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.

Is Billy Pilgrim Crazy?

Slaughterhouse-five+by+Kurt+VonnegutA student of mine recently asked whether Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist (for lack of a better word) of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, has, within the context of the narrative (such as it is) really experienced a close encounter with aliens or simply lost his mind.

The question is certainly valid. When I first read the novel over twenty years ago, I took the story at face value. When Vonnegut informed me that Billy Pilgrim had become unstuck in time, I went along for the ride. Yet the more I thought about it, the less willing I was to suspend my disbelief. After all, how did the Tralfamadorians get around if their bodies were shaped like toilet plungers?

Eventually, however, I came to the realization that it doesn’t matter whether the aliens really visited Billy or he imagined them. What matters is that he believes he’s been visited by aliens, and that this belief – along with all of the knowledge they allegedly impart to him – provides the framework for Billy’s understanding of the world.

Throughout his oeuvre, Vonnegut echoes the Shakespearean sentiment that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” In Mother Night, for example, he writes, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” In Bluebeard, he adds,  “Belief is nearly the whole of the universe whether based on truth or not.” In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut expresses this notion in financial terms: “Frames are where the money is.”

On a literal level, of course, Vonnegut’s reference to frames explains what Billy does for a living; he’s an optician, and most of his money comes from selling protective eye ware to employees of the General Forge and Foundry Company of Ilium, New York. Figuratively, however, Vonnegut is letting us know that context (i.e. how we frame information) is everything (or, more colloquially, “where the money is”).

The idea that stories shape our sense of reality saturates Slaughterhouse Five. Early on, Mary O’Hare is furious with the author because she suspects that the book he’s writing will glamorize war. Later in the novel, Roland Weary makes sense of his experiences behind enemy lines during World War Two by imagining himself as a member of his own version of the Three Musketeers. Later still, a dying colonel convinces himself that he’s a hero by adopting the nom de guerre “Wild Bob” and picturing a cookout he’ll never get to enjoy.

The list goes on and on, but the most imaginative and explicit example of the power of stories to frame reality in Slaughterhouse Five is a novel by the fictional science fiction writer Kilgore Trout titled The Gospel from Outer Space. In this novel, a visitor from outer space figures out that the reason Christians can be so cruel is “slipshod storytelling in the New Testament.”

The trouble with the New Testament, the alien realizes, is that its underlying message belies its intent. Whereas the message of the New Testament is to be kind and merciful, the Gospels actually taught this: “Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected.”

To rectify this problem, the alien writes a new Gospel in which Jesus is “a nobody” whose crucifixion is so repugnant that God adopts “the bum” and issues a warning to all of humanity: “From this moment on, He will punish horribly anyone who torments a bum who has no connections!

Needless to say, the underlying premise of The Gospel from Outer Space echoes the dominant theme of Slaughterhouse Five: stories shape reality, a notion borne out by life in the “real” world whenever anyone claims a monopoly on virtue by citing the foundational document of their choice, religious or otherwise. (If you have time, take a look at the Patton Oswalt video at the bottom of this post for a funny take on this phenomenon. Fair warning: It’s a little racy.)

In the context of the novel, then, Billy Pilgrim’s belief that he’s been visited by aliens is no different from anybody’s faith in God or, for that matter, faith that the framers of the Constitution had everything so perfectly worked out that there’s no room for interpreting the document in anything but the most literal fashion.

Moreover, the vast range of stories, big and small, that Vonnegut describes throughout Slaughterhouse Five serves as a warning to those of us whose skeptical tendencies might tempt us to feel superior to religious fundamentalists, strict constructionists, and other people who, like Billy, build their lives around such stories.  Sure, they’re crazy. But so are we – because no matter how sophisticated we imagine ourselves to be, we all invent or subscribe to narratives that allow us to make sense of the world.

In one way or another, we’re all Billy Pilgrim.

Quips, Retorts, and Reproofs in Shakespeare

I was just reading Shakespeare’s As You Like It (because that’s the kind of classy guy I am) when I got tripped up on some of Touchstone’s dialogue in Act V, scene iv, but after giving the matter some thought, I think I’ve figured it out. Of course, Shakespeare scholars will likely say either A) Duh! or B) that I got it completely wrong, but anyone who’s in a high school English class and found this post by Googling something like “Shakespeare WTF?” or “As You Like It Touchstone” may find the following explanation edifying.

Here’s the passage in question:

                                                     I did dislike the
cut of a certain courtier’s beard: he sent me word,
if I said his beard was not cut well, he was in the
mind it was: this is called the Retort Courteous.
If I sent him word again ‘it was not well cut,’ he
would send me word, he cut it to please himself:
this is called the Quip Modest. If again ‘it was
not well cut,’ he disabled my judgment: this is
called the Reply Churlish. If again ‘it was not
well cut,’ he would answer, I spake not true: this
is called the Reproof Valiant. If again ‘it was not
well cut,’ he would say I lied: this is called the
Counter-cheque Quarrelsome: and so to the Lie
Circumstantial and the Lie Direct.

And here’s my interpretation of different types of replies that Touchstone is talking about:

  • Retort Courteous: We agree to disagree.
  • Quip Modest: I don’t care what you think.
  • Reply Churlish: You don’t know what you’re talking about.
  • Reproof Valiant: You’re wrong.
  • Counter-cheque Quarrelsome: You’re lying.
  • Lie Circumstantial: You’re lying to suit your own ends.
  • Lie Direct: You’re an out and out liar.

In any case, I hope this is helpful for anyone out there who’s studying this play, reading it for fun, or planning to see a live production.