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

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Cracks in the Reality of Martian Time-Slip

The world of PKD’s Martian Time-Slip doesn’t get interesting until you get to the mentally dysfunctional characters—Jack Bohlen, who suffers from schizophrenia, and the child Manfred Steiner, who is severely autistic. Petty operators like Artie Kott are a dime a dozen on Earth. On Mars they rise in importance from sheer lack of population. Most of the other characters are petty in their own way and remain unchanged by their Martian environment. An astonishing fact in its own right! Never mind.

Not Norbert Steiner, though. What distinguishes Norbert Steiner from fathers on Mars is that he is okay with the idea of the UN coming into the B-G Camp for “anomalous children,” where his son Manfred resides, and killing them in a “scientific, painless, instantaneous way.” Mars is, after all, the future of mankind and they don’t want that future polluted at the outset. He can see that, at least until his inner landscape cracks under the weight of such a profound moral dysfunction and he commits suicide. Dr. Glaub, the psychiatrist who runs Camp B-G, thinks autistic children cannot connect to the world due to a “derangement in the sense of time.” Two takes on Manfred. More to come.

If you are looking for meaning in this story, mental dysfunction is the place to start.

The psychological (psychiatric) reality for human beings on Mars is clearly on display for Jack Bohlen as he repairs the teaching simulacra in the Public School, where Manfred Steiner has fled and who is undermining the reality being generated there. Under Manfred’s influence Jack is consumed by damning realizations. He sees that what has moved from Earth to Mars is a “composite-psyche” so urgent in its imperative that any deviation from that imposed reality is automatically designated “autistic.” What terrifies Jack the most is the realization that on Mars there are only two realities: the “fixed, rigid, compulsive-neurotic Public School” lorded over by the mechanistic simulacra, and the B-G Camp for “anomalous children.” On Mars there is no way back to “mankind and a shared reality.” On Mars you are either a dead mechanism or insane. In this context Norbert Steiner’s suicide makes sense.

Except this is Mars, mysterious Mars, over which the Earth-reality Jack Bohlen sees is like a dead bird hanging in the sky. Jack’s schizophrenia brings a debilitating revelation that reality on Mars comes with a huge crack in it, a crack which will show up in the transplanted human culture sooner or later. Guaranteed.

Just around the corner from this dysfunctional Earth-reality, however, are the Bleekmen, the indigenous people of Mars, who appear mysteriously at the beginning of the story and who become increasingly mysterious until their startling and incomprehensible entry at the end. The Bleekmen are the embodiment of what Jack Bohlen realizes at the public school. Mars is not Earth. In an absolute sense. Ultimately, the Bleekmen represent the fact that Earth-reality is not just insane on Mars. It’s just insane.

It is only within Earth-reality that the question arises as to the Bleekmen’s origin. Jack assumes that they are the remnants of a past civilization which built the water canals. In Mars-reality, however, they are simply present when needed. Time is not an issue for them. Nor space. Mars is not even a planet. It is a particular reality in the absolute field of existence. 

Jack Bohlen is initiated into Mars-reality when he meets a small group of Bleekmen in the desert while flying Arnie Kott to the FDR Mountains. He gives them water. They give him a “water witch” in return. A “water witch—” the young Bleekman says, they are the “authorities; they will bring you water, the source of life, any time you need.” Jack asks him why the water witch did not bring them water on their journey. “Mister,” says the Bleekman, “it helped; it brought you.” This is the first real event in the novel. The giving of the water witch opens the door for Jack Bohlen to transition from Earth-reality to Mars-reality and will bring the Bleekmen out for him whenever needed. They are the source of life on Mars.

The Bleekmen bring Jack into Mars-reality by merging his Earth-reality into Manfred Steiner’s autism. Jack already has a schizophrenic crack in his Earth-reality, which the Bleekmen exploit at the meeting between Jack, Arnie, and Manfred at Arnie’s place. Heliogabalus, an astonishingly articulate and skilled Bleekman, is Artie Kott’s servant. He is there for Jack as needed to explain what schizophrenia is and how it interfaces with Mars-reality:

“Purpose of life is unknown, and hence the way to be is [to be] hidden from the eyes of living critters. Who can say if perhaps the schizophrenics are not correct? Mister, they take a brave journey. They turn away from mere things, which one may handle and turn to practical use; they turn inward to meaning. There, the black-night-without-bottom lies, the pit. Who can say if they will return? And if so, what will they be like, having glimpsed meaning? I admire them.

As the scene at Arnie’s place repeats itself over and over, Jack is subsumed deeper into Manfred’s reality. Gubbish piles up everywhere. Jack is passing through the “pit” Heliogabalus told him about in which temporal and spatial  relationships become irrelevant and all meaning based on Earth-reality collapses. Jack eventually realizes that time and place are only constructs in an indefinable Mars-reality, which is being revealed to him through Manfred:

It almost seems to me that Manfred does more than know the future; in some way he controls it, he can make it come out the worst possible way because that’s what seems natural to him, that’s how he sees reality. It’s as if by being around him we are sinking into his reality. It’s starting to seep over us and replace our own way of viewing things, and the kind of events we’re accustomed to see come about now somehow don’t come about. It’s not natural for me to feel this way; I‘ve never had this feeling about the future before.

Jack’s soon-to-be lover, Arnie’s current lover, Doreen, is still firmly rooted in Earth-reality. She reminds Jack what a terrible disease schizophrenia is: “Schizophrenia is panic, and once you see it break out in a person, you can never forget it.” Her brother was schizophrenic. With this discussion, it is clear Jack and Doreen will never be together.

Arnie Kott’s death arrives through the Bleekmen and their absorption of Manfred into their reality. With Manfred’s assistance, Arnie travels back in time in order to manipulate events so that he can buy up the property which Leo Bohlen has already purchased. The effort fails. Arnie is killed. Jack arrives in time to hear from Arnie that his time travel occurred inside Manfred’s schizophrenia. At this point for Jack, Earth-reality is fully compromised. The Bleekmen take Manfred with them, wherever and whenever they are going.

When Jack returns home depleted from the twists and turns within his human existence, he and his wife Silvia agree to stay together after they have each had affairs. Earth-reality seems back in place. But not for long. Earth-reality for Jack has a fissure running through it so wide that only the night can fill it. In the Steiner home next door, they hear a cry. When Jack and Silvia arrive, they find the living room filled with Bleekmen, who are standing around an adult Manfred sitting in a wheelchair, who, Jack realizes, has come back from the future, which is both now and then. The Bleekmen are there for him. They want him to see Manfred as he has become, imbued with Mars-reality, but still burdened by dead, mechanistic remnants of Earth-reality, the one with pumps, hoses, and gears. Manfred is clear within himself.  He is the path for Earth-insanity through which any initiate into Mars-reality must pass. Through which Jack has just passed. Jack knows. When he heads into the night with his father to search for Manfred’s mother, he is the only real being in the colony. The Mars colony is now in his hands. How it will turn out, only the darkness knows. Where the Bleekmen travel with Manfred, only the darkness knows.

The lesson of the Bleekmen is that the only way for a human being to remain sane on Mars is to become Martian.

Martian Time-Slip was written ten years before Philip K Dick’s visionary experiences of early 1974. Thus there are no biographical or exegetical materials by which to measure its take on reality. I love VALIS. In its own right, it is an engaging book because it has such an authentic depiction of mental derangement as a path to reality. For that reason alone, it stands as a remarkable achievement. In VALIS, however, Dick’s visions, his experiences in a mental hospital, and suicide attempt, as well as his Exegesis, are there for readers to dance back and forth between while reading the novel. That exercise has become part of its literary allure. Martian Time-Slip stands on its own as a grab at reality. There’s nothing out there to hang it on to for perspective. You have to take it as it is. The fact that its reality is still cracked at the end speaks in its favor. It may well be my favorite Dick novel. No place to hang my hat except on my head.

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciated this analysis, thank you!