The Lighter Side of Lem

by Michael Potemra


Before this weekend, I was familiar with Stanislaw Lem chiefly as the author of the novel on which film director Andrei Tarkovsky’s dense, grayish 1972 masterpiece Solaris was based. In other words, Lem is not a writer I’d consciously turn to for light, laugh-a-minute verbal hijinks. So I was delighted to discover that his 1971 book The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy, about a man who finds himself in a futuristic dystopia, is full of stuff like this:

The title of a column in the city edition of the Herald: “I Was a Demimother.” Something about an eggman who was yoked on the way to the eggplant. The big Webster isn’t too helpful: “Demimother—like demigram, demijohn. One of two women jointly bringing a child into the world. See Pollyanna, Pollyandrew.” “Eggman—from mailman (Archaic). A euplanner who delivers licensed human gametes (female) to the home.” I don’t pretend to understand that. . . .[He continues leafing through the dictionary:] “Revivalist—a corpse, such as a murder victim, brought back to life. See also exhumant, disintermagant, jack-in-the-grave.” . . .

We have something like demimothers and eggmen now, some 40 years after Lem wrote; we don’t have revivalists. But what impresses me most about this is not Lem’s level of prescience but his sheer love of language; James Joyce himself would have been proud of that “jack-in-the-grave.” (Jokes can be even harder to translate than poetry, so a great deal of credit must go to the translator, Michael Kandel — though precisely how much credit, I can’t say; I haven’t seen Lem’s Polish original, and I don’t know Polish anyway.)

A few pages on, we encounter some words that are encouraging for conservatives at this moment, as they would have been for liberals in, e.g., 1984 and 2004, and conservatives in, e.g., 1964 and 1996:

A dream will always triumph over reality, once it is given a chance.

And on this, conservatives have the added advantage that Bill Buckley actually saw that dream walking.

PS. I think the name Ijon Tichy is a joke, too. Ijon sounds like a form of the name John, and tichy in Slavic languages means “silent.” In other words, John Silent — a shout-out to Kierkegaard’s pseudonym, Johannes de Silentio? Based on some of the stuff in this book, Lem is the sort of writer who would do something like that for the sheer fun of it.

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