His masters voice, p.1
His Master's Voice, p.1Stanisław Lem
Copyright © 1968 by Stanislaw Lem
English translation copyright © 1983 by Stanislaw Lem
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Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
His master's voice.
Translation of: Glos pana.
"A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book."
PC7158.LL39G613 1984 891.8'537 83-18467
Printed in the United States of America
First Harvest/HBJ edition 1984
B C D E
THE MANUSCRIPT WAS found among the papers of the late Professor Peter E. Hogarth. That great mind, alas, was unable to put it into final form, though he had labored long over it. The illness that claimed him made the book's completion impossible. Because the deceased was reluctant to speak of the work—a work unusual for him, and undertaken more out of a sense of duty than by choice—and reluctant, even, to speak of it to those near him, in whose number I am honored to have been included—certain obscurities and points of contention arose during the preliminary efforts to prepare the manuscript for publication. I must state, to be truthful, that in the circle of those who were made acquainted with the text there were voices raised in opposition to its publication: they claimed that such was not the intention of the deceased. There is to be found, however, no written testimony of his to this effect; one can only conclude that such opinions are without foundation. It was obvious, on the other hand, that the thing was unfinished, for it had no title, and one particular fragment existed only in a rough draft, which fragment was to have served—and here lies one of the principal doubts—as either a preface or an afterword to the book.
As friend and colleague of the deceased, and mentioned by him in his will, I have decided, finally, to make of this fragment, necessary for an understanding of the whole, the preface. The title, His Master's Voice, was suggested to me by the publisher, John Keller, whom I wish to take this opportunity to thank for the great care he has given to the publication of this last work of Professor Hogarth. I should also like to express here my gratitude to Mrs. Rosamond Schelling, who so painstakingly assisted in the initial editing and in the final proofreading.
Professor Thomas V. Warren
Washington University, D.C.
THOUGH I MAY shock many readers with the words that follow, it is my duty, I am convinced, to speak them. I never before wrote a book like this; and, since it is not the custom for mathematicians to introduce their works with statements of a personal nature, I could have spared myself the trouble.
It was as a result of circumstances beyond my control that I became involved in the events that I wish to relate here. The reasons I preface the account with a kind of confession should become evident later on. In speaking of myself, I must choose some frame of reference; let this be the recent biography of me penned by Professor Harold Yowitt. Yowitt calls me a mind of the highest caliber, in that the problems that I attacked were always, among those currently available, the most difficult. He shows that my name was to be found wherever the heritage of science was in the process of being torn down and the edifice of new concepts raised—for example, in the mathematical revolution, in the field of physico-ethics, or in the Master's Voice Project.
When I came, in my reading, to the place where the subject was destruction, I expected, after the mention of my iconoclastic inclinations, further, bolder inferences, and thought that at last I had found a biographer—which did not overjoy me, because it is one thing to strip oneself, and another, entirely, to be stripped. But Yowitt, as if frightened by his own acumen, then returned—inconsequently—to the accepted version of me as the persistent, modest genius, and even trotted out a few of the old-standby anecdotes about me.
So I could set this book on the shelf with my other biographies, calmly, little dreaming, at the time, that I would soon be entering the lists with my flattering portraitist. I noted, also, that not much space remained on the shelf, and recalled what I had once said to Yvor Baloyne, that I would die when the shelf was filled. He took it as a joke, and I did not insist, though I had expressed a genuine conviction, no less genuine for being absurd. And therefore—to return to Yowitt—once again I had succeeded, or, if you like, failed, in that at the age of sixty-two I had twenty-eight volumes devoted to my person and yet remained completely unknown. But am I being fair?
Professor Yowitt wrote about me in accordance with rules not of his making. Not all public figures may be treated the same. Great artists, yes, may be drawn in their pettiness, and some biographers even seem to think that the soul of the artist is perforce a scurvy thing. For the great scientists, however, the old stereotype is still mandatory. Artists we view as spirits chained to the flesh; literary critics are free to discuss the homosexuality of an Oscar Wilde, but it is hard to imagine any historian of science dealing analogously with the creators of physics. We must have them incorruptible, ideal, and the events of history are no more than local changes in the circumstances of their lives. A politician may be a villain without ceasing to be a great politician, whereas a villainous genius—that is a contradiction in terms. Villainy cancels genius. So demand the rules of today.
True, a group of psychoanalysts from Michigan did attempt to challenge this state of affairs, but they fell into the sin of oversimplification. The physicist's evident propensity to theorize, these scholars derived from sexual repression. Psychoanalytic doctrine reveals the pig in man, a pig saddled with a conscience; the disastrous result is that the pig is uncomfortable beneath that pious rider, and the rider fares no better in the situation, since his endeavor is not only to tame the pig but also to render it invisible. The notion that we have within us an ancient Beast that carries upon its back a modern Reason—is a pastiche of primitive mythologies.
Psychoanalysis provides truth in an infantile, that is, a schoolboy fashion: we learn from it, roughly and hurriedly, things that scandalize us and thereby command our attention. It sometimes happens, and such is the case here, that a simplification touching upon the truth, but cheaply, is of no more value than a lie. Once again we are shown the demon and the angel, the beast and the god locked in Manichean embrace, and once again man has been pronounced, by himself, not culpable, as he is but the field of combat for forces that have entered him, distended him, and hold sway inside his skin. Thus psychoanalysis is, primarily, sophomoric. Shockers are to explain man to us, and the whole drama of existence is played out between piggishness and the sublimation into which civilized effort can transform it.
So I really ought to be thankful to Professor Yowitt, for maintaining my likeness in the classical style and not borrowing the methods of the Michigan psychologists. Not that I intend to speak better of myself than they would speak; but there is, surely, a difference between a caricature and a portrait.
Which is not to say that I believe a man who is the subject of biographies possesses any greater knowledge of himself than his biographers do. Their position is more convenient, for uncertainties may be attributed to a lack of data, which allows the supposition that the one described, were he but alive and willing, could supply the needed information. The
With sufficient imagination a man could write a whole series of versions of his life; it would form a union of sets in which the facts would be the only elements in common. People, even intelligent people, who are young, and therefore inexperienced and naïve, see only cynicism in such a possibility. They are mistaken, because the problem is not moral but cognitive. The number of metaphysical beliefs is no greater or less than the number of different beliefs a man may entertain on the subject of himself—sequentially, at various periods of his life, and occasionally even at the same time.
Therefore, I cannot claim to offer anything other than the notions of myself that I have formed over the space of roughly forty years, and their only singularity, it seems to me, is that they are not flattering. Nor is this uncomplimentariness limited to "the pulling off of the mask," which is the only trick available to the psychoanalyst. To say, for example, of a genius that morally he was a bastard may not necessarily hit him in the place of his private shame. A mind that "reached the ceiling of the age," as Yowitt puts it, will not be bothered by that type of diagnosis. The shame of a genius may be his intellectual futility, the knowledge of how uncertain is all that he has accomplished. And genius is, above all, constant doubting. Not one of the greats, however, bent beneath the pressure of society, has pulled down the monuments raised to him in his life, calling himself thereby into question.
As one whose genius has been duly certified by several dozen learned biographers, I think I may say a word or two on the topic of intellectual summits; which is simply that clarity of thought is a shining point in a vast expanse of unrelieved darkness. Genius is not so much a light as it is a constant awareness of the surrounding gloom, and its typical cowardice is to bathe in its own glow and avoid, as much as possible, looking out beyond its boundary. No matter how much genuine strength it may contain, there is also, inevitably, a considerable part that is only the pretense of that strength.
The fundamental traits of my character I consider to be cowardice, malice, and pride. As it turned out, this triumvirate had at its disposal a certain talent, which concealed it and ostensibly transformed it, and intelligence assisted in this—intelligence is one of life's most effective instruments for masking inborn traits, once it decides that such a course is desirable. For forty-odd years I have been an obliging, modest individual, devoid of any sign of professional arrogance, because for a very long time and most persistently I schooled myself in precisely this behavior. But as far back into childhood as I can recall, I sought out evil, though of course I was unaware of it.
My evil was isotropic, unbiased, and totally disinterested. In places of veneration, such as churches, or in the company of particularly worthy persons, I liked to think forbidden thoughts. That the content of these thoughts was ludicrously puerile does not matter in the least. I was simply conducting experiments on a scale practically accessible to me. I do not remember when I began these experiments. I remember only the deep sense of injury, the anger, and the disappointment that came upon me some years later, when it turned out that a head filled with wickedness would never, not in any place nor in any company, be struck by lightning; that breaking free of and not participating in the Proper brought with it no—absolutely no—punishment.
If it is at all possible to speak thus of a child of less than ten, I wanted that lightning or some other form of dire retribution; I summoned it, challenged it, and grew to despise the world, the place of my existence, because it had demonstrated the futility of all action and thought, evil included. Thus I never tormented animals, or hurt even the grass underfoot; on the other hand, I lashed out at stones, the sand, I abused furniture, subjected water to torture, and mentally smashed the stars to pieces, to punish them for their indifference to me, and as I did so my fury became more and more helpless, for my understanding increased, of how ridiculous were the things I did.
Somewhat later on, with self-knowledge, I came to the realization that my condition was a kind of keen unhappiness that was utterly useless to me, because it could serve no purpose. I said before that my rancor was unbiased: I bestowed it first upon myself. The shape of my arms, of my legs, the features of my face, seen in the mirror, galled me in a way in which usually only the features of others cause us anger or impatience. When I grew a bit older, I saw that it was impossible to live like this; I determined, through a progression of decisions, exactly what I ought to be, and from then on strove—true, with variable results—to adhere to that established plan.
An autobiography that begins by listing cowardice, malice, and pride as the foundations of one's psyche entails, from the deterministic point of view, a logical error. If one says that everything in us is predetermined, then predetermined also must have been my resistance to my inner meanness, and the difference between me and other, better people is then reduced to nothing but a variation in the localized source of the behavior. What those better people did voluntarily, at little cost, for they but followed their own natural inclination, I practiced in opposition to mine—hence, as it were, artificially. Yet since it was I who dictated conduct to myself, I was, in the overall balance—in this formulation—nevertheless predestined to be as good as gold. Like Demosthenes with the pebbles in his stammering mouth, I put iron deep in my soul, to straighten it.
But it is precisely in this equalizing that determinism reveals its absurdity. A phonograph record of angelic singing is not an iota better morally than one that reproduces, when played, a scream of murder. According to determinism, he who desired and was able to be better was no more or less fated beforehand than he who desired but was unable, or than he who did not even attempt to desire. This is a false image, for the sound of battle played on a record is not an actual battle. Knowing what it cost me, I can say that my struggle to be good was no semblance. Determinism simply deals with something altogether different; the forces that operate according to the calculus of physics have nothing whatever to do with the matter—just as a crime is not made innocent by its translation into the language of amplitudes of atomic probabilities.
About one thing Yowitt is definitely right: I always sought difficulty. Opportunities for me to give free rein to my natural malice I usually forwent, as too easy. It may sound strange, or even nonsensical, but I did not suppress my inclination to evil with my eyes fixed on the Good as a higher value; rather, I suppressed it for the precise reason that I felt so powerfully its presence in me. What counted for me was the calculus of resistance, which had nothing in common with the arithmetic of morality. Therefore I really cannot say what would have become of me had the principal trait of my nature been the inclination to do only good. As usual, reasoning that attempts to picture ourselves in a form other than what is given breaks the rules of logic and must quickly founder.
Once only did I not eschew evil; that memory is connected with the protracted and horrible death of my mother. I loved her, yet at the same time I followed with an unusually keen and avid attention the process of her destruction in the illness. I was nine then. She, the personification of tranquillity, of strength, of a composure almost sovereign, lay in a lingering agony, an agony prolonged by the doctors. I, at her side in the darkened bedroom filled with the stink of medicine, still kept a grip on myself; but when I left her, as soon as I had shut the door behind me and found myself alone, I stuck out my tongue joyfully in the direction of her bed, and, that being insufficient, ran to my room and breathlessly jumped up and down in front of the mirror, fists clenched, making faces and giggling with delight. With delight? I understood perfectly that my mother was dying; since that morning I had fallen into despair, and the despair was as real as my stifled giggling. I remember how the giggling frightened me, yet at the same time it took me beyond everything I had known, and in that transgression there was a dazzling revelation.
After my mother's death I gave myself up to a child's despair that was untroubled by any qualms. The fascination ended with her last breath. With her died my anxiety. This incident is so confusing that I can only offer a hypothesis. I had witnessed the fall of the Absolute—it had been shown to be an illusion—and witnessed a shameful, obscene struggle, because in it Perfection had come apart like the most miserable rag. This was the trampling of life's Order, and although people above me supplied the repertoire of that Order with special evasions even for so dismal an occasion, these additions failed to fit what had happened. One cannot, with dignity, with grace, howl in pain—any more than one can in ecstasy. In the messiness of loss I sensed a truth. Perhaps I saw, in that which disrupted, the stronger side, and so sided with that side, because it had the upper hand.
My hidden laughter had no connection with the actual suffering of my mother. I only feared that suffering; it was the unavoidable concomitant of the expiring—that I could understand, and I would have delivered her from the pain had I been able. I desired neither her suffering nor her death. At a real murderer I would have thrown myself with tears and pleas, like any child, but since there was none, I could only absorb the cruel treachery of the blow. Her body, bloated, turned into a monstrous, mocking caricature of itself, and it writhed in that mockery. I had only one choice: either to be destroyed with her or to jeer at her. As a coward, then, I chose the laughter of betrayal.
His Master's Voice by Stanisław Lem / Science Fiction / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes