Archive for literary criticism

In Response to “Delusions of Grandeur”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 20, 2011 by theclockworm

I’ve just finished reading David Gill’s thesis on PKD, available here. I wanted to share some reflections and responses; they’re pretty “out of joint (it’s OK to hit me),” so my apologies. They also only cover the first chapter for the most; I thought the rest was great and said most of what I would have wanted to say anyhow. I join the chorus of others in praising this thesis as one of the few readable, enlightening, and astute works of in PKD studies.

As we all know, nothing in PKD is as simple as any single explanation. So let it be understood that my additions, expansions, etc. are not meant to refute Gill’s positions, all of which I agree with at least to a point, but simply to throw some additional aspects into the pot.

Two brief notes that didn’t fit anywhere below:

  1. I’d be interested in a further exploration of Dick’s use of literalization; it’s something I see as one of his more skillful and important contributions, and worthy of more study.
  2. I like the fact that Gill is clear that the Dick he speaks of is the “meta-persona that has been culturally constructed by other writers.” Clear and important distinction.

*

“Dick’s brilliance in working with paranoia in Time Out of Joint lies in his ability to complicate the Freudian concept of paranoia by constructing a narrative that can be interpreted as the protagonist’s rise from delusion, while at the same time, can be seen as chronicling a descent into a deeper, more delusional psychosis.”

I think this connects to something I felt about VALIS the first time I read it: that by positing at every point that the revelation or comprehension may be its opposite, or of opposite value, Dick gives credence to even the most fantastic of ideas. By saying, “And then I was closer to the truth – or father from it,” he safeguards against the skeptical reader’s natural reaction to the statement “And then I was closer to the truth,” which would be to retort “- or farther from it.” But because he gives so much attention to both sides, truly exploring the implications of his rightness or wrongness, we can’t see it as simply a way to beg off questions and criticisms. The human and intellectual quality of Dick’s doubts is what makes his so powerful a writer.

Do you think the doubt Dick sews in TOOJ is simply literary, or is it also reflective of a worldview or a way of judging character? It strikes me that some of the approach is almost a mockery of unbalanced skepticism; when Gumm says “I know it’s my psychosis…but I still don’t want to get caught,” I feel like there’s something darkly humorous there. Dick was a skeptic, but he understood that to be one side of the coin of total intellectual maturity, with openness to the possible – however unlikely – as the other side. This also connects to the mention of Dicks derision of Gumm; I posit that what he was deriding may have been Gumm’s inability to accept the obvious.

Cantor is quoted “The paranoid individual’s special and often cunning ability to see into the heart of matters, put a finger on the basics, and then decide what exactly the right move should be are all parameters of that elusive gift that we call being brilliant.”

I suspect that Dick felt that the path to brilliance, or truth, or Gnosis, was inexorably tied to the path of disillusionment and paranoia, because reality total really IS that bad. Under all the paranoia and narcissism, being the most important person in the world isn’t good for Gumm; the world he’s the center of is hellish.

Which leads to the rundown of the process of doubt Dick leads Gumm and the reader through: Gumm may not be psychotic, but rather neurotic: his grandiosity may be real, and his fantasies of normalcy and stasis a reaction to that fact. The “babyland” idea comes up a lot in Dick’s irv, and to me represents neurosis amazingly well, especially as these “safe” settings almost always prove otherwise. The truth might be bad, but at least you don’t have a surprise to look forward to. Of course these are both rooted in narcissism, at least theoretically; but again, isn’t that splitting hairs a bit? Any view of reality that is seriously flawed will tend to point an outside observer to the sense of self. I don’t know that it proves that one’s impression of self-importance is always the cause of these failures to perceive reality.

Cantor is quoted “…grandiosity and persecution are opposite sides of the same coin, as illustrated by the related and generally inseparable beliefs, ‘I am important enough to be singled out for persecution’ and ‘I am singled out for persecution because I am important enough’”

Certainly this is one way to see things, just as one can approach Phil’s mystical experiences from this perspective. But I think it’s important to remember that Dick was working out his experiences, worldview, etc. in his writing. While the above statement is often applicable in an analytical setting, it excludes a very important third option: that the subject simply becomes aware of his persecution or undue attention. Much of Dick’s writing seems to me to deal with this meta-question: “ I have seen something, I know it to be true. Now what?” Let’s create a third possibility to go with Cantor’s two: “I am being persecuted. I am being singled out. Therefore, someone is persecuting me or singling me out. I do not need to believe I am important; they have done that for me.

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Dystopography

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2011 by theclockworm

For a long time, I’ve had mixed feelings about the “dystopian” genre of fiction, and about its inclusion in the SF conversation. To the younger me, cyberpunk adherent that I was, there was an absolute disparity. The SF I loved was morally ambiguous, post-modern in the way Gibson is post-modern: not about paralysis, but about moving within something unchangeable.  This fiction didn’t make value judgments about technology, nor did it seek to separate the development of human traits, social structures, and politics from technological development. It recognized that they were linked, organic, and with this recognition made, it simply told stories. Bester, the proto-cyberpunk, did this too, and arguably better. In contrast, books like 1984, Brave New World, and the rest seemed implicitly moral, not to mention moralizing. They were “about something” in the way I disapproved of in almost every medium. They wanted you to be scared, to judge harshly; if you read 1984 and side with Big Brother, you’ve read it wrong. That’s a kind of patronization I dislike. It’s like a Spielberg movie, being told when to cry.

And then there was the moral itself. I might have prided myself on the amorality of my SF, but if it was to have a moral, it would certainly have been a pro-technology, progress-centric one. These dystopians were squarely opposite. How could so many people not see the differences here? It seemed to me you had two camps with irreconcilable values being lumped into one category because of the settings they shared, settings which I felt belonged to ‘real’ SF, the kind that wasn’t a promotion for some Luddite cave-commune.

Looking back, I see problems in a lot of these ideas. First of all, the assumption that the amorality would have given way, under pressure, to one particular opinion and not the other seems questionable at best. Oddly, Heinlein stands up in this fight a lot more than Gibson; Heinlein, definitely not a cyberpunk, and in some ways absolutely a moralizer, was the gung-ho “progressive.” In Heinlein’s novels, space travel ends war, saves humankind, and makes immortality practical; pioneering keeps Darwin happy, and free love finally breaks the bonds of jealousy. But Heinlein, for all his attempts at practicality, is guilty of something almost as bad as dystopianism – utopianism. A literary battle between RAH and Orwell is like Star Wars – good if you’re in a totemic, black-and-white, myth-as-tautology mood. It’s too much a dichotomy. There’s not enough grey.

Grey is where I tend to live. It’s more interesting, in my opinion, not to mention more realistic. I’m sure that Gibson, if asked, wouldn’t have some myopic opinion of technology and “progress;” as I mentioned, the acknowledgment of the inherent connection between technology and society would probably preclude such a view.  And Orwell? Who knows. But I think, as an adult as well as an aspiring writer,  I can understand a bit more: sometimes, you hold back some of the grey to give the work more impact. I just wish it had been clearer to me when was younger that one could have more nuanced views of these topics. I’ve grown past my own “progress at all costs” system of belief. It is, as I said about information in the previous post, not about the chronological newness, but rather the complexity, the true value.

Not that I’m giving the dystopians too much credit. In most ways, I think I was right. SF doesn’t have to support newness with abandon; it doesn’t really have to support anything. But I don’t think it can be good, or smart, if it’s built on fear-mongering, on extending the worst things in plain sight to their most extreme ends, on practicing what Vonnegut called “royal astronomy:” the constant insistence, since the beginning of time, that everything is about to end. Even if the S in SF is for “speculative” and not “science,” that’s not smart speculation. It’s effective, because it plays on our fears, but it’s not how the world works.

The one dystopian novel I really did like was We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. It’s the most artful application of the tropes and structures of the dystopian novel (probably because it essentially invented them), and it seems more a reflection on the human response to oppression than sociological assumptiveness.

I occasionally hear PKD called dystopian. I disagree. I think what doesn’t work, what fails,  in Dick’s world, isn’t the country or the government, but rather the universe. Everything else is simply an emanation of that initial malfunction (this is not accidental; emanation theology is at the core of Gnosticism).  However, Dick does, on occasion, delve into the particular horrors and abuses of government and social oppression, and guess what? I love it. It moves me. It scares me. I empathize. I sympathize. Because he got it right.

The oppression of Radio Free Albemuth is simply too close to issues of the present to dismiss as Berkeley activist-politics gone the way of all things boomer-ey. The overwhelming, integrated, hidden-in-plain-sight “pusher economy” of A Scanner Darkly is not even slightly allegorical; that’s simply the way it is. If only Substance-D were a McDonalds cheeseburger, it would be a fully literal story.

As wary as I am of royal astronomy, as much as I disapprove of fear-mongering and wild extrapolation, things really are bad, and saying so in a responsible way is always brave and meaningful.