Striving for an Ideal World: Art and Reality in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-11-26-53-amOver 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.

Free PDF E-Book from The Permanent Press

Whenever aspiring writers ask me for advice on finding a publisher, the first thing I say is to read a wide range of books from a wide range of publishers to find the right “fit.” Of course, that can get expensive after a while, so here’s some good news. The good folks who published my first two novels, The Permanent Press, are offering one of their titles free of charge: The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann. (Click here for a review I posted a while back.) For information on this offer, visit the blog of Martin Shepard, a co-publisher of The Permanent Press: The Cockeyed Pessimist. Even if you’re not an aspiring writer, this is an offer that’s tough to beat — a good book from a press that has my deepest respect, and it’s free!


More Sketchy Thoughts on Slaughterhouse Five

A while back, I posted some thoughts on whether or not Billy Pilgrim is hallucinating when he’s visited by aliens in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. I’m teaching the novel again this week, an my thoughts have turned to the issue of free will in the novel. The reason this came up is that a student asked whether Vonnegut believed in predestination. Here are my thoughts…

I don’t think Vonnegut personally believed in predestination. He was a humanist and an atheist. Since humanism asserts that people should work to benefit society, my guess is that he also believed that people had free will, since working to benefit society (as opposed to choosing not to do so) requires a decision.

Nonetheless, predestination is a major theme in Slaughterhouse Five. In fact, much of the novel reads like a debate over the legitimacy of free will over predestination. On the predestination side of the argument, there’s Harrison Starr’s theory that writing an anti-war novel is like writing an anti-glacier novel; i.e., war, like glaciers, is inevitable, so there’s no sense in trying to stop it (3). But on the “free will” side of the argument, we have the fact that Vonnegut ignored Harrison Starr’s advice and wrote an anti-war novel anyway.

Yet this act of free will — the decision to write a novel that might influence its readers to reject war — is itself haunted by doubt, as exemplified by the Tralfamadorians’ understanding of time and space. The Tralfamadorians, we learn, find free will to be a foreign concept because they see the past, present, and future all at once (86). At the same time, though, there’s something terrifyingly absurd about that vision: they know how the universe will end, and they don’t do anything to stop it. From their perspective, it had to be done.

Professor Rumfoord, the military historian, echoes this sentiment when he tells Billy that the bombing of Dresden “had to be done” (198). Of course, the fact that it’s Rumfoord telling us that it had to be done — and that Rumfoord is described as “a hateful old man–conceited and cruel” suggests that we’re not supposed to agree with him (193). That Billy stands up to Rumfoord by saying “I was there” suggests that he’s exercising some degree of free will, just as Edgar Derby exercises free will when he stands up to Howard Cambpell elsewhere in the novel.

I’d also argue that Vonnegut’s concerns over free will can be seen in the idea that Tralfamadorians see humans (and all creatures) as machines (154). I want to complicate this image a little bit by suggesting that we can replace “machines” with “computers” or “robots,” and that the actions of the kinds of machines we are (in Vonnegut’s view) are therefore dictated by software or a kind of code. In other words, while some things are hardwired into our physical makeup (e.g., instincts), something else is responsible for the decisions we never really think too much about. That “something else” is the set of cultural norms and assumptions into which we’re born (comprised of many things, like myths, religion, manners, attitudes, and unspoken rules).

This “software” (our assumptions) causes us to see the world in a certain way (or frames our perceptions). Building on the idea that Vonnegut is not in a position to judge his characters as good or evil (or as heroes or villains), he’s basically recognizing that each character’s definition of “good” or “true” hinges on the “software” that his or her culture has been installing since birth. Thus Billy doesn’t judge Rumfoord’s assessment that “It had to be done” because that assessment is “true” to Rumfoord based on everything he’s ever read or been taught to believe.

The challenge that Vonnegut poses to us, I think, is asking us to recognize that even if we are machines, we have the capability to reprogram our software. In other words, by writing a book like Slaughterhouse Five, he’s saying that once we recognize the cultural assumptions that dictate many of our actions, we can question and eventually change those assumptions in a way that will allow us to avoid the fate of the Tralfamadorians.