“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. 

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