I’m finding it difficult to leave A Scanner Darkly by Phillip K. Dick behind after finishing my blog about it. I’ve been immersed in it for over a week, and I worked really hard on my last post. I’m finalizing my thoughts on the story and how it pertains to my own ideas on life…
I think that I share in Bob Arctor’s conflict. In certain areas of life, we become so steeped in negativity that we lose our ability to climb out of it. Arctor as “Frank” slowly lost his ability to differentiate between good and bad. Since he saw darkly, the scanner saw darkly. In some way, we need to be able to constantly look at our lives through a fresh, clear lens, to be able to hit our reset buttons, or be able to listen to and seek the counsel of someone who loves us and can see the big picture and what we need to do in our lives to progress. Even if our situation is overwhelmingly good, is it good to rest or ever be satisfied? Or, is it better to continue to climb even higher, to find a way to extend ourselves even more?
Poor Arctor didn’t really have anyone to trust, anyone who could be his rock. He sunk in to a group in which nobody could see a path to truth. Even good people, surrounded by vice, will fall eventually. I’m very thankful to have some relationships with people who care very much to not let me fall. I do have problems, but my family and friends and teachers don’t let me become too comfortable the way I am.
It’s good to feel good, but, I believe, that there is always a higher place to climb to. I believe that we all need a dream to chase and people–teachers, family, friends, lovers–who can help us not fall in to being too satisfied where we are. Nobody really “makes it” in our world unless everyone does, IMHO. Either we view life as a constant test to achieve more, to achieve a better version of ourselves, or life just happens to us as if we are victims or just here and gone. Having dreams is so important. They are our hope, our path in to the “Light.” Hopefully more of us wake up to chase more good to have in our lives and the lives around us. Gaining with an attitude that we are making our lives and the lives of others better is a consciousness that can help pull our innermost desire for happiness out. I believe that the characters in A Scanner Darkly were missing this consciousness, the consciousness that, whatever good we desire, we must take a piece of it and share it, albeit, in Dick’s fictitious world, the story plays out better the way it is told.
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.
Reading H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” once (really twice) again I gain much of the sense that goes in to telling a gripping tale. Only an 8 page story, it is a testament to the power of words and how that which is not said may be the most important participant in the making of a story. There isn’t much at all in the way of plot in “The Music of Erich Zann,” but that doesn’t matter to the reader of weird fiction. Though the components of this weird fiction are minuscule, the impression it makes after reading it can not be utterly discounted. Lovecraft, and his predecessor in weird fiction, E. A. Poe, craft stories that do more than tell a tale: they induce great imagination and excitement. The mystery aspect of Lovecraft’s tales plays a most important role in their importance as great works of fiction. Lovecraft’s readers read for the thrill of discovery and discover much about their desires. His stories hook us at the point of our earliest, childhood craving of curiosity. I find his stories so wonderful in that respect. They trick me to desire the fictional knowledge that they hide until completed.
“Bigger is better” is a theme in life that grabs hold of us when we are very young children: “bigger is better” and “who’s got the biggest.” Erich Zann, the enigmatic violinist in this story, supposedly is the big kahuna, creating bewitching, sublime notes in his attic apartment in a home atop a great hill only reached on foot. As the reader, I only want to find out why this guy is so special, and, after 8 pages of building desire, I’m left thrilled and satisfies at the read. Lovecraft creates a total enigma out of the entire story from its beginning, and our aspect is given in the first person perspective. The tale’s teller can’t recall the location of the tall house on the hill on the street of Rue d’Auseil, only that the locale is outside the city proper, across a bridge by warehouses, whose dark river is always shadowy and smelled like no other putrid stench the teller has ever encountered. The setting of the story is unique, dark, secluded, and lost forever, reminding me of Dracula’s castle and my first imagination of a really good story location. All of the ingredients of Erich Zann build increasing desire to find out a secret, right down to its narrator, who we don’t know and don’t really care to know. Lovecraft’s worlds are the places out of sight and out of mind. This is storytelling in essence: creating and fulfilling a reader’s desire to find out the unknown. In Erich Zann, we don’t know who these players are, we don’t know where we are, but we only want to know more about the magic of Erich Zann’s music, and this isn’t about plot, for, if plot was the main game of the story, it would necessitate more ink. The plot is to find out about the mystery of Zann’s music, just simply that, and this bare bones essence of the story makes it a special case in the study of storytelling. I see that the main purpose of the story is to produce curiosity in its readers, to excite readers to learn a secret–powerful in this short story.
The main components of this Lovecraft tale can be counted on one hand: a dark and secluded apartment, an observer, and Erich Zann’s music. Mystery itself is an active, main component as well, for our only desire in reading this story is to learn the secret of Erich Zann. Yes, the language of Lovecraft is very pleasing, but further, his simple creation of desire in the hearts and minds of his readers is second to none (in my opinion). We want our fix as readers, and Lovecraft does his best to tease out the story to its end. All of his work that I’ve read induces me to muse about mystery itself, requiring me to ask, “what is out there.” I feel that mystery, that which is not said, is very crucial in the making of a story, especially a short story, and is something we should keep in mind at all times as writers. Start with first person perspective, insert an interesting mystery, and create conflicts along the way towards getting to the center of the mystery, and you have something to work with in writing a story. If you can give reader’s enough detail to taste and can create a bit of knowledge that readers need to find out by its end, then you’re on your way to writing a good story. Lovecraft’s contribution to my understanding of the craft of tale telling is most important: create knowledge readers must have in reading your tales and tease the information out of concealment. The fictional knowledge that you create in storytelling is indispensable in keeping readers hooked, and, as important as the information you give readers is the information that you conceal and reveal slowly. Cheers! I hope you enjoy reading this story and more of H. P. Lovecraft! Any thoughts?
My copy of the story comes from The Library of America’s edition: Lovecraft: Tales.
Reading lost its value to me for more than a few years, truly a bummer considering my English degree and desire to write for a living. I did read and write sparsely, though, at a time prior, I read voraciously. I completed a couple of books in a few years since then, but I quit reading twice as many books also. Reading never lost its wonderment, but I could rarely complete anything I began, and that was a real bummer. The idea of reading itself was more pleasurable than the doing. The same thing has been going on in writing: incomplete work and fantasizing. I, as objectively as possible, attribute it to depression. Honestly, my depression is connected to my lacking career and debt. These two causes, of which I accept responsibility, have been sucking the life out of me. They are behind me, now, for the most part, so, I say, “welcome back, my old friends, reading and writing!”
I have finished a few books in the past couple of weeks. They are: Gardens of the Moon by Stephen Erikson, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Phillip K. Dick, and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Of course, Steinbeck takes the cake.
The Grapes of Wrath is very consequential to me in our time. I am really glad to have read it in this in-between phase I am living in right now. Unlike in the story, I am taken care of and not starving, thanks to my family, but the hard-times theme of the novel really hits me, and Steinbeck’s pen is perfect. There is not a single main character in the book, rather a family unit as a whole; and, who becomes the pillar of survival in the story? The women do, of course! The realism in the novel is bar none, totally believable and seamless. Steinbeck has a perfect way of putting his audience among the characters—nothing is left out. It is really magical how seamlessly Steinbeck is able to progress the story without losing time, without any area of lapse. The given details are all valuable and none of the book read as fortuitous. Steinbeck is a real master. I marked what I believe to be the best passage:
Ma frowned. “Rosasharn,” she said, “you stop pickin’ at yourself. You’re jest a-teasin’ yourself up to cry. I don’ know what’s come at you. Our folks ain’t never did that. They took what come to ’em dry-eyed. I bet it’s that Connie give you all them notions. He was jes’ too big for his overhalls.” And she said sternly, “Rosasharn, you’re jest one person, an’ they’s a lot of other folks. You get to your proper place. I knowed people built theirself up with sin till they figgered they was big mean shucks in the sight a the Lord.”
“No. Jes’ shut up an’ git to work. You ain’t big enough or mean enough to worry God much. An’ I’m gonna give you the back a my han’ if you don’ stop this pickin’ at yourself.” She swept the ashes into the fire hole and brushed the stones on its edge. She saw the committee coming along the road. “Git workin’,” she said. “Here’s the ladies comin’. Git a-workin’ now, so’s I can be proud.” She didn’t look again, but she was conscious of the approach of the committee.
Though the novel is chock full of importance, this passage says much to the effect of the whole of the novel. Ma will not let the family fall apart. Rose of Sharon, her young and impressionable, pregnant daughter serves such an important role in her family, Ma does not let her have a sick day at this important juncture in the story. Uncle John, Tom, Al, and, somewhat, Pa all have their days, days for breaks, but the women really never get a break. Relative to today, none of the Joad family is weak, meaning that in their time even starvation in America was widespread, death was easily a possibility, and pleasure was a rare gift. I feel lucky to have finished it at this time in the history of my life.