The Primitive Self as Inescapable Monster in Solaris, Forbidden Planet and “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World”
Monsters can take many shapes and forms. In Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, a young psychologist by the name of Kris Kelvin travels to the planet of Solaris to study its seemingly sentient ocean, only to find himself tortured by the “reincarnation” of his dead wife. Likewise, in Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet, the hidden desires of Dr. Morbius, one of planet Altair IV’s two inhabitants, are brought to life as an invisible beast ready to destroy whatever—and whomever—stands in the philologist’s way. In Thomas Ligotti’s “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World,” a black mass emerging from the earth torments the minds of a hivemind-like town, particularly that of the local toolmaker and outcast, Mr. Marble. Though varying in shape, size, and consistency, all three of these monsters share one key trait in common: they are the characters’ inner darkness incarnate. These “mindless primitive[s]” originating from the “deadly danger” that is our unconscious have been physically separated from their respective host (Forbidden Planet 1:27:25-1:27:34). And yet, despite the stories’ diverging endings, all three protagonists fail to escape their monster, be it the Shadow in “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World,” the Visitors in Solaris or the Monster of the Id in Forbidden Planet. The paradoxical inseparability of separated “creatures” thus reveals that the darkness within every human is an intrinsic part of ourselves, one that cannot be avoided, detached or destroyed. The intrinsicality of the primitive self is reflected in the works in the following ways: first, by the monsters’ ineffability, that is, the impossibility of naming that which is part of oneself; second, through the symbiotic relationship the characters and the monsters share; and third, through the protagonists’ persistent denial of the monsters’ true nature.
In his article titled “Ineffability: the Very Concept,” the professor of philosophy Sebastian Gäb distinguishes between “weak” and “strong” ineffability: in other words, between inexpressibility and incommunicability (1829). Examples of weak ineffability, or as Gäb calls it, “language ineffability,” can be found in all three stories (1835). No language devised by humans was capable of properly illustrating the behavior of the ocean in Solaris, which is why Giese, one of the first Solarists, gave the oceanic formations “inadequate” and “clumsy” names (97). Similarly, the villagers in “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World” call the Shadow a “black mass” yet admit there is no “tangible aspect” to it (2015, 311). Despite being an expert in words and languages, Morbius referred to the Monster of the Id as “some dark, terrible, incomprehensible force” (Forbidden Planet 20:36). Inexpressibility can be easily overcome by conceiving a word that corresponds with the concept. This is not the case for strong ineffability, because it “do[es] not stem from linguistic deficiencies but from mental ones” (Gäb 1835). In essence, no word could ever fully encompass the meaning of something that we are incapable of conceptualizing. As such, strong ineffability necessarily implies weak ineffability. When reflecting on “symmetriads”, the ocean’s least earthly formation, Kris sums this perfectly: “We know, but cannot grasp, that above and below, beyond the limits of perception or imagination” (Lem 104). The Shadow, the ocean and the Monster of the Id are all strongly ineffable because the characters are fundamentally incapable of understanding them, and particularly their “inner” origins. Any attempt to do so only generated more questions. The humans’ mental shortcomings prevent them from expressing and comprehending their innate, buried self, as well as the relationship they share with it.
Although incomprehensible, the monsters share a unique, symbiotic connection with their human counterparts. According to National Geographic, symbiosis describes a “relationship or interaction between two dissimilar organisms” in which “[one] or both organisms benefit” (National Geographic Society). In all three stories, the monsters—or symbionts—act upon their hosts’ hidden desires, fulfilling wishes the humans were not always aware they had. The gain in control by these entities directly results in the humans’ role dropping from masters to equal partners, at most. In Solaris, Snow theorizes that the ocean “has taken account of desires locked into secret recesses of [the crew’s] brains” (161). According to this theory, the very presence of Rheya is seemingly a fulfillment of Kris’s desire for closure and atonement regarding his wife’s suicide, for which he blames himself. In Forbidden Planet, when Morbius’s comrades outvote him in favor of leaving for Earth, his unconscious eliminates the threat. Twenty years later, history repeats itself when the new crew threatens to expose Morbius’s discoveries and life’s work. It even goes after Altaira in the form of her long-time pet tiger, which seems to be but another manifestation of her father’s jealous and possessive unconscious. The creature’s docility ends after her romantic encounters with members of the new crew. Similarly, Ligotti’s story shows a clear connection between the Shadow’s actions and the community’s state of mind, especially during the “dark festival.” In the original version of the story, the townsfolk witness a confrontation between Mr. Marble and two intruders, during which they think to themselves that they “[want] to see [the strangers] silenced. Such [is] [their] desire” (2005, 144). Therefore, as the Shadow’s “vessel,” Mr. Marble is compelled to abide by the villagers’ unspoken wishes. In the revised version, this interaction never takes place. Instead, while Mr. Mable roams the streets alone, the townsfolk watching him can sense the Shadow’s emotions: as they get angrier, the monster gets hungrier and more agitated. In both versions, Mr. Marble resists the darkness and willingly becomes the “rightful sacrifice” (2005, 144). The dynamic of this symbiotic relationship shows a dependency between the humans and their primitive self. As manifestations of their hosts’ unconscious, the symbionts require the humans to exist. In turn, the humans benefit by having an outlet through which they can channel their true desires. Primitivity is thus shown as a necessary part of human nature.
Despite the benefits these monsters provide the protagonists, the humans persistently refuse to face the truth regarding the origin of the entities. Every character’s first instinct when confronted with their primal self was to try to rid themselves of it, whether by hacking at it with an ax, sending it off to space or attacking it with guns and electric fences. In Forbidden Planet, despite Morbius’s artificially enlarged intelligence, he fails to recognize the truth behind the murder of his old crew. He dismisses clear signs, such as Robby being incapable of dealing with the threat, as he is programmed to never harm rational beings, or the constant feeling in his mind that “the creature is lurking somewhere close at hand” (22:22). When Adams explains to him that the monster comes from his id, the philologist tries to push Adams away, telling him: “I won’t hear you!” (1:31:26). Unlike Morbius, the villagers in Ligotti’s story don’t outright deny the monster’s nature. In fact, at times, it seems they are at least somewhat aware of it. Their attempts to uproot the Shadow “became hindered by a perverse reluctance, as in the instance of someone who is hesitant to have a diseased part of his own body cut away in order to keep the disease from spreading” (2015, 311). In this passage, the hivemind seems to almost recognize it as a dark, undesirable, yet inseparable part of themselves. During the dark festival, the townsfolk’s main preoccupation isn’t the discovery of the black mass or the oddities surrounding the town’s flora. Their true fear is “what [the strangers] might [know], what they must certainly [discover], about [the townsfolk]” (2005, 144). In Solaris, when gaining self-awareness, Rheya comes to the realization that Gibarian, the crewmate whose interaction with the ocean’s manifestations led to him committing suicide hours before Kris’ arrival, “didn’t hate that woman, the one that came to him. But he refers to her in such a dreadful way” (122). In other words, Gibarian treated his Visitor terribly because her presence tortured him emotionally. And yet, like Kris, he did not despise her personally: he tried to distance himself from her because she reflected the darker, shameful parts of himself. The characters’ consistent attempts to disassociate themselves from their respective monster reflects the difficulty of coming to terms with our inherent primitive self.
In their finales, the three works diverge regarding the fate of the characters. In Forbidden Planet, once separated, the Monster of the Id and its host could not live without the other. Thus, the only way to save his daughter was for Morbius to deny his unconscious, to give it up, and by extension, to give himself up. In Solaris, despite the pain that Rheya’s presence inflicted on him, Kris feels empty inside after she disappears and vows to “never again give [himself] completely to anything or anybody” (164). In “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World,” both the villagers and the Shadow seem to live on, although the fate of the Shadow is somewhat ambiguous. The cold, heartless burying of Mr. Marble reveals that unlike Morbius or Kris, these people are unfazed by their monster. With their sleep now “dreamless,” it seems they face no mental or emotional consequences and possibly continue to live with their darkness (2015, 315). Though drastically different, these endings all reveal that the primitive self truly is an intrinsic part of us: we can either ignore it and live alongside it, or attempt to destroy it, possibly destroying parts—or all—of our soul in the process.
Forbidden Planet. Directed by Fred M. Wilcox. MGM, 1956.
Gäb, Sebastian. “Ineffability: the Very Concept.” Philosophia, vol. 48, no. 5, 2020, pp. 1825–1836, [url=http://www.doi.org/10.1007/s11406-020-00198-2]http://www.doi.org/10.1007/s11406-020-00198-2[/url]. Accessed 6 December 2020.
Lem, Stanislaw. Solaris. Translated by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox, Faber & Faber, 2014.
Ligotti, Thomas. “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World.” The Shadow at the Bottom of the World, Cold Spring Press, 2005.
“The Shadow at the Bottom of the World.” Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, Penguin, 2015.
National Geographic Society. “Symbiosis: The Art of Living Together.” National Geographic Society, 19 April 2019, [url=http://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/symbiosis-art-living-together/12th-grade/]http://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/symbiosis-art-living-together/12th-grade/[/url].