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By Erika Makarenko February 1, 2021

Dreams, Visions and Delusions in Lem’s Solaris, Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Ligotti’s “Vastarien”

Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, Thomas Ligotti’s “Vastarien” and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome all feature dreams or visions and even delusions that could be pathways for their characters’ to gain secret knowledge. The desire of the characters, whether it is related to knowledge seeking as in the case of “Vastarien” where the protagonist is seeking for a perfectly unreal world which would satisfy his ideals, or more personal purposes, such as monetary reasons or emotional issues as in Videodrome or Solaris. The characters each reach states of mind and body that challenge their understanding of reality and perhaps even present a different plane of existence. The characters are guided through their quests by guides or mystagogues, figures that Robert M. Price describes as, “initiator[s] into forbidden knowledge,” and, arguably, become themselves holders of secret knowledge through the revelations they have received (Price 35). Price argues that “Ligotti is depicting the mystagogue and her/his disciple as alter egos,” suggesting that mystagogues can help their ‘disciples’ gain insight and into themselves, to become holders of forbidden knowledge (Price 35). Lem’s and Cronenberg’s main characters, respectively Kris Kelvin and Max Renn, arguably have the opportunity to become mystagogues as well. It seems as if the insight obtained is so extreme, it leads the characters to an emotional and physical decline.

The protagonists’ desires are the driving forces, pushing them to reach their goals, which could be associated with knowledge or more personal. For example, Max Renn is indeed interested in Videodrome—a tv station with rather brutal content—but views it more as a means to make a profit. Despite all the warnings made by Masha, his friend, about Videodrome’s “philosophy” which “makes it dangerous” Renn still insists on contacting the person who owns the station and eventually, through visions, stumbles across what should have not been found: the manipulative nature of Videodrome (Videodrome 25:45). Likewise, it could be argued that Kris’ desire is associated with something personal, not necessarily related to knowledge seeking. When he encounters his dead ex-wife, a visitor—a clone of a person from one’s subconscious mind presumably created by the ocean on the planet Solaris—he thinks that it is a dream: “My first thought was reassuring: I was dreaming and I was aware that I was dreaming” (Lem 52). He seems to emphasize on this idea as if he is not ready to accept that it may be real, kind of like Max Renn who calls his delusions “visions” and Keirion calling Vastarien—his dream world—a “dream”, although it is never clear what they are. And when Kelvin accepts the reality of the events a desire submerges: to get rid of the visitors. And this desire pushes him to investigate the nature of the visitors and finally to do what he calls: “Operation Desperation”, an attempt to contact the ocean (Lem 158). It could also be argued that the dreams Kelvin sees are not supposed to be seen and embody some sort of forbidden knowledge, because they represent contact between a human and the ocean, which is something generations of scientists have attempted to do in Solaris but could not. Similarly, in “Vastarien” Victor Keirion seeks a book that would satisfy his idea of a perfect world, where “every formation suggested a thousand others, every sound disseminated everlasting echoes, every word founded a world.” to satisfy his desire “to dwell among the ruins of reality.” (Ligotti 177). The aspiration to find such a world, a world of “authentic unreality” pushes him to seek knowledge (Ligotti 177). Again, it seems as if Vastarien corresponds to forbidden knowledge, because the book that causes the visions is hidden somewhere deep inside a library, away from everyone, and, as seen at the end, could only be read by Keirion, meaning that others do not have access to this knowledge. This knowledge-seeking quest ends with the characters seeing a dream or vision, which can be related to their initial desire, for example, Vastarien, being the world Keirion is seeking for, or not necessarily directly related with it, as in the case of Videodrome, or Solaris, where their initial purpose is slightly different from the insight revealed. Either way, the characters see dreams that confuse them, because they seem so real and challenge their initial understanding of the world.

All stories seem to present a moment, where the protagonist questions the authenticity of his dreams or visions and seems to confuse reality with unreality. For example, Keirion states that Vastarien looks a lot like the real world where he lives, and yet, he mentions that something is missing from the picture: “it was the element of unreality, or perhaps of a reality so saturated with its own presence that it had made a leap into the unreal.” (Ligotti 177). This statement not only challenges the boundary between reality and phantasm but also makes the reader question the definition of this word. As Brian O’Blivion—a doctor in Videodrome, the first victim of the station—mentions: “After all, there is nothing real outside our perception of reality, is there?” and this statement makes the viewer question whether Videodrome, just like Vastarien, represents a different type of reality (Videodrome 43:38). Those delusions can make the protagonist question the truthfulness of the world around them, making them feel lost, which can be a daunting experience as Kris states that he is “indifferent to everything, fearing only the night and unable to find a means of escape from the dreams.” (Lem 180). The dreams do convey a message and knowledge, but it seems as if the price to pay is too high.

The dreams make the protagonist question reality, as mentioned previously, and reveal secrets of the Universe, which could be rather hard to understand, for example, the odd body deformities in Videodrome. This newly acquired knowledge, turns the protagonists into mystagogue characters, as they now possess insight, which could be shared with people around. The best illustration of an attempt of a protagonist to share their knowledge is Kris’ monologue about an “imperfect god”, but it seems as if Snow—his crewmate—cannot comprehend what he is saying (Lem 199). Similarly, Victor Keirion, after being locked in an insane asylum, is considered as a mystagogue character as hinted by Ligotti himself: “[The nurses] were shackled for life to their own bodies, while [Victor] was now in a place that owed nothing to corporeal existence.” (Ligotti 183). The statement seems to hint that Keirion is bound to Vastarien, and therefore possesses great knowledge about this world, which could be shared with others. The situation with Videodrome is more complicated, as Max Renn is manipulated by Videodrome and the amount of insight he obtains is questionable but it still could be argued that he is a mystagogue character too because he sees what the station is, its philosophy and nature, he is simply incapable of sharing this knowledge. On top of this, as mentioned previously, the knowledge seems to be forbidden, because it is hidden from everyone—like the book from “Vastarien”and people around the protagonist, as already mentioned, cannot possess this insight, making the main characters mystagogues. It seems as if the incapacity of the protagonist to describe what is happening and the weight of the knowledge deteriorates their emotional and physical state. For example, Keirion is deemed insane and thrown in an insane asylum, Max loses grip of reality and it is proven by the scene where he openly carries a gun on the street and does not try to hide his face when he is wanted by the police, and Kris’ emotional wellbeing is very questionable, to the point where even his crewmates are worried about him. Although the knowledge the characters obtain is valuable and does transform them into mystagogues, it seems as if the weight of the newly gained insight is too much and inevitably, the dreams and visions bring a deterioration in one’s psychological or even physical wellbeing.

In conclusion, it seems as if the desires of the characters, whether it is related to knowledge-seeking or for more personal reasons—for example, Max Renn who viewed Videodrome as a means to make money—provokes dreams, that can answer their questions. But those dreams or visions confuse the protagonist as they do not know what is real anymore. It seems that those visions or dreams present a different type of reality. This new truth, on top of making the characters question their reality, therefore challenging their knowledge, also destabilizes their psychological and emotional state, as the protagonist does not know anymore what is real and what is not, and where the truth lies. Possessing this new knowledge, the protagonists become mystagogues, but due to their very fragile emotional state, they cannot share this knowledge with anyone, and carry the burden on their own, which eventually can lead to death, or insanity. In short, although the dreams do answer to the seekers’ desires, they also give them insight that can be rather challenging to accept, as it seems to destroy all the previous knowledge they had, and whilst it does turn them into mystagogues—holders of knowledge that can be shared—it also decays their mental state and can lead to death, insanity and loss of hope and purpose.


Works cited:

Lem, Stanislaw, Solaris, San Diego: Harcourt Inc., 1987.

Ligotti, Thomas. “Vastarien.” Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe. Penguin, 2015, pp. 175-184.

Price, Robert M. “The Mystagogue, the Gnostic Quest, the Secret Book.” The Thomas Ligotti Reader. Edited Darrell Schweitzer. Wildside Press, 2003, pp. 32-37.

Videodrome. Directed by David Cronenberg Universal Pictures. 1983.

About the author

Erika Makarenko is a first-year student in the Health Science program with an interest in science and literature, especially in the Gothic genre, and a newly discovered interest in the Weird, for which she would like to thank Dr. Gregory Polakoff and Dr. Kristopher Woofter.

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