Stanisław Lem with Bożena Shallcross
September 13, 2021
Episode 8 and all video recordings will be available at:
Polish Cultural Institute New York YouTube
Encounters with Polish Literature is a new video series for anyone interested in literature and the culture of books and reading. Each month, host David A. Goldfarb will present a new topic in conversation with an expert on that author or book or movement in Polish literature. More about the Encounters with Polish Literature series and the timeline.
This episode of “Encounters with Polish Literature” celebrates the centennial of the birth of Stanisław Lem (1921-2006) in Lwów (today L’viv, Ukraine), one of Poland’s most popular writers, known primarily for his widely translated science fiction works such as Solaris, The Cyberiad, and Tales of Pirx the Pilot, though he expressed a certain ambivalence about the genre in his later interviews. One of Lem’s particular talents is the invention of fictional literatures, such as the entire history of the fictional science of “Solaristics” in the novel, Solaris, but he pursues this genre of fictional fictions for its own sake apart from science fiction, authoring introductions to and reviews of nonexistent books in Memoirs Found in a Bathtub and A Perfect Vacuum. While his science fiction works may be viewed as philosophical novels, he also wrote non-fiction works of philosophy and futurology including his Dialogues, Summa Technologiae, and many essays and extended interviews.
He grew up as an only child, the son of a successful laryngologist among Lwów’s urban secularized Jewish intelligentsia in the wake of the First World War, so he had the opportunity to mature into early adulthood in a comfortable, stable environment in independent Poland before the outbreak of World War II and relocation to Kraków after the war. He studied medicine at his father’s urging, but did not pursue a career as a physician. He began writing and publishing as early as 1946, but grew substantially in productivity and popularity after the Thaw of 1956, three years after the death of Stalin.
In this episode, we consider three works, Lem’s memoir of childhood, Highcastle, his early novel about the fate of a psychiatric hospital during Second World War, The Hospital of the Transfiguration, and his science fiction masterpiece, Solaris, which would become the subject of films by Andrei Tarkovsky and Stephen Soderburgh. We look at Lem’s use of architecture as a means for organizing a community of scientists or researchers, and his lavish improvisatory descriptions of the ocean and sky in Solaris. We pay particular attention to Lem’s fascination with material objects and mechanisms nurtured in childhood, his exploration of philosophical problems such as the nature of consciousness, the paradox of contact between persons, the possibility of communication between humans and alien beings, madness and genius, and Nazism’s denial of the personhood of the mentally ill and the disabled.
Selected English translations of the work of Stanisław Lem:
The Chain of Chance. Tr. Louis Iribarne. New York: Mariner, 1984.
The Cyberiad. Tr. Micheal Kandel. New York: Mariner, 2002.
Dialogues. Tr. Peter Butko. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2021.
Eden. Tr. Marc E. Heine. New York: Mariner, 1991.
Fiasco. Tr. Michael Kandel. New York: Mariner, 1988.
The Futurological Congress. Tr. Michael Kandel. New York: Mariner, 1985.
Highcastle: A Remembrance. Tr. Michael Kandel. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2020.
His Master’s Voice. Foreword by Seth Shostak. Translated by Michael Kandel. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2020.
Hospital of the Transfiguration. Tr. William Brand. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2020.
Imaginary Magnitude. Tr. Marc E. Heine. New York: Mariner, 1985.
The Investigation. Tr. Adele Milch. New York: Mariner, 1986.
The Invincible. Foreword by N. Katherine Hayles. Tr. Bill Johnston. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2020.
Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. Tr. Michael Kandel and Christine Rose. New York: Mariner, 1986.
Memoirs of a Space Traveler: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy. Foreword by Elizabeth Bear. Tr. Joel Stern, Maria Swiecicka-Ziemianek and Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2020.
Microworlds. Tr. Franz Rottensteiner and others. New York: Mariner, 1986.
More Tales of Pirx the Pilot. Tr. Louis Iribarne, assisted by Magdalena Majcherczyk and Michael Kandel. New York: Mariner, 1983.
Mortal Engines. Tr. Michael Kandel. New York: Mariner, 1992.
One Human Minute. Tr. Catherine S. Leach. New York: Mariner, 1986.
Peace on Earth. Tr. Elinor Ford with Michael Kandel. New York: Mariner, 2002.
A Perfect Vacuum. Tr. Michael Kandel. New York: Mariner, 1983.
Return from the Stars. Foreword by Simon Ings. Tr. Barbara Marszal and Frank Simpson. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2020.
Solaris. Tr. Bill Johnston. Kindle Edition. Kraków: Pro Auctore Wojciech Zemek, 2014.
Star Diaries: Further Reminiscences Of Ijon Tichy. Tr. Michael Kandel. New York: Mariner, 1985.
Summa Technologiae. Tr. Joanna Zylinska. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
Tales of Pirx the Pilot. Tr. Louis Iribarne. New York: Mariner, 1990.
The Truth and Other Stories. Foreword by Kim Stanley Robinson. Tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2021.
Swirski, Peter, ed. A Stanisław Lem Reader. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1997.
Bożena Shallcross is a professor of Polish literature and Polish-Jewish cultural studies in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago, as well as an essayist, translator and art critic. She published several monographs, edited and translated volumes of texts by various authors, as well as numerous articles, in which she has explored an intersection of the once fundamental division between the seeing subject and the objectual sphere in literature, the visual arts, and the phenomenal world. Her research has taken her from the late stage of Polish symbolist poetry and its ekphrastic reassessments of Western European visual arts to the late modernist destabilization of the poetic subject and art-object divide, which she explored from the perspective of (post)sublime encounters, the scene of writing, and spatial modes of habitation. Currently, she is working on two book-length projects: a study on the Kulmhof-am-Ner survivors and a volume on inscriptions. Among her grants, fellowships and awards, she appreciates most The Polish Government’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Promoting Polish Culture in the World awarded in 2002.
David A. Goldfarb is an independent scholar of Polish literature and literary theory, a literary translator from Polish to English, and a liaison for Polish authors to US publishers. In 2018 he translated feature articles and interviews from Wysokie Obcasy—the weekly women’s supplement to Poland’s main independent daily paper Gazeta Wyborcza—for Newsmavens.com, a pan-European women’s news portal. From mid-2010 to the end of 2013, he was Curator of Literature and Humanities Programming at the Polish Cultural Institute New York, a diplomatic mission of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland. Prior to that he served as Assistant Professor of Slavic Literatures and Comparative Literature at Barnard College, Columbia University.
He holds a doctorate in Comparative Literature from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York as well as an M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Toronto, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Cornell University and Deep Springs College. He has published articles on Bruno Schulz, Zbigniew Herbert, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Mikhail Lermontov, and East European cinema in such journals as East European Politics and Societies, Indiana Slavic Studies, Philosophy and Literature, Prooftexts, The Polish Review, Slavic and East European Performance, and Jewish Quarterly, and he has published book chapters on Jozef Wittlin, Witold Gombrowicz, and Nikolai Gogol and Giuseppe Arcimboldo. He has written the introduction and notes for Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” and Other Stories and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons for the Barnes and Noble Classics series, and for the Penguin Classics edition of the The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories by Bruno Schulz.
Bartek Remisko, Executive Producer
David A. Goldfarb, Host & Producer
Natalia Iyudin, Producer
This project is part of 21-anniversary celebration of Polish Cultural Institute New York.