Over the past few days, I’ve been reading The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. It’s a novel that imagines a world in which the United States lost World War II. Within this world, Americans living on the west coast are regarded (and, indeed, regard themselves) as social inferiors to their Japanese rulers. Compounding this perception is the fact that Americans have yet to fully adapt to Japanese social norms. As a result, they are always second-guessing everything they say and do. Thus they live in a constant state of uncertainty and anxiety. Nonetheless, because history played out the way that it did, they regard their current state of affairs as “normal” or the natural order of things.
Challenging this perceived natural order of things in the context of the novel is a book titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which describes an alternate universe in which the Allies won the war. Perhaps significantly, this alternately universe is not our universe but one in which the Allied victory resulted in a world significantly different from our own. Nonetheless, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy exists within the novel as a hint that the world most people are used to is not the only world that might exist. Or, to put it another way, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy suggests to the characters in The Man in the High Castle that the way things are is entirely contingent on historical happenstance. If a few key historical events had played out differently, the world would be different — and so, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is at pains to note, would its social norms.
Needless to say, The Man in the High Castle is trying to do for readers in real life what The Grasshopper Lies Heavy does within the context of the novel. It’s trying to underscore the fact that the customs, assumptions, behaviors, values, beliefs, morals, and aesthetic judgments (among other things) we think of as “normal” are all ultimately rooted in history. The mistake we make is in believing that the way we see the world is the only way or the correct way to see it when, in fact, it is merely one way of perceiving the world that is dictated by the norms of the world in which we live.
Or, as one of Dick’s characters reflects in the novel, “We do not have the ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effort because he can detect the obvious.” Yes, we’d like to believe that we live in the “ideal world” of objective truth, but we don’t. What’s more, because our understanding of the world around us is tinted by norms and assumptions imposed upon us by our particular moment in history, it’s often difficult to “detect the obvious” course of action when moral and ethical dilemmas arise.
Yet even if “cognition” is not easy, one thing The Man in the High Castle suggests that we can do is learn to recognize the ways in which social norms color our perceptions. And one of the key tools in learning to do so is art — or, more broadly, the arts. Most obviously, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is an example of art that awakens people to the ways in which social norms influence their perceptions. Another example of art opening minds to alternate ways of seeing within the novel is a small piece of jewelry, a piece of abstract art that Nazi propaganda would dismiss as “degenerate” but which allows one character to briefly envision a world more like our own than the one depicted in the novel.
Curiously, crossing over into an alternate reality reveals to the character — in this case, a Japanese citizen — how tenuous his high place in society really is. In turn, The Man in the High Castle reveals to readers — particularly those who enjoy a relatively high place in society — how tenuous and contingent on accidents of history our their own place of privilege is. More to the point, however, by placing white males in particular in a place of social inferiority, the novel forces certain readers to view the world from a new perspective. To wit: You know how nervous and anxious those white guys were in relation to the Japanese characters? Well, in our world, you’re in the position of the Japanese character, and that’s how minorities feel around you.
Of course, pointing out that our sense of reality — not to mention our sense of decency — is socially constructed is nothing new (and was nothing new when Dick published his novel in 1962). Charles Chesnutt was doing something similar in his 1889 short story “The Sheriff’s Children” when he wrote of the sheriff in question, “It may seem strange that a man who could sell his own child into slavery should hesitate at such a moment when his life was trembling in the balance. But the baleful influence of human slavery poisoned the very fountains of life, and created new standards of right. The sheriff was conscientious; his conscience had merely been warped by his environment.”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman did it as well in 1892 with the “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which the main character’s apparent descent into madness revealed the flaws of a medical community whose refusal to listen to patients (and women in particular) led to improper diagnoses and poor treatment. William Dean Howells did it in the conclusion of a short story titled “Editha,” in which a painter allows the title character to retreat into a comforting, jingoistic fantasy word with a few well-chosen words and a bit of “empirical” touching up of reality. And going back a bit further, Plato worried about reality and our perceptions of it in his “Allegory of the Cave.”
All of this is to say that one thing art can do — one particularly valuable function of art — is to remind us that truth and perception are two entirely different things. Whether or not art can allow us to perceive truth is entirely up for debate — as, one might argue, is the issue of whether there is, indeed, such a thing as objective truth. Nonetheless, by reminding us that the things we imagine to be “true” or “good” or “beautiful” or “just” are only on so because, in the words of the immortal bard,* because “thinking makes it so,” art also allows us to imagine other worlds, other norms, other ways of seeing and being — and, in so doing, challenges us to strive for the “ideal world” to which Dick alludes in The Man in The High Castle even if we are forever doomed to failure.
*William Shakespeare, who is dead. The quote is from Hamlet.