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His Master's Voice, Page 13

Stanisław Lem


  BY THE END of August, I was mentally drained, more drained, I think, than I had ever been. The creative potential, the capacity to solve problems, changes in a man in ebbs and flows, and over this he has little control. I had learned to apply a kind of test. I would read my own articles, those I considered the best. If I noticed in them lapses, gaps, if I saw that the thing could have been done better, my experiment was successful. If, however,

  I found myself reading with admiration, that meant I was in trouble. Which is exactly what happened at the end of the summer. What I needed—and I knew this also from years of experience—was distraction, not a rest.

  I began dropping in more often on Dr. Rappaport, my neighbor, and we talked sometimes for hours. About the stellar code itself we spoke rarely and said little. One day I found him amid large packages from which spilled attractive, glossy paperbacks with mythical covers. He had tried to use, as a "generator of ideas"—for we were running out of them—those works of fantastic literature, that popular genre (especially in the States), called, by a persistent misconception, "science fiction." He had not read such books before; he was annoyed—indignant, even—expecting variety, finding monotony. "They have everything except fantasy," he said. Indeed, a mistake. The authors of these pseudo-scientific fairy tales supply the public with what it wants: truisms, clichés, stereotypes, all sufficiently costumed and made "wonderful" so that the reader may sink into a safe state of surprise and at the same time not be jostled out of his philosophy of life. If there is progress in a culture, the progress is above all conceptual, but literature, the science-fiction variety in particular, has nothing to do with that.

  My conversations with Dr. Rappaport were of value to me. Characteristic of him was a predatory and unceremonious manner of formulation, which I would have liked to make my own. The topics of our discussions were schoolboyish: we held forth on Man. Rappaport was a bit of a "thermodynamic psychoanalyst"; he declared, for instance, that really all the basic drives providing the motive force for human action could be derived directly from physics—but physics in the broadest sense of the word.

  The urge to destruction is deducible from thermodynamics. Life is a fraud, an attempt at embezzlement, seeking to circumvent laws otherwise inevitable and implacable; insulated from the rest of the world, it immediately enters the path of decay, and that inclined plane leads to the normal state of matter, to the permanent equilibrium that is death. In order to continue living, life must feed on order, but because there is no order—none highly organized—other than life, it is condemned to consume itself. It must destroy to live, must take its nourishment from systems that are nourishment only to the extent that they can be ruined. Not ethics but physics determines this law.

  Schrödinger was probably the first to observe this; but he, enamored of his Greeks, failed to consider what could be called, to quote Rappaport, the shame of life, the immanent stain rooted in the very structure of existence. I took issue, citing the photosynthesis of plants: they did not destroy, or at least did not need to destroy, other living organisms, thanks to their utilization of solar quanta. Rappaport replied that the entire Animal Kingdom parasitized the Plant Kingdom.

  The second quality of man, and one he shared with nearly all organisms, sexuality, could also be derived—Rappaport went on—from statistical thermodynamics, in its informational aspect. Entropy, which lurked behind every ordered system, always caused information, whenever transmitted, to undergo loss. To counteract this fatal noise, to perpetuate this temporarily secured order, it was necessary to compare oneself constantly with a "hereditary text." Such collating, or "proofreading," whose purpose was to remove "errors," became the reason and justification for the rise of bisexuality. And therefore sex had its origins in the informational physics of transmission, in communication theory. The collation of the genetic material in each and every generation was imperative, a sine qua non, if life was to maintain itself; all the rest—the biological, algedonic, psychological, cultural—was the derivative, the forest of consequences that grew from that single hard kernel formed by the laws of physics.

  I pointed out to him that by that argument he was universalizing bisexuality, making it a constant in the Cosmos. He only smiled; he never answered directly. In another age, another era, he would have been, I am certain, a stern mystic, a builder of systems; in our era made sober by an overabundance of discoveries, which tore apart like shrapnel every systemic coherence, an era which both accelerated progress as never before and was sick to death of progress, he was only a commentator and an analyst.

  He told me once, I remember, that he had considered the possibility of creating something in the nature of a metatheory of philosophical systems, or for that matter a general program that would facilitate the automation of such a creation: an appropriately set machine would produce, first, the systems already in existence, and then, in the gaps left by oversight or insufficient rigor on the part of the great ontologists, it would create new ones—with the ease of a machine producing screws or slippers. And he even began work on this—put together a dictionary, a syntax, set up rules of transposition, categories, hierarchies, a sort of metatheory of types semantically extended—but then he saw that the task was an empty game not worth the effort, for nothing resulted from it but the possibility of generating those networks, checkerboards, edifices—those crystal palaces, if you like—built of words. He was a misanthrope, and I was not surprised to see by his bed—as by mine was the Bible—a book of Schopenhauer. The notion of substituting the concept of Will for the concept of matter seemed amusing to him.

  "You might just as well call Will the mystery," he said, "and quantize, beam, diffract with crystals, and dilute and concentrate that. And if one should find that Will can be totally separated out from the interior of sentient beings, and in addition have attributed to it some kind of 'self-motion'—that predilection for eternal bustling about which is so exasperating in atoms, since it makes for nothing but problems, and I do not mean only mathematical—what, then, would keep us from agreeing with Schopenhauer?" He claimed that the time for a renaissance of the Schopenhauerian vision was coming. However, he was far from being an apologist for that small, rabid German.

  "His aesthetic is inconsistent. But, then, perhaps he was unable to express this; the genius temporis, perhaps, did not allow it. In the 1950s I once had occasion to witness an atomic test. Did you know, Mr. Hogarth"—that was what he always called me—"that there is nothing more beautiful than the colors of a mushroom cloud? No description, no color photograph can do justice to that wonder, which lasts ten, twenty seconds. The dirt rises, pulled up by the suction when the fireball expands. Then the sphere of flame, like a runaway balloon, disappears in the clouds, and the whole world, for a moment, is a sculpture in pink—Eos Pterodaktylos… The nineteenth century firmly believed that what was murderous must be hideous. Today we know that it may be more beautiful than cherry orchards. Afterward, all flowers seem faded, dull—and this happens in a place where radiation kills in a fraction of a second!"

  I listened, ensconced in an armchair, and now and then, I confess, I lost the thread of what he was saying. My brain, like an old horse pulling a milk truck, stubbornly returned to the same route, the code; I had to force myself not to go back to that ground, because it seemed to me that if I left it fallow, something might germinate there by itself. Such things happen sometimes.

  I also had talks with Tihamer Dill—that is, with Dill Junior, the physicist. I knew his father, but that is a story in itself. Dill Senior taught mathematics at Berkeley. He was, in those days, a fairly well known mathematician of the older generation and had a reputation as an excellent teacher—even-tempered, patient, though demanding. Why I did not find favor in his eyes, I do not know. It is true that we differed in our style of thinking; I was fascinated by ergodic processes, a field that Dill made light of. Still, I always had the feeling that the problem had to do with more than mathematics. I went to him with my idea
s—to whom else was I to go?—and he snuffed me out like a candle, brushing aside what I wished to present, distinguishing in the meantime my colleague Myers. He hovered over Myers as over a new rosebud.

  Myers followed in his footsteps, and I have to admit that he was not bad at combinatorial analysis—a branch, however, that even then I considered to be dried up. The student developed the idea of the mentor, so the mentor placed his faith in the student—and yet it was not that simple. Could it have been that Dill felt an instinctive, animal antipathy toward me? Was I too forward, too sure of myself and of my future? Obtuse I most certainly was; I understood nothing. On the other hand, I bore absolutely no grudge against him. Myers, it is true, I detested. I can still remember the silent delight I experienced when, many years later, I happened to run into him. He was working as a statistician in some automobile company—General Motors, I think.

  But the fact that Dill had failed so completely in his choice of protégé was not enough for me. It was not that I wanted him vanquished; I wanted him converted to a belief in me. I do not think I ever finished any larger paper in all my younger work without imagining Dill's eyes on the manuscript. What effort it cost me to prove that the Dill variable combinatorics was only a rough approximation of an ergodic theorem! Not before or since, I daresay, did I polish a thing so carefully; and it is even possible that the whole concept of groups later called Hogarth groups came out of that quiet, constant passion with which I plowed Dill's axioms under. And then, as if wanting to do something in addition, though now there was nothing really left to do, I played the metamathematician—in order to survey that entire anachronistic idea from above, as it were, in a kind of Olympian footnote. More than one of those who had already predicted a soaring flight for me were surprised at this marginal interest of mine.

  Of course I did not reveal to anyone the real motive, the hidden reason behind that work. What did I actually expect? Not, certainly, that Dill would come to appreciate my worth, would apologize about Myers, would admit how greatly he had been mistaken. The thought of that hawklike, hale, seemingly ageless old man going to Canossa was too absurd for me to entertain it even for a moment. So I had nothing specific in mind as a dream to come true: the thing was too embarrassing and petty for that. Sometimes a person who is valued, respected, even loved by all, cares most, in the innermost recess of his soul, about the opinion of someone who stands uninterested outside the circle of admirers, and who may be, in the eyes of the world, of no particular importance, a mediocrity.

  What was Dill Senior, in the final analysis? A rank-and-file professor of mathematics. There were dozens like him in the States. But such rational arguments would not have helped me, especially since at that time I had not acknowledged even to myself the meaning and aim of the idiosyncrasies in my ambition. And yet, when I received from the publisher the fresh, stiff copies of my articles, bright as if bathed in new glory, I would have lucid moments; before me would appear Dill, dry, thin as a beanpole, inflexible, his face like a portrait of Hegel—and I hated Hegel, I could not read him, because he was so sure of himself, as if the Absolute Itself spoke through his lips for the greater glory of the Prussian state. Hegel, I realize now, had nothing to do with it; I had put him in the place of another person.

  A few times I saw Dill at conferences, from a distance; I steered clear, pretending not to recognize him. Once he himself began talking to me, politely, vaguely, but I excused myself, said that I was just leaving. There was really nothing I wanted from him now; it was as if he were necessary to me only in the world of the imagination. The publication of my major opus was followed by a shower of praise, by a first biography; I felt close to an unexpressed goal, and that was when our paths crossed. Rumors of his illness had reached me, yes, but I had not thought that it could alter the man so much. I saw him in a supermarket. He was pushing a cart filled with cans, directly in front of me. I followed. There was a crowd all around us. In a quick, furtive glance I noticed his pouchlike, swollen cheeks, and with the diagnosis came a feeling akin to despair. Here was a shrunken, pot-bellied old man with dull eyes and a slack jaw, dragging his feet in large galoshes. Snow melting on his collar. He pushed his cart, was pushed by the crowd, and I hurriedly stepped back and away, as though in fear; I wanted only to leave as quickly as possible—to flee. In an instant I had lost an enemy, who probably had no idea, ever, that he was an enemy. For some time afterward, I felt an emptiness, as if after the loss of someone very close. That kind of stimulating challenge, demanding the concentration of all one's mental power, was suddenly gone. Probably the Dill that followed me constantly and looked over my shoulder at the marked-up manuscripts never existed. When I read, years later, of his death, I felt nothing. But there long remained in me the wound of that vacated place.

  I knew that he had a son, but I first met Dill Junior only in the Project. The mother, it seems, was Hungarian; hence that peculiar name, which brought to my mind Tamerlane. Though a junior, he was no longer young. He was one of those aging youths. There are people who are as if destined to be one age only. Baloyne, for example, is headed for a great patriarch; that appears to be his proper form, and he hastens to achieve it, knowing that not only will he not lose his vigor then, but in addition will wax Biblical and thus stand outside any suspicion of weakness. Then there are those who preserve the features of irresponsible adolescence. Dill Junior was that way. From his father he inherited an aspect of solemnity, a laboriousness of gesture: he certainly did not belong to the category of people who do not worry what their hands or face are doing at a given moment. He was what is called a "restless physicist," in somewhat the same way as I was a restless mathematician, because he repeatedly shifted from field to field. For a while he worked in Anderson's biophysics group. We struck up a friendship at Rappaport's place; this cost me a little effort, because I did not really like Dill, but I overcame my feelings for the sake of his father's memory. If this does not quite make sense to the reader, I can only say that it does not quite make sense to me, either, but that is the way it was.

  Multispecialists, sometimes called by us "universalists," were greatly valued; Dill had been one of the creators of the Frog Eggs synthesis. But topics directly connected with the Project were, at Rappaport's evening colloquia, usually avoided. Before working with Anderson, Dill had been—under the auspices of UNESCO, I think—a member of a research team that was supposed to come up with proposals for counteracting the population explosion. He talked of this with satisfaction. There were a few biologists there, sociologists, and geneticists, besides the anthropologists. And, of course, celebrities in the form of Nobelists.

  One of the last considered nuclear war to be the only salvation from a sea of bodies. His logic was flawless. Neither pills nor propaganda slowed the birthrate. Imperative was "management intervention" on the family level. The problem was not that every scheme sounded either gruesome or grotesque—as, for example, the proposition that a "child license" be granted only upon a citizen's accumulation of a certain number of points, points given for psycho-physical assets, for skills in rearing, and so on.

  It was possible to devise various more or less rational programs, but it was not possible to put them into operation. In the end the thing always led to an infringement on those freedoms that no social order since the birth of civilization had dared to touch. Not one of the modern governments had sufficient power, or sufficient authority, for that. It would have meant doing battle with the mightiest of human drives, and with the majority of churches, and with the very foundation of the rights of man, hallowed by tradition. On the other hand, after an atomic cataclysm the strict state control of marriage and childbearing would be an immediate and vital necessity, for otherwise the genetic plasm damaged by the radiation would give rise to an endless number of monsters. This emergency control could then be replaced gradually by a legal system administering the propagation of the species, beneficially guiding its evolution and numerical force.

  Nuclear war was, granted, a
dreadful and heinous thing, but its long-term consequences could turn out to be salutary. It was in this spirit that one portion of the scientists spoke out; others objected, and no recommendation could be agreed upon between them.

  This story upset Rappaport; and the more coolly Dill responded, with his faint smile, the more heated Rappaport became.

  "Placing Reason on the throne as ruler," said Rappaport, "is equivalent to putting oneself in the hands of a logical madness. The joy of a father occasioned by the fact that his child resembles him has no rational basis, especially not if the father is an untalented, run-of-the-mill individual; ergo, we should establish sperm banks, whose donors will be the most useful to society, and will by artificial insemination breed children who are similar to such sires and therefore of value. The uncertainty connected with setting up a family can be seen, socially, as much wasted effort; ergo, we should pair up people according to selection criteria that provide for a positive correlation of the physical and psychological traits of the partners. Desires not satisfied give rise to frustrations, which disturb the smooth running of social processes; ergo, we should satisfy all desires, either naturally or by means of technological equivalents, or else, enfin, we should remove through chemistry or surgery the centers that produce those desires.