Friday, July 20, 2007

Frank Bertrand on Chapter One of Three Stigmata's own resident philosopher Frank Bertrand has written up an additional summary and analysis of chapter one of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and it's great. Please to enjoy, and if you like it, be sure to read more of Frank's work posted on

Chapter 1 Summary/Analysis:

[Sincere thanks to David Gill for starting this blog (web log) and trying to actually instigate a serious discussion/dialogue/debate about the fiction (and I hope non-fiction) of Philip K. Dick. He deserves nothing less! And what an astute idea to go through one of Dick’s novel chapter by chapter.]

By way of a prolegomena, and to exercise your pre-frontal cortex, I’d like to remind you of something Philip K. Dick wrote for a 1978 speech he likely never delivered (printed in I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon, 1985):

“The two basic topics that fascinate me are “What is reality?” and “What constitutes the authentic human being?” Over the twenty-seven years in which I have published novels and stories I have investigated those two interrelated topics over and over again. I consider them important topics. What are we? What is it that surrounds us, that we call the not-me, or the empirical or phenomenal world?”

Now, it just so happens that one of his favorite philosophers, Immanuel Kant, the recluse of Königsberg, says in his Lectures On Logic (1800), there are three basic questions that can be condensed to a fourth:
1) What can I know?
2) What ought I to do?
3) What may I hope for?
4) What is man?

So, at the end of this first chapter what do we know – what ought we to do about what we know, what can we hope for about what we know, what are we as a human being with what we know – and, I would add, how do we know it?

We have been introduced to several major and minor characters in a setting/context that is out of the ordinary: a near future where the daytime temperature in New York City is 180 degrees, there are resort beaches in Antarctic, robot workmen, a portable psychiatrist called “Dr. Smile”, a Venusian ming bird kept as a pet, the governing entity is the UN, and there are selective service laws to force immigration to colony moons and worlds.

Two of these characters, Barney Mayerson and Rondinella Fugate, are unusual as well; they are “precogs.” That is, they have foreknowledge or premonitions about future events. One of them, Barney Mayerson, whose last name most everyone mispronounces, has recently gotten his off-world immigration draft notice. He is a “pre-fash” consultant who has worked thirteen years for a business called Perky Pat Layouts where he is able to “pre-judge” – have foreknowledge about – what fashions will look best in a Perky Pat Layout. Roni is a “pre-fash” consultant as well who has been transferred from People’s China, and although talented is highly inexperienced. She’s now Barney’s new assistant.

Richard and Emily Hnatt are quite ordinary. Emily makes ceramics and Richard, her second husband, helps to sell them, hopefully to Perky Pat Layouts where they’ll then be miniaturized (“min”) for a layout. But it turns out that Emily was previously married to Leo Bulero, head of Perky Pat Layouts.

Along the way there are actions/interactions between Barney and Roni, Barney and Dr. Smile, Richard and Emily, Richard and someone from the businessman class on an inter-building commuter car, and Richard, Barney and Roni.

So you’ve got an initial “philosophical” blending of environment, culture, and politics, with the common denominator being the environment. It largely engenders the other two elements. There is serious “global warming” going on (a prescient take on Philip K. Dick’s part) which transforms the culture to the point of needing mandatory off-world immigration, thermal sealed inter-building commuter cars, and individual mandatory cooling units. It’s governed by a political entity (United Nations) that requires off-world immigration and surreptitiously allows a “drug-culture” (Can-D) to help the immigrants cope with their lives in underground “hovels” (OED: “A shed used as a human habitation; a rude or miserable dwelling-place; a wretched cabin.”).

And what we start to learn about is how each of our characters deal with all of this.

But, why this particular blending, and, these particular characters? What is Philip K. Dick implying? Is it political philosophy? Metaphysics? Ethics? Or, something called philosophical anthropology? Or, if you like, what is the “reality” and “authentic human being” of this novel?

Has he begun a philosophical novel, or a novel of ideas? (Philosophy can assist the understanding of literature by throwing light on philosophic presuppositions and themes in a literary work. And it helps to deepen our knowledge and appreciation of a novel if we realize the philosophic dimension of the idea(s) presented therein.)

This is not a frivolous question. Carefully consider what Philip K. Dick writes in this 1981 Exegesis entry:

“I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist; my novel & story-writing ability is employed as a means to formulate my perception. The core of my writing is not art but truth….Someone must come along & play the role of Plato to my Socrates.”

Even more salient is what he states in a June, 1976 radio interview:

“The first thing is the idea. A pure idea. The next thing is characters who will be confronted by an environment based on that idea…. In other words, I translate an idea into a world…. I always try to find somebody who’s the victim of the idea and somebody who’s the master of the idea, so that you have a bifurcated society with somebody who’s going to make if off the idea and somebody who’s going to be victimized by the idea.”

But now it’s your turn. What is your response?


Chaser said...

Doesn't this Bertrand fellow know that in our "quick-and-convenient" society, where we get most everything from a drive-up-window, or have it delivered, that we don't have the time, while we go EVERYWHERE with a cell-phone growing out of our ear, to think "seriously." Let alone look up big words...

Pundits claim the the dumbing-down is increasing, along with the average reading level of newspapers decreasing.

So, WHY should I take the time to think seriously about PKD??

No doubt there have been thousands of "hits" for this blog, but of that number how many have ACTUALLY taken the time to thoughtfully read any of the posts?? And of that number, how many have actually taken the time to post a cogent response??

Ragle Gumm said...

Geez chaser, thanks for sucking the fun out of the room! While it is nice to think that my time is spent in vain, I find I confront much the same situation in my job. I have students who don't want to be there and who don't see the merit in learning or thinking about anything. Luckily, I don't particularly like those kinds of people (especially in the white house) and I find that I simply don't care that much if they fail or get a C or whatever. I'm there for the students who want to be there. And lots of them do see the merit. Likewise, if only a couple of readers really pay close attention, then that's two more readers than I'd have if I didn't do this. A big thought is worth having.

"So, WHY should I take the time to think seriously about PKD??" is perhaps one of the dumbest questions I have ever heard, surpassed only by, "will this be on the test?" But I will endeavor to answer your question as simply as possible: Like any good writer of literature, like Shakespeare, TS Eliot, Hemingway, or F Scott Fitzgerald, PKD rewards careful scrutiny with big ideas and deep, beautiful characters. If you'd like a suggestion of some entertainment that doesn't require much thought, I suggest you try watching reruns of The Golden Girls. Rose is hot!

Chaser said...

Almost all of current "glass teat" (Harlan Ellison's great phrase!) land doesn't require much thought, being mindless pablum for our quick and convenient society. The same can be said for most of Internet land...

But don't you find it just a wee bit discouraging that only two individuals out of how many thousands of hits for your blog make the effort to respond?

And if you're getting only that same number in your classroom, what does that say about our vaunted educational system? Or how much our society cares about said educational system?

I don't doubt that Philip K. Dick is worth actually taking the time to read AND think about "seriously." That wasn't my, apparently badly stated, point. I was trying to get at the lack of "serious" responses...But do carry on. You're one of the few I take the time to read, along with the great Britannica blog.

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