Brief EncountersInternational LiteratureShort Fiction

31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 23: “The Journal” by Stanislaw Lem; Antonia Lloyd-Jones, trans.

From The Truth and Other Stories

Stanislaw Lem has this much in common with Margaret Atwood: both disclaim the term science fiction when applied to their own writing. In a 1983 interview with Raymond Federman, Lem claimed, “I do not consider myself an SF writer.” This might come as a surprise to his devoted readers, many of whom number the late Polish writer among the towering 20th century practitioners of the genre. But Lem himself bemoaned a “ponderous,” self-serious attitude among SF readers and writers, and suggested that his interest lay not so much in science per se, but in its intersection with philosophy:

What matters for me is what is called cognition. In other words, that which is the concern of the theory of cognition. And the question of whether or not it should be limited only to exact sciences, that is to say, natural sciences, remains open. I am interested primarily in the line of junction, the border between science and philosophy, and also in the fact that a certain species of “brained animals” on Earth, I mean Man, has made science one of its main preoccupations. I experiment in the sense that sometimes I examine real possibilities of science and philosophy, and sometimes I imagine how other thinking species would practice philosophy of science.

The notion of cognition, especially as it relates to ontology, is profound in Lem’s dense and difficult 1962 story “The Journal.” While this heavily philosophical piece does turn out to be more closely embedded in SF tropes than might at first appear – and it is not possible to talk about the piece without engaging in spoilers regarding the ending – for the majority of its duration it appears to be something else altogether: an extended meditation on the nature of creation in the voice of a universal creator or, if you will, God.

The nature of God – or god, or a prime mover – is something that has obsessed humanity practically from the moment humans became sentient. Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is our purpose? Why is there nothing instead of something? To investigate these questions – a writer as intellectually inquisitive as Lem would never presume to offer answers – the author posits a galactic creator both omnipotent and omniscient. But Lem recognizes a logical problem: those very qualities are irreducible; therefore, how is it possible for the omnipotent, omniscient creator to fully comprehend itself? It can’t, and Lem’s story posits a prime mover that is ignorant of its own existential makeup. (A blasphemous notion that would not have won the author any adherents among followers of organized religions.)

“We are omnipotent, and herein lies our weakness, because we can create truths, but how are we to choose between them? And again: could it be possible that we exist, as they do, doubly, twice over – once as a thought, and a second time from the outside, as a Thing?” Here the omnipotent, omniscient narrator, who refers to itself in the plural, comes up short on the horns of its own existential paradox: if it truly contains the universe and everything in it, how is it possible to reduce that infinite potential to a finite understanding?

The paradox of an infinite consciousness with no beginning or ending creating a finite universe is the unsettled philosophical quandary on which the story, for the bulk of its unfolding, hangs:

The fact that we are able to limit our boundlessness, that we have often restrained ourselves in this way before, we owe to our omnipotence. It always manifests itself in a specific resignation – as a renunciation, because it is the derivative of choice, and even if we were to realize a multitude of designs all at once, even if we were to say, “Let everything occur!” and by this same token to repeat ourselves (which in any case we have done many times before), this will change nothing, because no enlargement is capable of enlarging us, and no intensification is capable of increasing us. The only result of infinity added to infinity is infinity.

The formula “Let everything occur” is a clear allusion to the biblical Genesis story (“Let there be light”), though the speaker’s admission of a logical fallacy calls into question the very notion of omnipotence on the part of the prime mover. Indeed, the narrator indicates that one thing troubling it more than any other is that its understanding of the limitations of its own omniscience causes it to doubt itself: “We are debating this question because it stirs endless doubt in us.”

Similarly, the consciousness at the story’s centre disavows any morality, while acknowledging that certain of its deluded creations are determined to believe in its all-consuming goodness:

Could I become Good in their eyes? Goodness? Universal love, perhaps? Ah that would be too much! Too much to endure – as a humorous contrast to annihilation (which is what creation and reproduction are), that would be unbearable! Because then they would have confidence, and I don’t want their confidence, I don’t wish to have it, I reject it.

The conflation of annihilation and reproduction is interesting: the notion that we begin to die the moment we are born is contained in this juxtaposition, as is the finite nature of creation. The fact that creation is finite might help to explain why the narrator claims not to want the confidence of the creatures it has brought into being, for that would align the finite and the infinite a bit too closely (perhaps furthering its own self-doubt and confusion?).

Note, too, the shift from a first-person plural form of reference to a first-person singular. The speaker itself questions this move: “But why have I imperceptibly started speaking in the singular?” If we assume an evolutionary trajectory in the thought of the narrating consciousness across the arc of the story, we might see this as emblematic of the shift from a polytheistic cosmology to the monotheism that dominates most of the world since the dawn of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions.

But the speaker is equally insistent on the impossibility of its creations believing in their creator’s true nature, because to do so would mean embracing ambiguity and uncertainty, as well as admitting to the limitations of knowledge about the universe and its properties:

They will not believe in someone who, full of an eternity matched only by his omnipotence, who creates Things, Evolutions, Spaces, all kinds of Nature, who has supplied them with a structure of laws and a colour scheme for events, while being at the same time totally ignorant of who he is, having not the feeblest imagination of where he came from, who he might be, or finally whether he exists at all – for let us admit that we could just as well be a dream – they will not believe in someone as powerful as he is helpless, however their destinies are shaped!

“For let us admit that we could just as well be a dream.” The fact that the narrating consciousness includes itself in this rubric is a significant clue to its specific nature, and here is where Lem’s story veers off from a philosophical rumination into more recognizable SF territory. It turns out that what we have been reading is an article in a journal called Almanac. The “simplified and quite heavily abridged” transcript was composed by a “homeostatic brain” grown out of a “cybernetic spermatozoon” installed in the surface of a planet called XG/1187/5. The omniscient “god” of the story, in other words, is a sentient AI trying to determine the nature of its own existence.

Here Lem reduces the investigative field of the story from grand philosophical questions about ontology and metaphysics to more prosaic ideas about the limitations of computer intelligence and its ability to outstrip human understanding. It also inverts the creator/created dichotomy that has been the basis for everything that has gone before, thereby forcing the reader to reevaluate the meaning and import of the entire story based on the new knowledge provided at the close.

What may at first seem overly reductive is actually a neat trick on the author’s part. For most of the story, he has convinced us to believe in his own creation: an omnipotent, omniscient consciousness that is plagued by self-doubt as a result of its recognition of its own limitlessness. By putting the reader in this position then pulling the rug out in the story’s final stages, Lem enacts the very philosophical questions he has been posing. All of a sudden, we find our frame of reference altered; are we willing – or even capable – of altering our own belief systems in response?

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