EWriting Assignment on

Stanislaw Lem's "De Impossibilitate Vitae and De Impossibilitate Prognoscendi"

Note:  If you are going to print this off in one of the KSU public computer labs, you will first need to go into the File menu at the top of your browser, choose Page Setup and click on Black Type, to ensure that colored fonts in this document print out.

You may want to review the general guidelines for doing the writing assignments.  In any case, you will want to use the assignment as an opportunity for practicing good argument and exposition.  This means you want to be mindful of the standards for writing exam answers.


The central feature of this fiction is the elaborate thought experiment.  Write on one of the following topics concerning it.

Topic A.  What are the different sources of the humor of this portion of the story?  Try to include mention of as many different sorts as you can detect, and be sure to illustrate each with at least one specific example.  Then ask yourself what thematic point Lem (as distinct from "Kouska") might be supporting by means of this humor.

Topic B.  Kouska's thought experiment is put forward as bringing to light some general facts that will be the case with any single individual.  Once the reader appreciates this, he or she is prompted to run through an analogous thought experiment in his or her own case.  Give us a sample of what such a run-through would contain in your own instance.  Try to include analogues of three different kinds of "conditions" of the many sorts that Kouska entertains in his speculations about the conditions of possibility for his own coming into being.  (Examples of kinds of conditions:  the circumstances in which your parents happened to encounter one another; the circumstances that led to their developing their acquaintance; the circumstances that led to the removal of some obstacle to your parents' getting together to produce you; the circumstances behind the circumstances in any of these, etc.)  You may mix the fanciful and the real if you wish.

The "narrator" of the "story" is of course neither Kouska nor Lem, but a character whom Lem imagines as the reviewer of the books he has imagined on behalf of his character Kouska.  If you wish you may write on the following topic (instead of either of the above).

Topic C.  Show how the "reviewer" goes through a series of moves characteristic of his function.  (Put another way:  how is the structure of the piece governed by our generic expectations for "reviews of philosophical treatises.")  What sort of tone does the reviewer adopt?  Are the positions he adopts in the course of the review consistent with each other, or does he contradict himself?  What do these facts imply that Lem (as opposed to his creature, the reviewer) is up to?  (Here you may get some useful ideas from "S. Lem's" own playful review of A Perfect Vacuum, the volume of fictions of which the present piece is a part.)


  Consult the Study Guide to this story before attempting this writing assignment.

  You may also wish to review the general instructions on writing assignments.


  Suggestions are welcome.  Please send your comments to lyman@ksu.edu .

      Contents copyright 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

  This page last updated 28 March 1999.