The Thing from Inner Space

Stills from 'Stalker' courtesy of Tarkovsky Homepage.Stills from 'Stalker' courtesy of Tarkovsky Homepage.Stills from 'Stalker' courtesy of Tarkovsky Homepage.Stills from 'Stalker' courtesy of Tarkovsky Homepage.

Jacques Lacan defines art itself with regard to the Thing: in his Seminar on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis, he claims that art as such is always organized around the central Void of the impossible-real Thing – a statement which, perhaps, should be read as a variation on Rilke’s old thesis that “Beauty is the last veil that covers the Horrible”. (See Chapter XVIII of Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, London: Routledge 1992.) Lacan gives some hints about how this surrounding of the Void functions in the visual arts and in architecture; what we shall do here is not provide an account of how, in cinematic art, the field of the visible, of representations, involves reference to some central and structural Void, to the impossibility attached to it – ultimately, therein resides the point of the notion of suture in cinema theory. What I propose to do is something much more naive and abrupt: to analyze the way the motif of the Thing appears within the diegetic space of cinematic narrative – in short, to speak about films whose narrative deals with some impossible/traumatic Thing, like the Alien Thing in science-fiction horror films.

What better proof of the fact that this Thing comes from Inner Space than the very first scene of Star Wars? At first, all we see is the void – the infinite dark sky, the ominously silent abyss of the universe, with dispersed twinkling stars which are not so much material objects as abstract points, markers of space coordinates, virtual objects; then, all of a sudden, in Dolby stereo, we hear a thundering sound coming from behind our backs, from our innermost background, later rejoined by the visual object, the source of this sound – a gigantic space ship, a kind of space version of Titanic – which triumphantly enters the frame of screen-reality. The object-Thing is thus clearly rendered as a part of ourselves that we eject into reality… This intrusion of the massive Thing seems to bring relief, canceling the horror vacui of staring at the infinite void of the universe – however, what if its actual effect is the exact opposite? What if the true horror is that of Something – the intrusion of some excessive massive Real – where we expect Nothing? This experience of “Something (the stain of the Real) instead of Nothing” is perhaps at the root of the metaphysical question “Why is there something instead of nothing?”

I want to focus on the specific version of this Thing: the Thing as the Space (the sacred/forbidden Zone) in which the gap between the Symbolic and the Real is closed, i.e. in which, to put it somewhat bluntly, our desires are directly materialized (or, to put it in the precise terms of Kant’s transcendental idealism, the Zone in which our intuition becomes directly productive – the state of things which, according to Kant, characterizes only infinite divine Reason).

This notion of Thing as an Id-Machine, a mechanism that directly materializes our unacknowledged fantasies, possesses a long, if not always respectable, pedigree. In cinema, it all began with Fred Wilcox’s The Forbidden Planet (1956), which transposed onto a distant planet the story-skeleton of Shakespeare’s The Tempest: a father living alone with his daughter (who has never met another man) on an island have their peace disturbed by the arrival of a group of space-travelers. Strange attacks by an invisible monster soon start to occur, and, at the film’s end, it becomes clear that this monster is nothing but the materialization of the father’s destructive impulses against the intruders who disturbed his incestuous peace. (Retroactively, we can thus read the tempest itself from Shakespeare’s play as the materialization of the raging of the paternal superego…). The Id-Machine that, unbeknownst to the father, generates the destructive monster is a gigantic mechanism beneath the surface of this distant planet, the mysterious remnants of some past civilization that succeeded in developing such a machine for the direct materialization of thoughts and thus destroyed itself… Here, the Id-Machine is firmly set in a Freudian libidinal context: the monsters it generates are the realizations of the primordial father’s incestuous destructive impulses against other men who might threaten his symbiosis with the daughter.

The ultimate variation of this motif of the Id-Machine is arguably Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, in which this Thing is also related to the deadlocks of sexual relationship. Solaris is the story of a space agency psychologist, Kelvin, sent to a half-abandoned spaceship above a newly-discovered planet, Solaris, where, recently, strange things have been taking place (scientists going mad, hallucinating and killing themselves). Solaris is a planet with an oceanic fluid surface which moves incessantly and, from time to time, imitates recognizable forms, not only elaborate geometric structures, but also gigantic children’s bodies or human buildings; although all attempts to communicate with the planet fail, scientists entertain the hypothesis that Solaris is a gigantic brain which somehow reads our minds. Soon after his arrival, Kelvin finds at his side in his bed his dead wife, Harey, who, years ago on Earth, killed herself after he had abandoned her. He is unable to shake Harey off, all attempts to get rid of her miserably fail (after he sends her into space with a rocket, she rematerializes the next day); analysis of her tissue demonstrates that she is not composed of atoms like normal human beings – beneath a certain micro-level, there is nothing, just void. Finally, Kelvin grasps that Harey is a materialization of his own innermost traumatic fantasies. This accounts for the enigma of strange gaps in Harey’s memory – of course she doesn’t know everything a real person is supposed to know, because she is not such a person, but a mere materialization of HIS fantasmatic image of her in all its inconsistency. The problem is that, precisely because Harey has no substantial identity of her own, she acquires the status of the Real that forever insists and returns to its place: like fire in Lynch’s films, she forever “walks with the hero”, sticks to him, never lets him go. Harey, this fragile specter, pure semblance, cannot ever be erased – she is “undead”, eternally recurring in the space between the two deaths. Are we thus not back at the standard Weiningerian anti-feminist notion of the woman as a symptom of man, a materialization of his guilt, his fall into sin, who can only deliver him (and herself) by her suicide? Solaris relies on science-fiction rules to enact in reality itself, to present as a material fact, the notion that woman merely materializes a male fantasy: the tragic position of Harey is that she becomes aware that she is deprived of all substantial identity, that she is Nothing in herself, since she only exists as the Other’s dream, insofar as the Other’s fantasies turn around her – it is this predicament that imposes suicide as her ultimate ethical act: becoming aware of how he suffers on account of her permanent presence, Harey finally destroys herself by swallowing a chemical stuff that will prevent her recomposition. (The ultimate horror scene of the movie takes place when the spectral Harey reawakens from her first failed suicide attempt on Solaris: after ingesting liquid oxygen, she lies on the floor, deeply frozen; then, all of a sudden, she starts to move, her body twitching in a mixture of erotic beauty and abject horror, sustaining unbearable pain – is there anything more tragic than such a scene of failed self-erasure, when we are reduced to the obscene slime which, against our will, persists in the picture?) At the novel’s end, we see Kelvin alone on the spaceship, staring into the mysterious surface of the Solaris ocean…

In her reading of the Hegelian dialectics of Lord and Bondsman, Judith Butler focuses on the hidden contract between the two: “the imperative to the bondsman consists in the following formulation: you be my body for me, but do not let me know that the body that you are is my body”.(Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, Stanford: Stanford University Press 1997, p. 47.) The disavowal on the part of the Lord is thus double: first, the Lord disavows his own body, he postures as a disembodied desire and compels the bondsman to act as his body; secondly, the bondsman has to disavow that he acts merely as the Lord’s body and act as an autonomous agent, as if the bondsman’s bodily laboring for the lord is not imposed on him but is his autonomous activity. This structure of double (and thereby self-effacing) disavowal also reveals the patriarchal matrix of the relationship between man and woman: in a first move, woman is posited as a mere projection/reflection of man, his insubstantial shadow, hysterically imitating but never able really to acquire the moral stature of a fully constituted self-identical subjectivity; however, this status of a mere reflection itself has to be disavowed and the woman provided with a false autonomy, as if she acts the way she does within the logic of patriarchy on account of her own autonomous logic (women are “by nature” submissive, compassionate, self-sacrificing…). The paradox not to be missed here is that the bondsman (servant) is all the more the servant, the more he (mis)perceives his position as that of an autonomous agent; and the same goes for woman – the ultimate form of her servitude is to (mis)perceive herself, when she acts in a “feminine” submissive-compassionate way, as an autonomous agent. For that reason, the Weiningerian ontological denigration of woman as a mere “symptom” of man – as the embodiment of male fantasy, as the hysterical imitation of true male subjectivity – is, when openly admitted and fully assumed, far more subversive than the false direct assertion of feminine autonomy – perhaps, the ultimate feminist statement is to proclaim openly “I do not exist in myself, I am merely the Other’s fantasy embodied”…

What we have in are thus Harey’s TWO suicides: the first one (in her earlier earthly “real” existence, as Kelvin’s wife), and then her second suicide, the heroic act of the self-erasure of her very spectral undead existence: while the first suicidal act was a simple escape from the burden of life, the second is a proper ethical act. In other words, if the first Harey, before her suicide on Earth, was a “normal human being”, the second one is a Subject in the most radical sense of the term, precisely insofar as she is deprived of the last vestiges of her substantial identity (as she says in the film: “No, it’s not me… It’s not me… I’m not Harey. /…/ Tell me… tell me… Do you find me disgusting because of what I am?”). The difference between Harey who appears to Kelvin and the “monstrous Aphrodite” who appears to Gibarian, one of Kelvin’s colleagues on the spaceship (in the novel, not in the film: in the film, Tarkovsky replaced her by a small innocent blonde girl), is that Gibarian’s apparition does not come from “real life” memory, but from pure fantasy: “A giant Negress was coming silently towards me with a smooth, rolling gait. I caught a gleam from the whites of her eyes and heard the soft slapping of her bare feet. She was wearing nothing but a yellow skirt of plaited straw; her enormous breasts swung freely and her black arms were as thick as thighs”.(Stanislaw Lem, Solaris, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company 1978, p. 30.) Unable to sustain confrontation with his primordial maternal fantasmatic apparition, Gibarian dies of shame.

Is the planet around which the story turns, composed of the mysterious matter which seems to think, i.e. which in a way is the direct materialization of Thought itself, not an exemplary case of the Lacanian Thing as the “Obscene Jelly” (The formula of Tonya Howe (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) on whose excellent seminar paper “Solaris and the Obscenity of Presence” I rely here.), the traumatic Real, the point at which symbolic distance collapses, the point at which there is no need for speech, for signs, since, in it, thought directly intervenes in the Real? This gigantic Brain, this Other-Thing, involves a kind of psychotic short-circuit: in short-circuiting the dialectic of question and answer, of demand and its satisfaction, it provides – or, rather, imposes on us – the answer before we even raise the question, directly materializing our innermost fantasies which support our desire. Solaris is a machine that generates/materializes, in reality itself, my ultimate fantasmatic objectal supplement/partner that I would never be ready to accept in reality, although my entire psychic life turns around it.

Jacques-Alain Miller (See Jacques-Alain Miller, “Des semblants dans la relation entre les sexes”, in La Cause freudienne 36, Paris 1997, p. 7-15.) draws the distinction between the woman who assumes her non-existence, her constitutive lack (“castration”), i.e. the void of subjectivity in her very heart, and what he calls la femme à postiche, the fake, phony woman. This femme à postiche is not what commonsense conservative wisdom would tell us (a woman who distrusts her natural charm and abandons her vocation of rearing children, serving her husband, taking care of the household, etc., and indulges in the extravaganzas of fashionable dressing and make-up, of decadent promiscuity, of career, etc.), but almost its exact opposite: the woman who takes refuge from the void in the very heart of her subjectivity, from the “not-having-it” which marks her being, in the phony certitude of “having it” (of serving as the stable support of family life, of rearing children, her true possession, etc.) – this woman gives the impression (and has the false satisfaction) of a firmly anchored being, of a self-enclosed, satisfied circuit of everyday life (her man has to run around wildly, while she leads a calm life and serves as the safe protective rock or save haven to which her man can always return…). (The most elementary form of “having it” for a woman is, of course, having a child, which is why, for Lacan, there is an ultimate antagonism between Woman and Mother: in contrast to woman who “n’existe pas”, mother definitely does exist). The interesting feature to be noted here is that, contrary to the commonsensical expectation, it is the woman who “has it”, the self-satisfied femme à postiche disavowing her lack, who not only does not pose any threat to the patriarchal male identity, but even serves as its protective shield and support, while, in contrast to her, it is the woman who flaunts her lack (“castration”), who poses as a hysterical composite of semblances covering a Void, who poses a serious threat to male identity. In other words, the paradox is that the more the woman is denigrated, reduced to an inconsistent and insubstantial composite of semblances around a Void, the more she threatens the firm male substantial self-identity (Otto Weininger’s entire work centers on this paradox); and, on the other hand, the more the woman is a firm, self-enclosed Substance, the more she supports male identity.

This opposition, a key constituent of Tarkovsky’s universe, finds its clearest expression in his Nostalgia, whose hero, the Russian writer wandering around northern Italy in search of manuscripts of a 19th-century Russian composer who lived there, is split between Eugenia, the hysterical woman, a being-of-lack trying desperately to seduce him in order to get sexual satisfaction, and his memory of the maternal figure of the Russian wife he has left behind. Tarkovsky’s universe is intensely male-centered, oriented on the opposition woman/mother: the sexually active, provocative woman (whose attraction is signaled by a series of coded signals, like the dispersed long hair of Eugenia in Nostalgia) is rejected as an inauthentic hysterical creature, and contrasted to the maternal figure with closely knit and kept hair. For Tarkovsky, the moment a woman accepts the role of being sexually desirable, she sacrifices what is most precious in her, the spiritual essence of her being, and thus devalues herself, turning into a sterile mode of existence: Tarkovsky’s universe is permeated by a barely concealed disgust for a provocative woman; to this figure, prone to hysterical incertitudes, he prefers the mother’s assuring and stable presence. This disgust is clearly discernible in the hero’s (and director’s) attitude towards Eugenia’s long, hysterical outburst of accusations against him which precedes her act of abandoning him.

It is against this background that one should account for Tarkovsky’s recourse to static long shots (or shots which allow only a slow panning or tracking movement); these shots can work in two opposite ways, both of them exemplarily at work in Nostalgia: they either rely on a harmonious relationship with their content, signaling the longed-for spiritual Reconciliation found not in Elevation from the gravitational force of the Earth but in a full surrender to its inertia (like the longest shot in Tarkovsky’s entire opus, the Russian hero’s extremely slow passage through the empty cracked pool with a lit candle as the path to his salvation; significantly, at the end, when, after a failed attempt, he does reach the other border of the pool, he collapses in death, fully satisfied and reconciled), or, even more interestingly, they rely on a contrast between form and content, like the long shot of Eugenia’s hysterical outburst against the hero, a mixture of sexually provocative seductive gestures with contemptuous dismissing remarks. In this shot, it is as if Eugenia protests not only against the hero’s tired indifference, but, in a way, also against the calm indifference of the long static shot itself which does not let itself be disturbed by her outburst – Tarkovsky is here at the very opposite extreme to Cassavetes, in whose masterpieces the (feminine) hysterical outbursts are shot by a hand-held camera from an over-proximity, as if the camera itself was drawn into the dynamic hysterical outburst, strangely deforming the enraged faces and thereby losing the stability of its own point-of-view…

Solaris nonetheless supplements this standard, although disavowed, male scenario with a key feature: this structure of woman as a symptom of man can be operative only insofar as the man is confronted with his Other Thing, a decentered opaque machine which “reads” his deepest dreams and returns them to him as his symptom, as his own message in its true form that the subject is not ready to acknowledge. It is here that one should reject the Jungian reading of Solaris: the point of Solaris is not simply projection, materialization of the (male) subject’s disavowed inner impetuses; what is much more crucial is that if this “projection” is to take place, the impenetrable Other Thing must already be here – the true enigma is the presence of this Thing. The problem with Tarkovsky is that he himself obviously opts for the Jungian reading, according to which the external journey is merely the externalization and/or projection of the inner journey into the depth of one’s psyche. Apropos of Solaris, he stated in an interview: “Maybe, effectively, the mission of Kelvin on Solaris has only one goal: to show that love of the other is indispensable to all life. A man without love is no longer a man. . . . “(Quoted from Antoine de Vaecque, Andrei Tarkovski, Cahiers du Cinema 1989, p. 108.) In clear contrast to this, Lem’s novel focuses on the inert external presence of the planet Solaris, of this “Thing which thinks” (to use Kant’s expression, which is fully appropriate here): the point of the novel is precisely that Solaris remains an impenetrable Other with no possible communication with us – true, it returns us to our innermost disavowed fantasies, but the “Que vuoi?” beneath this act remains thoroughly impenetrable (Why does It do it? As a purely mechanical response? To play demonic games with us? To help us – or compel us – to confront our disavowed truth?). It would thus be interesting to put Tarkovsky in the series of Hollywood commercial rewritings of novels which have served as the base for a movie: Tarkovsky does exactly the same as the lowest Hollywood producer, reinscribing the enigmatic encounter with Otherness into the framework of the production of the couple…

Nowhere is this gap between the novel and the film more perceptible than in their different endings: at the novel’s end, we see Kelvin alone on the spaceship, staring into the mysterious surface of the Solaris ocean, while the film ends with the archetypal Tarkovskian fantasy of combining within the same shot the Otherness into which the hero is thrown (the chaotic surface of Solaris) and the object of his nostalgic longing, the home dacha (Russian wooden countryhouse) to which he longs to return, the house whose contours are encircled by the malleable slime of Solaris’ surface – within the radical Otherness, we discover the lost object of our innermost longing. More precisely, the sequence is shot in an ambiguous way: just prior to this vision, one of his surviving colleagues on the space station tells Chris (the hero) that it is perhaps time for him to return home. After a couple of Tarkovskian shots of green weeds in water, we then see Chris at his dacha reconciled with his father – however, the camera then slowly pulls back and upwards, and gradually it becomes clear that what we have just witnessed was probably not the actual return home but still a vision manufactured by Solaris: the dacha and the grass surrounding it appear as a lone island in the midst of the chaotic Solaris surface, as yet another materialized vision produced by it . . .

The same fantasmatic staging concludes Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia: in the midst of the Italian countryside encircled by the fragments of a cathedral in ruins, i.e. in the midst of the place in which the hero is adrift, cut from his roots, there stands an element totally out of place, the Russian dacha, the stuff of the hero’s dreams; here, also, the shot begins with a close up of only the recumbent hero in front of his dacha, so that, for a moment, it may seem as if he has effectively returned home; the camera then slowly pulls back to divulge the properly fantasmatic setting of the dacha in the midst of the Italian countryside. Since this scene follows the hero’s successful accomplishment of the sacrificial-compulsive gesture of carrying the burning candle across the pool (after which he collapses and drops dead – or so we are led to believe), one is tempted to take the last shot of Nostalgia not only as the hero’s dream, but as an uncanny scene which, since it follows his decease, stands for his death: the moment of the impossible combination of Italian countryside in which the hero is adrift with the object of his longing is the moment of death. (This deadly impossible synthesis is announced in a previous dream sequence in which Eugenia appears in a solidaric embrace with the hero’s Russian maternal wife-figure.) What we have here is a phenomenon, a scene, a dream experience, which can no longer be subjectivized, i.e. a kind of non-subjectivizable phenomenon, a dream which is no longer a dream of anyone, a dream which can emerge only after its subject ceases to be… This concluding fantasy is thus an artificial condensation of opposed, incompatible perspectives, somehow like the standard optician’s test in which we see through one eye a cage, through the other eye a parrot, and, if our two eyes are well coordinated in their axes, when we open both eyes, we should see the parrot in the cage.(Is not the exemplary case of such a fantasmatic formation combining heterogeneous and inconsistent elements the mythical Kingdom (or Dukedom) of Ruritania, situated in an imaginary Eastern European space combining Catholic central Europe with the Balkans, the Central European noble feudal conservative tradition with the Balkan wilderness, modernity (train) with primitive peasantry, the “primitive” wilderness of Montenegro with the “civilized” Czech space (examples abound, from the notorious Prisoner of Zenda onwards)?)

Tarkovsky added not only this final scene, but also a new beginning: while the novel starts with Kelanvin’s space travel to Solaris, the movie’s first half hour takes place in the standard Tarkovskian Russian countryside, in which Kelvin takes a stroll, gets soaked by rain and immersed into humid earth… As we have already emphasized, in clear contrast to the film’s fantasmatic resolution, the novel ends with the lone Kelvin contemplating the surface of Solaris, aware more than ever that he has encountered here an Otherness with which no contact is possible. The planet Solaris has thus to be conceived in strictly Kantian terms, as the impossible apparition of the Thought (the Thinking Substance) as a Thing-in-itself, a noumenal object. Crucial for the Solaris-Thing is thus the coincidence of utter Otherness with excessive, absolute proximity: the Solaris-Thing is even more “ourselves”, our own inaccessible kernel, than the Unconscious, since it is an Otherness which directly “is” ourselves, staging the “objectively-subjective” fantasmatic core of our being. Communication with the Solaris-Thing thus fails not because Solaris is too alien, the harbinger of an Intellect infinitely surpassing our limited abilities, playing some perverse games with us whose rationale remains forever outside our grasp, but because it brings us too close to what, in ourselves, must remain at a distance if we are to sustain the consistency of our symbolic universe – in its very Otherness. Solaris generates spectral phenomena that obey our innermost idiosyncratic whims, i.e. if there is a stage-master who pulls the strings of what happens on the surface of Solaris, it is ourselves, “the Thing that thinks” in our heart. The fundamental lesson here is the opposition, antagonism even, between the big Other (the symbolic Order) and the Other qua Thing. The big Other is “barred”, it is the virtual order of symbolic rules that provides the frame for communication, while in the Solaris-Thing, the big Other is no longer “barred”, purely virtual; in it, the Symbolic collapses into the Real, language comes to exist as a Real Thing.

Tarkovsky’s other science-fiction masterpiece, Stalker, provides the counterpoint to this all-too-present Thing: the void of a forbidden Zone. An anonymous bleak country, an area known as the Zone was visited 20 years before by some mysterious foreign entity (meteorite, aliens…) which left behind debris. People are supposed to disappear in this deadly Zone, which is isolated and guarded by army personnel. Stalkers are adventurous individuals who, for a proper payment, lead people to the Zone and to the mysterious Room at the heart of the Zone where your deepest wishes are allegedly granted. The film tells the story of one such stalker, an ordinary man with a wife and a crippled daughter with the magic capacity of moving objects, who takes to the Zone two intellectuals, a Writer and a Scientist. When they finally reach the Room, they fail to pronounce their wishes because of their lack of faith, while Stalker himself seems to receive an answer to his wish that his daughter would get better.

As in the case of Solaris, Tarkovsky inverses the point of a novel: in the Strugatsky brothers’ novel The Roadside Picnic, on which the film is based, the Zones – there are six of them – are the debris of a “roadside picnic”, i.e. of a short stay on our planet by some alien visitors who quickly left it, finding us uninteresting; Stalkers themselves are also presented in a more adventurous way, not as dedicated individuals on a tormenting spiritual search, but as deft scavengers organizing robbing expeditions, somehow like the proverbial Arabs organizing raiding expeditions into the Pyramids (another Zone, for wealthy Westerners; are Pyramids not in effect, according to popular science literature, traces of an alien wisdom?). The Zone is thus not a purely mental fantasmatic space in which one encounters (or onto which one projects) the truth about oneself, but (like Solaris in Lem’s novel) the material presence, the Real of an absolute Otherness incompatible with the rules and laws of our universe. (Because of this, at the novel’s end, the hero himself, when confronted with the “Golden Sphere” – as the film’s Room in which desires are realized is called in the novel -, does undergo a kind of spiritual conversion, but this experience is much closer to what Lacan called “subjective destitution”, a sudden awareness of the utter meaningless of our social links, the dissolution of our attachment to reality itself – all of a sudden, other people are derealized, reality itself is experienced as a confused whirlpool of shapes and sounds, so that we are no longer able to formulate our desire…). In Stalker as well as in Solaris, Tarkovsky’s “idealist mystification” is that he shrinks from confronting this radical Otherness of the meaningless Thing, reducing/retranslating the encounter with the Thing to the “inner journey” towards one’s Truth. It is to this incompatibility between our own and the Alien universe that the novel’s title refers: the strange objects found in the Zone which fascinate humans are in all probability simply the debris, the garbage, left behind after aliens have briefly stayed on our planet, comparable to the rubbish a group of humans leaves behind after a picnic in a forest near a main road… So the typical Tarkovskian landscape (of decaying human debris half reclaimed by nature) is in the novel precisely what characterizes the Zone itself from the (impossible) standpoint of the visiting aliens: what is to us a Miracle, an encounter with a wondrous universe beyond our grasp, is just everyday debris to the Aliens… Is it then, perhaps, possible to draw the Brechtian conclusion that the typical Tarkovskian landscape (the human environment in decay reclaimed by nature) involves a view of our universe from an imagined Alien standpoint? The picnic is thus here at the opposite extreme to that at the Hanging Rock: it is not us who encroach upon the Zone while on a Sunday picnic, it is the Zone itself which results from the Alien’s picnic…

For a citizen of the defunct Soviet Union, the notion of a forbidden Zone gives rise to (at least) five associations: Zone is (1) Gulag, i.e. a separated prison territory; (2) aterritory poisoned or otherwise rendered uninhabitable by some technological (biochemical, nuclear…) catastrophe, like Chernobyl; (3) the secluded domain in which the nomenklatura lives; (4) foreign territory to which access is prohibited (like the enclosed West Berlin in the midst of the GDR); (5) a territory where a meteorite struck (like Tunguska in Siberia). The point, of course, is that the question “So which is the true meaning of the Zone?” is false and misleading: the very indeterminacy of what lies beyond the Limit is primary, and different positive contents fill in this preceding gap.

Stalker perfectly exemplifies this paradoxical logic of the Limit which separates our everyday reality from the fantasmatic space. In Stalker, this fantasmatic space is the mysterious “zone”, the forbidden territory in which the impossible occurs, in which secret desires are realized, in which one can find technological gadgets not yet invented in our everyday reality, etc. Only criminals and adventurers are ready to take the risk and enter this domain of fantasmatic Otherness. What one should insist on in a materialist reading of Tarkovsky is the constitutive role of the Limit itself: this mysterious Zone is effectively the same as our common reality; what confers on it the aura of mystery is the Limit itself, i.e. the fact that the Zone is designated as inaccessible, as prohibited. (No wonder that, when the heroes finally enter the mysterious Room, they become aware that there is nothing special or outstanding in it – the Stalker implores them not to impart this news to the people outside the Zone, so that they do not lose their gratifying illusions…) In short, the obscurantist mystification consists here in the act of inverting the true order of causality: the Zone is not prohibited because it has certain properties which are “too strong” for our everyday sense of reality, it displays these properties because it is posited as prohibited. What comes first is the formal gesture of excluding a part of the real from our everyday reality and of proclaiming it the prohibited Zone. Or, to quote Tarkovsky himself: “I am often asked what does this Zone stand for. There is only one possible answer: the Zone doesn’t exist. Stalker himself invented his Zone. He created it, so that he would be able to bring there some very unhappy persons and impose on them the idea of hope. The room of desires is equally Stalker’s creation, yet another provocation in the face of the material world. This provocation, formed in Stalker’s mind, corresponds to an act of faith”.(de Vaecque, op.cit., p. 110.) Hegel emphasized that, in the suprasensible realm beyond the veil of appearances, there is nothing, just what the subject itself puts there when he takes a look at it…

In what, then, does the opposition between the Zone (in Stalker) and the planet Solaris consist? In Lacanian terms, of course, their opposition is easy to specify: it is the opposition between the two excesses, the excess of Stuff over symbolic network (the Thing for which there is no place in this network, which eludes its grasp), and the excess of an (empty) Place over stuff, over the elements which fill it in (the Zone is a pure structural void constituted/defined by a symbolic Barrier: beyond this barrier, in the Zone, there is nothing and/or exactly the same things as outside the Zone). This opposition stands for the opposition between drive and desire: Solaris is the Thing, the blind libido embodied, while the Zone is the void which sustains desire. This opposition also accounts for the different way the Zone and Solaris relate to the subject’s libidinal economy: in the midst of the Zone, there is the “chamber of desires”, the place in which, if the subject penetrates it, his desire-wish is fulfilled, while what the Thing-Solaris returns to subjects who approach it is not their desire but the traumatic kernel of their fantasy, the sinthom which encapsulates their relation to jouissance and which they resist in their daily lives.

The blockage in Stalker is thus opposed to the blockage in Solaris: in Stalker, the blockage concerns the impossibility (for us, corrupted, reflected, non-believing modern men) of achieving the state of pure belief, of desiring directly – the Room in the midst of the Zone has to remain empty; when you enter it, you are not able to formulate your wish. In contrast to it, the problem of Solaris is over-satisfaction: your wishes are realized/materialized before you even think of them. In Stalker, you never arrive at, reach, the level of pure, innocent wish/belief, while in Solaris, your dreams/fantasies are realized in advance in the psychotic structure of the answer which precedes the question. For this reason, Stalker focuses on the problem of belief/faith: the Chamber does fulfill desires, but only to those who believe with direct immediacy – which is why, when the three adventurers finally reach the threshold of the room, they are afraid to enter it, since they are not sure what their true desires/wishes are (as one of them says, the problem with the Room is that it does not fulfill what you think you wish, but the effective wish of which you may be unaware). As such, Stalker points towards the basic problem of Tarkovsky’s two last films, Nostalgia and Sacrifice: the problem of how, through what ordeal or sacrifice, might it be possible, today, to attain the innocence of pure belief. The hero of Sacrifice, Alexander, lives with his large family in a remote cottage in the Swedish countryside (another version of the very Russian dacha which obsesses Tarkovsky’s heroes). The celebrations of his birthday are marred by the terrifying news that low-flying jet planes have signaled the start of a nuclear war between the superpowers. In his despair, Alexander turns himself in prayer to God, offering him everything that is most precious to him to have the war not have happened at all. The war is “undone” and, at the film’s end, Alexander, in a sacrificial gesture, burns his beloved cottage and is taken to a lunatic asylum…

This motif of a pure, senseless act that restores meaning to our terrestrial life is the focus of Tarkovsky’s last two films, shot abroad; the act is both times accomplished by the same actor (Erland Josephson) who, as the old fool Domenico, burns himself publicly in Nostalgia, and as the hero of Sacrifice, burns his house, his most precious belonging, what is “in him more than himself”. To this gesture of senseless sacrifice, one should give all the weight of an obsessional-neurotic compulsive act: if I accomplish THIS (sacrificial gesture), THE Catastrophy (in Sacrifice, literally the end of the world in an atomic war) will not occur or will be undone – the well-known compulsive gesture of “If I do not do this (jump two times over that stone, cross my hands in this way, etc.) something bad will occur”. (The childish nature of this compulsion to sacrifice is clear in Nostalgia where the hero, following the injunction of the dead Domenico, crosses the half-dry pool with the burning candle in order to save the world…) As we know from psychoanalysis, this catastrophic X whose outbreak we fear is none other than jouissance itself.

Tarkovsky is well aware that a sacrifice, in order to work and to be efficient, must be in a way “meaningless”, a gesture of “irrational”, useless expenditure or ritual (like traversing the empty pool with a lit candle or burning one’s own house); the idea is that only such a gesture of just “doing it” spontaneously, a gesture not covered by any rational consideration, can restore the immediate faith that will deliver us and heal us from the modern spiritual malaise. The Tarkovskian subject here literally offers his own castration (renunciation of reason and domination, voluntary reduction to childish “idiocy”, submission to a senseless ritual) as the instrument to deliver the big Other: it is as if only byaccomplishing an act which is totally senseless and “irrational” that the subject can save the deeper global Meaning of the universe as such.

One is even tempted here to formulate this Tarkovskian logic of the meaningless sacrifice in the terms of a Heideggerian inversion: the ultimate Meaning of sacrifice is the sacrifice of Meaning itself. The crucial point here is that the object sacrificed (burned) at the end of Sacrifice is the ultimate object of Tarkovskian fantasmatic space, the wooden dacha standing for the safety and authentic rural roots of the Home – for this reason alone, Sacrifice is appropriately Tarkovsky’s last film. Does this mean that we encounter here nonetheless a kind of Tarkovskian “traversing of the fantasy”, the renunciation to the central element whose magic appearance in the midst of the strange countryside (planet’s surface, Italy) at the end of Solaris and Nostalgia provided the very formula of the final fantasmatic unity? No, because this renunciation is functionalized in the service of the big Other, as the redemptive act destined to restore spiritual Meaning to Life.

What elevates Tarkovsky above cheap religious obscurantism is the fact that he deprives this sacrificial act of any pathetic and solemn “greatness”, rendering it as a bungled, ridiculous act (in Nostalgia, Domenico has difficulties in lighting the fire which will kill him, the passers-by ignore his body in flames; Sacrifice ends with a comic ballet of men from the infirmary running after the hero to take him to the asylum – the scene is shot as a children’s game of catching). It would be all too simple to read this ridiculous and bungled aspect of the sacrifice as an indication of how it has to appear as such to everyday people immersed in their run of things and unable to appreciate the tragic greatness of the act. Rather, Tarkovsky follows here the long Russian tradition whose exemplary case is Dostoevsky’s “idiot” from the novel of the same name: it is typical that Tarkovsky, whose films are otherwise totally deprived of humor and jokes, reserves mockery and satire precisely for scenes depicting the most sacred gesture of supreme sacrifice (already the famous scene of Crucifixion in Andrei Roublev is shot in such a way: transposed into the Russian winter countryside, with bad actors playing it with ridiculous pathos, with tears flowing).(See de Vaecque, op.cit., p. 98.) So, again, does this indicate that, to use Althusserian terms, there is a dimension in which Tarkovsky’s cinematic texture undermines his own explicit ideological project, or at least introduces a distance towards it, renders visible its inherent impossibility and failure?

In Nostalgia, there is a scene which contains a Pascalean reference: in a church, Eugenia witnesses the procession of simple peasant women in honor of Madonna del Parto – they are addressing to the saint their plea to become mothers, i.e. their prayer concerns the fertility of their marriage. When the perplexed Eugenia, who admits that she is unable to comprehend the attraction of motherhood, asks the priest who also observes the procession how one becomes a believer, he answers: “You should begin by kneeling down” – a clear reference to Pascal’s famous “Kneel down and that act will render you feeble-minded” (i.e. it will deprive you of false intellectual pride). (Interestingly, Eugenia tries, but stops half-way: she is unable even to perform the external gesture of kneeling.) Here we encounter the deadlock of the Tarkovskian hero: is it possible for today’s intellectual (whose exemplary case is Gortchakov, the hero of Nostalgia), separated from naive spiritual certainty by the gap of nostalgia, to return to immediate religious immersion, to recapture its certainty by asphyxiating existential despair? In other words, does the need of unconditional Faith, its redemptive power, not lead to a typically modern result, to the decisionist act of formal Faith indifferent towards its particular content, i.e. to a kind of religious counterpoint of Schmittean political decisionism in which the fact THAT we believe takes precedence over WHAT we believe in? Or, even worse, doesn’t this logic of unconditional faith ultimately lead to the paradox of love exploited by the notorious Reverend Moon? As is well known, Reverend Moon arbitrarily chooses the conjugal partners for the unmarried members of his sect: legitimizing his decision by means of his privileged insight into the working of the divine Cosmic Order, he claims to be able to identify the mate who was predestined for me in the eternal Order of Things, and simply informs by letter a member of his sect who is the unknown person (as a rule from another part of the globe) he is to marry – Slovenes are thus marrying Koreans, Americans are marrying Indians, etc. The true miracle, of course, is that this bluff works: if there is an unconditional trust and faith, the contingent decision of an external authority can produce a loving couple connected by the most intimate passionate link – why? Since love is “blind”, contingent, grounded in no clearly observable properties, that unfathomable je ne sais quoi which decides when am I to fall in love can also be totally externalized in the decision of an unfathomable authority.

So what is false in the Tarkovskian sacrifice? More fundamentally, what IS sacrifice? The most elementary notion of sacrifice relies on the notion of exchange: I offer to the Other something precious to me in order get back from the Other something even more vital to me (the “primitive” tribes sacrifice animals or even humans so that God will repay them by sending enough rainfall, military victory, etc.) The next, already more intricate level is to conceive sacrifice as a gesture which does not directly aim at some profitable exchange with the Other to whom we sacrifice: its more basic aim is rather to ascertain that there IS some Other out there who is able to reply (or not) to our sacrificial entreaties. Even if the Other does not grant my wish, I can at least be assured that there IS an Other who, maybe, next time will respond differently: the world out there, inclusive of all catastrophies that may befall me, is not a meaningless blind machinery, but a partner in a possible dialogue, so that even a catastrophic outcome is to be read as a meaningful response, not as a kingdom of blind chance. How, then, are sacrifice and the Thing related? The very title of Claude Lefort’s essay on Orwell’s 1984, “The Interposed Corps”,(See Claude Lefort, Écrire. A l’epreuve du politique, Paris: Calmann-Levy 1992, p. 32-33.) provides the clue to this link. Lefort focuses on the famous scene in which Winston is subjected to the rat-torture – why are rats so traumatic for poor Winston? The point is that they are clearly a fantasmatic stand-in for Winston himself (as a small child, Winston behaved like a rat, ransacking refuse dumps for remainders of food). So, when he desperately shouts “Do it to Julia!”, he interposes a corps between himself and his fantasmatic kernel, and thus prevents being swallowed by the traumatic Ding… Therein consists the primordial sense of sacrifice: to interpose an object between ourselves and the Thing. Sacrifice is a stratagem enabling us to maintain a minimal distance towards the Thing. We can see, now, why the motif of the Id-Machine has to lead to the motif of sacrifice: insofar as the paradigmatic case of this Thing is the Id-Machine that directly materializes our desires, the ultimate aim of the sacrifice is, paradoxically, precisely to prevent the realization of our desires…

In other words, the aim of the sacrificial gesture is NOT to bring us close to the Thing, but to maintain and guarantee a proper distance towards it; in this sense, the notion of sacrifice is inherently ideological. Ideology is the narrative of “why did things go wrong”, it objectivizes the primordial loss/impossibility, i.e. ideology translates the inherent impossibility into an external obstacle which can in principle be overcome (in contrast to the standard Marxist notion according to which ideology “eternalizes” and “absolutizes” contingent historical obstacles). So the key element of ideology is not only the image of the full Unity to be achieved, but, even more, the elaboration of the Obstacle (Jew, Class Enemy, Devil) that prevents its achievement – ideology sets in motion our social activity by giving rise to the illusion that, if only we were to get rid of Them (Jews, the class enemy…), everything would be OK… Against this background, one can measure the ideologico-critical impact of Kafka’s The Trial or The Castle. The standard ideological procedure transposes an inherent impossibility into an external obstacle or prohibition (say, the Fascist dream of a harmonious social body is not inherently false – it will become reality once one eliminates Jews, who plot against it; or, in sexuality, I will be able fully to enjoy once the paternal prohibition is suspended). What Kafka achieves is to traverse the same path in the OPPOSITE direction, i.e. to (re)translate external obstacles/prohibition into inherent impossibility – in short, Kafka’s achievement resides precisely in what the standard ideologico-critical gaze perceives as his ideological limitation and mystification, i.e. in his elevation of (the state bureaucracy as) a positive social institution that prevents us, concrete individuals, from becoming free, into a metaphysical Limit that cannot ever be overcome.

What nonetheless redeems Tarkovsky is his cinematic materialism, the direct physical impact of the texture of his films: this texture renders a stance of Gelassenheit, of pacified disengagement that suspends the very urgency of any kind of Quest. What pervades Tarkovsky’s films is the heavy gravity of Earth that seems to exert its pressure on time itself, generating an effect of temporal anamorphosis that extends time well beyond what we perceive as justified by the requirements of narrative movement (one should confer here on the term “Earth” all the resonance it acquired in the late Heidegger) – perhaps, Tarkovsky is the clearest example of what Deleuze called the time-image replacing the movement-image. This time of the Real is neither the symbolic time of the diegetic space nor the time of the reality of our (the spectator’s) viewing the film, but an intermediate domain whose visual equivalent are perhaps the protracted stains which “are” the yellow sky in late van Gogh or the water or grass in Munch: this uncanny “massiveness” pertains neither to the direct materiality of the color stains nor to the materiality of the depicted objects – it dwells in the kind of intermediate spectral domain of what Schelling called “geistige Koerperlichkeit”, spiritual corporeality. From the Lacanian perspective, it is easy to identify this “spiritual corporeality” as materialized jouissance, “jouissance which turned into flesh”.

This inert insistence of time as Real, rendered paradigmatically in Tarkovsky’s famous five minute slow tracking or crane shots, is what makes Tarkovsky so interesting for a materialist reading: without this inert texture, he would be just another Russian religious obscurantist. That is to say, in our standard ideological tradition, the approach to Spirit is perceived as Elevation, as getting rid of the burden of weight, of the gravitating force which binds us to earth, as cutting links with material inertia and starting to “float freely”; in contrast to this, in Tarkovsky’s universe, we enter the spiritual dimension only via intense direct physical contact with the humid heaviness of earth (or stale water) – the ultimate Tarkovskian spiritual experience takes place when a subject is lying stretched out on the earth’s surface, half submerged in stale water; Tarkovsy’s heroes do not pray on their knees, with their heads turned upwards, towards heaven; instead they listen intensely to the silent palpitation of the humid earth… One can see, now, why Lem’s novel had to exert such an attraction on Tarkovsky: the planet Solaris seems to provide the ultimate embodiment of the Tarkovskian notion of a heavy humid stuff (earth) which, far from functioning as the opposite of spirituality, serves as its very medium; this gigantic “material Thing which thinks” literally gives body to the direct coincidence of Matter and Spirit. In a homologous way, Tarkovsky displaces the common notion of dreaming, of entering a dream: in Tarkovsky’s universe, the subject enters the domain of dreams not when he loses contact with the sensual material reality around him, but, on the contrary, when he abandons the hold of his intellect and engages in an intense relationship with material reality. The typical stance of the Tarkovskian hero on the threshold of a dream is to be on the lookout for something, with the attention of his senses fully focused; then, all of a sudden, as if through a magic transsubstantiation, this most intense contact with material reality changes it into a dreamscape.(See de Vaecque, op.cit., p. 81.) One is thus tempted to claim that Tarkovsky stands for the attempt, perhaps unique in the history of cinema, to develop the attitude of a materialist theology, a deep spiritual stance which draws its strength from its very abandonment of intellect and from an immersion in material reality.

If Stalker is Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, it is above all because of the direct physical impact of its texture: the physical background (what T.S.Eliot would have called the objective correlative) to its metaphysical quest, the landscape of the Zone, is a post-industrial wasteland with wild vegetation growing over abandoned factories, concrete tunnels and railroads full of stale water, and wild overgrowth in which stray cats and dogs wander. Nature and industrial civilization here again overlap, through their common decay – civilization in decay is in the process of again being reclaimed (not by idealized harmonious Nature, but) by nature in decomposition. The ultimate Tarkovskian landscape is that of a humid nature, river or pool close to some forest, full of the debris of human artifices (old concrete blocks or pieces of rotten metal). The actors’ faces themselves, especially Stalker’s, are unique in their blend of ordinary ruggedness, small wounds, dark or white spots and other signs of decay, as if they were all exposed to some poisonous chemical or radioactive substance, as well as irradiating a fundamental naive goodness and trust.

Here we can see the different effects of censorship: although censorship in the USSR was no less stringent than the infamous Hayes Production Code in Hollywood, it nonetheless allowed a movie so bleak in its visual material that it would never pass the Production Code test. Recall, as an example of Hollywood material censorship, the representation of dying from an illness in The Dark Victory with Bette Davis: upper-middle class surroundings, painless death… the process is deprived of its material inertia and transubstantiated in an ethereal reality free of bad smells and tastes. It was the same with slums – recall Goldwyn’s famous quip when a reviewer complained that slums in one of his films look too nice, without real dirt: “They better look nice, since they cost us so much!” Hayes Office censorship was extremely sensitive to this point: when slums were depicted, it explicitly demanded that the set of the slum be constructed so that it not evoke real dirt and bad smell. At the most elementary level of the sensuous materiality of the real, censorship was thus much stronger in Hollywood than in the Soviet Union.

Tarkovsky is to be opposed here to the ultimate American paranoiac fantasy, that of an individual living in a small idyllic Californian city, a consumer paradise, who suddenly starts to suspect that the world he lives in is a fake, a spectacle staged to convince him that he lives in a real world, while all the people around him are effectively actors and extras in a gigantic show. The most recent example of this is Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998), with Jim Carrey playing the small town clerk who gradually discovers the truth that he is the hero of a 24-hours permanent TV show: his hometown is constructed on a gigantic studio set, with cameras following him permanently. Among the predecessors of The Truman Show, it is worth mentioning Phillip Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959), in which a hero living a modest daily life in a small idyllic Californian city of the late 50s, gradually discovers that the whole town is a fake staged to keep him satisfied… The underlying experience of Time Out of Joint and of The Truman Show is that the late capitalist consumerist Californian paradise is, in its very hyper-reality, in a way IRREAL, substance-less, deprived of material inertia. So it is not only that Hollywood stages a semblance of real life deprived of the weight and inertia of materiality ­ in late capitalist consumer society, “real social life” itself somehow acquires the features of a staged fake, with our neighbors behaving in “real” life like stage actors and extras… Again, the ultimate truth of the capitalist utilitarian de-spiritualized universe is the de-materialization of “real life” itself, its reversal into a spectral show.

It is only now that we confront the crucial dilemma of any interpretation of Tarkovsky’s films: is there a distance between his ideological project (of sustaining Meaning, of generating a new spirituality through an act of meaningless sacrifice) and his cinematic materialism? Does his cinematic materialism effectively provide the adequate “objective correlative” for his narrative of spiritual quest and sacrifice, or does it secretly subvert this narrative? There are, of course, good arguments for the first option: in the long obscurantist-spiritualist tradition reaching up to the figure of Yoda in Lucas’s The Empire Strikes Back, the wise dwarf who lives in a dark swamp, rotting nature in decay is posited as the “objective correlative” of spiritual wisdom (the wise man accepts nature the way it is, renouncing all attempts at aggressive domination and exploitation, any imposition of artificial order upon it…). On the other hand, what happens if we read Tarkovsky’s cinematic materialism as it were in the opposite direction, what if we interpret the Tarkovskian sacrificial gesture as the very elementary ideological operation of overcoming the unbearable Otherness of meaningless cosmic contingency through a gesture that is itself excessively meaningless? This dilemma is discernible down to the ambiguous way in which Tarkovsky uses the natural sounds of the environs(I rely here on Michel Chion, Le son, Paris: Editions Nathan 1998, p. 191.); their status is ontologically undecidable, it is as if they were still part of the “spontaneous” texture of non-intentional natural sounds, and simultaneously already somehow “musical”, displaying a deeper spiritual structuring principle. It seems as if Nature itself miraculously starts to speak, the confused and chaotic symphony of its murmurs imperceptibly passing over into Music proper. These magic moments, in which Nature itself seems to coincide with art, lend themselves, of course, to the obscurantist reading (the mystical Art of Spirit discernible in Nature itself), but also to the opposite, materialist reading (the genesis of Meaning out of natural contingency).(Therein resides also the ambiguity of the role of chance in Kieslowski’s universe: does it point towards a deeper Fate secretly regulating our lives, or is the notion of Fate itself a desperate stratagem to cope with the utter contingency of life?)