This article was written on 07 Apr 2015, and is filled under Urbanities.

Life on Solaris

Lake Erie as seen from Soviet Russia. Screen shot from Solaris (1972), Andrei Tarkovsky dir.

Lake Erie as seen from Soviet Russia. Screen shot from Solaris (1972), Andrei Tarkovsky dir.

As a personal rule, I detest autobiography. Especially it’s debased, watered-down manifestation, the memoir, a form that proves that the personal is political, so long as that politics is bourgeois capitalism. And what better form of personalized bourgeois capitalism is there than buying a house? And if that house falls apart, where does that leave you? Some would say, outer space. It’s a godawful small affair really, the workers have struck for fame ’cause Lennon’s on sale again and Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow. I would agree, so long as that outer space is called Hamburg. Gaston Bachelard would remain silent, since he was afraid to leave the womblike bubble of his mother’s abode, just ask Peter Sloterdijk. Or Major Tom.

By Hamburg I don’t mean Germany, or Mars, but rather Buffalo. Over the past two months we have been displaced from our home, my wife, my child and I. I am the grandchild (paternal) of dust-bowl refugees, who absolutely, in no uncertain terms refused to be called Okies. Genetically speaking, I should be disposed to forced displacement, or at least half of me should, perhaps the right helix. But this is not the case. In January a great deal of ice built up on our roof, and by February these ice dams caused water to seep through the shingles until we had water pouring through every corner of the house, the kitchen ceiling collapsed, water of mass destruction everywhere else. And so, quite sadly, we’re off to find our escape pod, my wife, my child and I.

The multinational insurance company has relocated us to another house, in Hamburg, and specifically a district in Hamburg known as Lakeview, so named because, as it happens, one can view the lake. The poetics are spectacular. We are currently suspended between two Frank Lloyd Wrights. One is a summer home down the road a click or two that Wright built for Darwin Martin’s estranged wife who lived there in the summer, and fall, and winter, and spring, and then summer again. This dwelling is undwelt, as it is now a museum of sorts. The other Wright, which may be to the right depending upon one’s point of view, is one of two Wrights in the Buffalo area that to my knowledge are not museums and do not make a wrong. Can they make a left though? Both sit on the shores of Lake Erie and contain wide areas through which one can see through to the water. Yet these transparencies are covered by roof, such that the outside becomes incorporated into the home. What does it mean to dwell in Lake Erie? You can ask a trout, or you can ask Frank Lloyd Wright. Either will be dead by the time you get to ask them.

From my new temporary windows, I wake up every morning to the sight of Lake Erie, right in front of Lake Erie, just about 100 feet away, but I don’t see water. Or rather, I do see water, but just not the liquid kind. The entire surface of Lake Erie has frozen over, that’s the kind of winter we’ve had around these parts, due to global warming. (If this last sentence does not make sense to you, just google “Jim Inhofe” and invest heavily in mortuary futures.) By “entire surface” I mean just that: I could leave the front door right now and literally ice skate to Toledo. From Hamburg. No German or Spaniard could have ever dreamt of such a thing.

The sight of frozen Lake Erie will make you delirious, if you think about it too much, and what does a displaced non-Okie ever do but think too much? At sunset, I drive down the shores of frozen Lake Erie after work and the massive inhabited Ford factory and more massive uninhabited steel factory of Lackawanna disappear. The sun hits the ice just so, and the ice disappears with the factories, the surface of the inland ocean turns orange and pink and as I gaze down along the shoreline away from the city I am now driving down PCH to Laguna Beach circa 1981. I have been going to Laguna Beach since I was an infant, but today my parents woke me up at some ungodly hour, 5:00am or something, and loaded me on to a school bus along with 25 other screaming 10-year-olds. We are arriving to Laguna Beach just as the sun has popped over the San Gabriel mountains, a class field trip on the last day of the school year to see the tide pools. I comb the rocks exposed by the receding tide, and each pool contains one or two or three living beings. A fish, an octopus, an anemone that squirts and folds into itself when I touch it. These beings are trapped, longing for a return to the sea that nourished them and protected them from the small poking fingers of hairless ape children and I will never be able to go back there again.

Laguna used to be a hippie artisan commune and now it’s a massive Orange County subdevelopment for lawyers and doctors and investment bankers who are so rich that they look down at other lawyers and doctors and investment bankers, the peons! Lackawanna used to be a center of industrial manufacturing and now it’s encased in asbestos and PCBs and worse. But these places — Laguna, Lackawanna, Lakeview — do not exist.

Only Nixon could have gone to China and only a Russian could have made Solaris. George Clooney made Solaris, another Solaris, and it was a failure. Stanisław Lem made Solaris, quite successfully I might add, and he was a Pole. But this is beside the point. Frozen Lake Erie is a landscape fit for Tarkovsky, a planet of gelatinous plasma whose waves freeze in the form of whatever affective input they might receive. The universe calls to Solaris, eerily, and takes shape there. And I am the unfortunate cosmonaut forced to dock with the space station hovering over its waves. At sunset (the orange sun, the blue sun, does it matter?) Solaris receives my memories and returns them to me as (re)lived experience. The space station is a tide pool.

I suspect that Tarkovsky didn’t view Solaris as science fiction, but rather science realism. To be a relatively privileged filmmaker in Brezhnev’s USSR, one might as well have been living in fantastic landscapes of fields of summer wildflowers and babbling brooks one remembered as a young man. Donnybrooks, of course, given the world outside, but one would rather not think of that. So long as one could live inside one’s head, frozen Siberia in winter might just as well disappear, if the State only allowed me to live in my head, my head the State made and gave a cosmonaut’s helmet and sent to the gulag along with Bachelard’s mother. The gulags are everywhere, in other words, though some are more comfortable than others. Some gulags are forced labor and eternal winter. Other gulags are gelatinous planets of virtual realities that nonetheless compel our forced labor, the planet needs our memories, our memoir, on blogs or bags or milk cartons, compels us to relive and relive and relive our endless summer days, transparent vistas under prairie style roofs, to home, to home at last, there’s no place…

Or one could be cast away exposed to the cold of capitalistic heat. Two wrongs make Right no more.



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