The Thing from Inner Space

JACQUES LACAN DEFINES ART itself with regard to the Thing: in his Seminar on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis, he claims that art as such is always organized around the central Void of the impossible-real Thing – a statement which, perhaps, should be read as a variation on Rilke’s old thesis that “Beauty is the last veil that covers the Horrible”.14 Lacan gives some hints about how this surrounding of the Void functions in the visual arts and in architecture; what we shall do here is not provide an account of how, in cinematic art, the field of the visible, of representations, involves reference to some central and structural Void, to the impossibility attached to it – ultimately, therein resides the point of the notion of suture in cinema theory. What I propose to do is something much more naive and abrupt: to analyze the way the motif of the Thing appears within the diegetic space of cinematic narrative – in short, to speak about films whose narrative deals with some impossible/traumatic Thing, like the Alien Thing in science-fiction horror films.

What better proof of the fact that this Thing comes from Inner Space than the very first scene of Star Wars? At first, all we see is the void – the infinite dark sky, the ominously silent abyss of the universe, with dispersed twinkling stars which are not so much material objects as abstract points, markers of space coordinates, virtual objects; then, all of a sudden, in Dolby stereo, we hear a thundering sound coming from behind our backs, from our innermost background, later rejoined by the visual object, the source of this sound – a gigantic space ship, a kind of space version of Titanic – which triumphantly enters the frame of screen-reality. The object-Thing is thus clearly rendered as a part of ourselves that we eject into reality… This intrusion of the massive Thing seems to bring relief, canceling the horror vacui of staring at the infinite void of the universe – however, what if its actual effect is the exact opposite? What if the true horror is that of Something – the intrusion of some excessive massive Real – where we expect Nothing? This experience of “Something (the stain of the Real) instead of Nothing” is perhaps at the root of the metaphysical question “Why is there something instead of nothing?”

I want to focus on the specific version of this Thing: the Thing as the Space (the sacred/forbidden Zone) in which the gap between the Symbolic and the Real is closed, i.e. in which, to put it somewhat bluntly, our desires are directly materialized (or, to put it in the precise terms of Kant’s transcendental idealism, the Zone in which our intuition becomes directly productive – the state of things which, according to Kant, characterizes only infinite divine Reason).

This notion of Thing as an Id-Machine, a mechanism that directly materializes our unacknowledged fantasies, possesses a long, if not always respectable, pedigree. In cinema, it all began with Fred Wilcox’s The Forbidden Planet (1956), which transposed onto a distant planet the story-skeleton of Shakespeare’s The Tempest: a father living alone with his daughter (who has never met another man) on an island have their peace disturbed by the arrival of a group of space-travelers. Strange attacks by an invisible monster soon start to occur, and, at the film’s end, it becomes clear that this monster is nothing but the materialization of the father’s destructive impulses against the intruders who disturbed his incestuous peace. (Retroactively, we can thus read the tempest itself from Shakespeare’s play as the materialization of the raging of the paternal superego…). The Id-Machine that, unbeknownst to the father, generates the destructive monster is a gigantic mechanism beneath the surface of this distant planet, the mysterious remnants of some past civilization that succeeded in developing such a machine for the direct materialization of thoughts and thus destroyed itself… Here, the Id-Machine is firmly set in a Freudian libidinal context: the monsters it generates are the realizations of the primordial father’s incestuous destructive impulses against other men who might threaten his symbiosis with the daughter.

The ultimate variation of this motif of the Id-Machine is arguably Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, in which this Thing is also related to the deadlocks of sexual relationship. Solaris is the story of a space agency psychologist, Kelvin, sent to a half-abandoned spaceship above a newly-discovered planet, Solaris, where, recently, strange things have been taking place (scientists going mad, hallucinating and killing themselves). Solaris is a planet with an oceanic fluid surface which moves incessantly and, from time to time, imitates recognizable forms, not only elaborate geometric structures, but also gigantic children’s bodies or human buildings; although all attempts to communicate with the planet fail, scientists entertain the hypothesis that Solaris is a gigantic brain which somehow reads our minds. Soon after his arrival, Kelvin finds at his side in his bed his dead wife, Harey, who, years ago on Earth, killed herself after he had abandoned her. He is unable to shake Harey off, all attempts to get rid of her miserably fail (after he sends her into space with a rocket, she rematerializes the next day); analysis of her tissue demonstrates that she is not composed of atoms like normal human beings – beneath a certain micro-level, there is nothing, just void. Finally, Kelvin grasps that Harey is a materialization of his own innermost traumatic fantasies. This accounts for the enigma of strange gaps in Harey’s memory – of course she doesn’t know everything a real person is supposed to know, because she is not such a person, but a mere materialization of HIS fantasmatic image of her in all its inconsistency. The problem is that, precisely because Harey has no substantial identity of her own, she acquires the status of the Real that forever insists and returns to its place: like fire in Lynch’s films, she forever “walks with the hero”, sticks to him, never lets him go. Harey, this fragile specter, pure semblance, cannot ever be erased – she is “undead”, eternally recurring in the space between the two deaths. Are we thus not back at the standard Weiningerian anti-feminist notion of the woman as a symptom of man, a materialization of his guilt, his fall into sin, who can only deliver him (and herself) by her suicide? Solaris relies on science-fiction rules to enact in reality itself, to present as a material fact, the notion that woman merely materializes a male fantasy: the tragic position of Harey is that she becomes aware that she is deprived of all substantial identity, that she is Nothing in herself, since she only exists as the Other’s dream, insofar as the Other’s fantasies turn around her – it is this predicament that imposes suicide as her ultimate ethical act: becoming aware of how he suffers on account of her permanent presence, Harey finally destroys herself by swallowing a chemical stuff that will prevent her recomposition. (The ultimate horror scene of the movie takes place when the spectral Harey reawakens from her first failed suicide attempt on Solaris: after ingesting liquid oxygen, she lies on the floor, deeply frozen; then, all of a sudden, she starts to move, her body twitching in a mixture of erotic beauty and abject horror, sustaining unbearable pain – is there anything more tragic than such a scene of failed self-erasure, when we are reduced to the obscene slime which, against our will, persists in the picture?) At the novel’s end, we see Kelvin alone on the spaceship, staring into the mysterious surface of the Solaris ocean…


  1. See Chapter XVIII of Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, London: Routledge 1992.
  2. Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, Stanford: Stanford University Press 1997, p. 47.
  3. Stanislaw Lem, Solaris, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company 1978, p. 30.
  4. The formula of Tonya Howe (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) on whose excellent seminar paper "Solaris and the Obscenity of Presence" I rely here.
  5. See Jacques-Alain Miller, "Des semblants dans la relation entre les sexes", in La Cause freudienne 36, Paris 1997, p. 7-15.
  6. Quoted from Antoine de Vaecque, Andrei Tarkovsky, Cahiers du Cinema 1989, p. 108.
  7. Is not the exemplary case of such a fantasmatic formation combining heterogeneous and inconsistent elements the mythical Kingdom (or Dukedom) of Ruritania, situated in an imaginary Eastern European space combining Catholic central Europe with the Balkans, the Central European noble feudal conservative tradition with the Balkan wilderness, modernity (train) with primitive peasantry, the "primitive" wilderness of Montenegro with the "civilized" Czech space (examples abound, from the notorious Prisoner of Zenda onwards)?
  8. de Vaecque, op. cit., p. 110.
  9. See de Vaecque, op. cit., p. 98.
  10. See Claude Lefort, Écrire. A l'epreuve du politique, Paris: Calmann-Levy 1992, p. 32-33.
  11. See de Vaecque, op. cit., p. 81.
  12. ; I rely here on Michel Chion, Le son, Paris: Editions Nathan 1998, p. 191.
  13. Therein resides also the ambiguity of the role of chance in Kieslowski's universe: does it point towards a deeper Fate secretly regulating our lives, or is the notion of Fate itself a desperate stratagem to cope with the utter contingency of life?
  14. See Chapter XVIII of Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, London: Routledge 1992.

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