How Stanislaw Lem Writes Allegory

How Stanislaw Lem Writes Allegory

A friend of mine (Hey, Zane) lent me a book, The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem, because of its parallels to The Fish Fox BoysThe Cyberiad is a collection of somewhat related short stories concerning two inventors, Trurl and Klapaucious and nearly every story is an allegory for philosophical mind experiments, a political satire or a treatise on the human condition.

Unlike other allegorical writers, Lem’s approach is hilariously heavy handed and very intentional. From the Introduction by Christopher Priest:

“Lem […] always intended that these stories could be read on two levels […]. On the surface, they are amusing and intriguing, full of novelty and wordplay, but they also contain many moral ambiguities and reflect Lem’s personal philosophy.”

And apparently, he was very frustrated with his American contemporaries, and saw the sci-fi genre as a pulpy excuse to simply make beer money (with the notable exception of Philip K Dick, who repaid this appraise by reporting Lem to the FBI, barring him from the United States). On the topic, again from the Introduction:

“[…] he had a deeply sceptical [sic] attitude to commercial science fiction, and wrote an essay in which he described American writing as ‘ill thought out, poorly written, and interested more in adventure than ideas or new literary forms.'”

But Lem also understood that there was a practical reason for allegory: subversion. While I’ll make a subtle parable out of a Fish Fox Boys chapter to disguise a philosophical idea as absurdity on the sly, Lem had to get his works through state censors– work that contained agnostic, anti-Communistic messages. So, Lem shrouded his work– amusingly– in the sci-fi genre:

“[…] Lem was beginning to understand, that functionaries of a totalitarians state are never as intelligent as all that. Lem was starting to learn that the abstract metaphors of science fiction were one way of confounding the doltish Party men with their blue pencils. They simply lacked the subtlety, the imagination, to see past the words on the page.”

What’s particularly striking about that, is that the veil is relatively thin– but also happens to include a lot of fantastical technical jargon (that’s not a typo. Again, it is as fantastical as it is deeply technical which makes it, uhm, challenging to say the least) that pummels the reader with clever word play and puns, but is essentially non-essential to the plot. Lem himself even winks at this in “The Sixth Sally,” by creating a “Demon of the Second Kind,” which drowns a pirate demanding facts by writing down inconsequential information on an endless roll of ticker tape. (The mechanic of which, I believe, was explained to be literally grabbing facts out of stagnant air particles). This also seems to allude to Lem’s belief that “information technology drowns people in a glut of low-quality information,” which is not only a relevant and apt criticism of the Internet age, but is also particularly amusing to me as it illustrates my first college essay which drew parallels between Toqueville’s Democracy of America and the society influence of Facebook.

What’s that? Sorry, I couldn’t hear you. My Auto-Horn-A-Tootinator was screaming.

Back to The Cyberiad.

There’s a certain flippancy to this style. The characters have been given the god-like power to construct anything asked of them and the effect is one of aggressive anti-realism (which again is poked at in a story about how dragon’s don’t exist. I’m going to paraphrase it the best I can and apologize for any lapse in logic. The probability of a dragon’s existence is about 0%, the certainty of dragons not existing is about 100%, meaning that there is about a 100% chance of non-existing dragons, which increases the probability of dragons having had to have existed and as such a dragon materializes. My brain hurts.) which allows for a certain sense of freedom in his storytelling– in a crafted world where you can make anything happen, you can literally tackle everything as your subject matter. And Lem does. It’s a nice reminder that fiction doesn’t need to be necessarily formulaic to be interesting. It can just be interesting. And poignant.

In this anti-realism, there is a complete bucking and subversion of traditional storytelling conventions. Frame narrative, for example, gets a lot of abuse. In a story about Trurl inventing story telling machines for a king, the machines tell a story about Trurl telling a story to a second king, and in that story a dream-maker captures a third king in a long series of dreams, the ultimate being a dream of having a dream. I’m pretty sure there are actually more layers than that. Predates Inception by 45 years. Just saying.

Here’s what this can accomplish: by putting form on the back burner, one can more directly attack the subject of satire. In one episode, there’s a planet that’s pestered by a ship outside of its orbit who won’t leave. They launch a nuclear bomb at it to no avail. Trurl sails by on his rocket and instructs them to send a letter and wait for the response, only to respond with an assault of ceaseless forms and requests for licenses until the alien ship becomes frustrated to the point of leaving voluntarily. It’s the classic “pen > sword” parable, but in a more modern and global sense, it’s the crushing intimidation of bureaucracy, which might be favorable to nuclear annihilation– and then in a further sense, it illustrates how diminished the threat of the bomb is when it’s easily nullified, and how we resort to petty global politics to achieve our nation’s wants.

When Lem wants to discuss the callousness of Stalin’s Communism, he writes about The Multitudinous– a borg-like conglomeration of many, who feels nothing when scores of itself dies or becomes enslaved– and even commits those crimes against itself for its own amusement. When Lem wants to discuss religion, he invents a drug called Altruizine, which makes the users feel automatic empathy for those around them– which of course ends in alienation, murder, grief and voyeuristic sex crimes. When discussing existentialism, Lem writes a story about a robot who came into existence the pure happenstance of an airborne jug knocking some wires and body parts into a puddle of electrolytic fluid, spending eons to become conscious only to drown shortly after the realization of self-awareness. This versatility lends itself well to discussing human absurdity. I’ll quote from the final chapter of The Cyberiad, in which a robot disguises himself as a human to win over a robot princess and explains the daily habits of human life with rigid, robotic objectivity:

“In the morning, they wet themselves in clear water, pouring it upon their limbs as well as into their interiors, for this affords them pleasure. Afterwards, they walk to and fro in a fluid and undulating way, and they slush, and they slurp, and when anything grieves them, they palpitate, and salty water streams from their eyes, and when anything cheers them, they palpitate and hiccup, but their eyes remain relatively dry. And we call the wet palpitating weeping, and the dry– laughter.” (284)

Part of the reason why I found Stanislaw Lem so refreshing is that the aesthetics in modern sci-fi are so up its own ass, actual novelty in the storytelling has fallen by the wayside. There are exceptions, certainly, but the mainstream obsession is focused on how complete a certain world looks, not necessarily the message behind it. In The Cyberiad, all of the worlds are generally placed in a feudal, medieval setting, regardless of the planet, as if to say, after all of this technology and possibility, there hasn’t been much progression in human (and robotic) behavior.

 

But the thing that struck me as the most profound was Lem’s awareness of the function of story. Mirroring the sentiment of the first quote of this post, Trurl escapes certain death by creating storytelling machines that relay narratives that are compelling and perceptive of the nature of being. The awareness speaks of a deep understanding of how the human mind will resist foreign ideas, but might be accepting of the narrative vehicle in which the idea travels. To quote King Genius who allowed the constructor of the storytelling devices to live:

“Go then in Peace, my friend, and continue to hide your truths, too bitter for this world, in the guise of fairy tale and fable.” (243)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the translator Michael Kandel, who, through some miracle was able to translate The Cyberiad into English and Daniel Mróz, whose illustrations added an extra whimsical flavor, featured in the header
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All the World’s A Page

All the World’s A Page

During the office hours for a medieval literature class, my professor (and in case it wasn’t clear that I was a poor, poor academic, I was taking this class remedially, as I had flunked out of that same professor’s Chaucer class) told me something I’ve been turning around in my head ever since– that people in the Dark Ages read the world allegorically.

What the hell does that mean? Well, first you need to consider that folks in the olden days didn’t read words so much. Literacy was a tool reserved for Jesus nerds (clergymen) who would read, and then interpret, the Bible during mass. To be a good Christian, one has to read the Bible faithfully. So how does an illiterate farmer accomplish that?

According to my professor, a farmer dude might look at a tree and contemplate it as an allegory for Christ. He’d see the roots planted firmly in the ground, the branches leaning into the sun, and I don’t know, he’d see an apple or something. And he’d interpret that to mean by firmly grounding oneself in faith (roots), seeking truth in the God’s word (light, sun), one is rewarded (fruit, salvation).

And then he’d go stick some leeches on his butt because a barber told him that cured syph’.

Basically, the gist of it is that they saw the world as a manifestation of The Bible, that the world had the Word of God coded into its every corner.

It’s a common misconception that people in history were dumb. We have a tendency to think because we’re progressively marching towards a fairer world and have smart phones, that we’re smarter than we used to be. We’re not, exactly. Our phones are. The human brain hasn’t changed much in thousands of years (except the relatively modern trend of shrinkage). The farmer doesn’t have the tools of literacy, or a socially aware history, or access to modern medical science. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

But what I think that story speaks to is that farmer still had a critically thinking brain, and he applied it to the world around him using the lens of religion to understand and interpret that world.

Despite all of our technology, despite the lowest global illiteracy rates we’ve ever seen, I’m beginning to think that we still read the world allegorically. You’d think that it’d be the other way around– that we view something, we interpret it, and then we write our piece on it. And maybe that’s true some of the time and probably definitely true in early development. But I’m thinking that maybe our brains become wired to hold certain schemas (primed by upbringing, advantages or disadvantages, and media) about how the world works such that we interpret events before they happen– or rather, we justify events to fit our preexisting schemas.

Children do this naturally and intentionally– I personally crafted my life to reflect a reality of Calvin and Hobbes, pretended to be a pirate after watching Hook, and I would fight hundreds of invisible foes after watching 3 Ninjas. That’s until I discovered video games, after which, I made swords and shields out of errant pieces of metal lying around my house. I threw Pokéballs at bugs. I’d watch the ocean, hoping to see a dragon. I wanted these things to be real to the point that I was willing to let my imagination redirect reality into a personal narrative. At least until playtime was over.

Writers have a tendency to do this in adolescence in a very meta sense– writing fan-fiction using pre-existing fantastical universes to access their own emotions and frame their own internal struggles with something familiar. (Uncomfortable example: “Oh nooo,” said Professor Umbridge. “It seems I’ve dropped my quill.”) 

Now we live in an age of information bubbles, where two polarized sides of America can watch the same news story play out and offer two completely disparate interpretations, each one validated by their home base.

How does that happen? Well, we’re all aware of the concept of confirmation bias, right? That you only seek out the information that serves your views and ignore or discredit that which opposes your views. That’s the psychological mechanic behind reading the world allegorically. It’s just that The Bible we’re priming ourselves with now includes literature, movies, the news, memes and social media. Our brains understand the world around us through what we watch and read and consume on a daily basis.

Astrology is a good example of this in action. Let’s say you’re a Libra and are interested in dating a Leo (Hey, I’m a Leo! It doesn’t matter.) because you know and love Leos. You two go out for a drink. Despite this Leo being generally uptight and reserved, you might find yourself ignoring this and focusing on what makes them appear to be gregarious and outspoken. (“They laughed at my joke! Leos love jokes! This is going to work!” or “They were such an asshole to the bartender! Classic Leo! This is going to work!”)

Or maybe your Horoscope informed you that you would find someone who had been missing from your life and advised to stay away from tenuous situations. Then a friend from high school wanders into your workplace and orders a coffee (you’re a barista in this example, because, of course you are). Later, a dispute breaks out between coworkers and you choose to separate yourself from it. You get home and remember your horoscope, and wouldn’t you know it, it came true! Didn’t it?

Well, these are examples of shoehorning a paradigm into something benign– or in the dating example, a special kind of color blindness that sees all flags as white. Not to get into too much of a tangent on the cookie-cutter advice Horoscope writers dish out (not that it’s ever bad, per se, but it’s just common sense. Avoid tenuous situations? One of the reasons human beings are still alive is our capacity for risk assessment), but wouldn’t it have also been true if you read, say, a Cancer’s ‘scope and it said something like, “You will reclaim a memory you thought you had lost and cool heads prevail under times of duress?”

When it matters, it’s when the situation isn’t so benign. Look at it from a political perspective, because apparently it’s impossible not to these days.

On the right: If your news, your friends and family, your Mark Wahlburg movies and favored political leaders are saying that Islam is a religion of war, you’re going to look at the world, afraid, and find examples to justify that fear– because examples of violence are there, and the natural tendency is to extend that example to all examples. But you’d be ignoring the 99.994% of the global Muslim population who aren’t extremists and the 94% of terroristic attacks carried out on US soil by non-Islamic extremists because that doesn’t fit the narrative.

On the left: If your news, your friends, perhaps not your parents, your comedians and favored political leaders vilify red state voters, you’re going to find examples of white supremacy, misogyny, and hate– because examples are definitely there. But you’d be ignoring the plight of former industrial workers who can’t get a job because governmental interests have left their economy to rot and their towns are in the valley of too populous yet too small to accommodate customer service jobs like cities and suburbs can. They chose the devil they didn’t know, because the last one screwed them in their perspective.

Obviously, I fall onto the left side of the spectrum. But I want everyone to recognize that our minds, beautiful machines capable of astounding works that they may be, are reactionary to precedent information which perhaps interprets the world for us, before we can even take a moment to breathe.

Psychological schemas are solid, but not unshakeable blueprints. We’re constantly updating (usually buttressing) the designs, but never lose hope that the most hateful of people can come around to a reasonable understanding as long as we remember that people are people and have always been people.

The only thing I can think to prescribe is a careful and well variegated media diet. I’m not saying you should listen to Alex Jones– I’m pretty sure no one should– but perhaps by entertaining– not necessarily believing or ascribing to– a palette of perspectives, we can understand each other’s personal allegory. Because our brains will favor a story over reality every single time.

Failing that, remember what Socrates said: “I do not think I know what I do not know.