Hogarth's Choice: Empiricism and Gnosticism in His Master's Voice

By Conley, Greg | Extrapolation, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Hogarth's Choice: Empiricism and Gnosticism in His Master's Voice


Conley, Greg, Extrapolation


Stanislaw 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 nor 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 a 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. …

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