishness of it all is that part of this mass deception is open and voluntary, letting people think they can draw the line between fiction and fact. And since no one any longer responds to things spontaneiously…the distinction between manipulated and natural feelings has ceased to exist"
Tichy, awakened to the truth, goes out
"Like a bloodhound hot on the trail, my mind sought out all the hollow, empty places in this monumental masquerade, this tinseled cheat that sprawled across the horizon"
As the purveyors of this society explain, “A dream will always triumph over reality, once it is given a chance”, explaining how
"one can mask any object in the outside world behind a fictitious image – superimposed – and with such dexterity, that the psychemasconated subject cannot tell which of his perceptions have been altered, and which have not. If but for a single instant you could see this world of ours the way it really is – undoctored, unadulterated, uncensored – you would drop in your tracks!"
This calls to mind, not only the concept behind Stephen King’s “Needful Things” – which is more akin to the reality spoken of in FC - but also, on the other end, a comment made I believe by C.S. Lewis that, were we to see our fellow man in all his trancendental glory, as he really is, we would be tempted to fall down in worship. Or, as Frederick Buechner’s Nicolet says (in Final Beast),
“whatever this is we move around through…Reality…the air we breathe…this emptiness…If you could get hold of it by the corner somewhere, just slip your fingernail underneath and peel it back enough to find out what’s there behind it, I think you’d be…I think the dance that must go on back there…If we saw anymore of that dance than we do, it would kill us sure… The glory of it. Clack-Clack is all a man can bear”
As these societal overseers so rationally put it,
“is it so satanical if, in some extreme case, a doctor chooses to hide the truth from his patient? I say that if this is the way we must live, eat, exist, at least let us have it in fancy wrappings…what’s the harm?”
As Ijon Tichy begins to wake up to the truth of the reality around him, he writes how “all along I was unaware of the foulness lurking behind that most elegant, courteous facade”. he knows he must do something about it, but what? He comes into posession of an “anti-illusory” elixir, one that helps to counter the effects on himself of the illusion-perpetuating drugs he is living on, and goes through stages of reality-awareness,
“realizing in a sudden shudder of premonition that now reality was sloughing off yet another layer – clearly, it’s falsification had begun so very long ago, that even the most powerful antidote could do no more than tear away successive veils, reaching the veils beneath but not the truth”.
Tichy finds himself “no longer safely inside the illusion, but shipwrecked in reality”, much like Neo once he is pulled into reality, out of the Matrix. He knows that a mind awake is not readily tolerated in a society who’s very survival is dependant on illusion, and is “certain that the fact that I could see was plainly written on my face and I would have to pay for it”. He fears that the anti-drug which woke him up will wear off and he would find himself back in “paradise”. and, much like the attitude of the Zion resistance group in The Matrix, he says that this
“prospect filled me with nothing but fear and loathing, as if I would have rather shivered in some garbage dump – with the knowledge that that was what it was – than owed my deliverance to apparitions”.

Thomas Merton writes along these lines in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
People are constantly trying to use you to help them create the particular illusions by which they live. This is particularly true of the collective illusions which sometimes are accepted as ideologies. You must renounce and sacrifice the approval that is only a bribe enlisting your support of a collective illusion...You must be willing, if necessary, to become a disturbing and therefore an undesired person, one who is not wanted because he upsets the general dream.

in a disconnected way, I’m reminded of all this when I hear a mass media / self-help icon like Dr. Phil say (in the form of real advice to his listeners), “there is no reality, only perception”

The book, in typical Lem fashion (and similar to fellow SciFi writer Philip K. Dick), is a strange trip, one that is well worth the price of admission and may well alter your own perception of whatever it is you think of as "reality".


Andrew said...

Great Merton quote. Sheesh, I need to read more Merton.

jdaviddark said...

That's some amazing stuff. I'm tempted to cut and paste your whole entry and pretend I wrote it (I'd change some words around to make myself feel more honest). And now i have a way helpful pointer on where to go with Lem. Why'd you choose "Futurological Congress?"

Great work (and Hi Andrew),

Brook said...

My brother turned me on to Stanislaw Lem quite a few years ago (which is when I read this book), and FC was the book he was reading or recommending at the time. any of the Ijon Tichy novels, so says my bro, are worthy of the investment. He also recommends Chain of Chance.

Thanks for the encouraging comment, glad you could make it to this corner of the web. sorry for some of the mess...