Behind a Blindfold: Notes on a Marathon Reading of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris
By J. T. PriceSeptember 19, 2013
Solaris by Stanisław Lem
WILLIAMSBURG — Marina Abramović shared an anecdote about a shepherd. They met while she was traveling a remote mountainous region. Whenever she asked him a question, he would close his eyes to answer. Why did he do this? His response was that he did not need to see her when finding his words. Just as he did not need to see to channel essential inner truth, Abramović said, so the attendees at the August 3 marathon reading of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris must don blindfolds. Organizers of the event, including Natalie Eilbert, founding editor of The Atlas Review, Dolan Morgan, contributing editor, and Siena Oristaglio, head of communications for the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI), walked the aisles of the movie theater beneath the Wythe Hotel to hand out thin white strips of cloth. Nearly everyone accepted. A couple of photographers began snapping pics of a movie theater full of blindfolded attendees. The performance artist’s Skype connection, displayed on the theater screen, patched out. The first reader was shepherd-of-the-teenage-soul Lady Gaga. The clock read 2:45 p.m.
If you were wearing a blindfold, as I was at the beginning, you would not have seen Lady Gaga’s face and shoulders flash on the screen, looking fairly unlike the face and shoulders of an international pop star — no glitter or face paint, no wig, and barely a visible gaze. Who she resembled was a younger Marina Abramović, black bangs concealing Gaga’s trademark eyes, and the voice in which she read the opening paragraphs of Solaris ranged like a radio signal between a semblance of Abramović’s Serbian accent and Gaga’s own Upper West Side, Italian-American, or whatever other signifier could be used in attempting to pin down the way she speaks. (Good luck.) It was a performed blurring of identity: Lem’s Dr. Kris Kelvin secured himself in the space capsule that would travel to the alien planet Solaris. This voyage, start to finish, was advertised as running some eight hours, first page of the novel to last, with about 55 readers lending their efforts to the undertaking. It actually ended up going somewhere close to 10. No one was counting, except perhaps Eilbert, Morgan, and Oristaglio. Although, counting probably is the wrong word for it.
Before Gaga, in an introduction, Michael Barron of New Directions Publishing extolled the power of a novel that has received less attention than its filmic offspring, most notably the version by Andrei Tarkovsky. Following Abramović’s appearance via Skype, a short video about the Kickstarter campaign for the proposed MAI cultural center in Hudson, New York (which went on to break the requisite $600,000), and Gaga’s video initiation of the novel proper, the readers succeeded one another at five- to 15-minute intervals, without introduction, in MAI-issued lab coats. Poets, novelists, journalists, playwrights, performance artists, dancers, and one video game designer brought Lem’s Dr. Kelvin along, his arrival to the space station orbiting Solaris, the first upsetting encounters with his crewmates, the ghostly appearance and reappearance of his wife, Hari, who killed herself sometime before he left earth.
“Once the reading started and the blindfolds were on, the theater space became instantly focused, quiet, and unchaotic,” said Oristaglio of MAI. “I found myself completely absorbed and able to sit silently wearing a blindfold for much longer than I had hoped.”
The story carried on as inevitably as an ocean tide. Some people kept their blindfolds on, living with only the cushioning of a folding chair, the air flowing through the Wythe Hotel’s cellar vents, the voice speaking the one on the page. Others sought comfort in beverages procured immediately outside the theater — cocktails, discounted Brooklyn Brewery IPAs. Listeners got up and left. Readers got up and left. Some came back. Some left again. Readers sat down and became listeners. One woman, enacting a “long durational work” of her own — MAI’s overarching label for the reading, expansive enough to describe Jay Z’s recent six-hour gallery rap-a-thon and Abramović’s own work, including The Artist Is Present — remained in her seat hour after hour with a laptop balanced on her knee. Solaris carried on.
Of her personal fashion choice, Eilbert said:
I dreamt of a white dress, with the fantasy of cheesy 1980s sci-fi imagery. I wanted to evoke the suicidal love-object simulacrum, A Clockwork Orange, and gauze. It all pointed to a crisp white dress. A woman complained to Siena that, while it was a beautiful dress, it was “not meant for spotlights.”
I almost universally wear the same black jacket every day — Forever 21, with a pin that says, “I have been her kind” — along with a button-down shirt and tie, blue jeans, and terrible sneakers. The demands of the day prompted me to ditch the jacket on a nearby hanger, leaving me stranded, basically naked, in my shirt and tie. If I were to travel to the planet Solaris, my jacket would be the spectral figure that returns to me again and again.
As for dietary considerations: “I did some yoga and cardio before the reading, drank my morning gin and eggs, and didn’t eat anything from the beginning to the end,” said Eilbert.
And Morgan: “I didn’t eat a damn thing all day, and I think I was running on spirit fumes.”
There was Donald Antrim. There, Justin Taylor. There, Nelly Reifler. Neil Gaiman read by video. Lynne Tillman in person. Marco Roth of n+1. Robb Todd. Most put on a lab coat. James Yeh, Lincoln Michel, the Gigantic Worlds team, their anthology of sci-fi shorts to be edited by Michael Barron.
Dr. Kelvin became increasingly distressed. There was supposed to be a science to what he was doing. Instead, the ocean planet of Solaris seemed to be reading him and his crewmates, and sending to their living quarters lifelike simulacra whose presences invoked their deepest and most haunting memories. In Kelvin’s case, Hari. Maddening, to be sure, yet he felt himself, despite all rational thought, growing protective of the wife returned to him by the alien planet.
“The iciness of the theater,” said Nelly Reifler,
added to the feeling that we were really on an alien ocean. Watching how each reader picked up some essence of the preceding segment — then brought it into their own reading and changed it — was the most interesting part for me. The section that I read was about the mimoids, forms that grow out of the ocean, mimicking the shapes above them. I felt like we readers were participating in a similar process.
“When I read silently, there’s just one voice in my head,” said Robb Todd, “and it always sounds the same. Other readers bring new life to a page that I probably read poorly with my inside-the-head voice.”
“The bar grew noisy at different points, but the inside of the theater space remained still, quiet, and focused,” said Oristaglio.
The Lem Estate requested a new translation be used, a request the organizers followed. Justin Taylor said of the translation:
[It] seemed to be very clean, and if it did honor to the original then I assume that Lem’s intent was for a spare, reserved style, a relatively dispassionate tone. In a way, this enforced calm made the small variations from person to person stand out more sharply, and helped to produce something like a choral effect.
My first thought on hearing that Marina Abramović was sponsoring the Solaris event was that she’d discovered the sado-masochistic potential of marathon literary readings. The punishing experience of trying to understand: that’s what’s enacted in [Solaris] itself.”
There are so many parts of the book that are dense scientific descriptions. And, actually, there are quite a few traits it shares with doing a marathon of Moby Dick in which the cetological definitions and expositions take up literally hundreds of pages. Many people involved, I think, wanted to be sure that when they went up, they were able to move people a little bit more out of their seats, challenge the lull, the lull being an extension of the strange collective energy.
I bet a marathon reading of the phone book could produce a surprising amount of reflection and contemplation, so long as one submits to the process. The fascinating and sort of intoxicating elements of a marathon reading are independent of the text; that is, the onslaught of voices and the constant barrage of language, the enhanced focus on the slow but sure progression of time and the forced interiority. A lot of people might think that a marathon reading is an exercise in will power, but I think it’s quite the opposite — an act of surrender and abandon.
Being present throughout the marathon is funny — even with all the readings of the book in preparation, I found the experience of being led through the pages profoundly defamiliarizing. Each reader created his or her own context for why they were there. It was such a hodgepodge of voices, voices either deeply familiar with the text or not at all.
“The theater in which the reading was held was cozy and dark, and the single spotlight was very dramatic,” said Ken Kalfus.
Several readers listened blindfolded, which must have been intense. Most of the action of the novel takes place on a space station with somewhat claustrophobic quarters. The theater experience nicely replicated that — then, when you stepped out into the Wythe’s bar, it was bright, lively, and convivial.
The Wythe Hotel is a sight to see from any distance, the giant, bright, repurposed signage running vertically along the old cooperage’s southerly side. The afternoon of Saturday, August 3, was a surreally perfect one. Marathon readers and listeners — organizers recognizable for their lab coats — stood singly and in pairs adjacent to the hotel at the top of a shadowed stairwell descending to the cellar. Several smoked cigarettes. Neighborhood denizens biked by. Down the block, fashionable figures struck poses in front of luminous graffiti tags to encouragement from smiling photogs. It was the kind of day you might want to enclose in a small globe of some kind and keep.
Hanging out on Wythe Street outside a hotel bar where I had just paid ten bucks for a glass of wine produced an eerie temporal echo, sort of like the time problems that happen in Solaris. I could see the Wythe Street of 1994 — where you wouldn’t have bought a glass of white wine, and where you’d have been nervous after dark — superimposed over the Wythe Street of this August 2013 evening.
“Is Williamsburg like Solaris?” Ken Kalfus asked, “a vast, seething, sentient ocean that manufactures illusions from our most painful memories and secret desires?” Kalfus had arrived from Philadelphia. “Seems that way, from what I see in the Times Style section. I don’t know, I was just there for the weekend.”
Outside the event, Reifler sought out Justin Taylor, who, aside from her husband, is the only “earnest, true Grateful Dead fan” she knows. She wanted to discuss Dark Star, the oral biography of Jerry Garcia by Robert Greenfield. Taylor happily obliged.
Topics of conversation varied within certain well-trod bounds. “There were lots of remarks about other writers’ writing,” said Robb Todd.
Or someone’s hair or waistline, or the bike he or she rode in on. There were a lot of bikes. Or talk of beer and where to get more. Or asking a stranger for a cigarette. Or conversations about jogging. Or how much a room at the Wythe costs. Or the view from said room. Or about someone’s book that’s coming out and who reviewed it and what the review said. People also talked about the Marina Abramović Institute and expressed disappointment that Lady Gaga didn’t read in person. I think someone might have mentioned the beautiful afternoon but I can’t be sure.
Whenever I felt a need to leave the room to enter into conversations outside the theater, I found by and large I couldn’t socialize. There was a white wall there where the right social processes were supposed to be. I found that often, instead of rambling about this or that subject, I could only get myself to nod and listen and maybe occasionally mutter assenting monosyllables.
As the sun was setting I stood on the shoreline of Bushwick Inlet Park, a short walk from the Wythe, looking over jagged stones and water to the concrete, steel, and glass hull of Manhattan. The spot was new to me, except for a feeling as if someone I knew had stood there before. The river rushed darkly by. I thought of Dr. Kelvin. Families covered a beach adjacent to the park, the water lapping the beach’s edge. I didn’t have my phone. In front of me, two men hopped across the stones to where a shoal tops the surface some 20 feet from the shoreline. A woman was lying in the manicured grass to my side, eyes obscured by sunglasses.
“I did crave being a singular part of that dark drama. There were quite a few memorable points,” said Eilbert.
Benjamin Hale giving a dramatic reading of the famous account of the behemoth baby in the ocean water. Jen Tamayo’s sound performance was pretty fantastic, in which she pre-recorded herself reading her section, which was fed through a megaphone, while she breathed heavily in the mic and said over and over again, “Kris, is that you? Kris? Kris?”
“Dolan and Natalie are my new heroes,” Reifler said.
It’s been a long time since I was part of anything — or even witnessed anything — that eccentric on such a large scale. Sometimes I feel like nothing happens in real time and space anymore, and the Solaris marathon was an incredible commitment.
Said Marco Roth:
Making readers wear lab coats was a nice gesture toward theatricality, and I was happy to wear mine. The two readings accompanied by Merce Cunningham dancers were also effective. But, for me, I still think: it’s not theater, it’s not religion, it’s not quite performance art, it’s certainly not "reading" or even listening to stories on long car trips or airplane rides. Perhaps lit marathons are just cultic celebrations of the feeling of unfulfillment and restlessness that seems to be such a part of literary culture now.
Eilbert: “Another point that absolutely devastated me was Ariana Reines followed by MAI staffer Tom Oristaglio reading the final dialogue with Hari near the end.”
“It felt great to be up there reading, especially with people wearing blindfolds. It was freeing,” said Robb Todd.
Reifler: “I loved reading my passage; the language was just so beautiful, and I felt honored and humbled reading it aloud.”
Kalfus, in lab coat, orated the final pages of the novel, right hand raised in the spotlight, primed to fall. “The last few pages of the book have a deeply lyrical, elegiac quality to them that made them very pleasing to read,” he said.
Dr. Kelvin’s journey did, at last, reach the end of its telling. The time was nearly midnight.
Thematically, Solaris could not have been more perfect. It’s about a climatic moment in an immensely long scientific investigation, bridging "long durational work" and science, as MAI hopes to do. It’s focused on the limits of the body and mind, along with the perils of communication, as so much of Marina’s work is, and features a parade of forms giving life to the ocean’s underlying voice — just as the parade of readers at a marathon gives varying life to a book’s underlying voice. Plus, Solaris is absolutely gorgeous, and Lem remains somehow an underrated writer relegated to the sci-fi dungeons.
Oristaglio: “I spoke to many people about the event who reflected a similar experience to mine: many had showed up expecting to stay only a short time, but wound up remaining for hours.”
The choice of title for the reading belonged to Abramović. “Marina was for me a looming, dark shaman-angel. I certainly felt her presence, which was nice!” said Eilbert.
“The institute is a project unlike anything else in the world,” said Morgan. “It’s basically insanity, which is what I want from a cultural center.”
Eilbert, in conclusion:
Frankly, I think most people, readers and audience members alike, weren’t invested too much in listening to a whole book be read. Few were. But there was certainly an attempt at participating on that level with the book, even if inevitably that focus came with failure — which is an interesting metaphor for cultures in a society for sure. Instead of accepting and mastering new worldviews, we’re made to insist on what made us individuals, what bruised us and made us weak to renewal and strength. It’s that same spark that drives people to participate in any challenging scene for absurd lengths of time, which is where Marina Abramović’s long durational method returns. We can sit in a theater and focus all our molecules forward and into the reach of some other narrative; but we all recede back into our brains, back to that irresistible minutia that gives us everyday power.
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