Sunday, June 20, 2010

Starting Galactic Pot-Healer


So, here we go. Let's keep our discussion of GPH here in the comments section, since I've learned that many of my readers avoid Facebook like the plague.

What I'd like to do is start by talking about the dystopian future where (when?) the book begins. Reader PAK writes in the comments section: "The description of a managerial-society on Terra, especially the apparent merging of the US and USSR into one bleak, super-bureaucratic edifice, is especially reminiscent of Erich Fromm's description of mass-neurosis in The Sane Society." I will ask Anne Dick if PKD talked about this book, or Fromm in general. The Sane Society came out in 1955 so it may very well have influenced Dick's future world.

Erik Davis, in an email to me, writes that he especially loves the beginning of GPH because "it's so...now: people working in shitty cubicles, trying to connect to one another by playing networked games..."

Now I've thought a lot about The Game and I'd like to write a bit about it. The Game suggests, like much else in PKD's irv, that he thought of language as living, dynamic, and capable of changing the world outside itself. Think of the T.E.N.C.H. in Maze of Death. But The Game is slightly different. It exploits an aspect of language (the fact that we have more than one word to denote something) to create recreation, a way to pass the time. Insofar as the The Game is unproductive, it is actually counterproductive, as it distracts citizens from the degraded state of the society around them; it's an opiate of the masses. I was especially struck by the example 'water sheep,' which, it turns out, is a transliteration of 'hydraulic ram.' By translating the individual words in the sentence, players of the game are able to eliminate the meaning of the sentence, thereby destroying the phrase's cohesiveness. The object of the game is then to translate the words back by apprehending the original meaning of the sentence. In other words, you begin by imagining cohesiveness and then trying to attain it in the sentence. Do we play a game like this in our society? Yep. When you talk to Conservative Uncle and he says something about 'Global Climate Change' and you think to yourself 'oh, Global Warming!' When you go to buy a used car and they insist on calling it 'Pre-Owned.' This use of language is as mundane, circular, and unsatisfying as the rest of the society. I need some more time to suss out exactly what it is I'm trying to get at here - maybe in the comments section.

The opening of GPH reads very much like the beginning of any hero's adventure (Joseph Campbell anyone? PKD knew his work well): the protagonist struggles with a mundane and unsatisfying existence - think Luke Skywalker under uncle Owen's thumb. The Glimmung seems to be offering exactly what Fernwright is looking for. Isn't that usually a bad thing in literature?

I love the little touches, especially the simulated panoramic view projected on the wall of Fernwright's home, the broken component in the closet that tricks your brain into thinking the view is real.

What say you?

11 comments:

robin said...

I was going to write up my own appreciation of this novel, to my mind one of Dick's best, seeing as how I recently re-read it. I will instead contribute here, in the hopes of a fruitful dialogue.

I don't "buy" your comparison of the translation language game to our society's use of "weasel words" to sell us what we don't need. This particular PKD dystopia seems unconcerned with matters of capital -- even the section about saving coins to get predictions of the future is far more about religion than economics. Further evidence is the amount of money Joe Fernwright might expect to get paid for his work. 35,000 crumbles is found to be equivalent to 2x 10**24 dollars, a sum so astronomical it enters the realm of solar systems and deities, leaving the bankers and accountants far behind.

The comparison is also weak since the spirit of The Game is one of Dadaist play, not coercion or an attempt to hide the truth. In fact, perhaps this Game is the "real truth" peaking through from behind the cubicle walls that entrap the characters. It reveals that there is not just one monolithic way of interpreting the world, not just one single meaning that might make sense of our life. Rather, meaning is constantly being constructed and reconstructed through usage. Those who play The Game empower themselves as reality constructors in opposition to the totalitarian bureaucratic overlords. Humour erodes hierarchy.

Though The Game is on the surface a form of pure escapism for the characters who play it, this immediately and paradoxically gives the Game a societal use value. Perhaps this is what you meant, when you wrote (but I would change one word): "Insofar as the The Game is unproductive, it is actually productive, as it distracts citizens from the degraded state of the society around them".

I am interested in what people make of the sequence in which Joe gives away his metal coins, especially in light of the fact that The Glimmung understands that part of Joe's actions but not his humdrum day-to-day existence. This passage reminds me of several others from PKD novels.

robin said...

Um, I posted a comment but it vanished. Some sort of an alternate reality at work?

Ragle Gumm said...

Hi Robin,
I have to approve comments or else these forums would be full of spam.

I agree with many of your criticisms of my reading of The Game -especially as I sort of began talking about 'weasel words'... As I said in the post, I'm still trying to figure out what to say about The Game. There's something here about using language to in a circular, unproductive way that really interests me.

The Game's not about selling us things we don't need, but rather rendering language innocuous through recreation. Language becomes a hobby rather than a tool for social improvement.

Or does this Game deserve our accolades as it (perhaps alone) provides social cohesion in a fractured society?

But I think The Game is more than just 'Dadaist play'...

robin said...

"I have to approve comments or else these forums would be full of spam." -- yes, sorry. I do the same but for some reason or other missed the page refresh that told me that! My bad.

Joshua Lind said...

This discussion of The Game is really productive. I think it highlights Dick's unwillingness to simplify or sugar-coat anything. The Game is neither reactionary nor revolutionary; it seems to work in that troubling gray area. I'm reminded of Michel de Certeau's "The Practice of Everyday Life," in which one's options for radical social change are limited. "The System" that ensnares us is powerful but inefficient. There are ways to resist, but they are only minor ways that playfully pursue these inefficiencies.

I don't remember finding Certeau's argument all that compelling, but I didn't investigate his theories fully. Anyway, there seems to be an echo of that here in Dick's starting point. Dick appears to be suggesting that taking pot-shots at the system isn't enough to transform one's life into something meaningful. That is, those playing The Game are merely taking that which the prevailing social order offers as a consolation. In "Galactic Pot-Healer," Dick requires a radical break with the pleasures of The Game.

PAK said...

I think The Game has to be seen in the context of how PKD references literature throughout Galactic Pot-Healer.

Literary references in the novel come in two very distinct categories. The first type of reference is that typified by The Game, where the references are reduced to pure words with no meaningful content. These references occur when the characters are in situations of extreme despair and alienation. Their highest density is in the first section of the novel before Fernwright comes into contact with Glimmung. This is when PKD is establishing, in the words of Glimmung, that Fernwright and all the others to be brought to Plowman's Planet "have met failure so many times that (they) have become afraid to fail... (they) could not live such a life; each of (them) intended to destroy (themselves), and were in the process of doing so when I found (them)." (p.86-87) This is indeed why Fernwright said to himself at the end of the first scene in which The Game is played, "I am dying."(p.13)

These references subside into the background from then on, continuing as a melancholic counter-point to the Undertaking of raising Heldscalla. Whenever it seems that the collective life of those called by Glimmung will fail and they will be scattered back across their lonely, private, existential purgatories, literature again becomes meaningless. The most vivid example comes when Glimmung first descends into Mare Nostrum to fight the Black Cathedral and everyone, including Fernwright himself momentarily, is overcome by the inevitablity of his defeat. It is at this point that the force of The Game returns and PKD writes, "(Fernwright) then thought this:
Q. Do you like Yeats?
A. I don't know I've never tried any.
For a time his mind was empty and then he thought this:
Q. Do you like Kipling?
A. I don't know, I've never kippled.
Anguish and despair filled him as these thoughts passed through his brain. I've gone mad, he said to himself. Only rubbish occupies my attention; I am flattened by pain." (p.139, my emphasis) The spirit of The Game is not that of empowerment, it is the expression a world ruled by The Black Cathedral, one of the most total and isolating hopelessness, in which nothing means anything anymore because nothing matters.

The second category of literary references comes later in the book as Fernwright slowly begins to believe in The Undertaking. In contrast to the alienation and meaninglessness of The Game, these references are all about meaning, because the actual contents of works are discussed, and not because they will cleverly confuse an opponent, but because they will help a friend in a mutual struggle to comprehend their situation.

The crucial scene here comes after the chapter where Glimmung falls through the hotel and convinces his followers to stay on Plowman's Planet. This is when Fernwright and Nurb K'ohl Daq introduce the Faust motif that will run through the rest of the story. The quotation is extensive, running over nearly two pages, and is explicitly used by both Fernwright and Daq to analyse the meaning of the Undertaking and the possibility that "perhaps (Goethe) foresaw the raising of Heldscalla."(p.91) And in contrast to the spirit of The Game, in which two humans managed to make each-other unintelligible with their own cultural heritage, this reference forms a common ground for discussion between a human and a wildly alien species.

PAK said...

(My comment was slightly too long for this site, so here's the ending of it.)

The other element that's worth noting about the counter-Game is how it's relatively embedded in German culture. Flicking through, some of the other works that get similar treatment are: a poem by Bertolt Brecht (p.103); pieces by Beethoven, Wagner, Bach, Pergolesi, Verdi and Haydn, which are contrasted to consumerist-advertisements by Willis (p.126-127); the Christian Bible; the Greek myth of the Mother Goddess and the psychoanalysis of Carl Jung (I don't remember where). While not all of this is exclusively German (Christianity being identified with Latin and the Mother Goddess with Greek, while Verdi and Pergolesi are obviously Italian), these references were nevertheless all elements of the early 20th Century German culture which heavily influenced PKD (the German works obviously survived within that society, while, as PKD was no doubt aware, Greek mythology, Christianity and the study of Latin were heavily embedded in the German intelligentsia). This is important because these references together form a representation of an unalienated culture, the exact opposite of the rubbishy eclecticism of The Game. Their prominence in the novel rises in step with the characters integration into Glimmung (a feminine word, which in German means literally 'the glowing one,'), and their dedication to the raising of Heldscalla ('Held' being German for 'hero,' while -calla is either from the Latin 'cala' for ladder, or simply just a nice sound to put on the end of a name). Thus while the random semantics of The Game represents alienation and despair, the other, Germanic references of the novel represent reintegration into a greater humanity, itself symbolised by Glimmung.

(My page numbers are all from the 2005 Gollancz edition.)

robin said...

I did the only fit thing and asked the I Ching: What is the meaning of The Game in Philip K. Dick's novel "Galactic Pot-Healer"?

The response was Hexagram 44, Kou / Compulsion, which is incredible as this is the one and only hexagram I have written into a poem. Besides this personal relationship, the message is applicable to the problem at hand in many ways.

"You are ignoring a clear and present danger to your well-being. If this threat emanated from a heavy-handed oppressor, you would see it coming. But this danger comes to you in the form of a seduction, an amusement, a diversion, an indulgence that is eating away at the fiber of your secure little world."

This seems to imply that The Game, "a seduction, an amusement, a diversion", in fact destroys security and is a dangerous act. But for whom? Certainly for Joe Fernwright, playing The Game marks him out as a special case to the all-knowing State. He is someone to watch, a subversive, and this puts him rather quickly in situations of physical and mental distress.

The Glimmung also represents a "clear and present danger" to Joe. And it comes in the form of "an amusement", a note floating in a toilet bowl. The Glimmung's idiosyncratic modes of communication are in part designed to lull Joe into a false sense of security.

"This hexagram indicates a situation in which the principle of darkness, after having been eliminated, furtively and unexpectedly obtrudes again from within and below. Of its own accord the female principle comes to meet the male. It is an unfavourable and dangerous situation, and we must understand and promptly prevent the possible consequences. The hexagram is linked with the fifth month (June-July), because at the summer solstice the principle of darkness gradually becomes ascendant again."

This has a lot to say about the action in the novel, in which submerged systems of darkness are brought to the surface. The battle of the two Glimmungs can be seen exactly as the meeting of female and male principles in the way described. The judgement even correctly specifies the calendar moment at which I ask the question!

Though the relationship between the two may not be precise, it is clear that Hexagram 44 is telling us The Game in some ways mirrors this greater action in the novel.

But it is I who threw the coins, not Joe, and the oracle must mean that The Game plays the same role for me. So perhaps I should stop courting danger by writing here about it!

Mr. Hand said...

one of the thing I like best about GPH, my "stated favorite PKD novel" since college, is theme of questioning religious experience. I first heard of the novel in some usenet discussion: somebody quoted "deities don't fall ten floors to the basement." I think the novel can be read against PKD's questioning of his own strange religious experiences. Just like the Glimmung, "the gnostic revelation of PKD" promised much but delievered only bizarre and ambiguous results. I think raising heldskalla is an interesting allegory of the sorts of experiences people get from LSD, or other mystical interruptions, which deliver eternity or other mystical desires in forms nothing like expected. "Going underwater" in PKD doesn't just take one to the Freudian unconscious, but rather to this version of transcendence that sounds like Plotinus' or Augustine's worst nightmare! In my future comments I'll try to write up some reminiscences of the kind of spiritual hermeneutics and ASC play I was doing with GPH in college, if I can bear to drag up and re-cathedral much of it...

Mr. Hand said...

I'm finding this discussion of the game interesting. Erik Davis' quip is quite close to my impression of it. Even in the late 90s when I first read GPH it spoke to my experience of reaching out via innocuous-seeming net games. It's interesting that we want to defend such games as being "mere dadaist play" as if there was anything mere about such a thing. It strikes me as being connected to the Glimmung's project: what is worth doing with our lives? Do we need to be doing something grand and mystical? or socially useful? or if a mind-numbing game makes us happy is there really anything wrong with that? I think PKD's games have much to offer those who would theorize video games as play and/or art. Do we really need to rationalize our word games as some kind of noble surrealist project? My buddies and I love playing dictionary (aka balderdash), and there's plenty of intellectual interest there, but at a fundamental level there's something important about how we're just fucking around and not doing something we expect to get some kinda intellectual cookie as reward for.

Vedrana said...

I'm inclined to agree with PAK on the point of The Game. Joe and the other drudges playing The Game can recognise titles when they transliterate them, but the titles in themselves have no meaning or value to them: they are the intellectual flotsam of a dead society that has long passed on.

The choice of titles was interesting: The Great Gatsby deals with themes such as disenchantment with the American Dream and Gatsby, like the Glimmung, is ensnared by an onerous undertaking (winning Daisy Buchanan over).

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway contains a number of transliterations which ironically mirrors The Game (Dick imitates this with Mali, whose grammatical errors are similar to his translation of Spanish false friends. It also bears comparison with the section in which the characters argue about the grammatical turn of phrase used in a translation- Joe likes it, even though "no Terran actually speaks like that").

What does it all mean, though? Certainly, there is a level of absurdity in the word-play that Dick includes in the novel, but it also points to the dichotomies that emerge throughout the novel: the living and the dead (or in Anglican parlance, "the quick and the dead"). The words spoken by the characters, their modes of expression, and their knowledge (or ignorance) of cultural masterpieces are all references to how language lives and dies (German, we are told, is a dead language by the year 2046, yet it manages to live on because of the eternal qualities of the meaning that lies in the language, in this case, Faust).