“‘Art and nothing but art’, said Nietzsche, ‘we have art in order not to die from the truth’”
The Myth of Sisyphus
Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 cinematic tour de force Solaris (based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel of the same name) boasts a reputation of being no less than one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made. An existential sci-fi thriller, a psychosomatic drama and a swelling romantic tragedy, Tarkovsky’s 169-minute masterpiece is a dense philosophical meditation on life and death, science and art, mind, memory, emotion, illusion, and the mystery of the cosmos. Tarkovsky’s filmic adaptation wrestles at length with complex existential questions of identity, cracks open multiple planes of reality, and questions the limitations of man’s scientific search for Truth, and his philosophical pursuit of purpose. The film primarily takes place on-board a spacecraft orbiting the planet ‘Solaris’. After some confusion surrounding a succession of mysterious reports from the crew aboard the ship, a psychologist is called to visit the station to perform an evaluation of the crew’s mental stability, and determine the progress of their mission. Despite receiving a grave warning from a former ‘Solaristics’ researcher, psychologist Kris Kelvin resolves to accept the mission, and eventually leaves the Earth behind for a journey to the mysterious planet. Upon his arrival at the station, however, Kelvin discovers the mysterious powers of the planet Solaris for himself, and his rigid concepts of truth and reality soon begin to shatter.
In his essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ from 1948, French philosopher Albert Camus addresses the subject of suicide, asserting that this “one truly serious philosophical problem” is in need of thoughtful consideration. He begins his case by recognising that man’s existence is fated to suffer a fundamental disharmony that arises from his inability to reconcile his essential need for reason with the final meaninglessness of life. He calls this irreconcilable contradiction ‘the absurd’. Yet, Camus argues that suicide—insofar as it springs from a fear or a rejection of the absurd – is ultimately a mislead attempt at freedom, and in the proceeding chapters he continues by explicating an alternative response to man’s fraught condition, advocating that true freedom lies in a confrontation of the absurd, as opposed to a surrender to it. In the ancient Greek myth, Sisyphus is condemned to an eternity of futile suffering by a punishment from the Gods. He is doomed to endlessly push a boulder to the top of a mountain, only to let it roll back down so that he may start the task again. Using Sisyphus as a metaphor for existential anxiety, Camus argues instead that we must reconsider the absurd, and conclude that “the struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart”, and “one must imagine Sisyphus happy”.
Solaris, in its exploration of identity, death, man and the cosmos, thoroughly illustrates the existential argument of the absurd outlined by Camus in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’. Lem’s novel deals with the question of man’s incapacity to communicate with the non-human, to relate or connect with animals or any other ‘alien’ species. Although this theme is certainly carried through in Tarkovsky’s adaptation, I would argue that Solaris also presents a rich exploration of man’s encounter with the absurd, through its both its narrative and cinematic language.
Solaris begins on planet Earth. We are introduced to our protagonist Kris Kelvin, the sombre and reflective psychologist, as he wanders pensively around the lake by his parents’ house. Shot and edited in long takes, tableau stills, and slow zooms, Tarkovsky eases the viewer into a contemplative and brooding mood that mimics Kelvin’s, whose great reluctance to leaving Earth is demonstrated in this melancholy farewell to nature. In a soft blend of leaves, mist and muted colours, Tarkovsky slows down time just enough to allow the mysteriousness lurking beneath the ordinary to rise ever so subtly to the surface – in a mess of tangled seaweed in the lake, or a yellow balloon floating quietly above the water. Kelvin returns from his forest walk to a visit from his father’s friend, Henri Burton, a former astronaut and ‘Solaristics’ researcher. He warns Kelvin of the bizarre and inexplicable occurrences he witnessed whilst in Solaris orbit, but Kelvin, unconvinced by Burton’s testimony, dismisses his accounts as mere hallucinations. He tells Burton that “research must continue at any price”, that he is “interested in the truth” and does not have the luxury of making decisions based on his feelings, declaring “I’m not a poet”. Kelvin eventually sets out on his journey, and, upon arriving at the Solaris station, finds the ship in a state of apparent chaos. “Hey! Where is everyone? You’ve got guests!”, Kelvins voice echoes as he steps into a forsaken hallway of exposed wires and paper debris. What Kelvin doesn’t know, is that he is not the only ‘guest’ on board. After finally finding one of the crew members onboard, Kelvin learns that all the scientists aboard the ship are suffering from a psychological side-effect induced by their proximity to Solaris. The planet, it is revealed, has the power to conjure chimeric ‘reproductions’ of any person from a host’s memory or subconscious. But these apparitions are more than mere hallucinations. They are tangible and autonomous, express personal thoughts and feelings, and can feel pain; They are, however, made of an alien form of “anti-matter” that renders them finally indestructible, and immortal.
Camus writes, “what is absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world”. So, the absurd is conjured by the ‘incompatibility’ of two opposing dichotomies: man’s appetite for meaning, and the “silent indifference” of the universe. Similarly, Solaris juxtaposes dichotomies that mirror the impossible Man / Cosmos nexus that gives rise to the absurd: Earth / Solaris, Human / Non-human, Ephemeral / Eternal, and so on. The planet Earth signifies man, meaning, science, the pursuit of truth and a belief in purpose. Solaris embodies the silent cosmos, the burning, enigmatic orb that spells eternal and infinite indifference to man and his quest for meaning. The apparitions conjured by Solaris—or ‘guests’ as they come to be called by the crew members—are invoked by the planet’s effect on the human’s mind, thus emanating from the planet’s itself, but also impossible without a hosting consciousness. The guests, therefore, arise much like the absurd, through an impossible interaction between man and the cosmos, reliant on both to exist, but existing precisely because of their incompatibility.
“I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms.” A. Camus
When Kelvin arrives at the station, he is informed that one of the three scientists, Dr. Gibarian, has taken his own life due to suffering induced by the arrival of his ‘guests’. Thus, we are introduced to Camus’ initial subject of concern: in face of the absurd, is suicide the answer? In his opening chapter, Camus concludes that in acknowledging the absurd, we are left with three possible responses: committing suicide; committing ‘philosophical suicide’; or confronting absurdity. Solaris demonstrates each of these responses throughout its narrative, starting where Camus begins: with suicide. Dr. Gibarian’s encounter with the absurd demonstrates a resort to despair, a confession that “life is too much or [he] does not understand it”, and a surrender to suicide.
As the plot progresses, Kelvin eventually experiences Solaris’ powers for himself when he wakes up to a visit from his dead wife, Hari. Despite accepting the circumstances of Hari’s appearance on the ship as the mere result of Solarian side-effects, Kelvin slowly abandons logic in favour emotion and eventually falls in love with her. Hari, who is equally confused by her sudden existence—trapped in a body that has no memory and no past—grows stronger with each passing day, and is convinced that she is becoming a “real” human. In helping each other grapple with questions of identity, memory and reality, Kelvin and Hari fall in love despite their mutual understanding that she is not the/ a “real” Hari.
In a swirling, steaming lava-lake of moral anguish, haunted psyche’s, madness, illusion, and cosmic insignificance, Solaris keeps the absurd at the centre of its narrative through the character of Hari. In one over-the-shoulder shot, she contemplates her reflection in a water-speckled bathroom mirror. The water droplets spattered across her image imitate the glittering star-studded cosmos; a wet, Pollock-ian flick of the wrist that suggests the absurd tension between deliberate pattern and total randomness. The glittering, star-like drops sprinkled across Hari’s reflection visualise the impossible duality of man’s existential predicament by embodying at once the earthly (water) and the cosmic (stars), the human need for meaning thence harmonising with the low hum of cosmic indifference. Her image is a paradox, a juxtaposition of worlds, and an embodiment of the absurd.
Meanwhile, the two remaining crew members on board the ship, Dr. Sartorius and Dr. Snaut, have locked themselves up in their respective rooms where they proceed to deal with the Solarian side-effects in their own, diverging ways. This brings us to Camus’ concept of philosophical suicide. For Camus, anyone who chooses to bury the absurd with ‘mythical thought’ (i.e. with God) or with absolute ‘reason’, is denying the existence of the absurd and therefore engaging in self-deceit. While Snaut and Sartorius both disapprove of Kelvin and Hari’s evolving affair, Sartorius’ particularly cold-hearted attitude and dedication to the ‘rational’ renders him the film’s first and foremost example of philosophical suicide. Obsessed with scientific reason, he sees the guests as nothing more than objects of scientific study, and is fully occupied with experimenting on them in his laboratory where he is developing a method for their permanent destruction. In one poignant scene, the crew members and Hari all gather together to celebrate Dr. Snaut’s birthday. The scene takes place in an old-fashioned study, whose dark-wood panelling, wax candles and Greek stone statues stand out against the rest of the ships milky and minimalist futuristic interiors. This nostalgic mise-en-scene reflects Dr. Sartorius’ unwavering confidence in, and total devotion to, man’s pursuit of knowledge and scientific inquiry.
When Snaut finally arrives to his own party, Dr. Sartorius raises a toast: “to his bravery, to his devotion to duty. To science, and to Snaut!” Sartorius’ constant references to the ‘mission’ and their ‘duty’ reflects his underlying conviction of the purposefulness of their expedition, and thus a committed belief in his own life’s meaning. “I know why I’m here. I’m working. Man was created by nature so he could learn her ways. In his endless search for truth, man is condemned to knowledge”, he declares. In Camus’ paradigm, he represents the man in denial of his existential predicament, who relies too heavily on rationality and logic, and thus eludes the conflict of the absurd. Sartorius denial of the absurd is manifested in his rejection of Hari: “There is no Hari. She’s dead”, he implores Kelvin. Moreover, while Sartorius’ does not express any overt religious tendency, it is difficult to ignore the stained glass window hanging behind his head as he proposes his toast to science. Camus writes, “the abstract philosopher and the religious philosopher start out from the same disorder and support each other in the same anxiety […] Nostalgia is stronger here than knowledge.” In existential terms, therefore, Dr. Sartorius’ belief in scientific knowledge is no different from a belief in God, and the church-like embellishment that decorates the wall behind his head, subtly paints this idea into the shot’s composition. Dr. Sartorius signifies “an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity”, but as Camus admits, “ if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot for all that apprehend the world”.
“Science? Nonsense”, Snaut mumbles in response to Sartorius. In a resigned huff, he proceeds to monologue:
“in this situation, mediocrity and genius are equally useless. We have no interest in conquering any cosmos. We want to extend the earth, to the borders of the cosmos. We don’t know what to do with other worlds, we don’t need other worlds. We need a mirror. We struggle for contact, but we’ll never find it. We’re in the foolish human predicament of striving for a goal that he fears, that he has no need for. Man needs man.”
Snaut’s rant demonstrates an acknowledgement of the absurd in admitting the futility of man’s egotistical, self-proclaimed intelligence, and questioning his quest to reduce the cosmos to a human level of understanding. Camus writes of the impossibility of understanding a greater meaning of the universe, even if there could possibly be one: “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms”. Snaut, unlike Sartorius, understands and accepts the limitations to man’s understanding of the greater cosmos. Dr. Snaut in-fact even references ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ in a later conversation with Kelvin (although it is unclear if he is referring to the Greek myth or Camus work): “In my opinion we have lost our sense of the cosmic. The ancients understood perfectly. They would never ask why or what for. Remember the Myth of Sisyphus?” Snaut acknowledges the impossibility of explaining the universe, and continues to insist throughout the film that demanding a total understanding will only lead to disillusionment and unhappiness.
Nevertheless, despite his convictions regarding the subject of happiness, by the time of this scene Dr. Snaut is beginning to unravel, showing up to his party dishevelled, drunk and sleep-deprived. Snaut has always approached Hari with a humanistic, if reserved, regard, kissing her on the hand in a display of respect and affection; However, we never see Snaut reconcile with his own guests, and we can assume that his struggle to accept their existence the way Kelvin accepts Hari, is likely the cause for his descent into alcoholism. A later dialogue between Kelvin and Snaut reveals their thoughts as they wrestle with conflicting ideas about happiness and meaning:
Kelvin: Listen, having spent so many years here on the station, do you still feel a clear connection to your life down there?
Dr. Snaut: You like dire questions. Soon you’ll ask me about the meaning of life.
Kelvin: Wait. Don’t be ironic.
Dr. Snaut: It’s a banal question. When man is happy, the meaning of life and other eternal themes rarely interest him. These questions should be asked at the end of one’s life.
Kelvin: But we don’t know when life will end. That’s why we’re in such a hurry.
Dr. Snaut: Don’t rush. The happiest people are those who are not interested in these cursed questions.
Kelvin: To ask is always the desire to know. Yet the preservation of simple human truths requires mystery. The mysteries of happiness, death and love.
Dr. Snaut: Maybe you’re right, but try not to think about all that now. To think about it is to know the day of one’s death. Not knowing that day makes us practically immortal.
While Kelvin expresses a curiosity for “the mysteries” of human experience, Dr. Snaut values ‘happiness’ and peace of mind over a true confrontation with the absurd. In ‘Sisyphus’, Camus writes that we must let go of hope, just as we must let go of despair, in order to live with the absurd. Hope, like suicide, is simply another way of avoiding confrontation. In the face of existential anxiety, Dr. Snaut eventually resigns to what Camus would call an “act of eluding”; turning towards either hope or despair in order to resolve the absurd, and in so doing “abolish[ing] [the] conscious revolt [in order] to elude the problem”. Kelvin, on the other hand, continues to confront and to question, thus “keeping [the absurd] alive” by contemplating it.
Moreover, in ‘Sisyphus’, Camus concludes that the ‘creator’ is in-fact the exemplary ‘absurd man’. To create art whilst simultaneously accepting its inevitable, eventual destruction, and thus to make art in the face of total futility, is for Camus the absurd life ‘par excellence’. “To work and create ‘for nothing’ […] to know that one’s creation has no future […] this is the difficult wisdom that absurd thought sanctions”. Throughout Solaris, the camera cuts to images of the planet’s bubbling surface; a ceaseless ocean of burning liquid that is reminiscent of Earth’s lava. As the men play out their drama on board the ship, the recurring images of Solaris’ scorching ocean continuously re-establish the planet’s perpetual indifference, and the inescapable persistence of the absurd. The film meditates the dichotomy of absurd creation in these hypnotising long-takes of Solaris boiling ocean, as the lava – at once a creative force muscled with destructive power – personifies its essential duality.
Soon after his talk with Snaut, Kelvin develops a serious fever. We then learn of Hari’s destruction at the hands of Sartorius – allegedly by her own will – after Kelvin wakes up in the hospital bed to the news from Snaut of her assisted suicide. The two of men subsequently conclude that it’s time Kelvin returned to Earth. “Suffering makes life seem dismal and suspect. But I won’t accept that […] What can I do, stay here and hope she returns? But I do not harbour this hope. All I can do is wait”, Kelvin resolves. Finally, Kelvin dismisses the temptations of hope or despair, and remains in absurd revolt: “this revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it”, writes Camus. Therefore, as soon becomes apparent, Hari’s death is not the end of Kelvin’s absurd life, but only the beginning. Later we see Kelvin, seemingly back on Earth, walking up towards his parents’ house, emerging from the same forest we see him wander at the start of the film. As he approaches, the camera cuts to a shot from inside the house, and we see that rain is falling indoors, dripping from ceiling. Kelvin’s father, seemingly ignorant of the supernatural weather, then steps out to greet his son. Kelvin falls to his knees as the two of them embrace. All the while, the camera is pulling slowly out of the scene, moving through clouds of mist and into space, until it finally reveals the reality: Kelvin is on an island, floating in Solaris gigantic ocean on a reconstructed version of his old home. The image of Kelvin embracing his father has been compared many times to Rembrandt’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ from 1669. In this final tableau, Kelvin’s life becomes analogous with a work of art, a visualisation of his commitment to revolt through the personification of absurd creation.