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Memoirs Found In A Bathtub (1961) – The End of Meaning

January 17, 2010

Why do the workers not rise up and smash the chains of their oppressors?  This is a question that challenges every revolutionary thinker.  It vexed Marx and now it vexes Islamist thinkers.  Why do the workers not ruse up and smash the chains of their oppressors?  For Marx as for contemporary Islamist thinkers, the answer was that the workers were in a state of false consciousness.  A state where they believed that they were happy but in fact they were miserable.  How to free people from this state of false consciousness was central to the writings and revolutionary activities of Guy Debord, one of the more influential intellectuals operating around the time of the May ‘68 strikes in France.

In The Society of the Spectacle (1967), Debord argues that capitalistic society is kept on its feet by the construction of The Spectacle by the media-industrial complex.  The Spectacle is not merely a form of popular culture that keeps the proletariat mindlessly entertained and ignorant.  Instead, it is a cultural product that sculpts reality itself.  As Debord himself writes :

“It is a world vision which has become objectified”

The world is constructed by our perceptions of it and because our perceptions are managed, our world is too.  There is no separation between the world and The Spectacle of it.  We live in the world described by The Spectacle and so it is made real.  This is why simply telling people the truth has no effect upon them.  They exist within The Spectacle and language from outside The Spectacle makes no sense.  Dismantling The Spectacle would require a different approach.  The Situationists practised what was then known as Detournement.  Detournement can be seen as the appropriation of Spectacle-friendly images and signs and their re-deployment to serve revolutionary ends.  These stunts included dressing as a monk in order to mount a cathedral pulpit during Easter mass in order to deliver a sermon decrying the tyranny of God and the Church.  These stunts, of course, follow upon the heels of artistic stunts such as the Bloomsbury Group’s Dreadnought Hoax in 1910 and they prefigure the modern fondness for satirical culture jamming.

However, what strikes me as I read about all of these various events is how basic they are to the daily functioning of politics.  What difference is there between a Leftist pretending to be a monk in order to deliver a critique of God and the British Fascist leader Nick Griffin casting off the traditional trappings of Fascism in order to appear on question time looking like a normal politician who speaks not of rivers of blood and racial purity but of a form of underdog nationalism?

We exist in a universe of signs because our brains are lazy fuckers.  Rather than engaging with objective reality, our brains are all too eager to take a short cut and lump together things that look similar or sound similar.  All too often we think by association and by assumption.  We navigate not the real world but a semantic network that serves us in stead of the real world.  However, what would the world be like if we did not live under the aegis of Debord’s Spectacle?  Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found In A Bathtub presents us with a social reality called The Building.  It is a reality that makes The Spectacle appear positively utopian.

Book Cover

The book uses a first-person narration.  The person in question is an effectively nameless man who seems to come from nowhere.  Materialising in order to fill a role within The Building, the civil service of some presumably huge but entirely unseen civilisation, he sets about trying to orient himself in a world of spies and double-dealing.  His Commander in Chief speaks of top secret missions and posthumous decoration but as the pages flick past it soon becomes clear that our narrator has no idea where to start.  Nobody will tell him where to begin his mission.  Everyone he questions either spouts incomprehensible code or distrusts his apparent ignorance, believing him to be working an angle or playing the fool.  After all, if he did not know what he was supposed to be doing, why was he given the job?  And besides which, why is he asking so many questions?  Before long, the lack of information turns sinister.  The world the narrator has been pushed into is evidently a cut-throat world in which denunciation as a traitor leads directly to execution, and where uncovering traitors seems to be the main function of the people employed within the Building.  The result is an atmosphere of complete paranoia and complete ignorance.  Readers familiar with Kafka’s The Trial (1925) will feel right at home.  However, unlike Josef K, who engages with the deranged system on its own terms, Lem’s narrator begins immediately to see through it.  Clearly, he hypothesises, the service has grown so big that it can no longer effectively manage itself and so it assigns jobs to people at random in the hope that eventually, by sheer luck, a necessary task will be accomplished.  Everyone is pretending to know what they are doing and yet they are just as ignorant as the narrator.

Or are they?

Memoirs Found In A Bathtub demonstrates Lem’s absolute mastery of exposition.  This is not to say that Lem’s expository text is beautifully written.  Although it is.  Instead, what I mean is that Lem displays an uncanny understanding of how exposition affects the reader and how it shapes their perception of the world contained in a work of fiction.  Lem uses this understanding not to create a beautifully detailed world, but rather to keep his world in a permanent state of flux.  A world that keeps his narrator, and therefore the reader, perpetually on the back foot.  Destabilised, reeling like a drunk and desperate for some kind of handhold.  A handhold that Lem is only to happy to provide in the next chapter.

Book Cover

Indeed, the book is structured as a series of conceptual breakthroughs.  Having settled us down into a familiar Kafkaesque landscape of bureaucratic schizophrenia and paranoia, Lem then has his narrator discover a report about his mission that details not only his seemingly random and uninformed actions but also the states of mind that motivated these actions.  Clearly, he is not acting at random, he is following a plan.  This literary eigenstate established, Lem promptly collapses it into another haze of particles and probabilities.  This quantum rubble then forms the foundations for another explanation, and then another, and then another.  Each time the narrator is introduced to an understanding of the Building and his place in it, events conspire to make it seem childish and laughable.  Yet each time the narrator, and the reader, fall for it.  Hoping that this time, the truth about The Building will be expressed.

As we near the end of the book, the tools Lem uses in order to throw us off guard become more and more potent.  At one point, the narrator is told that everything is code.  What this means is that everything in the universe can be interpreted as being a code.  Secret communications between secret agents.  Of course, if everything is in code, including the codes themselves, and intention bears no relation to meaning then everything can be interpreted anyway you want.  Because everything is meaningful, everything is meaningless.

With all values and hierarchies rendered moot, the narrator tries to position himself relative to the people around him.  To concentrate upon personal loyalties and friendships.  At one point he finds himself drinking with what he thinks are office clerks.  The narrator bemoans the twists of fate that have led him into such disreputable company but, this no sooner said, the clerks cast off their disguises and reveal themselves to be professors and veteran spies.  The narrator is then thrown into situations where even his apparent friends seem to be about to betray him.  In The Building, even personal relationships come to lose their meaning and friends become enemies, loyalty becomes betrayal and trust becomes mistrust.  The book ends with the narrator weeping over the loss of his razor.  Even objects and possessions, language and actions  become detached from their initial meanings.

Book Cover

Lem’s Memoirs Found In A Bathtub poses a question of dystopian novels such as Kafka’s The Trial and Orwell’s 1984 (1948).  These books present us with images of schizophrenic states that tyrannise their inhabitants.  Of government bodies supposedly set up to deliver justice and help the people transformed into hideous instruments of torture.  There can be little doubt that Josef K and Winston Smith would live happier and longer lives if only they could somehow escape the grips of their respective governments.  Kafka and Orwell share Debord’s instinct that things would be better if only people could be free of the system.  But what does being free of the system really mean?

Lem’s book presents us with a dystopian society in tyranny flows from a lack of system.  The Building is a nightmarish place to live precisely because it denies its citizens the luxury of knowing where they stand.  Every hierarchy it introduces is suspect.  Every law it imposes is subject to change.  There is no peace, there is only the relentless churn of meanings and social narratives that constantly redefines the roles and positions of its citizens.  To live in the Building would be to crave some kind of fixed order.  Even if that order did amount, in Orwell’s words, to “a bot stamping on a human face forever”.  The Building is a nightmarish place to live because it strips the lives of its citizens of meaning.  They are free and yet they would welcome oppression as a release.

The message we can take from this extraordinary book is that while it may be nightmarish to live in a world where reality is sculpted to suit the desires and interests of the powers that be, the alternative of living in a world with no fixed social reality at all may well be even worse.  It is a technically fastonishing and utterly terrifying piece of writing.

11 Comments
  1. George Berger permalink
    January 17, 2010 5:52 pm

    Well, one more book to reread, now that I finally have had some reality stuffed down my throat. I shall send the link to your piece to a friend concerned with media-political spectacle,

  2. January 17, 2010 6:24 pm

    It’s a genuinely great book. I had read bits and pieces of Lem previously but this one really took me by surprise. I expecting dark comedy but I discovered something much more… disturbing.

  3. Mark Pontin permalink
    January 18, 2010 5:39 am

    Heh. MEMOIRS FOUND IN A BATHTUB is a good little book, to be sure. But have you read Lem’s HIS MASTER’S VOICE? That’s arguably as great an SF novel as there is — it certainly leaves 99.99 percent of all the others in the dust — and when I read it at age forty or so rocked my world as much as Budrys’s ROGUE MOON did when I read that at fourteen.

    The Lem novellas/essays/whatchemacallits GOLEM XIV and THE NEW COSMOGONY are also pretty amazing.

  4. January 18, 2010 9:05 am

    I really like Rogue Moon… I read it after Roadside Picnic wanting another spin on the same idea but I was completely unprepared for the absolute insanity of the characters. The initial scene by the pool is really something else.

    I shall keep an eye out for His Master’s Voice, thanks for the tip :-)

  5. January 18, 2010 6:12 pm

    Great review! Have to re-read “Memoirs…”, I tried it when I was way too young to “get” it.

    May I also recommend Lem’s books THE CYBERIAD (a wonderful collection of absurd and comical shorts set in universe populated entirely by robots), and FUTUROLOGICAL CONGRESS (Lem almost out-doing Philip K. Dick!).

  6. January 19, 2010 10:48 pm

    Thanks for bringing this book to my attention – I’ve been working through as much Lem as I can, but I hadn’t heard much about Bathtub at all. The Cyberiad is one of the greatest things I’ve read, anywhere, ever, and I can’t second the recommendation enough.

    If you want to read Lem on matters of style, as well as how he saw himself in relation to the history of the genre and other authors like Philip K. Dick, check out his essays in Microworlds; as an outsider to the American tradition, Lem challenges a lot of the conventional histories of what sci-fi is and how it has evolved.

  7. January 20, 2010 11:20 am

    His Masters Voice is tremendous, if remarkably bleak. We intercept a signal from space, is it intended for us? Have we merely overheard someone else’s conversation? Is it a signal at all? Do we understand it? Are we creating our own meaning from it?

    It’s fascinating stuff, almost an anti-SETI novel, good to read against James Gunn’s The Listeners for two views on alien contact that are about as distant from each other as they can be.

    My personal favourite was always Chain of Chance, an investigation of a series of mysterious deaths which may or may not be murders. Though on a much lighter note, the Pirx tales are just huge fun, particularly their take on first contact which again is about as far from the typical American sf vision as it’s possible to go.

    I’d not read this one though. I’ll be printing off the review to reread it in depth, interesting stuff.

  8. January 20, 2010 11:39 am

    I remember you and Dan raving about the Pirx the Pilot stories and I did track them down and agree that they are wonderfully un-American.

    I shall definitely have to look into more Lem, thanks for the recommendations all.

  9. January 20, 2010 7:13 pm

    Lem has been an outspoken critic of American SF (and it caused a ruckus among his U.S. colleagues, or so I’ve heard). For example he has pointed out how much SF isn’t really about scientific speculation; even the “hard” SF isn’t always that hard.

    His novel FIASCO is a great, rigorously rational piece of “Hard SF” on the theme of making contact with alien life that is truly “alien” — and the ending is still one of the best ever written on that theme. It’s fair to call the ending a “shocker,” not on the visceral but the intellectual level.

    Read FIASCO.

  10. February 4, 2010 2:56 pm

    “a bot stamping on a human face forever”

    Wasn’t that Steve Polge’s vision of the future?

    Great review, thank you. It has left me determined to read Lem (to my shame I never have).

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