Empiricism and Gnosticism in His Master’s Voice
Stanisław Lem’s novel His Master’s Voice (1968) questions our ability to communicate with aliens and the alien in general. This novel about alien contact set amid the Cold War also sets itself the task of examining how one thinks about the world. The alien is also equated to God, and the novel examines and undermines our traditional methods of understanding God and the world. Lem, a Polish author of science fiction, delineates and examines the empirical and Gnostic methods of seeing and understanding the world. His unique position in Poland during the Cold War contributes to his description of these methods as particularly Western and Eastern, respectively. These systems, bearing as they do their religious freight, exemplify different methods of thought in the novel – especially epistemology, or thought about thought. Hogarth, the protagonist of His Master’s Voice, approaches the HMV project to translate an extraterrestrial message as an empiricist, but he leaves it with an insistence on intuitive Gnostic knowledge. Published in the midst of the Cold War, while decrying nuclear build-up, the text privileges neither empiricism or Gnosticism, but juxtaposes them in an effort to search for a better way to approach inquiry and deal with the world. Each model of thought serves as one part of a necessary whole that no one, not even Hogarth, reaches within the novel itself. We must combine the parts, as—readers of the Letter—not the message from the aliens dubbed so, but the Letter from one thinker to another. In particular, His Master’s Voice is self-reflexive: the novel mirrors the alien Letter, and Hogarth’s need for a new model of cognition becomes our need. The novel does not answer its own question, but does provide elliptical suggestions that a hypothetical synthesis of the empirical and mystical/Gnostic models might provide an answer. It uses religious and Cold War-political comparisons to highlight the need for and difficulty of creating this new model.
In His Master’s Voice, scientists find a “letter from the stars” in a repeated and ordered sequence of neutrino bursts from the region around α Canis Minoris. The American government assembles a project to decode the message. It goes on to secret the project away in a former bomb-testing site in Nevada to keep the news of the alien contact, as well as any possible discoveries stemming out of the project, from the Soviets. By novel’s end no progress has actually been made in decoding the letter, and several experts from outside the project undermine the assumption that it is a message, claiming it could be background noise from the first violent moment of the universe (among other things). The message and the Senders are often compared to God, both directly and indirectly, especially after it is discovered that the neutrino emission is “biophilic.” That is, within the reach of its beam, molecules are more likely to hang together and eventually become what we consider life—so the Senders are likely responsible for life on Earth. Hogarth, who manages to mathematically prove the message likely describes an object and that it is a looped message, does more to clear up the message than anyone else and is often described as a prophet. Religion, as separate from religious language describing other things, is notably absent in the novel. Religion is displaced onto the Senders, and His Master’s Voice uses the implications of religious language to introduce the dichotomy between two ways of religious and cultural thought. These two methods of understanding the world are then used, discarded, and used again in a final attempt to discover a new method appropriate for dealing with the world—and truly alien contact is used as a benchmark, as it guarantees that a cognitive model deals with the world and not its own constructs.
The two conceptions of how to view the world in His Master’s Voice are western empiricism and a kind of eastern Gnosticism. In The Pauline Renaissance in England (1970), John S. Coolidge points out that the Pauline tradition is intellectual (xii) and that the western—and especially Puritan—method of scriptural interpretation emerges from Paul’s epistles and is marked by its need to use reason and fact-checking to establish general truths from examples. This method sounds suspiciously like the scientific method, which Coolidge acknowledges; he assures the reader that “the Puritans by no means anticipate the methods or findings of scientific criticism” (xiv). At the same time, he goes on, Puritan method and thought inform historical and cultural habit. So while the Puritans, with their Pauline method, did not anticipate scientific method directly, they established the habits of reasoning that later engendered the scientific method.
Around the same time Francis Bacon urged, in his writings, for an increased attention to what we now label the scientific method. In his New Atlantis (1624) Bacon mixes religious and scientific authority, and in his Great Instauration (1620), he demands an improvement in the natural philosophies, insisting philosophers deal more with what is before them and less with what is in their own minds. Jerry Weinberger, in his introduction to both texts, highlights the conflation of religion and science in Bacon’s early empiricism: “science is somehow a form of that universal faith [Christianity] because science attempts to attain that faith’s central promise—the resurrection of the body along with the final salvation of the soul” (xxix). Much of Bacon’s work was pointed towards improving the state of empiricism in England, and his tenets of self-correction and careful observation do look like the modern scientific method. Generally empiricism is bound up with morality in western cultures because it is the way to find the truth about the world. Observation and interpretation are the keys to knowledge, which in turn shapes morality.
In her The Gnostic Gospels (1979), Elaine Pagels points out that Gnostic traditions undermine—and often directly attack—such worldviews. The orthodox origin of authority is to have witnessed and experienced directly Christ’s resurrection. Pagels reminds us that, when they needed a replacement for Judas, Peter insisted it must be “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us [. . .] one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection” (9; italics Pagels’s). After Christ ascended no one else could experience him in the same way. Some might have visions, but Luke “implies that these incidents cannot compare with the original events attested by the Twelve” because those who saw the visions were not of the Twelve—that is, they did not spend time with Christ before and after his resurrection (10). They cannot, to use our terms, empirically verify their claims.
The Gnostics held this view to be backwards and stifling. They claimed an insistence on physical experience blinded believers to where truth could be found, in spiritual experience. “What mattered was not literal seeing, but spiritual vision [. . . S]piritual intuition discloses insight into the nature of reality” (Pagels 11-12). The Gnostic traditions privilege direct spiritual experience, but this experience is not for all. What can be easily found is worth less than secret teachings, such as when, in a Gnostic text titled The Secret Book of James, Christ appears to his apostles and leads Peter and James away, to impart vital truths to them that the rest cannot know. Pagels writes that this story exemplifies “the superiority of Gnostic forms of secret tradition [. . .] over that of priests and bishops, who can offer only ‘common’ tradition” (23). If the goal were to reach a state of divine inspiration or salvation, then the common wisdoms would be inadequate.
These two habits of thought, the empirical and the Gnostic, fill His Master’s Voice. Hogarth struggles with them, both as habits themselves—at one point he claims thought acquires inertia (Lem His Master’s Voice 25)—and as methods to deal with the world and with the unknown—especially the Senders and their letter. How one thinks when one approaches a problem, according to Hogarth, has more to do with the solutions one attains than the difficulty of the problem itself, given how entrenched we are in our own world and our own thoughts (30; 32). An incorrect model will not contain the necessary elements to explain the problem.
Hogarth sets up his conception of thought almost immediately in the novel, and the rest of his narration then serves as a working out of this idea. He says in the preface that “the problem [of creating multiple biographies from different points of view] is not moral but cognitive. The number of metaphysical beliefs is no greater or less than the number of different beliefs a man may entertain on the subject of himself” (5). We can understand from this statement, found in the most self-aware section of the novel, that the problem of the book is not moral, but cognitive—even though it is most assuredly moral. The novel conflates the two stances, insisting that each paradigm informs the other at least, and may simply be the other in different clothes. It is appropriate, then, for the novel to use the stances of thought as represented by the dichotomy within Christianity between the orthodox empiricists and the Gnostic mystics, as they are both moral and cognitive in the same way as Hogarth’s conception of himself. The preface and its fascination with (auto)biography does hint that His Master’s Voice might serve as Hogarth’s biography in spite of his protests, and so the problem of the book is, against his will, both moral and cognitive. It also implies that it is possible to hold multiple metaphysical views, a claim that buttresses the novel’s insistence on a combination of empirical and Gnostic thought.
Cognition, both viewed normally and as a kind of morality, tracks along the entire rise and fall of plot in the novel. Hogarth begins as a stout empiricist. He insists that one of science’s duties is to “determine the extent not of the acquired knowledge [. . .] but, rather, of the ignorance” (23). He wishes for us to catalog our ignorance and to push forward; several times over the course of the novel he describes science as a kind of mass movement, not forward, but toward the ignorance he speaks of. The movement will fill in what we do not know even as it discovers more things we do not know—he views knowledge as an item one can have, that it is “acquired and understood” (26). He applies this method of thinking to his morality as well. Before his entry into HMV, Hogarth worked out a mathematical proof illustrating why people seek out, or seek to cause, both pain and pleasure. He says,
My proof showed that if the number of elements of a regulatory center (a brain) exceeds the maximum of four billion, the set of such automata displays a distribution between the opposing parameters of control [pleasure and pain]. In each such automaton one of the poles of control can become dominant; or—to put it in more popular language—sadism and masochism cannot be avoided, and their appearance in the anthropogenetic process was inevitable. [. . .] I was able to show that in any human population, assuming panmixia (random interbreeding), at most 10 percent will manifest a good equilibrium of algedonic control, while the rest must deviate from the norm.” (23-4)
In the first chapter of the novel Hogarth reveals he has proven that good and evil, as a tendency towards causing pleasure or pain as compared to a norm, are statistically inevitable in the make-up of humans! He even goes on to “[expand] the proof to include, as well, the phenomenon of the appearance of ethics in social groups” (24). Both Hogarth’s pursuit and his language mark him as a dyed-in-the-wool empiricist, intent on quantifying the world in an effort to understand how it works. He is not content, as a physicist or chemist might be, in quantifying what we would consider the physical world, the typical realm of empiricism; Hogarth wishes the metaphysical to be physical. He wishes to quantify what most philosophers or theologists would insist is unquantifiable. Hogarth goes on to complain that philosophers and others who study the human condition took no notice of his work; he vilifies these thinkers as people trying to protect their “high office as Keepers of the Mystery, whether the Mystery [is] called the Transmission of Archetypes, Instinct, the Life Force, or the Death Wish” (24-5). Not only does Hogarth personally try to make everything into a quantified value for ease of understanding, he is baffled and offended by others who do not pursue knowledge in the same way. Knowledge, by way of science, is a restricting of ignorance and an attempt, even if admittedly futile, to stamp it out.
Hogarth views the sorts of mysterious knowledge promised by philosophers and religions as foolish—both pernicious and incorrect. He says that science “advances at its gradual pace [. . .], and for periods it even walks in place, but eventually it reaches the various ultimate trenches dug by philosophical thought, and, quite heedless of the fact that it is not supposed to be able to cross those final barriers to the intellect, goes right on” (29). The ultimate trenches are the markers beyond which thinkers posit we cannot go; they stand as Gnostic barriers we cannot transcend. Science, Hogarth claims, transcends them without noticing their existence. They do not even amount to stumbling blocks in the way of science, though he admits that often enough science stands still. Hogarth sees science as the only transcendental study, and a study one acquires: at one point he claims that the “foundation of all empiricism” is “not comprehending but seizing hold, not knowledge of but mastery over” (151). And if science is transcendental, then there is no transcendence. Science sees such a metaphysical state of knowledge as impossible.
Hogarth sees the world in this way for much of the book. But slowly, though the preface prepares us for this change, Hogarth comes around to the other side of the perceived binary: he begins to rely on intuited information and claims of knowledge on a higher level. He believes precisely what he denies earlier in his life. One of the most drastic moments in this change for Hogarth comes when he and Prothero find that the TX Effect will be useless as a weapon. Using the neutrino emission in an experiment, two teams of scientists produced what is called “Frog’s Eggs” or “Lord of the Flies” (depending on which team one asks). Prothero discovers that small atomic explosions centered on a mass of Frog’s Eggs will jump across space with no travel in the intervening distance—they will be teleported. He names this phenomenon the TX Effect, which is short for “tele-explosive effect.” Prothero and Hogarth labor in secret to determine just how the TX Effect will function on large scales. The moment Hogarth sees the final results is a revelatory one for him, and marks an acceleration of the change from staunch empiricist to more Gnostic believer that his studies of the Senders’ letter has wrought in him.
Here is how Hogarth describes the moment he saw the results and, most importantly, learned the TX Effect would be useless as a weapon:
I felt a weakness in my knees [. . .] The paper suddenly went gray; something obscured my vision. This weakness lasted only a few seconds. When it passed, I was covered with a clammy sweat. Donald [Prothero] at last noticed something strange was happening to me, but I said that I was better now. (165-6)
The Cold War setting of the novel certainly makes an extreme reaction understandable, as he has just learned they have not discovered a way to negate advance warning nuclear deterrence—such a negation would, in Hogarth and Prospero’s minds, lead directly to nuclear annihilation, as both sides in the Cold War would try to emerge the victor by beating the opposition to the punch. However, his reaction still seems extreme. It is as though he is suffering, or recovering from, a physical sensation. Hogarth calls attention to the fit later in the novel. He claims that he felt weak not only because the threat of nuclear war had gone away, but also because “[he] experienced, palpably, Their greatness. [He] understood what a civilization could be based on, and what a civilization could be” (194). He goes on to say that this civilization is knowledge, particularly knowledge that would prevent dangerous situations such as the one he feels he has escaped. In a traditional worldview religion would provide such a protective barrier to people, but this solution does not suffice for Hogarth—though he begins to re-map religious beliefs onto the Senders. They are a civilization with the sort of knowledge Hogarth desires, a knowledge that protects as it informs. He claims the Senders must have said, when they constructed the message, that “[w]e will make it undecipherable for all who are not yet ready [. . .] even a false reading will not be able to supply them with any of the things that they seek but that should be denied them” (193). The Senders, like God, can protect knowledge until the seeker after knowledge is ready for it, and they, after all, are probably responsible for life on Earth due to their signal’s biophilic effect. We have turned anything in our path to our own devices, Hogarth claims, even our own bodies and atoms. That we failed to do so with the letter is evidence, then, that the information there is protected until we rise high enough to understand it safely.
Hogarth puts his knowledge of the Senders in this way:
I was convinced that we had received a letter. It is very important to me to convey to the reader not just this belief of mine [. . .] but the reasoning behind it. If I fail here, I should not have written this book. For that was its goal. A man who, like myself, has grappled long and often, on many changing fronts of science, with the problems of solving “Nature’s ciphers,” truly knows more about them than you will find in his mathematically tidy publications. (192-3)
But he never provides such reasoning, but instead labels his knowledge of nature and the Senders as “unconveyable.” Hogarth has become what he previously decried: an initiate into a Gnostic mystery. Knowledge of the world is tied to morality, not through religion, but through preservation of the species. Humankind is always “capable of transforming any elemental force into a force of destruction, [and] would have succeeded in this case as well” (Rodnianskaia 354). According to Hogarth, the only reason humans could not turn the letter into a destructive force is because it was a message with intention, sent from an alien race, and this race was so wise and benevolent that it locked the information until the receiver becomes intelligent and peaceful enough to make use of it. Moral knowledge has limits imposed on it from a moral source in a Gnostic tradition, and Hogarth projects God’s position as moral source onto the Senders.
We could interpret Hogarth’s first, empirical standpoint in two ways: either it implies knowledge is amoral in its truest sense (not-moral) or it is moral in that it is good, transcending barriers and freeing us. However, Hogarth at novel’s end believes knowledge is super-moral, or something to be earned by becoming better. He believes his study of both our nature and the Senders has allowed him to reach a higher plane than the rest of us, in the same way the Senders achieved a higher plane than the people of our world. Hogarth claims they had achieved our unattainable goal of perfecting nature, and their systems are protected against “trespass by the unqualified” (Lem His Master’s Voice 194). He is, then, a prophet—as many of the other scientists call him, and the Senders are deity, but not a non-physical entity; they are, instead, a society that has grown more than us. They are higher on whatever intellectual or metaphysical hierarchy we might imagine. This approach seems to be an improvement as compared to Hogarth’s earlier skepticism, which he, on the penultimate page of the novel, characterizes in this way: “[s]kepticism is like a microscope whose magnification is constantly increased: the sharp image that one begins with finally dissolves, because it is not possible to see ultimate things: their existence is only to be inferred” (198). This conception contrasts with his earlier belief that science regularly passes by ultimate demarcations, and belies his claim that the western pursuit of knowledge as acquisition is an attempt to make up for our Fallen nature, and that if we get enough we will be better, or somehow fix our Fall (159). Hogarth’s new idea appears to be that if we were to make ourselves better we would gain the wisdom to understand the Senders’ letter. He appears to be reorienting the claim he made contrasting the east with the west when he claimed western empiricism is an attempt to make up for the Fall. Eastern cultures, he tells his friend Rappaport, focus on the “category of shame” and that attempts to avoid shame, mostly social, took over much of the culture, leaving no place for delving into nature in the way westerners could. At book’s end, though, Hogarth believes that a culture rallying around bettering itself, rather than forcing itself into processes it is not ready to understand, would improve its chances of understanding the letter, not empirically but intuitively, as he understood the nature of the Senders in his moment of epiphany. We must improve our culture, removing our “shame,” until we are good enough to deserve the knowledge in the letter.
This shift in Hogarth’s viewpoint is not one-directional. The preface and the memoir style of the narration remind us throughout the novel that Hogarth has experienced his moment of epiphany before ever he begins to write. His new, Gnostic, viewpoint precedes everything he says regarding knowledge and wisdom. Given that, the chronology alone casts into doubt the fullness of his conversion to a Gnostic viewpoint. Hogarth also vocalizes concerns about this new line of thinking. Many of his diatribes against mystical and Gnostic thinking indicate that he still has problems with his own feeling of intuitive understanding; he also undercuts his belief in the benevolence of the Senders in the preface, when he claims that a “phonograph record of angelic singing is not an iota better morally than one that reproduces, when played, a scream of murder” (8). The medium and the message, as he points out many more times over the course of the novel, are not connected in any meaningful way. That implies that the content of the Senders’ message may not be as benevolent as it appears from the fact that the neutrino stream supports the beginnings of life. He even points out, later, that a dog will not recognize images and sounds of a dog from a television, because the form of the message is so tailored to our perceptions (79). In the same way, we may simply not see the message; and one could at least presume that a dog will usually not intuit information about another dog on television.
Hogarth also discredits attempts, after the HMV project is closed, to approach the Senders in a religious sense. He decries writers who deal with HMV or the Senders in an interpretive way, claiming they typically use only the information that is helpful for their beliefs, and ends his tirade by calling the furor “ferment among addled minds, a ferment crowned by the appearance of a series of religious sects” (20). Others since Hogarth have attempted to understand the Senders in religious terms, through faith rather than cold rationality, but he files them away with the rest of the “addled minds.” He does not even dwell on the religious sects; they warrant only this passing reference which brushes them aside as so much irrelevancy.
Hogarth shifts from one extreme of knowledge to the other, and—appropriately enough for a scientist working for the government during the Cold War—the two methods of knowing are cast into the binary of east and west. Hogarth claims that empiricism was impossible for the eastern world; Lem described the divide in a similar manner in an interview. “Being rather strongly tied to empiricism,” he said, “I feel quite distant from the Far Eastern speculations [which tie mysticism to scientific speculation]” (Csicsery-Ronay “Twenty-Two Answers” 250). But Hogarth, more strongly tied to empiricism than even Lem, changes sides, if you will. He is converted to mysticism, partly because it is the only way he can express his relationship to the Senders—and perhaps also because he cannot know the Senders and has not crossed the threshold necessary to understand or decode the letter (His Master’s Voice 74). Empiricism has failed to offer a way to understand the Senders, likely because it does not, cannot, direct its energy toward discovering a “why” behind phenomena; empiricism works to understand the “how” of nature, which is unthinking and without purpose, and thus has no “why” to discover (33). Hogarth also undermines his own newly-won mysticism and Gnostic knowledge by belittling how useful it can be and by marginalizing its impact on his thinking. At novel’s end he claims he is “as [he] was before entering the Project” (198). His mysticism has made a real impression on him, but he can’t see what has actually come out of the change. He believes nothing has changed.
Hogarth manages to label his own vacillation in a different context. When explaining for the first time that he suspected the letter would be more of a screen the researchers would project themselves onto than a message they would be able to decode, he describes the structure of his writing thus far; he claims he has shifted focus away from his connection to the problem to the general connection of the project to the problem. He calls this change “carrousellike reasoning [sic]” and mentions that it has forced him to speak about himself too much (32).
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. has defined Lem’s carousel reasoning (something he claims is an ever-present strain in all of Lem’s work) as reasoning that “consists of carrying reflection within a logical system to the point where premises and conclusions exchange places. [. . . T]he reasoner discovers that her premises depend upon her conclusions, that her thinking consists of combining and recombining elements and operations until proving and assuming are indistinguishable” (Csicsery-Ronay “Chaosphere” 244). If we fall prey to the carousel then we have no actual information or data, as our theories are proven by our theories. We are engaging in tautology, not reasoning. Csicsery-Ronay points out that “no facts exist truly outside the matrix of science’s rationalistic assumptions” and that the “quest for extraterrestrial contact [. . .] is not so much a search for a ground for reason [. . .] as for a difference in relation to which human consciousness can position itself. The alien represents the only chance of the human species for a relation not subsumed within the chaosphere” (244; 247).note It is possible, then, that our reasoning, whatever system it may follow, works only because its premises work to justify the method, and any data fed into the system may only be assumptions springing from the system—and so they would surely prove our hypotheses correct, as both hypotheses and premises come from the same subjective carousel. If we are to know, we must use our reason in some way, either empirically or with the spiritual experience of a Gnostic. As Csicsery-Ronay says, the alien is the measuring rod for our reasoning; if we can understand the alien, the thing that is not already within our carousel of reasoning, then our method of knowing is working—we can know the world, and not simply what we have built. But we require something that is absolutely and demonstrably outside our carousel: aliens, formed by an entirely different environment, would certainly qualify.
This explanation of Lem’s carousel helps us to understand what Hogarth is trying to do—as a mathematician turned scientist, Hogarth began working in mathematics, what he regularly calls an entirely arbitrary system, and he shifts his focus to the sciences in order to test the validity of his work, to escape the chaosphere. He then moves to the totally alien Senders, who serve as a better measuring rod.
But the carousel also explains the dialectic between the empirical and the Gnostic in the novel. Each of Hogarth’s stances uses its own assumptions as evidence for conclusions—and each of his stances uses assumptions from and about the other stance to form conclusions. Hogarth as empiricist uses his experience of Gnostic awe as evidence that we are incapable, at our level of development, of understanding the Senders empirically. Rodnianskaia explains Hogarth’s empirical stance, and the way it protects him from suffering, when she says that his obsession with statistics as explanations “simplifies the tasks of the cognitive mind [. . . T]he mind is forbidden to ponder the accursed issues of the meaning and laws of life” (359). Hogarth can simplify his problems with a possibly-reductive approach to life, but the letter does not respond to his methods. The letter is “unfamiliar to natural scientists [as] they must decode the workings of an alien mind rather than of natural phenomena” (Rodnianskaia 354). So Hogarth turns to mysticism as a better way to grapple with origins, with “why” rather than “how.” As a mystic he uses the empirical data available to him (the biophilic effect of the letter) as grounds for his beautific experience that assures him that humanity will be unable to destroy itself using the letter because of safeguards he cannot prove but feels to be built into the letter. Hogarth’s methods of thought are shifting as badly as the conclusions he must draw from within either model, and the conclusions rely on the shifting as much as on the selected evidence he bases his theorizing on.
This shifting may help us understand one of the ciphers of the novel: the preface. It is a mystery in two ways. First, we cannot be sure, thanks to the musings of Hogarth’s posthumous editor, that it is a preface; it could have been meant as an afterword (His Master’s Voice 1). Second, much of it consists of a baffling account of why Hogarth is an evil person, not a good person, and that this evil drives Hogarth to commit good deeds as an act of expression and rebellion, such as when he claims that he “sought out evil”; in places such as churches he “liked to think forbidden thoughts”; and that he never hurt animals but “lashed out at stones, the sand [and] furniture” (6-7). Why would the part of the book we read first, whether or not it was meant by the narrator to begin the piece, focus so much on Hogarth’s psychological state as well as an extended story about his reaction to his mother’s death? Rodnianskaia claims it is because Hogarth’s mind appears to be “lost in the sphere of great numbers and statistical averages, [but] is in fact absorbed by its own fate in the world and turns every extraneous problem into a means for tragic self-expression” and “passing remarks by the narrator” in this direction serve to highlight “the ambivalent human consciousness” (352). In this conception of the novel Hogarth’s original empiricism serves to insulate him from suffering and to simplify his fight with the world. While compelling—Hogarth certainly obsesses with himself, both before and after his revelatory vision in the labs—this conception doesn’t tell us why Hogarth changes his mind, or why he is so lackadaisical about it. If he switches sides, as it were, and enters the realms of Gnostic wisdom, should not knowledge of himself and a greater acceptance of suffering come along with it? Hogarth still insulates himself, transferring his disgust with the world onto humanity; the world is fine, and the Senders are great, but humans are terrible, unawakened creatures bent on destroying themselves and their world. Hogarth and the novel still vacillate.
According to Anthony Enns the indeterminate nature of the novel, through the confusion of preface and afterword, makes the novel like the letter. The letter’s “structure is circular, with no clear beginning and end—a structure replicated in the organization of the novel itself [. . . T]he placement of the fragment connects the two ends of the novel into a loop that could be infinitely repeated” and allows the novel to stand, for us, as the letter does to Hogarth (46). The letter is what has triggered Hogarth’s vacillation between empiricism and Gnosticism. It is a mystery so great he cannot fathom it with one system, so he culls elements from both. But his attempt to encapsulate the letter with both methods leaves a new indeterminacy: our discomfort with his inability to answer questions. Hogarth never answers a question. He certainly never relates what the letter said, as he does not know himself, but he insists he understands the message even while he cannot relay the definitive meaning. He admits he has no evidence, and insists evidence is necessary, but ascribes power to the Senders, a power that allows them to keep hapless other species from unlocking the letter if they have not met some kind of intergalactic rational/moral standard. He has conflated his moral judgment of the Senders (that they are good) with his rational judgment, and thus he claims they are God-like.
The Senders are unknowable; in fact, they are most likely dead, given the interstellar distance the neutrino signal must have crossed to reach Earth and the length of time it has been “broadcasting.” Hogarth’s conclusions come more from his carousel thinking than any evidence he can access about the Senders. He confuses his moral compass and his empirical compass; more than that, though, he confuses his two methods of thought with each other. His approach is confused and built on a shifting base with no foundation; he cannot know the Senders, just as he claims humanity cannot know them. Darko Suvin has commented that “Lem’s major novels have at their cognitive core the simple and difficult realization that no closed reference system, however alluring to the weary and poor in spirit, is viable in the age of relativity theory” (qtd. in Enns 98, italics removed). Possibly such a system would never be viable.
Hogarth’s system of thought shifts between two poles because he is fighting against a sense of internal evil he cannot locate or define in either system, and he projects this bloodthirsty moral battle outward, first to colleagues and scholars—such as when he imagines an old, hated teacher being shamed by his brilliant career (110-11)—and then to humanity as an antagonist to itself and contrasting with the benevolent Senders. He claims that, in reference to the biophilic effect of the letter, that “beings who operated like that, I could understand” (100). But Hogarth has already claimed, in the preface, that he is evil. How can he understand such benevolence? He never explains. Hogarth’s system of dealing with the world, before his entrance into the HMV project, was statistical (as in his attempt to explain the distributed nature of good and evil). His statistics are based entirely in our world on Earth, or within one system—Hogarth’s statistics do not represent any tendencies of entities that did not evolve the way we did. Indeed, his theories are often based on evolutionary stochastics. His mysticism, in the same way, is based more on hierarchical systems on Earth than any super-Earthian knowledge; Hogarth ascribes the gate keeping of the government and scientific institutions to the Senders, because that is what he is most familiar with.
The one thing that might venture into both realms, both Earth-like and not-Earth-like, is that the letter appears to describe the process of life, which is what a scientist is most likely to associate with a circular process (88-9). As Enns has pointed out, the letter and the novel are both circular processes, as is life, according to Hogarth and the other scientists. The letter does support the rise of life in the way of its transmission. Our attempt to understand the novel is analogous to Hogarth’s attempt to understand the letter, and the letter represents a mystery of life—which can explain, at least in part, the empiricist Hogarth’s defection to the side of Gnosticism (and those keepers of the Mysteries he so loathed early in the novel).
Both Hogarth’s empiricism and his Gnosticism represent his attempts to find a model adequate to his situation. Lem has said that “one could regard my many works as models of certain situations—alternatively, as situations that are models of the problems most interesting to me, situations that showcase these problems best [. . .] our age is more obsessed with model-generating than times past were” (Csicsery-Ronay “Twenty-Two Answers” 249). He goes on to say that literature “may pose questions that have no answers. It may pose problems that are not understood or understandable. [. . .] The boundaries of science lie where no language, no code, no simulation, no modelling [sic] would suffice for the purpose of posing questions and answering them” (251). As ways of understanding the world, empiricism and Gnosticism are model-making methods. The needed model is for life, as the letter is a description of life and the novel is a description of the letter.
Neither model-making system works for Hogarth, though his attempt to stick the two together comes close. He felt, before his introduction to the letter, that he had come up with an adequate model. His statistical model of good and evil appeared to answer an important question regarding our make-up. It also allowed him to explain away his tendency towards “evil,” and alleviate his guilt over his attempt to psychologically shield himself from his mother’s death. However, his confrontation with the letter forces him to admit that, even if he can explain humanity, he has not explained the world. His system was as trapped within assumptions of humanity’s primacy as any other system. His statistical model might even accurately describe humanity, but it clearly cannot describe the Senders, given what must be true of them because their signal helps induce life. Hogarth says that the “emission of the signal—by our best estimate—required a consumption of power on the order of at least a sun. An expenditure like that could not be a matter of indifference even to a society wielding a highly developed astroengineering technology” and thus, it must “pay” in some way for them, but not directly—it provides the Senders with no material benefit (104). Later Hogarth insists that their technology must be so advanced that the star in use is the equivalent of Boulder Dam to America, and reminds us that our government, or any government, would be unwilling to devote such a resource for millions of years to help populate planets we may never visit with peoples we may never see (147). The Senders must be, then, a society of philanthropists, or else they would not be able to mobilize the resources necessary for such an immense project with no personal benefit. Such a society cannot be understood with a model that insists that both good and evil are randomly distributed traits determined by the amount of thinking members of a group.
The other scientists insist on using their empirical models, and thus represent even poorer attempts to understand the Senders—one scientist, named Lerner, from the second project the government sets up to deal with the letter, insists it is not a letter at all, but a natural phenomenon, and can be entirely assimilated by empirical methods (181-2). Hogarth rebukes Lerner and claims he has “refashioned the whole Universe to fit the letter” (184). Hogarth, at least, attempts to build systems that account for reality, rather than altering his perceptions of reality to support his system.
The problem with the empirical system, though, is that its data come entirely from human experience. The Gnostic system, on the other hand, to which Hogarth turns when empiricism fails him, has no connection to the facts. Even he admits his feelings have no causal basis. Enns points out that “Hogarth eventually becomes convinced that human experiences are fundamentally ‘nontransmittable’” (48). As Hogarth’s conviction comes from his personal experience, and not any empirical evidence he can share with others, he must necessarily insist that he can convince no one else of his point. The novel insists that one model can only deal with its own realm and the other can only make sense of things for a single person. Neither is acceptable for the novel or for Hogarth.
Lerner’s attempt to explain away the letter mirrors our tendency to assimilate new, contradictory elements into our obsolete systems. Lem describes this tendency in his essay “Metafantasia: The Possibilities of Science Fiction.” In it, Lem claims that, in dealing with “new phenomena” that are “qualitatively different” in scale, “a cultural, perceptual, and perhaps even a social-ethical revolution will be necessary. Thus, instead of the assimilation of the new, we must imagine the reordering and even the destruction of fundamental concepts, the revaluation of truths that were previously indisputable” (196). The letter can represent such a qualitatively new phenomenon—in fact, he suggests contact with aliens as an example of such a phenomenon. We must not, Lem claims, assimilate it into existing systems, as the systems were not modeled with the new phenomenon in mind. This assimilation would presumably lead to the carousel Hogarth experiences, even though he is attempting to find new models. Hogarth’s mistake is to accept a new-to-him but already pre-existing model. The letter allows us to believe a new model is necessary because, as Lem puts it in the same essay, while describing literature, “as the level of the reception’s indeterminacy rises, the reader’s own personal determinations begin to waver” (192). The letter’s indeterminacy is total for us—we can safely assume intention, as it was a signal, but nothing else, and the knowledge that it has intention forbids us to wave the signal away as chance, even the sort of cosmically-originating chance Lerner and the other scientists suppose. Hogarth’s determinations waver in the face of the total obscurity of the alien signal and he tries—and mostly fails—to find a new model with which to confront the letter again. The novel insists that the traditional methods of dealing with the world are inadequate for the world we now live in, both politically and physically. New advances in science reveal facts about the universe that we cannot grasp in our older systems; over the course of the novel many characters accuse anyone who attributes either good or evil intentions to the letter of suffering from Manichean delusions. The new political climates, particularly the nuclear threat endemic of the Cold War, insist on new methods of thinking, of model-making, to deal with the historically new situation. If we could doubt that the novel is concerned with the Cold War just because it is about methods of thinking that can be coded as East/West, many other notes in the novel assure us we should recall the Cold War. The scientists call their internal bickering, due to their “intellectual inertia,” a “cold war” (His Master’s Voice 70). The project’s compound is littered with Geiger counters and fallout shelters. The project’s secrecy stems from the fear that the Russians will discover the letter as well and beat the United States to any discoveries hidden within it.
We may even wonder why the novel is set in the United States, and not Russia, or Poland, or anywhere else. The Cold War, being in our minds a conflict between America and the U.S.S.R., would seem to indicate that Lem has taken a side; by placing the novel’s action in the U.S., he sides with the west, and perhaps by extension with western empiricism. However, it is the American scientists we see fail. It is hard to side with their methods when they result in nothing. Also, the Soviet scientists would likely be using similar scientific methods. Despite the cultural origins of empiricism and Gnosticism, these worldviews have spread beyond their beginnings. It’s possible, then, that America stands as a neutral ground in His Master’s Voice. The west of western empiricism refers usually to western Europe, while Gnosticism is often tied more closely to eastern Europe and orthodox traditions. The methods of thought permeated both sides of the Cold War equally. America sits on the other side of an ocean from Europe, and can act as a place to play out the conundrum of empirical thought versus Gnostic thought, despite its position on one side of the conflict.
Hogarth insists that the political situation of the Cold War requires a new model of dealing with problems and the world. He claims that the nuclear threat has “frozen humanity’s imagination” (124), and that a new method or model is necessary to deal with the problem. He says, “[t]he great historic-philosophical concepts impaired at their foundations, the great syntheses based upon values inherited from the past, were turning into brontosaurs doomed to extinction” (125). Our theories held when we could still assume, no matter our technological ability to kill, that there would always be survivors. But when it became possible for all of us to die, “a total fear paralyzed politics, but did not change it; the strategy remained the same [. . .]; the idea of seeing to the welfare of the species should have been written on the standards” (126). Our old political models have nothing to do with our new political situation, and come from ancient methods too long decayed. They must be either revised drastically or, better still, thrown out and replaced with models designed for the problems we must deal with.
The novel expands such a concept, prevalent during the Cold War, into an epistemological truth. As we must do for political models so we must also do with models for thought. In his “Metafantasia”, Lem makes the claim that science fiction could offer literary models for just such a new world—though he also claims that most SF written up to his time had failed to do so. Carl Freedman, in writing on Solaris (1961), has said that Lem’s fiction “explores the function and limits of cognition itself in coming to terms with this relationship [with estrangement or the alien]” (98). He goes on to say that, for Lem, science is the study of the world and that, practiced correctly, it can never satisfy those “that hunger after certainty and finality” (99). His Master’s Voice elliptically describes a science that deals with the world entirely—and which does so by fathoming both its physical attributes (as empiricism does) and its metaphysical attributes (as Gnosticism does). Such a model would allow Hogarth to understand the letter, since the letter appears in some way to describe life as it is common to everything in the universe, and not simply life as it is common to everything on earth would be a model that could explain the letter. A model that explains the letter would be capable of explaining everything.
Similar themes run throughout much of Lem’s fiction. As we’ve already seen, Solaris deals with our inability to know things outside our own knowledge structures. It doesn’t explore a multiplicity of means of knowing as His Master’s Voice does; it spends all its energy interrogating the scientific process. Ultimately the protagonist of Solaris is left simply waiting and hoping that the intelligent ocean he cannot communicate with will figure out how to communicate with him. Lem’s Cyberiad (1967) is about a lot of things, including both religion and knowledge. Trurl, one of the protagonists of the novel, makes robotic life all the time, once by accident. The robotic creation he makes by tossing refuse away goes through the historical stages humanity passed through, up to and including an existential crisis where he wonders what his maker is like—only to have Trurl pass by again, throw out more refuse, and destroy the creation. The creation develops means of knowing similar to ours—similar to Trurl’s—but they do not help him when the physical forces underlying his creation return. Perhaps The Futurological Congress (1971) provides an answer, where even Solaris could only end on a question. In this novel, Lem’s recurring protagonist, Ijon Tichy, experiences a variety of false worlds induced by aerosolized hallucinogens. While Tichy constantly suspects that each new world is a drug dream, he finds that he must interact with them even so. He cannot act as though it is a hallucination, because the hallucination does not end. So, perhaps, with the chaosphere—at least this book would suggest. We have to interact with it, as it is the only game in town. His Master’s Voice goes farther than the others in questioning the condition of knowing, the assumption of knowledge, and the way to move past our limitations, but like Solaris, can’t suggest a solution. It can only show what has not worked so far and hint that maybe if we can synthesize these methods we would have something better than the sum of the parts.
His Master’s Voice confronts empiricism and Gnosticism with each other in a Cold War setting, and allows them to play themselves out in the mind of the novel’s protagonist, Peter Hogarth. The novel conceives them as important but obsolete models of thought, and Hogarth, attempting to understand something outside the insular world he has constructed for himself, spins between them in an example of the carousel reasoning the novel takes to task. Ultimately the novel suggests that neither method is useful and, backing itself up with references to calls for new models in the Cold War-era political sphere, demands that a new method of thinking and knowing is necessary to deal with the world as it truly is, rather than as we conceive of it. The novel does not offer a complete answer, suggesting it may be impossible to do so from the standpoint of anyone fully indoctrinated in an old method, as it is impossible for Hogarth to find a new model of knowing that unlocks the letter. The novel does suggest that an insistence on both physical and metaphysical concerns at the same time might work to create a new model, but never comes to the point of even hinting how the synthesis of the two models might be effected.
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