Stanisław Lem with Bożena Shallcross
September 28, 2021 Instytut Polski w Nowym Jorku
The latest episode of “Encounters with Polish Literature” celebrates the centennial of the birth of Stanisław Lem (1921-2006) in Lwów (today L’viv, Ukraine), one of Poland’s most popular writers, known primarily for his widely translated science fiction works such as Solaris, The Cyberiad, and Tales of Pirx the Pilot, though he expressed a certain ambivalence about the genre in his later interviews.
One of Lem’s particular talents is the invention of fictional literatures, such as the entire history of the fictional science of “Solaristics” in the novel, Solaris, but he pursues this genre of fictional fictions for its own sake apart from science fiction, authoring introductions to and reviews of nonexistent books in Memoirs Found in a Bathtub and A Perfect Vacuum. While his science fiction works may be viewed as philosophical novels, he also wrote non-fiction works of philosophy and futurology including his Dialogues, Summa Technologiae, and many essays and extended interviews.
He grew up as an only child, the son of a successful laryngologist among Lwów’s urban secularized Jewish intelligentsia in the wake of the First World War, so he had the opportunity to mature into early adulthood in a comfortable, stable environment in independent Poland before the outbreak of World War II and relocation to Kraków after the war. He studied medicine at his father’s urging, but did not pursue a career as a physician. He began writing and publishing as early as 1946, but grew substantially in productivity and popularity after the Thaw of 1956, three years after the death of Stalin.
In this episode, we consider three works, Lem’s memoir of childhood, Highcastle, his early novel about the fate of a psychiatric hospital during Second World War, The Hospital of the Transfiguration, and his science fiction masterpiece, Solaris, which would become the subject of films by Andrei Tarkovsky and Stephen Soderburgh. We look at Lem’s use of architecture as a means for organizing a community of scientists or researchers, and his lavish improvisatory descriptions of the ocean and sky in Solaris. We pay particular attention to Lem’s fascination with material objects and mechanisms nurtured in childhood, his exploration of philosophical problems such as the nature of consciousness, the paradox of contact between persons, the possibility of communication between humans and alien beings, madness and genius, and Nazism’s denial of the personhood of the mentally ill and the disabled.
Encounters with Polish Literature is a new video series for anyone interested in literature and the culture of books and reading. Each month, host David A. Goldfarb presents a new topic in conversation with an expert on that author or book or movement in Polish literature. More about the Encounters with Polish Literature series and the timeline.
Bartek Remisko, Executive Producer
David A. Goldfarb, Host & Producer
Natalia Iyudin, Producer
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