Stanisław Lem – Solaris


Stanisław LemSolaris (MON 1961)

A work of science fiction, yes, but Solaris is also as much about humanity as anything else.  Psychologist Kris Kelvin travels to a space station on the planet Solaris, where strange things have been happening.  The thoughts of the cosmonauts are made corporeal, as “visitors”, by the planet itself.  A kind of pink slime “ocean” covers the planet.  It is sentient.  The ocean is even able to adjust the planet’s orbit between two suns.  A fascinating (and horrifyingly realistic) subplot is the way that Kelvin uncovers a conscious/unconscious plot by scientists to suppress the nature of the planet in published reports, relegating certain information to an Apocrypha and discrediting those whose findings contradict official dogma, with scientists acting like the guardians of religious institutions rather than seekers of knowledge as they profess to be.  The scientists are only able to apply language that is internally consistent, like mathematics, but never explains the mystery of the planet itself.  The planet remains an impenetrable other, its motivations inscrutable and unknown to the scientists.  Is it experimenting on the scientists?  Is it trying to help them?  No one knows. Comparing the novel to Moby Dick, Lem said that he “only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images.”  But what dominates the story about scientists who cannot hope to understand the planet Solaris, is that they also fail to understand themselves.  Everything they experience about the planet is filtered through their own, flawed consciousnesses first.  The premise of the book maps directly onto the work of Jacques Lacan, Alain Badiou, and continental philosophy — Lem called the Freudian interpretation “obvious”.   Certainly, one of the greatest of 20th Century Sci-Fi novels.

Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender

The Milk-Eyed Mender

Joanna NewsomThe Milk-Eyed Mender Drag City DC263CD (2004)

It is altogether too easy for albums like Joanna Newsom’s The Milk-Eyed Mender to fall through the cracks and into obscurity. There is little effort to please. Her fragile, child-like voice is a singular medium of expression. So too is her harp, played eloquently at every moment. The real achievement though is her songwriting. She is amazing. Each song is so fully developed, with an openness that belies the precision one could find on close inspection. Her music swathes you like a worn blanket and fills you with warmth — precious obscurity.

Much can be praised in the album’s gently meandering collection of songs. “Sadie” is a mellow ballad, which would seem to be about a dog. Long, sustained notes from Newsom’s harp add to the genuineness of the songwriting. She deeply appreciates the importance of conventionally “small” events. There is deep conviction implicit in her music. “Sadie” has the richness of sincere personal experience. It is broken-in. “Inflammatory Writ” pairs Newsom with a piano. Her lyrics are vibrant. They are funny as well. Still, they hold an interest throughout in her oblique observational comments, like declaring that you “take no jam on your bread”. The pounding lilt of the piano draws out the jumps and breaks in Newsom’s voice. Then “Peach, Plum, Pear” has a harpsichord to constantly shift the texture of the sounds. The song takes more of a prodding tone than the others.

The Milk-Eyed Mender is a smooth album that wants for nothing. Joanna Newsom conveys contentment like no other in music. She twinkles with independence, and turns that energy to a love of family, friends, pets, afternoon naps, curios, and snacks. The Milk-Eyed Mender is cast as a kind of timeless wealth.  And her songwriting only got better from here.