Course Notes — Themes from the Incomparable Philip K. Dick
by Daniel A. Kaufman
The end of the Fall semester is rapidly approaching, and it will mark the last time I will have taught the current iteration of my Philosophical Ideas in Literature course, devoted to five novels by Philip K. Dick: The Man in the High Castle (1962); The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965); Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968); Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974); and A Scanner Darkly (1977).
Novels and short stories are not explicitly didactic – or at least the good one’s aren’t – and their potential interpretations, consequently, are quite broad and depend, in good part, on what the reader brings to the reading experience. Thus, the course has benefited tremendously from Missouri State’s policy of offering free credit hours to senior citizens, the result of which has been a multi-generational classroom experience, in which nineteen year-olds find themselves in discussions about the books they are reading with people in their sixties and seventies, not to mention their fifty-something professor.
It is difficult to decide when to change the readings for a course like this, but given its character, as just described, it is essential that the classroom experience be a discussion and not a lecture. This is hard to sustain under any circumstances, but becomes almost near-impossible once I have become too familiar with the material myself. I have taught this version of the course three times now and had already read the books several times prior, which means that I have read every book on the syllabus between four and seven times. And while this semester has been a terrific success – perhaps, even the best of the three – it took a tremendous effort to keep myself from leading the discussion and to maintain the role of a prodding facilitator. So, like The Police in 1983, after the release of Synchronicity, I’ve decided not to tempt fate and retire this version of the course, while at its peak.
As a farewell to this iteration of the course, I’d like to share with readers three highlights from this year’s class discussions on this remarkable collection of books, in this edition of Course Notes, which will be the last for this year.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer-Eldritch: Can-D and Chew-Z
We find ourselves on an earth that is suffering extremely high temperatures resulting from an ecological disaster. So hot is it during midday that people must wear protective clothing when outdoors and even then, must not remain there for very long. The cost of maintaining climate controlled interior spaces is wildly expensive, and a military-style draft lottery has been implemented for the purposes of selecting people to ship off-world, in order to establish colonies on a number of our solar system’s planets and moons. Barely inhabitable and supporting only the most rudimentary lifestyle, below even subsistence-farming levels, people try to avoid being drafted, and like the draft during our own Vietnam war, the capacity to evade involuntary emigration depends in good part upon one’s social position and wealth.
A major corporation, Perky Pat Layouts, INC, produces doll-and-environment sets called “layouts,” which are sold to colonists along with a technically-illegal, though widely available drug, “Can-D” which, when chewed, allow the users to collectively “translate” into the dolls and their environments. There is a vigorous, quasi-theological debate among users as to whether translation is real – whether people really inhabit a Ken-and-Barbie style Earth – or a collective hallucination. Beyond the obvious reference to the perennial division between Protestant and Catholic/Orthodox belief regarding the Eucharist and Communion, students found fascinating the questions that are debated by the characters in the novel over the moral status of acts performed while in translation, including, significantly, adultery, as users often have sexual relations with one another while in translation. They also thought prophetic the anticipation of virtual reality and the prospect of people increasingly inhabiting such unreal spaces, in order to escape the mundanities and disappointments of their real lives.
Palmer Eldritch, an entrepreneur and explorer, has returned from the Proxima Centaurus system with a lichen that he has used to develop a new translation drug, Chew-Z. Proxima is home to a powerful alien species, and there are rumors that the Palmer Eldritch who has returned to our system is not the same man who left it; that he has been transformed in some profound way. Some even suspect that he has become a puppet of the “Proxers” and has returned as prelude to an invasion.
Far more powerful than Can-D, Chew-Z requires no layout and translates the user into an entire world of his or her own making. Disturbingly, however, every translation-world seems to include within it Palmer Eldritch, who now bears what are referred to as three “stigmata”: a mechanical hand; artificial eyes; and steel teeth. Chew-Z becomes quite popular, effectively competing with Can-D among the colonists, and as more people use it, they themselves being to manifest Eldritch’s stigmata in the real world. Eventually, even those who have not used the drug begin doing so.
My students – whom we must remember mostly hail from the heavily evangelical and fundamentalist southwest Missouri region – were absorbed and disturbed by the echoes of Christianity and specifically by the idea, promoted by the faith, that in consuming the body and blood of Christ, one is inhabited by his spirit and thereby born again and redeemed. But is such “inhabitation” by a Deity salvific or something far more sinister? Should we take God’s professed motives at face value? Passages like this gave students pause and were the subject of sustained discussion:
All three stigmata, the dead, artificial hand, the Jensen eyes, and the radically deranged jaw. Symbols of its inhabitation… In our midst. But not asked for. Not intentionally summoned. And we have no mediating sacraments through which to protect ourselves; we can’t compel it, by our careful, time-honored, clever, painstaking rituals, to confine itself to specific elements such as bread and water or bread and wine. It is out in the open, ranging in every direction. It looks into our eyes; and it looks out of our eyes.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: Al Jarry / Wilbur Mercer and Mercerism
In this thematically rich novel, just one plotline of which served as the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s popular and critically acclaimed Blade Runner (1982), Dick describes an earth irradiated by a nuclear war. Most of the animals have died, and those people with means seek new lives on off-world colonies, aided by highly advanced androids, who surpass human beings in intelligence and physical prowess, but who are believed to lack the capacity for empathy. The dominant religion, Mercerism, is practiced by holding the handles of an “empathy box,” a device that transports all concurrent users into the body of William Mercer, who endlessly climbs a barren hill, under a barrage of rocks, sticks, and other small missiles thrown at him by mocking onlookers.
Students thought the Christ imagery obvious, a connection made even stronger by the mechanics of the empathy box, through which practitioners all share the experience of Mercer’s suffering collectively and thereby seem to gain a kind of salvation.
Later developments in the novel, however, led the class to reconsider. We discover that William Mercer is, in fact, an actor, named Al Jarry, and that his mountain climb is performed and recorded in a studio. He is, for all practical purposes, a fraud, and one might easily take from the story a moral regarding false prophets and false promises.
And yet, there is even more. Late in the book, Mercer/Jarry speaks with our protagonist, a bounty-hunter of renegade androids, Rick Deckard, and offers him the following message:
You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.
The class discussed this at length, and a number of us described situations in which we’d found ourselves, where every option was bad and failing to act would also have been bad. We discussed the Christian idea of being saved from one’s natural condition (i.e. native sin) and whether the idea makes any sense or offers any real consolation. The students were visibly moved by what is suggested in the book: that there is no salvation from our condition, but only consolation in the sharing of its burdens with others; that most important, consequently, is solidarity with one another; and that it matters not one whit to the truth of this whether Mercer, Jesus, or any other savior-figure really exists or existed.
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said: Celebrity and Surveillance
Jason Taverner is the host of a popular TV show in which he sings, dances and interviews celebrity guests. After a strange attack by a jilted lover that leaves him unconscious, he awakes to find that no one knows who he is and that he has no form of identification on his person. The world in which his story unfolds is one in which there is ubiquitous police surveillance, by way of cameras and manned checkpoints every few blocks, and he soon becomes a hunted man, trying to avoid capture, arrest, and the inevitable incarceration in a forced-labor camp that follows. At the same time, he also is desperate to be known again; to regain the celebrity he has lost, and the social standing and perks that come with it.
In the latter parts of the book, Taverner meets Alys Buckman, sister of Felix Buckman, a high ranking policeman who is pursuing him. The two Buckmans have a secret, incestuous relationship and live together, as a husband and wife would. Taverner learns that his erasure from the public consciousness is the result of Alys’s having taken an experimental drug that causes the user and anyone who has come into contact with the user to share a common hallucination, in this case, a world in which Jason Taverner does not exist. Alys subsequently dies from the drug, and though Felix knows Taverner is innocent of the crime, he nonetheless prosecutes him for it, both to assuage his personal grief and to obtain a conviction, so as not to expose Alys’s drug abuse. At one point, musing on this, he thinks to himself:
All right, Jason Taverner, Buckman thought, you are known again, as you were once before, but better known now, known in a new way…As you go to your grave your mouth will be still open, asking the question, “What did I do?”
And I could never explain it to you, Buckman thought. Except to say: don’t come to the attention of the authorities. Don’t ever interest us. Don’t make us want to know more about you.
The class found this dimension of the book eerily prescient. Far more than in 1974, when the book was published, our existence and sense of self today depends upon our being noticed, because so much of our lives are lived and conducted online. Instant celebrity is just one viral Tweet or YouTube video away and is something we crave, especially the young. And yet, such attention puts a person in tremendous jeopardy. Not just from law enforcement, whose aim is to make arrests and attain convictions, not discover the truth or pursue justice (I introduced the students to a disturbing video, in which both a law professor and veteran police detective confirm this fact), but from feral, online mobs, whose purpose is to destroy a person’s reputation and livelihood, via so-called “cancellation.” (For a microcosm of this phenomenon, one need look no farther than the online “community” of writers of young adult fiction. (1)) It is no surprise that the dominant, omnipresent sensibility of our age is one of anxiousness: that we should be visible, noticed, and recognized and that terrible things may befall us if we are.
Dick was nothing short of a genius. Ursula K. LeGuin called him “our homegrown Borges.” More than any other author I have read, his work is bursting with thematically rich and humanly essential ideas that sustain philosophical discussion of the highest order. I will miss teaching him, but hopefully, this little summary of my experience doing so might persuade others to try out this remarkable body of work with their own students.
Categories: Course Notes