Philip K. Dick, “A Scanner Darkly” (1977)


(Conclusion. Continued from part 1.)

Dick felt insecure about being a writer of genre fiction, however successful. In an introduction to a collection of his short stories (published in 1980), he advised readers to “bear in mind that most were written when SF was so looked down upon that it virtually was not there, in the eyes of all America. This was not funny, the derision felt toward SF writers. It made our lives wretched…really cruel abuse was inflicted on us.” The abuse was largely self-inflicted. When meeting new people in the late 1950s, especially if they had real or imagined literary connections, Dick would deliberately downplay his science fiction writing, instead emphasizing his attempts at “mainstream” novels with more conventional realistic plots, which very few people ever read. Even in 1981, he felt that his failure in this area was “the tragedy…of my creative life.”

But he needn’t have worried. A Scanner Darkly was his literary masterwork, in which the line between realism and science fiction thinned out into nonexistence. In fact, the stylistic conventions of science fiction writing are deliberately used to erode that line, from the very first page.

Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. The doctor told him there were no bugs in his hair. After he had taken a shower for eight hours, standing under hot water hour after hour suffering the pain of the bugs, he got out and dried himself, and he still had bugs in his hair; in fact, he had bugs all over him. A month later he had bugs in his lungs.
Having nothing else to do or think about, he began to work out theoretically the life cycle of the bugs, and, with the aid of the Britannica, try to determine specifically which bugs they were. They now filled his house. He read about many different kinds and finally noticed bugs outdoors, so he concluded they were aphids. After that decision came to his mind it never changed, no matter what other people told him…like ‘Aphids don’t bite people.’
They said that to him because the endless biting of the bugs kept him in torment. At the 7-11 grocery store…he bought spray cans of Raid and Black Flag and Yard Guard. First he sprayed the house, then himself. The Yard Guard seemed to work the best.
As to the theoretical side, he perceived three stages in the cycle of the bugs. First, they were carried to him to contaminate him by what he called Carrier-people, which were people who didn’t understand their role in distributing the bugs. During that stage the bugs had no jaws or mandibles (he learned that word during his weeks of scholarly research, an unusually bookish occupation for a guy who worked at the Handy Brake and Tire place relining people’s brake drums). The Carrier-people therefore felt nothing. He used to sit in the far corner of his living room watching different Carrier-people enter — most of them people he’d known for a while, but some new to him — covered with the aphids in this particular nonbiting stage. He’d sort of smile to himself, because he knew that the person was being used by the bugs and wasn’t hip to it.”

(Dick, II/861)

You could easily see such an opening in pulp science fiction, including much of Dick’s early work, and there it would mean exactly what it says. A longtime reader would be primed to expect another gleefully chaotic yarn about alien bugs invading from another dimension, only to be stopped by one everyman car mechanic with psionic abilities. But there are no bugs; we are being shown the final breakdown of an insane drug addict, suffering from what Dick calls “permanent psychosis” (II/1098) in the afterword. Science fiction becomes the language in which the degradation of human identity can be described most accurately. The style does not embellish the story, but rather, is the plainest and most direct way of telling it.

A Scanner Darkly describes the marginalized, decaying American drug subculture, to which Dick belonged during the 1970s. He describes how his protagonist Bob Arctor got mixed up in it: “That life [In which he had a wife and children. -FL] had been one without excitement, with no adventure. It had been too safe. All the elements that made it up were right there before his eyes, and nothing new could ever be expected. It was like…a little plastic boat that would sail on forever, without incident, until it finally sank, which would be a secret relief to all.” (II/914) Much of the book is a straightforward documentary account of his new life, in a dilapidated house with two other addicts who, like himself, are gradually losing grasp of reality. There are only two concessions to science fiction in the plot: the “scramble suit,” a holographic disguise which preserves anonymity when government agents communicate with their informants in the subculture; and “Substance D” (or “death”), the deadliest drug in the world, to which all of the characters are addicted.

Substance D, in particular, works as a collective image of all addictive drugs, and saves the author the need to go into pharmaceutical specifics. Drugs featured in many earlier novels by Dick, and there he usually enjoyed delving into the details of their mind- and reality-warping properties. But Substance D serves a completely different purpose. None of the characters ever describes the high that is obtained from Substance D, a striking contrast with other novels on this subject, for example Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, which largely consists of painstaking, pedantic discourse about the comparative effects of various drugs. Intentionally or not, much of A Scanner Darkly can be read as a kind of rejoinder to Fear and Loathing, showing how Thompson’s fast-talking journalist would be seen by others outside his own imagination. There is even a Thompson-like pedant among the main characters of Scanner, similarly fascinated with guns:

For over an hour Barris had been attempting to perfect a silencer made from ordinary household materials costing no more than eleven cents. He had almost done so, with aluminum foil and a piece of foam rubber.
In the night darkness of Bob Arctor’s backyard, among the heaps of weeds and rubbish, he was preparing to fire his pistol with the homemade silencer on it.
‘The neighbors will hear,’ Charles Freck said uneasily. He could see lit windows all over, many people probably watching TV or rolling joints.
Luckman, lounging out of sight but able to watch, said, ‘They only call in murders in this neighborhood.’
‘Why do you need a silencer?’ Charles Freck asked Barris. ‘I mean, they’re illegal.’
Barris said moodily, ‘In this day and age, with the kind of degenerate society we live in and the depravity of the individual, every person of worth needs a gun at all times. To protect himself.’ He half shut his eyes, and fired his pistol with its homemade silencer. An enormous report sounded, temporarily deafening the three of them. Dogs in far-off yards barked.
Smiling, Barris began unwrapping the aluminum foil from the foam rubber. He appeared to be amused.
‘That’s sure some silencer,’ Charles Freck said, wondering when the police would appear. A whole bunch of cars.
‘What it did,’ Barris explained, showing him and Luckman black-seared passages burned through the foam rubber, ‘is augment the sound rather than dampen it. But I almost have it right. I have it in principle, anyhow.’

(Dick, II/911-912)

Wherever there are drugs, there is a Jim Barris, the junkie intellectual — constantly dropping “facts,” largely fabricated on the spot; full of nonsensical, convoluted plans that are forgotten a day later; and, of course, always ready with an interminable explanation of why every problem is everyone’s fault other than his own. In the 2006 film adaptation of Scanner, Barris is played by Robert Downey Jr., an actor with exactly this ability to tirelessly produce a long verbal mire into which one sinks helplessly. Even when one knows that nothing Barris says is true, his smug confidence and his unending stream of words make it impossible to resist; one is drawn into the madness and becomes a participant without even realizing it (much like how the addict who imagines bugs in his hair convinces his friends to help look for them):

Seating himself, Barris placed a hand on each of his leather-covered knees, smoothed himself, shook his head, and confronted Arctor. He seemed in an extremely good mood. ‘Well,’ he said briskly, ‘I’ve got an initial theoretical view as to who might have systematically damaged with malice your cephscope and may do it again.’
‘If you’re going to say it was Luckman–‘
‘Listen,’ Barris said, rocking back and forth in agitation. ‘W-w-what if I told you I’ve anticipated for weeks a serious malfunction in one of the household appliances, especially an expensive one difficult to repair? My theory called for this to happen! This is a confirmation of my over-all theory!’
‘You think I did it,’ Arctor said. ‘Screwed up my own cephscope, with no insurance.’ Disgust and rage swelled through him. And it was late at night; he needed his sleep.
‘No, no,’ Barris said rapidly, looking distressed. ‘You are looking at the person who did it. Buggered your cephscope. That was my complete intended statement, which I was not allowed to utter.’
‘You did it?’ Mystified, he stared at Barris, whose eyes were murky with a sort of dim triumph. ‘Why?’
‘I mean, it’s my theory that I did it,’ Barris said. ‘Under posthypnotic suggestion, evidently. With an amnesia block so I couldn’t remember.’ He began to laugh.
‘You did it because you’re nuts,’ Arctor said.
‘Maybe I was hired by secret forces,’ Barris muttered in perplexity. ‘But what would their motives be? Possibly to start suspicion and trouble among us, to cause dissension to break out, causing us to be pitted against one another, all of us, uncertain of whom we can trust, who is our enemy, and like that.’

(Dick, II/918-919)

Barris is totally incapable of empathy, demonstrated in a scene where he calmly watches Luckman nearly choke to death, and feigns concern once he recovers, not forgetting to helpfully explain, “You did go into an altered state of consciousness, though. For a few seconds. Probably an alpha state.” (II/982) He is unpleasant and unlikable, but after all, it seems that the subculture somehow needs the semblance of intellectual validation that people like him provide. In the 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy, a skeletal William Burroughs, the original drug pedant, continues to lecture, with one foot in the grave, on how, “Narcotics have been systematically scapegoated and demonized.”

burroughsThe face of death.

Far be it from me to downplay the medical aspect of drug addiction, but at the very least, there exists some sense in which the American drug subculture is primarily a cultural and philosophical phenomenon. Thompson at least pretended that he was having a good time (until he shot himself). But no one in Scanner expects to have a good time. It is hard to imagine Burroughs having a good time. I doubt Dick ever did. The mindset needed to persist in such a life is not hedonism, but self-abnegating conviction. Dick himself writes in the afterword (emphasis added), “Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car.” (I/1097) But nobody believes that stepping out in front of a moving car makes them superior. People like Burroughs see moral and aesthetic dimensions in drug abuse. Self-annihilation becomes a kind of categorical imperative.

In fact, reading carefully, we find that Arctor went down this path not only because he wanted “adventure” — what adventure can there be when your brain is so fried that you can’t figure out how to count the number of gears on a bicycle? First and foremost, he wanted to destroy his normal life: “In former days…there had been a wife much like other wives, two small daughters, a stable household that got swept and cleaned and emptied out daily… But then one day…[it] flashed on him instantly that…he hated his wife, his two daughters, his whole house, the back yard with its power mower, the garage, the radiant heating system, the front yard, the fence, the whole fucking place and everyone in it. He wanted a divorce; he wanted to split. And so he had, very soon. And entered, by degrees, a new and somber life, lacking all of that.” (II/913-914) Dick does not try to invent any external justification, like a nagging wife or something like that; Arctor’s hatred of life comes from within. The American dream is not to own a house and car, but to torch them both. Americans proclaim their love of their country so often, and so loudly, in order to drown out the voice that tells them to watch it go up in flames.

In Kokoro and other books by Natsume Soseki, we saw characters for whom suffering led to a heightened sense of self, a deeper and more pronounced individuality, which could eventually make life unbearable. In Scanner, the opposite happens — physical destruction is almost an afternote to the total degeneration of individuality. The more Arctor suffers, the less he is able to comprehend about what is happening to him. In that sense, the “decision” to which Dick refers is not “mere” suicide, an act of free will directed against one’s physical existence; rather, it eradicates free will itself. Physical existence may even survive, as a burned-out shell. In light of this, it is quite ironic that Japanese and American culture are respectively stereotyped as collectivist and individualist. For Soseki, the creator of modern Japanese culture, individuality can supersede an intolerable existence; for Dick, the unwilling spokesman of American culture, individuality itself is intolerable. Burroughs defends drug abuse as a means to “escape a horrible fate” — evidently, life as a human being, in and of itself, is the fate in question.

Civilization has not collapsed in Scanner — at least, no war or other catastrophe is mentioned. Presumably there are still normal people (“straights”) with normal lives somewhere in this world. But, all the same, culture is dead. Scanner takes place in 1994, in line with Dick’s usual habit of setting his books in the near future, but aside from the scramble suit, there have been no technological advancements since the seventies, and likewise no new literature, music, or film. The characters are still listening to music from the sixties: “He could hear music although he could not quite distinguish what track it was from what LP. Maybe Hendrix! he thought. Yeah, an old Hendrix track, or now all at once it was J.J. All of them: Jim Croce, and J.J., but especially Hendrix. ‘Before I die,’ Hendrix was murmuring, ‘let me live my life as I want to,’ and then immediately the fantasy number blew up because he had forgotten both that Hendrix was dead and how Hendrix and also Joplin had died, not to mention Croce.” (II/971) Of course, the “future” here is a flimsy convention, and Dick is really talking about his present, in which these thoughts would not seem anachronistic. Nonetheless, whatever the reason, the sole cultural references in Dick’s 1994 are to the sixties and seventies, which has disquieting implications — especially to us, because we find ourselves in a very similar position now. Perhaps you do not reach as far back as the sixties; likely your own points of reference are different from Dick’s, but I doubt you use any part of contemporary popular culture as a lens through which to look at your own life. The language of popular culture has become far narrower than in Dick’s time, endlessly “remaking” old ideas but completely incapable of understanding the sense of freedom that their creators required (but took for granted).


Even Hollywood has begun to feel its own stagnation, and this feeling has even made its way into superhero action films, in which the American subconscious is usually given free rein. The 2017 film Logan includes a scene in which an elderly, senile superhero watches the classic Western Shane in a hotel room, rapt in sentimental recollection: “This film is a classic… Almost a hundred years old now. I first saw it at the Esoldo in Dewsbury when I was your age.” His only companion is a young “mutant” (the film’s word, not mine!), nearly feral, mute for half the film, staring intently but blankly. She has been artificially grown in a laboratory by a multinational drug company, which, I note in passing, also planned to “distribute gene therapy discreetly, through, well, everything — from sweet drinks to breakfast cereal,” which was seen as a bad thing in 2017. The mutant girl has never seen anything remotely resembling normal family life, and understands the world only through comic books. Outside their hotel, society still exists: in a “near future” like that of Scanner, there are ridesharing services for drunk partygoers, and opulent casinos with plenty of wealthy clients. But even for the rich, there is nothing to do except squander their money pointlessly on these distractions. The only remaining trace of culture is a fragment of an old Western, and the memory of having once gone to a real movie theater, in the fading mind of a feeble old man. The irony is so deep precisely because it is unintentional — to add to it, the only model for culture that the director can think of is another Hollywood product, which, however, now feels like an unattainable ideal, like the memory of old pop songs in Dr. Bloodmoney.

Three years later, the same feeling appears even more explicitly, this time in a “serious,” Oscar-winning film, Nomadland. An elderly working-class woman loses her job (the sole employer in her town closes its doors) and becomes a homeless itinerant, living in her van and working various menial jobs wherever she happens to stop. In conversation with a younger “nomad,” who opens up to her and mentions that he has trouble expressing himself to his girlfriend, she encourages him to write poetry and recites Shakespeare’s sonnet, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” The point could not have been stated clearer: the contemporary order of things has made culture, together with its last dying carriers, into worthless wreckage, trash tossed about by the wind somewhere on the periphery of society. These people have no rights and no future, and in any case will soon die of natural causes. But even in this debased condition, their final flickering thoughts have weight and meaning; even their death has a content that is unbearable to the society that has exiled them and hopes that their physical extinction will also eradicate these uncomfortable memories of civilization. The most ignominious death can occasionally provide a glimpse of a great harmony, which exists outside this world and is only made more beautiful by being completely separated from it.

I am not commenting here on the aesthetic value of these films. Of course, vagrants do not recite Shakespeare to each other, and even non-vagrants do not memorize this sonnet for their wedding vows, as the protagonist of the film is said to have done. But, again, we are talking about culture, not individuals. The characters of Nomadland are a personification of American culture in 2020, in a way that makes sense to American culture, from its own point of view. Having a Chinese director may have helped to articulate this idea more precisely; as with Lolita, this is a case where an outsider looking in may notice important details that are easily missed from the inside. But, in any event, there were plenty of Americans, from the actors in the film to critics and viewers, who had no trouble understanding the message.

To a reader of Dick’s novels, the world of Nomadland is recognizable and makes perfect sense. From the nomads’ point of view, society has collapsed as surely as if there had been a nuclear war. What they call “vanlife” requires some technology (even occasional Internet access), but is generally a regression relative to what we are used to thinking of as ordinary life. The logic of it is similar to how, in Dr. Bloodmoney, trickles of survivors gradually flow together after the initial chaos into improvised communities which restore some of the basic functions of civilization. But even then, there is still no future for these groups, no new vision in which to place their hope. In order to hold on to existence, they rely on shared cultural memory “of our past, our sacred past.” What they are living in is not a new society, but the last dying dream of the old one.


But let us return to Scanner. Soon, we learn that Arctor is actually working for the police as an undercover operative. How or why he decided to go into this line of work is never explained — one mustn’t expect Dick to think through every detail. As his mind degenerates under the effect of Substance D, the two sides of his life dissociate: as “Officer Fred,” disguised by a scramble suit, he is no longer able to recognize himself as Arctor, and is surprised to hear it from his superior officer. As soon as “Fred’s” mission is complete (he is told that the authorities wanted to spy on Barris), this last bit of structure disappears from Arctor’s life, and he collapses in a catatonic state. A friend leaves him on the doorstep of “New-Path,” an organization that purports to rehabilitate Substance D addicts by “building up a new personality not drug-oriented.” (Dick, II/899) No one seems to know whether it has ever successfully done that, but it is certainly very effective in erasing their old personalities, by assigning them new names, confiscating all forms of identification with their old ones (promising that they will be returned at some unspecified future time), and subjecting them to bizarre collective abuse sessions:

He sat in the Game and they screamed at him. Faces, all over, screaming; he gazed down.
‘Y’know what he is? A kissy-facy!’ One shriller voice made him peer up. Among the awful screaming distortions one Chinese girl, howling. ‘You’re a kissy-facy, that’s what you are!’
‘Let’s see you fuck yourself!’ the family chanted. ‘Jack yourself off, kissy-facy!’
He shut his eyes, but his ears still heard.
‘You pimp,’ the Executive Director said slowly to him. Monotonously. ‘You fuck. You dong. You shit. You turd prick. You–‘ On and on.

(Dick, II/1075-1076)

This combination of childish silliness and brutal aggression is too strange to be made up, and, in fact, Dick stayed at one of these faddish, cult-like clinics for a period of time in the seventies. In a 1979 interview, he recalled, “I remember in attack-therapy there was one guy dressed kind of nattily, and he was French. They said, ‘you look like a homosexual.’ Within half an hour they had him convinced that he was a homosexual. He started crying. I thought, this is very strange, because I know this guy is not homosexual. And yet he’s crying and admitting to this thing – not to cause the abuse to stop…he caused them to yell louder and say, ‘We were right, we were right.’ He was simply beginning to agree with them.” Arctor, however, can no longer function at a level where he can “agree” or even understand what is being said: “he did not know, he did not recall, he felt little, he felt bad, he wanted to leave. The Vacuum in him grew. And he was actually a little glad.” (Dick, II/1076) He cannot remember his real name. Two months later, “the Game had failed to help him. It had, in fact, made him more deteriorated,” (II/1092) which, of course, is the only effect it could ever possibly have had. “Bruce” is now consigned to menial labor, and can at most give one-word answers or repeat what is being said:

‘Your name is Bruce,’ the manager of the farm said, as Bruce stepped clumsily from the car, lugging his suitcase.
‘My name is Bruce,’ he said.
‘We’re going to try you on farming for a period, Bruce.’
‘I think you’ll like it better here, Bruce.’
‘I think I’ll like it,’ he said. ‘Better here.’
‘You like mountains?’ The farm manager indicated to their right. ‘Look up. Mountains. No snow, but mountains. Santa Rosa is to the left; they grow really great grapes on those mountain slopes. We don’t grow any grapes. Various other farm products, but no grapes.’
‘I like mountains,’ Bruce said.
‘Look at them,’ The manager again pointed. Bruce did not look. ‘We’ll round up a hat for you,’ the manager said. ‘You can’t work out in the fields with your head shaved without a hat. Don’t go out to work until we get you a hat. Right?’
‘I won’t go to work until I have a hat,’ Bruce said.
‘The air is good here,’ the manager said.
‘I like air,’ Bruce said.”

(Dick, II/1092-1093)

But there is a greater reason for New-Path to break down its patients so completely. Only those addicts who have reached this vegetable state are sent to the organization’s farms, because they now work mechanically with no understanding of their surroundings. There, in the fields, disguised by tall corn plants, are countless little blue flowers, the raw material from which Substance D is made. The laborers are so far gone that the administrators do not feel the need to conceal the truth from them:

‘You’re seeing the flower of the future,’ Donald, the Executive Director of New-Path, said. ‘But not for you.’
‘Why not for me?’ Bruce said.
‘You’ve had too much of a good thing already,’ the Executive Director said. He chuckled. ‘So get up and stop worshiping — this isn’t your god any more, your idol, though it was once. A transcendent vision, is that what you see growing here? You look as if it is.’ He tapped Bruce firmly on the shoulder, and then, reaching down his hand, he cut the sight off from the frozen eyes.
‘Gone,’ Bruce said. ‘Flowers of spring gone.’
‘Back to work, Bruce,’ Donald, the Executive Director, said.
‘I saw,’ Bruce said. He thought, I knew. That was it: I saw Substance D growing. I saw death rising from the earth, from the ground itself, in one blue field, in stubbled color.
The farm-facility manager and Donald Abrahams glanced at each other and then down at the kneeling figure, the kneeling man and the Mors ontologica [“Death of being.” -FL] planted everywhere, within the concealing corn.”

(Dick, II/1095-1096)

morsontologicaFrom the excellent 2006 adaptation
(much truer to Dick than Blade Runner).

That is still not all, however. At the New-Path facility to which Arctor is initially committed, one of the staff is also a police operative, who has infiltrated New-Path with the goal of obtaining evidence that the organization is producing the drug. But there is no way for him to get access to the farm: “I can’t get in…think how long I’ve been trying. They’d only let a burned-out husk like Bruce in. Harmless… Or they wouldn’t take the risk. It’s their policy.” From the start, Arctor was set up to become addicted to Substance D and turn into the only kind of person that could be admitted. The hope is that he can somehow think to hide some of the blue flowers on his person and bring them back to the operative at the facility when allowed to go back for their annual Thanksgiving gathering. It is not much of a plan, though: “Never can know until it happens. A memory. A few charred brain cells flicker on. Like a reflex. React, not act. We can just hope.” (II/1079) In fact, at the very end of the novel, Bruce does exactly what they are hoping for, but whether he is able to keep the evidence hidden until Thanksgiving is left unresolved.

In any case, there are now multiple layers of deception in the story. Most likely, the police were never interested in Barris much; their true goal, all along, was to sacrifice Arctor in order to access New-Path’s secret facilities. But, even their agent at New-Path doesn’t know for certain that Mors ontologica will be found there, and even if he finds the proof, it won’t answer the most important questions. “He did not know. He had not been at New-Path long enough; their goals, the Executive Director had informed him once, would be revealed to him only after he had been a staff member another two years. Those goals, the Executive Director had said, had nothing to do with drug rehabilitation. No one but Donald, the Executive Director, knew where the funding for New-Path originated.” (II/1088) The implication is that it originates outside New-Path, and that mere money is not the reason why New-Path produces the drug.

New-Path is a cult, but that isn’t the worst of it. I wrote earlier that occultism is not only a set of spiritual views, but also a form of organization. A society run according to “occult” principles is strictly hierarchical, and may nominally be led by a “charismatic guru,” but adoration (or fear) of the guru is actually not its primary means of ensuring absolute submission. The hierarchy is used to shape and control each member’s understanding of the world — each new rank comes with its own set of teachings, and the more they contradict the teachings of the previous rank, the better. In a sense, the guru is just as powerless as any neophyte, because the esoteric “truth” revealed to him is just as meaningless, and will be just as easily abandoned if and when he is permitted to advance to the next level. There is always a next level; the hierarchy never ends. The Executive Director is not the leader of New-Path. He may know (or believe that he knows) where the money comes from, but whatever he has been told about the goals of the organization is just as false as whatever he tells his own staff. In this way, it becomes impossible to ever know the truth; there is no truth. All of the guru’s experience works only to make him certain of, and inured to, the total meaninglessness of existence.

Life becomes disoriented and isolated; it is inherently impossible to make sense of the calamities befalling the world, or the apparently senseless and self-defeating decisions made by its ostensible leaders. There is no enemy to rebel against, even hypothetically, as we wait for what is sure to be oblivion. Dick intuited this dual feeling that our extinction is absolutely inevitable, and yet somehow happens arbitrarily, for no reason, almost as a joke. Nuclear war, in his books, occurs in an instant, with no casus belli, no declaration of hostilities, and barely any real military action. It is not even clear who is fighting. In Do Androids Dream, “no one today remembered why the war had come about or who, if anyone, had won,” (I/444) or, it seems, who started it. In Dr. Bloodmoney, it happens right when Walt Dangerfield enters Earth orbit:

The voice in his earphones came on again. ‘Walter, we are under attack down here.’
What? he said. What did you say?
‘God save us,’ the voice said. It was a man already dead; the voice had no feeling, it was empty and then it was silent. Gone.
‘From whom?’ Walt Dangerfield said into his microphone. He thought of pickets and rioters, he thought of bricks, angry mobs. Attacked by nuts or something, is that it?
He struggled up, disconnected himself from the straps, saw through the port the world below. Clouds, and the ocean, the globe itself. Here and there on it matches were lit; he saw the puffs, the flares. Fright overcame him, as he sailed silently through space, looking down at the pinches of burning scattered about; he knew what they were.
It’s death, he thought. Death lighting up spots, burning up the world’s life, second by second.

(Dick, II/283-284)

A different character, attempting to drive away from “the great explosions from the south that had torn up the countryside and raised the sky of gray overhead,” (II/292) offers the only moral evaluation of this situation to be found anywhere in the novel: “He felt no animosity toward the enemy, now; he felt only a sense of shame, a sense of betrayal.” (II/294) In fact, no “enemy” is ever named. One could argue that, in the sixties and seventies, Dick’s readers knew who the adversary would be without having to be explicitly told, but in Do Androids Dream it appears that Soviet-American relations are relatively amicable, not what one would expect from recent belligerents in a nuclear war. This strange indeterminacy of the “enemy” (even in the characters’ thoughts) seems to suggest that there was none — the war was somehow pre-arranged, agreed upon in advance, but how and by whom, no one will ever know.


Dick was so horrified and disturbed by this prospect because it was more real to him than any other. For all his antipathy toward New-Path, he saw the world in the same way. His own mental constitution was fundamentally Platonist, and it was absolutely natural to him to interpret the universe as an infinite regress of secret truths. The absolute inevitability of New-Path, in this worldview, enervated any possible moral opposition to it. Dick approached religion with the same mentality — he was fascinated by sacred texts, but placed no value in anything they actually said, instead reading into them “secret” meanings that he assumed were inherently more enlightening. One of his biographers, attempting to analyze various influences on Dick in the early sixties, wrote the following:

The final touch was provided by the world-toppling theories of Gnosticism, a body of religious thought that has persisted through the centuries despite vehement persecution by the Catholic Church. Phil and Anne [Dick’s third wife. -FL] were taking confirmation classes at this time, and Phil grew fascinated with the doctrines of the Episcopal Mass… This fascination led him to read, quite independently, Jung’s essay on ‘Transformation Symbolism in the Mass.’ In it, Jung speculates that underlying the Christian view of Christ dying for our sins lies a Gnostic sense of…a divine being rightly punished for creating a flawed world. Jung concludes: ‘For reasons that can be readily understood, a satisfactory answer is not to be expected from orthodox Christianity.'”

Chapter 6 of Divine Invasions, by Lawrence Sutin

Presumably, Sutin was writing for the general public — people who liked some of Dick’s novels and wanted to learn more about him, but did not have much specific knowledge about religion, and had only heard of Carl Jung. The factual content of this paragraph is close to zero. Yet, the reader may very well retain the vague notion that Gnosticism was unfairly subjected to “vehement persecution” because, unlike “orthodox Christianity” (a term similarly left without any explanation), it gave a “satisfactory answer” to…well, presumably to something important. This kind of non-knowledge is all the more pernicious because it can stay in one’s mind long after one has forgotten where it originated.

But, whether Sutin was being malicious or just oblivious, he unwittingly provided insight into the thought process of Dick himself, who indeed would have read Jung with exactly this blind, uncritical acceptance. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of Jung’s arguments may be, one should first understand the source material to which Jung refers before one can be persuaded by him. But Dick never showed any interest in “orthodox Christianity,” though he constantly refers to Christianity in his religious writing. There is no indication, anywhere in the thousand-odd pages of this material that has been made public, that he ever read or heard of St. Abba Dorotheus, St. John Climacus, St. Isaac of Syria, or even the Areopagitic corpus (which latter he may have liked, as one can impose a neo-Platonic reading on it). Dick pored over Gnostic texts and often mentioned them in his final novels, and talked at length about his “visions” of a past life as a follower of Christ who was persecuted by the Romans, but the inescapable fact is that he had only ever made a cursory glance at Christianity — and a man with his intellectual curiosity would have to want to leave it at that. Jung told him that Christianity had nothing to offer, but a man with Dick’s contrarian tendencies wouldn’t have to accept Jung as an authority, and could just as easily decide to disbelieve Jung. But Dick wanted to believe him: it was important to him to feel that his experience was inexplicable by any existing philosophy, even an “esoteric” one such as Gnosticism. But that very desire is as old as history itself; Dick’s spiritual condition was well-understood by Christian thinkers thirteen centuries earlier.

Phil felt certain that there was an entity communicating with him throughout [February and March of 1974], and one of the names he gave it was VALIS, an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System. Valis bestowed information on Phil by means other than pink light. A series of tutelary dreams began in March, continued on nightly into the summer, and returned intermittently for the rest of his life. In a July 1974 letter Phil insisted that ‘the most eerie — and yet at the same time the most valid proof of what had happened, that indeed something real had happened — were my continuing experiences while asleep. Soon after the eight-hour show of dazzling graphics I began to have what I do not think are dreams, since they are not like any dreams I have ever had or even read about.‘ Phil believed that the information they contained had been subliminally encoded during the March 18 graphics display.
In one dream appeared ‘singed pages,’ as if ‘the book had gone through a fire but had been rescued.’ Phil wasn’t always sure that he wanted to take in what he felt he was being ‘forced‘ to read. Some of the dream texts pointed to ‘religious fanatics‘ conspiracies… Meanwhile, hypnagogic voices offered enigmatic oracles.”

Chapter 10 of Divine Invasions

The demons of vanity appear as prophets in dreams; being sly, they infer the future based on the circumstances and announce it to us, so that we, upon the fulfillment of these dreams, might be amazed and elevate ourselves, thinking that we had already come close to the gift of prophecy. The demon is often a prophet to those who believe him, but always a liar to those who despise him. Being a spirit, he sees what happens in the aerial expanse and, for example, finding that someone is dying, will foretell this to the credulous through a dream. Demons have no foreknowledge of the future, but we know that a doctor, too, can foretell death.
Many times, demons take on the appearance of Angels of light or of martyrs and make it seem in dreams that we are coming close to them, and when we wake, they fill us with gladness and pride. May this be a sign of deception to you, for Angels show us the torment and separation of the Last Judgment, and fill those who wake with fear and lamentation. If we submit to demons in our dreams, they will continue to abuse us in our waking hours. One who believes in dreams is not at all skillful, but one who has no belief in them has love of wisdom. Thus, believe only those dreams which announce to you judgment and torment, but if they should cast you into despair, then they, too, come from demons.”

St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent
Mt. Sinai, 7th century

The beatific vision. It assumes a degree and kind of ecstatic reality that nothing in my life has ever done before. Only God could compel such ecstasy.”

from Dick’s journals

When I was tempted, my enemy wished to deceive me by inducing within my soul a wordless happiness, tears and consolation; and in my childishness I believed that I had received a blessing, rather than vanity and deception.”

from The Ladder of Divine Ascent

The “ecstasy” that Dick insists upon is much like the high from Substance D: “the dying begins almost at once, and the happiness is a memory.” (II/1097) Even Sutin’s description, which is maximally sympathetic to any form of esotericism, is full of alarming words like “peril,” “guilt,” “threat.” Dick’s then-wife “confirms that for a week or more, Phil had been anticipating a letter that would ‘kill’ him,” and indeed, he subsequently receives an anonymous letter containing Xeroxed newspaper articles in which, “Certain words…were underlined, some in red and some in blue. All were what Phil called ‘die messages.’ Words like decline, decay, stagnation, decomposition.” Dick then has (emphasis in the original) “an acute sense of something taking control of him[.]” After that, “the radio began to abuse Phil with obscenities at night.” In his final novels (post-Scanner), cryptic visions eventually lead to bizarre entities that make veiled threats in flat, affectless voices. Having had a good laugh at his expense, these overtly demonic beings abandoned him:

I didn’t try to kill myself [in 1976] because somebody left me. I tried to kill myself because Elijah [sic] had left me. You have no idea how that feels. Hey listen, seriously. In all seriousness, what had happened was that spirit left me. I felt him leave and it was awful… I said there is nothing worse in the world, no punishment greater than to have known God and no longer to know him. Being taken over by Elijah who knew God and to have that go away. The voices stopped talking to me. I didn’t care if I lived or died.”

from a 1982 interview

There were many writers who created compelling fictional worlds, with impressive detail and imagination, but no writer has ever created a compelling fictional religion. Most attempts to do so are simple calques of existing religions: the Greek or Norse pantheon by another name, or a copy of Hinduism or Buddhism, or a parody of Christianity, or a combination of arbitrary elements from all of the above. But even a great writer, with original ideas, will inevitably demonstrate a startling moral and aesthetic poverty when it comes to this subject. Tolkien’s crypto-Christianity was cold and detached, unable to envision a God moved to suffer and die for His creation; fortunately, Tolkien had enough literary sense to keep this theology hidden in the background. In Do Androids Dream, Dick also imagines a new religion called “Mercerism,” whose adherents connect to “empathy boxes” in order to repeatedly experience martyrdom as Wilbur Mercer, “an elderly man wearing a dull, featureless robe” (I/448) who endlessly climbs the same mountain while “the killers throw the rocks… Still pursuing him.” (I/607) This religious experience, which places great value on all life, is the source of the reverence that the surviving humans feel toward animals. Virtually every person has embraced Mercerism to some degree, and “the American and Soviet police had publicly stated that Mercerism reduced crime by making citizens more concerned about the plight of their neighbors. Mankind needs more empathy, Titus Corning, the U.N. Secretary General, had declared several times.” (I/488)

But how exactly does Mercer teach these moral commandments? “You shall kill only the killers, Mercer had told them the year empathy boxes first appeared on Earth. And in Mercerism, as it evolved into a full theology, the concept of The Killers had grown insidiously. In Mercerism, an absolute evil plucked at the threadbare cloak of the tottering, ascending old man, but it was never clear who or what this evil presence was. A Mercerite sensed evil without understanding it. Put another way, a Mercerite was free to locate the nebulous presence of The Killers wherever he saw fit.” (I/456) There is an insurmountable distance between this philosophy and “Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Christianity contains a preemptive refutation of Mercer’s ethical concept. Dick is straining to come up with a radically compassionate philosophy, with the power to provide solace to a post-nuclear world, but after all, it is a regress compared to Christianity, with a shallower understanding of suffering. It gives its adherents the temporary comfort of shared hardship, but no spiritual prospect beyond that; they are merely permitted to plod into nonexistence together.

The anonymous character of evil in Mercerism is also troubling, especially since its adherents have been told to “kill only the killers” — that is, they are asked to actively combat evil, yet have no reliable way to identify the adversary. But “evil” in Mercerism is personified, in the form of “The Killers.” It is thus not simply some vague state of disharmony, but a conscious will, which can actively work to conceal itself, or to masquerade as something else. Or perhaps it could surreptitiously impose itself on the Mercerite, deceiving the “senses” with which he perceives its “nebulous presence,” and compelling him to accept its suggestions as his own thoughts. The Mercerite is not given any guidance for avoiding these perils, and in fact may not even know that such things could happen. In Christianity, it is precisely because evil has conscious will that Christians must learn not to trust their “senses” and emotions.

One of the enlightened fathers told me what he saw. He said: ‘When I sat in the gathering of the brothers, the demon of vanity and the demon of pride came and sat next to me, one on each side; and the first of them prodded me with his vain hand, urging me to tell some story about a vision I had, or a feat that I had accomplished in the desert. But as soon as I had cut him off, saying: “let them be driven backward and put to shame that wish me evil,” then at once the other one to my left spoke into my ear: “aha, aha,” you have done this, and now you have become great, having defeated my most shameless mother.’

from The Ladder of Divine Ascent

Kierkegaard once quoted the 18th-century German thinker Lessing as having said that, “If God held all truth shut in his right hand, and in his left nothing but the ever-restless search after truth, although with the condition of for ever and ever erring, and should say to me, ‘Choose!’ I should bow humbly to his left hand and say, ‘Father, give! pure truth is for Thee alone!’” To a masonic ecumenist such as Lessing, this outwardly respectful deism was a way of keeping up appearances. In Kierkegaard’s case, the situation is less clear-cut, and perhaps this statement did indeed reflect how he saw the world. The final chapter of Either/Or is ostensibly written from the point of view of a parish priest sermonizing that “against God we are always in the wrong,” yet subverts this message by coyly asking, “Before we part, one more question, my hearer: did you wish, could you wish, that it were otherwise? Could you wish that you were in the right… I ask you simply, could you wish that it were otherwise?” Precisely for this reason, religion is the last subject on which one should look to Kierkegaard. One might read him for intellectual stimulation, for his literary style, for his opinions on aesthetics, or for other reasons, but he is powerless to provide any meaningful religious guidance because, quite simply, he does not believe in God. Nietzsche’s nihilism is nothing more than the logical next step from Kierkegaard’s “Christianity” — if Nietzsche had been born in 1813, and Kierkegaard in 1844, then Nietzsche would have been the one to write about the “knight of faith,” and Kierkegaard, the “superman.” It would have required no effort for Kierkegaard to turn, in a single instant, against everything he had previously tried to defend (arguably he did just that), because if “the ever-restless search for truth” is more valuable than the truth, then the truth itself has no value at all.

And, if you also see some sort of positive content in “the ever-restless search after truth,” the best advice I can give you, for your own sake, is to not give it a religious dimension. Spiritual decisions have consequences; one might say that spiritual misuse, like drug misuse, is also a decision. At least learn that much from Dick. Recalling the height of his “visionary” period, his ex-wife noted, “I saw no personality change in Phil. If anything, he was more of what he had been before the experience. It did hold our relationship together, but it also tore us apart, in the end.” After she left, however, Dick’s identity continued to degrade, and his next love interest found that “Whoever was with him at this time would have to be a full-time…I was going to say nursemaid — but companion, housekeeper. And not expect the same from him. A lot of it was housekeeping, nursing care — Phil would really go into states of collapse where he would be nonfunctional.” But Dick’s last years were not marked by any one particularly catastrophic event; instead, he settled into a rut of gradual decay. What Sutin calls his “zest for speculation” became a habit. He no longer expected it to lead to enlightenment, he just had nothing else to do.

For a guy who had just been granted a theophany, Phil had a downright dismal Christmas. He was blue because it seemed there was no one to talk with about the ideas that mattered to him…Phil acknowledged that his talk sometimes sounded like ‘religious nonsense & occult nonsense‘ — but somewhere in it all was the truth. And he would never find it. God Himself [sic] had assured him of that. So come Christmas Eve 1980 he was alone — by choice — watching the Pope’s Midnight Mass on TV and seeing no sign of Christ in the ritual display.”

Chapter 12 of Divine Invasions

One year later, he died of heart failure after multiple strokes, at 53. His neighbors found him lying on the floor. But as a writer, he was finished long before then, with A Scanner Darkly as his best and last accomplishment. The “visions” had cut off all possibility of meaningful communication, whether with family or with readers.

After all, Dick did not value “truth” either. But we do not come to him for wisdom. The one religious experience that he captured in his work is not enlightenment, but damnation. The damned in Do Androids Dream, as we found earlier, are the androids, doomed to hate themselves and the world, unable to use their “superior” abilities for any constructive purpose. And yet…it is hard to hold them responsible for it. They are artificial life-forms, created for evil purposes, and it is not clear whether their programming ever gave them the capacity for any other feeling. Despite their cruelty, one cannot help sympathizing with them to some degree, as Deckard does.

But in Scanner, every character is damned. And the author himself states in the afterword that their damnation was their own work. Drug abuse was one of their sins, so to speak, but not the only one. In fact, Arctor comes closest to achieving some form of forgiveness, if only through his disproportionate suffering, what Dick calls being “punished entirely too much” (II/1097). On the other hand, the police operative who waits for Arctor at the New-Path facility lives in the same decayed world as the drug addicts, and his mission is both immoral (because it knowingly led Arctor down this path) and senseless (because, even if the police obtain proof that New-Path is producing Substance D, there is absolutely nothing that they will be able to accomplish). A fellow agent viscerally feels the weight of sin: “So we have this…bad karma on us. I feel it on my back. Like a corpse. I’m carrying a corpse — Bob Arctor’s corpse. Even while he’s technically alive.” (II/1080) Actually it is even more explicit — just before disappearing from the novel, she says, “I’m going to hell.” (II/1082) Life itself, it seems, has been somehow defiled; not only New-Path, not only the police, but everyone is culpable. Humanity has failed by choice. Ernie Luckman chooses to continue to live in the same house with Barris, though it is absolutely clear that this is guaranteed to lead to a wretched death (and did, according to Dick’s afterword) after the total loss of human form. “‘God! I soiled myself!’ Unsteadily…Luckman managed to get himself to his feet and stood rocking back and forth dizzily, holding on to the wall for support. ‘I’m really getting degenerate,’ he muttered in disgust… He headed toward the sink to wash himself, his steps uncertain.” (II/982-983) Charles Freck literally sends himself to hell through a botched suicide attempt, in a terrifying and mordantly funny passage, which again appropriates the language and imagery of science fiction in the service of realism, and in the process makes its demonic qualities apparent. I cannot resist quoting it almost in full; it contains some of the best writing in the English language, and even the film adaptation could only convey its full effect by simply reading it in voiceover. If you have read Scanner, you must have been expecting it to come up sooner or later:

Charles Freck, becoming progressively more and more depressed by what was happening to everybody he knew, decided finally to off himself. There was no problem, in the circles where he hung out, in putting an end to yourself: you just bought into a large quantity of reds and took them with some cheap wine, late at night, with the phone off the hook so nobody would interrupt you.
He spent several days deciding on the artifacts. Much longer than he had spent deciding to kill himself, and approximately the same time required to get that many reds. He would be found lying on his back, on his bed, with a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (which would prove he had been a misunderstood superman rejected by the masses and so, in a sense, murdered by their scorn) and an unfinished letter to Exxon protesting the cancellation of his credit card. That way he would indict the system and achieve something by his death, over and above what the death itself achieved.
However, he had been burned. The capsules were not barbiturates, as represented. They were some kind of kinky psychedelics, of a type he had never dropped before, probably a mixture, and new on the market. Instead of quietly suffocating, Charles Freck began to hallucinate. Well, he thought philosophically, this is the story of my life. Always ripped off. He had to face the fact — considering how many of the capsules he had swallowed — that he was in for some trip.
The next thing he knew, a creature from between dimensions was standing beside his bed looking down at him disapprovingly.
The creature had many eyes, all over it, ultra-modern expensive-looking clothing, and rose up eight feet high. Also, it carried an enormous scroll.
‘You’re going to read me my sins,’ Charles Freck said.
The creature nodded and unsealed the scroll.
Freck said, lying helpless on his bed, ‘And it’s going to take a hundred thousand hours.’
Fixing its many compound eyes on him, the creature from between dimensions said, ‘We are no longer in the mundane universe. Lower-plane categories of material existence such as ‘space’ and ‘time’ no longer apply to you. You have been elevated to the transcendent realm. Your sins will be read to you ceaselessly, in shifts, throughout eternity. The list will never end.’
Charles Freck thought, At least I got a good wine.”

(Dick, II/1020-1022)

eyesFrom the film.

There are many layers of tragic irony in this situation. On one hand, no one deserves to die in this way, and Freck never did anything particularly bad in the novel (rather, he is a hapless comic foil). On the other, there is no doubt — he himself even realizes — that this is the absolute essence, the most genuine expression, of who he is. At the same time, whether Dick understood it or not, the entire scene is also the perfect metaphor for all of his own “truth-seeking.” To “indict the system and achieve something” (or for some other reason, perhaps to “play,” as in the afterword), he procured enough “reds” — Gnosticism, Manicheanism, Jungianism, home-grown occultists such as “Bishop” James Pike — to fill a pharmacy, only to be “burned” by malevolent visions that consumed all of his literary gifts, leaving a hollow shell that took less than a decade to rot away. I might also note that, unbeknownst to Dick, Freck’s meeting with the demon — let’s call things by their proper names — parallels the Orthodox teaching of the “aerial toll-houses,” in which demons accuse the newly departed in more or less this manner, with the sole difference being that Freck has no guardian Angel to defend him.

And yet…one does not want to judge Freck, Luckman, Arctor, or Dick, any more than the androids. First, they have all been “punished” already, far more than most readers can imagine. Second, humanity’s failure is so total in the world of Scanner that at some point one begins to feel and understand one’s own complicity in it. At one point, Luckman and Arctor have the following intoxicated exchange:

‘Bob, you know something…’ Luckman said at last. ‘I used to be the same age as everyone else.’
‘I think so was I,’ Arctor said.
‘I don’t know what did it.’
‘Sure, Luckman,’ Arctor said, ‘you know what did it to all of us.’

(Dick, II/1027)

What they are saying is meaningless, but behind the words is the deeply felt understanding that it is over for them. Any of us, reading this now, living in the cultural wasteland that Scanner had merely imagined, could easily say these words in exactly the same sense. On one hand, everyone knows “what did it to all of us.” But, at the same time, none of us knows anything. There is no reliable information about what is happening to us, and if there was, we would understand it about as well as Jim Barris understands the physics of a silencer. We can’t even think of words with which our perceptions could be precisely expressed — at best it sounds like, “I used to be the same age as everyone else.” But nonetheless, we understand very well that the boundaries of the world are constricting, implacably, in such a way as to force us out of existence. There is no shortage of reasons. Solely by living, we contribute to oppression and harm the environment. We produce too much carbon dioxide, if not by driving, then by breathing. We get in the way of the economy, which can grow perfectly well without any human beings at all. We have the temerity to have children, who will then use even more resources that could instead be given to the poor, or to the rich, it’s all the same. All we do is cause problems for the smooth operation of the world by sophisticated experts (who, however, are just as disposable as we are). Now, perhaps these problems are not unsolvable: we could be reeducated with proper thinking; we could be given something to do in some sort of virtual “gamified” economy; we could be pacified with personalized entertainment. But why spend good money on all of that when it would be so much simpler if we weren’t there at all? In centuries past, various writers and thinkers remarked on the absurdity of life, but from our vantage point, all of that talk really came from absolute security; none of these people ever imagined finding themselves required to continually present justification for their own existence, as a precondition for its continuation. Even in Orwell’s horror-show, human life still has some inherent value at least as an object of state violence — the ruling elite, according to him, always needs a weak opponent that can be broken. But, in Scanner, Dick showed us an even more inhuman world where people are not needed even for that. They are simply discarded, left to slip out of reality, with a nudge from New-Path if the process takes too long.

That fate, it seems, is now ours. But, honestly…what can we argue in our defense? Soseki, in 1906, chafed against the restrictions that the state imposed on individuality, and wondered why then it had taken such great pains to develop it in the first place. Well, we’re certainly on our own now, but Scanner shows that civilization crumbles from neglect; with the grand cultural project gone, we do not become “freer,” but instead end up in the house with Arctor and Luckman, looking for a way to sedate the voice of individuality into blank numbness. People cannot argue the value of human life when humanity is too demanding for them. We can still beg God to save us, but even our pleas will be duplicitous, half-hearted, for fear that He might then ask something of us in return. Perhaps it remains to hope that He will save us anyway, solely out of compassion — that the sight of us, “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked,” will be too piteous for Him to bear.

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