A Reading of A Scanner Darkly: Pulling Out Our Truth

This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did…  If there was any “sin,” it was that these people wanted to keep on having a good time forever…

Phillip K. Dick

How many people do you know who have been punished gravely for desiring, “to keep on having a good time forever?”  Phillip K. Dick did not write “addiction.”  He wrote that his friends wanted to continue to party, have a good time, forever, innocently, without the consideration of potential death.  Dick stated, “I am basically analytical, not creative; my writing is simply a creative way of handling analysis,” and he carried a Gnostic philosophy (Simon Critchley Blog), within which strength lies in the refutation of physicality, which is an illusion compared to the reality of truth and revelation.  A Gnostic does not believe that we are bad, but that the world is bad.  A Gnostic can achieve gnosis—a cleaving to the One God, knowledge, revelation—through the subversion of the demiurge, a false god who created the physical universe.  Through a communion of a practitioner and his soul can gnosis happen.  To a Gnostic, the world is a distraction from the essence of true reality, which is the reality of pure knowledge, and ones, people or, say, modern day corporations or government, who extract extreme power from the mundane, raw, and physical are bodies of power which a Gnostic actively divorces themselves from.  The Gnostic shies from controlling powers, including all the alluring temptations of materialism, in order to tap a realm of truth beyond the influence of material existence.  Dick took the lens of Gnosticism to analyze his experience of life creatively in the story of his novel, A Scanner Darkly.  He finds that his friends were swallowed by the demiurge as casualties, yet some survived and quest for truth. 

There is something to glean from Dick, who processed an intense, drug induced, revelation, who believed with every fabric of his being that, “his fiction writing [was] the creative attempt to describe what he discerned as the true reality,” (Critchley).  Although Dick’s characters live in a world where vice is only one step away and what they like is vice, they ought to follow their own best advice to actively resist the negative temptation of the all powerful high.  The world of A Scanner Darkly, in turn Dick’s world, is at a loss to gain because of the belief that their must be casualties along the way to total peace, happiness, and fulfillment: people are helpless against the machine of worldly temptations.  The struggle within Darkly’s society is overshadowed by the subjectivism of Dick’s druggie characters, and they sink due to the fact that they are not honest with themselves, and they lose in their fight against power while completely immersed and controlled by the same power.  Nobody in Dick’s drug world lives in a greater capacity of personal truth because nobody clings to the desire for real truth beyond what they feel when they feel good before the exhaust of bad, the other side of the coin, things they can see happening that could happen to them, and disbelief becomes rampant as everyone sinks in to a lack of a higher, universal, guiding truth from within, as they are distracted by their mundane schemes and conspiracies under a cloudy spell.  Everyone gives power to the Gnostic demiurge instead of detaching from it because nobody in undercover agent Bob Arctor’s circle is clean of being involved with the high, the material fix.  They are immersed in the materialism of addiction, blind because the only reality they know is steeped in the high.  Casualities become the norm because the cause of chaos, the demiurge (in the story, New Path), is concealed and inaccessible except to those who have tasted Slow Death, a drug of choice for many in the novel.  Unfortunately for the players in Dick’s story, the pull of the drug called Death, temptation, and contemplation of the spinning chaos is so powerfully sweet, they cannot resist it and pull themselves up by their bootstraps and march in line in the direction of clarity and lasting happiness divorced from materialism.

Bob Arctor is Dick’s guinea pig in the world of Darkly.  He is an undercover police agent who reports, neatly, to his superior, cloaked and anonymous, in the universe’s fictitious “scramble suit,” which projects a random holographic human image instead of himself.  Arctor, who gave up his identity, reports as “Frank” in a scramble suit to “Hank,” his superior, who, also, wears a scramble suit.  In his previous life, Arctor had a wife and two daughters who “he wanted to split” from.  He desired a life lacking the demands of straight, conventional society, “a new and somber life.”  Demand, the world does, and somber, a life of demands is not.  From the moment of birth, the demands of life cause discomfort, yet, by way of meeting life’s demands, one is able to learn and grow as a person. Arctor splits from his higher cause, that which compells him to aspire and to meet greater demands, his family.  Choosing a life divorced of demands as an escape as an adult is choosing to remain infantile or primitive and blind to the demiurge because we must dig within ourselves, our truth, to meet greater demands; choosing to meet greater and greater demands is to choose living or persistence in development as a human being, to persist in developing through meeting the demands of living, whether you like it or not.  Some excel, and some do not.  Some say I do not choose to meet the demands of living because I did not choose that I require it, which is a case of diminished desire for revelation of self.  The Gnostic aspires to be not controlled by anything outside himself, but to grow in touch with the soul a gnostic ignores physical illusion and seeks answers from within their own soul.  They do not seek answers in the mundane.  Arctor, though still desiring excitement and companionship, desires less of what brings a growing desire to reveal more of his soul.  Dropping out on Substance D cost Arctor his identity, his soul, completely.  He gave all his internal desire for truth to the drug.  It stole the possibility of gnosis.  He became completely lost, even to himself using Slow Death in a scary moment: “’I’m who?’ he said, staring at Hank the scramble suit facing him. ‘I’m Bob Arctor?’ He could not believe it. It made no sense to him. It did not fit anything he had done or thought; it was grotesque.”  He had no more internal dialog with his soul.  The cost of his desire was, essentially, death.  Though, not required to, Arctor dies in the line of duty, a line of duty which, initially was for, he thinks, a positive purpose, though selfish, the purpose of achieving his happiness, and, in the end, his closest contact, who, unbeknownst to him, is another undercover agent, Donna, who restrains herself to smoking only a hash pipe, questions the meaning of casualty:

It requires the greatest kind of wisdom, she thought, to know when to apply injustice. How can justice fall victim, ever, to what is right? How can this happen? She thought, Because there is a curse on this world, and all this proves it; this is the proof right here. Somewhere, at the deepest level possible, the mechanism, the construction of things, fell apart, and up from what remained swam the need to do all the various sort of unclear wrongs the wisest choice has made us act out. It must have started thousands of years ago. By now it’s infiltrated into the nature of everything. And, she thought, into every one of us. We can’t turn around or open our mouth and speak, decide at all, without doing it. I don’t even care how it got started, when or why.

People with a growing desire to unify with their soul in gnosis by refuting any value of material are capable of creating a truth of reality beyond the mundane, from within, a pure revelation of a personal truth, a universal truth.  Physicality cannot control a gnostic.  A gnostic breaks the moment they sever the continuity of how their subjective truth is revealed in the world.  Knowing fleeting, self serving, happiness is not enough to continue in revelation.  The goal of life is to express our innermost desire, which is to be happy, in a way that our inner goodness matches the world in which we live.  The power we give the things that give us a good feeling can, eventually, completely envelop and control us if they are not met with a level of our own regulation, and, in a stagnant or falling life situation, the only way to rise is to plug the drain, resist, and pour out one’s inner truth from the depths of what we know to be right and beneficial.  A resistance to our banes brings continuity to the whole of our lives.  Arctor and Donna both knew, being undercover agents without their own identities, that the mighty and powerful Substance D, who’s fingers comb every corner of Darkly’s universe and is the physical embodiment of the demiurge in the novel, could be eliminated only through sacrifice.  They sacrificed their identities from the start.  Arctor also sacrificed his authenticity to the demiurge by losing his self-identity, totally, to Substance D against his better knowledge.  He lost his identity and life for the cause of communal good.  He desired good and died for it.  Wisdom, his desire for happiness and goodness, meted out injustice, his death due to overindulgence in the drug Death, but, as Donna wished for in retrospect, maybe Wisdom and injustice actually were one and the same in the end, for, in the end, the police are very close to bringing down New Path.  The New Path drug treatment center, which in this universe of Darkly, exerts control for being the creator of Substance D itself, is brought down only by the chance an undercover agent is able to infiltrate the “Death” farms, which required the casualty of Bob Arctor.  Though his full mental capacity is irreversibly ruined, he is still a hero for penetrating the core of the demiurge.  The initial wisdom which urged him to become an undercover drug agent was still present in the successful completion of his mission, the “somber life.”  Arctor tasted Death, and got to its root source in order to remove its power in the world.  Where is the anti-venom found?  In the venom itself!

Is casualty required for a greater, universal truth to be achieved?  In the vein of thought in which the novel’s characters all are trying to come up with a real, subjective truth, there is no connection to the larger issue of universal truth, something everyone can agree on as being good.  All of the characters have their own and separate idea of what the reality of connection to truth is.  For Barris, it is decoding a conspiracy theory.  For Luckman, it is the buzz, fantasy, and camaraderie.  For Donna, it is the undercover mission.  For Arctor, it is an escape from necessity, supporting his family.  All of these varying degrees of desire, in the world of the novel, serve a purpose that is limited by being so separated from each other.  Possibly the only, real desire present in the novel is the desire for happiness, but it is actually drowned out by the more powerful and artificial buzz, the buzz of drug laden camaraderie and a lack of drive to improve or construct together.  Most people in this fictional world and our present day have some way we can pacify our desire for happiness.  This way of pacification, whether as overt as drug addiction or as subtle as needing approval,  winds up dulling a more vital life.  Somewhere in ourselves we have a gauge that tells us good from bad.  In the novel, nobody shares the same good or bad viewpoint.  Arctor, becomes unable to clearly discern for himself the colors of his split life.  He has no discernment between what is good or bad.  In one life he has no identity in order to remain protected, and in his other life he is losing his identity to drugs.  He’s supposed to be able to see the good in what he does…  He hopes for clarity:

“What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo-scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me – into us – clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.”

His discernment is the discernment of the scanner, for he is both the watcher and the watched.  He is “Frank,” and his orders from “Hank”  are to observe himself, Bob Arctor.  In his lapse of clarity, he is, obviously, cursed, and the scanners see darkly, for Arctor is losing the light of his life.  There is no option.  He sunk and became a casualty for the greater good.  Arctor’s consciousness disappeared.  His desire withered and disappeared.  He lost his life, first by quitting his commitment to his family and second by using Substance D, by his own volition.  Both sides of the scanner needed him to use the drug. Dick asks his readers to consider that we actually have little power of control over our lives.  Like Arctor, we need to fight to be clear with our intentions and about the work necessary to attain control over our lives before we lose our chance.  Arctor is not a victim of a cruel world.  Arctor is a man who lost his desire to fight for improvement.  Arctor gave up when he divorced his wife and kids.  He settled for less and began to hug chaos.

To Donna, his nearest savior, the disturbing reality of casualty is cause to question the fabric of what is right, of what is good.  She begins to reason about her concept of truth and the reason she attempts undercover work, and by the end of the story she moves on, but we, as readers, do not follow her.  We do not get to see her further attempts to grasp at the revelation of truth.  Clarity is difficult to come by in Dick’s work because nobody is capable of containing, with a firm grip, the reasons why everyone’s notion of gnosis, real and personal truth, is fleeting, a fix without producing a benefit beyond the presence of it, the demiurge.  Nobody is unified in resistance to a power, and trust is scarce because the force of good, the attempt to bring down New Path, is met with its own challenges, which erode the initial, good intentions of everyone by creating causalities, and nobody is willing to face facts that it is a personal choice to use drugs.  All of the players in the story struggle with identity.  Who’s who–even–who am I?

In the novel, Dick tells the story of the futility of trying to achieve lasting truth, goodness, and happiness.  Donna grapples with the cause for casualty in the end, and Arctor, in the end, admitted in to New Path, now known as “Bruce,” becomes the best hope for victory against New Path, while, also, having become one of its victims.  He did find excitement and happiness for a while with all of his contacts; he also found that he should have followed his own, best advice, the scare of losing himself to drugs:

Item. What an undercover narcotics agent fears most is not that he will be shot or beaten up but that he will be slipped a great hit of some psychedelic that will roll an endless horror feature film in his head for the remainder of his life, or that he will be shot up with a mex hit, half heroin and half Substance D, or both of the above plus a poison such as strychnine, which will nearly kill him but not completely, so that the above can occur: lifelong addiction, lifelong horror film. He will sink into a needle-and-a-spoon existence, or bounce off the walls in a psychiatric hospital or, worst of all, a federal clinic. He will try to shake the aphids off him day and night or puzzle forever over why he cannot any longer wax a floor. And all this will occur deliberately. Someone figured out what he was doing and then got him. And they got him this way. The worst way of all: with the stuff they sell that he was after them for selling.

Which, Bob Arctor considered as he cautiously drove home, meant that both the dealers and the narks knew what the street drugs did to people. On that they agreed.

Dick must have wrestled with the idea that his friends were casualties or victims of a cruel world.  Opposition to the man, corporations, government, and our own best advice or the good intended advice of others, only leads me to believe that resistance should be chosen by the difficulty of any self imposed check.  People must unify with their soul’s purpose, their soul’s truth, and, also, share that with their friends, enemies, and lovers.  Maybe the most real thing in the novel are Arctor’s feelings for Donna, for they were clear, and Donna, who cleaved closest to her truth to the end, survived, and accomplished her mission.  By the end of the novel she begins the search for an even deeper truth, and then she is gone.  Does she continue in her mission against New Path or another controlling power as an undercover agent, or does she, maybe, leave the experience behind and see that her inner truth is better expressed in another way of living?  I believe that what we can glean from Dick’s analysis is that, more important than personal gratification, is the connection that we have to our family, friends, and communities and how we reveal our gnosis, our soul or truth, to affect positive change for all through it.  The downfall of Darkly’s cast is that they are all too separated from each other’s realities.  Better would be for them to attempt living by becoming a force aimed at revealing their internal goodness for the sake of the whole in a way of earning happiness by discovering their place in the world, through gnosis or self-discovery, by fostering a deeper connection with others rather than expecting lasting happiness by means of a pill or overthrow.  The pull of Death, the desire to gain through materialism, is in a tug-o-war battle with the freedom of self-discovery.  The revelation of our desire for happiness must be pulled out of our hearts by giving no power of control over ourselves to anyone or anything outside of our pure desire.  The extension of our purity out to our community requires an unfaltering way of living.  However uncomfortable it is, it is our goal.  It is the most difficult challenge. 

Dick, Philip K., Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s, The Library of America, 2008.

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