“Something is wrong. I don’t mean with you or me or with any person. I mean in general." --Ragle Gumm

Friday, January 20, 2012

Time Out of Joint (1959)

With many Philip K. Dick characters, readers can feel the “leakage” between a character’s reality and their own existential situation. Such a “leakage” might occur in a few scenes extracted from Time Out of Joint: Imagine you have a friend over for an evening and after dinner he pulls you aside and says, “Something is wrong. I don’t mean with you or me or with any person. I mean in general. The time is out of joint. I think we should compare notes.” How do you handle that? What could he possibly mean by “in general?” Then he goes on and talks about different philosophers who wrote about how things exist--Berkeley, Hume, Kant and Goethe. What are things? How do we know them? Where do they come from? What is going on? Then he talks about how language structures reality and that words are the reason we think a lemonade stand is a lemonade stand. He tells you that one disappeared before his eyes and left him with just a few molecules and a note containing the words “lemonade stand.” Would you begin your own probe into this crack in the world or chalk it up to good storytelling? Perhaps this is a good opportunity for the reader to compare notes.

Meanwhile, back in the book, we are hearing these radical questions from Ragle Gumm, and even though all this occurs only sixty pages into the novel, there is a good chance something is wrong because this is a PKD novel. Ragle Gumm might be on a high speed train to psychotic uncertainty, but as the story progresses, we realize that he is in the first stages of coming out of a psychotic break which, truth be told, was actually a sane response to what he had been doing outside the world that he now feels is “wrong.”

What is insane is the terran authoritarian government fighting a nuclear war with colonists on Luna over mining ore, even after the “lunatics” have made a reasonable offer of peace. The underlying issue for the government, however, is the loss of power over its people as they colonize other planets.

Before he opted out of this madness, Ragle Gumm was the chief defense expert who could predict with considerable accuracy where the next hydrogen bomb attack might fall. Ragle’s way of shedding the weight of this madness is to make a psychotic break with 1997, when the war is occurring, and regress into a fantasy world of 1959, when he has imagined life to have been much simpler and people happier. And what does the terran government do? Rather than lose their defense expert, they build a town around him that coincides with where he is psychotically, populate it with real people who volunteer to be hypnotized into believing the town and year to be real, and urge him on with his job as a winner of contests published daily in the local paper. The contests are actually a disguised version of the process Gumm used to predict where the next attack might occur when he was sane.    

So when his 1959 reality begins to disintegrate and he invokes some of the great thinkers of the past to assuage his growing existential uncertainty, he is in the first stages of returning to sanity. Something is unraveling. What is it and how far will it go?

All the way, it seems. Ragle Gumm eventually reenters the 1997 world but he is a changed man. He knows now that the war he fed before he broke with it has no foundation in reality. Something real is going on, to be sure, but it is disguised by those who avoid dealing with it through excuses such as profits, politics, and ethics. This is a civil war, which Gumm believes is noble because of the sacrifice it requires—family, friends, home—in order to take an irreducible stand. Gumm decides to migrate to Luna and continue the war there because migration for humanity is “right.” There is, however, no way to know what “right” is; it just floats there in the emptiness like a planet with nothing to sit on but which nevertheless continues on its fixed way. It is, and you either live it or you don’t . When the ambiguity between Gumm’s sanity and insanity unwraps all the way, this is what he gets.

This stance is not a solution to civil war; it has nothing to do with the war. For Ragle Gumm, the war becomes a means by which he engages reality for what it is, which has nothing to do with time, social structure, or personal motivation. Unless one confronts that which cannot be rationally reduced further, insanity will reign forever. 

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Pleasures of Uncertainty While Reading PKD

Having just made a joyful romp through A Crack in Space, I can understand the point of view of reading PKD just for the sheer pleasure of it. From more experienced PKD readers, I have heard that other novels offer this kind of playful treat. After all, Dick’s view was that reading his novels should ultimately bring joy.

That joy can also be found in such despairing novels as Maze of Death and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. The satisfaction for me in these novels is PKD’s power to disturb our settled, if not secure, experience of the world. They work such that their hopeless depiction of reality can still, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s words, engender in the reader a “willing suspension of disbelief.”  The mere fact that they exist is astonishing and therefore satisfying in their own right. The greatest satisfaction for me in these particular novels, and in others, is that Dick runs their reality right down into the place where we are all unconsciously uncertain about the foundations of our existence, that interior place which Umberto Rossi in The Twisted Worlds of Philip K. Dick  calls “ontological uncertainty.”

The direct experience of  ontological uncertainty while reading Dick resonates with my personal story, which includes a lifetime of clinical depression; a diagnosis, based upon the DSM manual for mental disturbances, of bipolar disorder and chronic anxiety, for which I take medication; and an upbringing in a family that self-destructed from madness. Add to that thirty years of penetrating my dark interior through various meditations, which have left some of my inner security blankets in tatters, and I can honestly state that I have looked psychosis in the eye, established an ambiguous relationship with it, and have reluctantly accepted its companionship as a possible window into reality, as scary as both can be. I used to believe in transcendental bliss India-style as a life goal, but no more, despite having enjoyed extended periods of time in a blissful state. The pursuit of bliss in the context of my experience became just another excuse to avoid stripping away illusions and being battered by the existential white water that such a commitment creates, the white water Philip K. Dick experienced his entire life. Standing on the indefinable edge between reality and insanity is the most satisfying, if terrifying, experience of my life. This walk has the virtue of being real.

What I have to offer here, if you are still with me, is a metaphor for “ontological uncertainty,” which may be of assistance to PKD readers who cannot locate what they are experiencing while reading his work. Something gets stirred in a wordless place and we can become unsettled in the experience. If you want to get a more literary analysis of how Dick achieves this existential insecurity, I would recommend the “Afterward” in Clans of the Alphane Moon by Barry N. Malzberg.

You are a high diver at a meet. You stand on the platform looking down at the water in the pool. When you reach your peak of concentration, you leap into the air and immediately wind your body into a tight ball for multiple spins before unwinding it and entering the water. But in that moment when your body is most tightly wound, when it is in auto-mode and you are neither thinking nor experiencing through your senses—suddenly, from nowhere and for no reason, doubt strikes as to whether there is water in the pool below. And there is real terror! This is ontological uncertainty. As your body unfolds, the only issue is how long that doubt will overwhelm you before you reach your destiny below. Unfolding inevitably takes place despite the ontological uncertainty. The longer the diver remains in uncertainty as his body unfolds, the greater the possibility for madness, either the conscious madness of psychosis or the unconscious madness of pretending that your world is real.

For the purposes of this metaphor, I place PKD’s novels and his life within this context of an unwinding diver  ripping away as many illusions as he can in order to face the reality of his situation. And to further extend the metaphor: we are all in the middle of a dive from the high platform, unfolding according to our individual existential struggles, dreaming up life experiences that hide the reality of ontological uncertainty until something turns us around to face it. That’s why we can relate to him so profoundly and why his writing is unique. There is no answer to this situation. It is, instead, a probe by existence into a possibility of a how this kind of being, a human being, responds to its existence when assaulted by doubt. The unwinding of the diver represents a spectrum of possibilities extending from panic which never goes away to the acceptance of uncertainty and entering the water for a perfect ten. And everything in between.

This would be a good time to discuss Horselover Fat and Angel Archer, but I’ll save that discussion for another day.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964)

So here they are at the end: two people in love, who only hours ago wanted to murder each other, conversing about their new life on the Alphane moon, how they will create a new clan consisting of themselves, Chuck and Mary Rittersdorf; Chuck’s telepathic mentor, a Ganymedean slime mold named Lord Running Clam; perhaps their Terran children, if they can be smuggled off their home planet; and perhaps a few of the less insane members of the clans of the psychotic inhabitants of the moon, who have established themselves in different towns grouped according to their particular psychoses: paranoids, depressives, schizophrenics, obsessive-compulsives, manics, and the saintly untouchables. And so here they are--dreaming of their new clan, Chuck and Mary holding hands, looking up at the sky from where a fleet of space ships carrying giant Alphane insects are landing to guarantee the sovereignty of the psychotics in their self-governance through an agreement negotiated by a Terran guy named Bunny, who is a master of manipulation, TV entertainer, an ally of the Alphanes, and an aficionado of women with perfectly shaped breasts, artificially enhanced or no.

If this is the kind of stuff that makes you laugh, be careful about how hard you laugh, especially when that laughter pitches up to the  high shriek that shreds your defenses and gets you thinking about which clan you belong to, or who’s telling your story, or if that really is the ground beneath your feet. And if you are somber about these things and you find them floating randomly in the nowhere place inside you, you can start up your own clan on your own moon with a membership of one. Laughing or brooding about this novel brings you to the same place. Clans of the Alphane Moon is not about psychosis. It is psychosis.

“There is no protection. Being alive means being exposed; it’s the nature of life to be hazardous—it’s the stuff of living.”  --Annette Golding, polymorphic schizophrenic in Philip K. Dick's Clans of the Alphane Moon