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.  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).  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, 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

There is something to glean from someone 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 or happiness: people are helpless against the machine of worldly temptations.  The general struggle of Darkly’s society is overshadowed by the subjectivism of Dick’s characters, and they are at a loss for a guiding light due to the fact that they are not honest with themselves: nobody wins in the fight against power while completely immersed in the full pull of that power.  Nobody in Dick’s 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, and disbelief becomes rampant as everyone sinks in to a lack of a higher, universal, guiding truth.  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.  Causalities 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 mundane is so powerfully sweet, they cannot resist it and pull themselves up by their bootstraps and march 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.”  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 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. Arctor splits from his higher cause, what compells him to aspire upstream and to meet greater demands.  Choosing a life divorced of demands as an adult is choosing to remain infantile or primitive; conversely, choosing to meet greater and greater demands is to choose living or persistence in development as a human being.  One thing is to persist in developing through meeting the demands of living, whether you like it or not; another thing is to 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.  The Gnostic aspires to be not controlled by anything outside himself. Arctor has done this.  Arctor, though still desiring excitement and companionship, desires less of what brings a growing desire.  There is good in companionship, and there is good in excitement, but to what avail?  Opposition to power and uniformity is good too, but at what cost?  Dropping out on Substance D cost Arctor his identity completely.  He gave all his internal desire to the drug. It stole the possibility of gnosis. He became completely lost, even to himself using Slow Death, had completely lost his identity to himself 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.”  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 a positive purpose, 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 it all, 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. She thought, I just hope one day the shower of brightly colored sparks will return, and this time we can all see it. The narrow doorway where there’s peace on the far side. A statue, the sea, and what looks like moonlight. And nothing stirring, nothing to break the calm.

A long, long time ago, she thought. Before the curse and everything and everyone became this way. The Golden Age, she thought, when wisdom and justice were the same. Before it all shattered into cutting fragments. Into broken bits that don’t fit, that can’t be put back together, hard as we try.

People with a growing desire and with an initial intention on goodness or happiness, are capable of creating a truth of reality beyond the mundane, a pure revelation of a personal truth, or a universal truth connected to the possibility of continual goodness or happiness, but it breaks the moment we become removed from the continuity of how our subjective truth is revealed in the world.  Knowing fleeting happiness is not enough, for justice or judgment requires that inner truth be revealed and lived or else injustice comes crashing down.  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 and pour out one’s inner truth from the depths of what we know to be right.  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 gave up 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 good.  He, paradoxically, 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.  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.  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.  Quite 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 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 sharper life.  Somewhere in our lives we have a gauge that tells us good from bad.  It is an internal guide to achieving our potential, and people have clarity of this in varying degrees.  Arctor, becomes unable to clearly discern for himself the colors of his split life.  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 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 to Substance D by his own volition, though, even though both sides of his world needed him to take 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.  Arctor is not a victim of a cruel world.  Arctor is a man who lost his desire to fight to improve.  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 gnosis, real and personal truth, is fleeting.  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, in the end, is a practice in unification.  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 her contact with Arctor, 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.

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


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