Friday, July 9, 2010
First Thoughts on Galactic Pot-Healer
It occurred to me while writing my last post summarizing secondary sources on GPH that perhaps I was stalling, running in place, reading what others have said because I don't know what to make of this book. Later, I realized that was a very Dickian conundrum... So, whatever, here it goes.
I think this is an important PKD novel. I wouldn't, however, give it to someone as the first PKD book they should read. This is not a first-tier PKD novel like VALIS or Do Androids Dream, but it's not an unimportant one, like say Vulcan's Hammer.
One weird thing about the novel is the lack of detail. Did you ever notice PKD rarely describes natural settings (aside from the breast-like mountains what's-his-name drives off between in Cosmic Puppets)? This book has extensive underwater scenes and yet there is almost no detail, no descriptions of the smells, the feel of the water, nothing. It's very disconcerting. Let's not argue about whether that's intentional; it may be. But it had a weird effect on me as a reader. Here's the first description of Plowman's Planet:
"Strong-armed members of the ship's crew manually unscrewed the hatch; outside air eddied in, smelling odd and cold. It seemed to Joe that the ocean was close; he sensed it in the air. Shielding his eyes he gazed out against a weak sun; he distinguished the outline of a reasonably modern-looking city, and, past it, hills in a mixture of brown and gray. But the ocean is somewhere nearby, he said to himself."
Here's a the first look below the surface of Mare-Nostrum:
"The light of the staging chamber faded out above him. He snapped on his own torch and allowed himself to be tugged along, down and down; the water became utterly black, except for the vague, seemingly half-real quadrant illuminated by his torch. And, below him, Mali's torch glowed, like the phosphorescent light of an exceedingly deep sea-fish."
I appreciate efficient, economical prose, but Phil, man, we're on another planet! You gotta tell us what it looks like... Of course, you know I'm hesitant to give writing advice to PKD.
When I started telling people I was going to read GPH this summer, several Dick-heads I respect said immediately, 'Oh yeah, that's one of my favorites.' I remember Rickman saying somewhere it was one of his favorites too. But others, including some commenters here, were let's just say, underwhelmed. As you have read in my quoting of PKD in the secondary sources, he both bragged about this novel to Rickman and called it 'scraping the bottom of the barrel' in the Exegesis. So we have a hung jury. While I don't think GPH is one of Dick's best works, I think it is an important work. I also really enjoyed it.
I think there are three important ways to consider this book:
1) As a novel about craftsmanship and salvation through creation.
2) As a religious/psychological allegory.
3) As prescient autobiography.
So let's start with number one. As Umberto Rossi noted in the comment section and Josh Lind argues in his essay on GPH, this is a book about making art. Furthermore, the novel chronicles the personal journey one must make in order to transcend the oppressive shallowness of our society and become an artist. When we first meet Joe Fernwright he's living an eerily familiar life. Well not my life, because I teach in a classroom and have an office rather than a cubicle - PKD actually uses the word 'cubicle' - but he's depicting the world that a lot of us live in now, in 2010: networked to our friends, playing time-killing games with each other, enjoying artificial views. Instead of being our becoming complacent, the comfort of modern life is slowly devivifying.
GPH breaks the mold of many PKD novels by following only one character for the first few chapters, a far cry from the multi-foci plot of Man in the High Castle or even Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep... This is Fernwright's novel, and his isolation intensifies his despondency.
For me, Fernwright is a immediately sympathetic as a pot-healer, a repairer of old ceramics in a world of throwaway plastics. Fernwright is not a Jack Isidore, dangerously retreading tires to eek out a few extra bucks for the auto shop; his is a career that stands in opposition to the disposable future, and his craft is becoming obsolete. Sadly, this is a kind of American archetype: the skilled worker who's been replaced by innovation, and Joe(!) represents this perfectly. The way I read the book, if Joe were getting enough broken pots to fix, he wouldn't be worried about the ultimate significance of his life. Joe's solution to his problems is also strangely American: frugally saving his money, so he can spend it on a psychic. Our boy Joe is a follower, not a leader.
Fernwright embarks on his journey when he is contacted by the Glimmung who first offers him 35000 Crumbles to travel to Plowman's Planet and assist in the raising of Heldscalla. Interesting that the first offer is money rather than purpose and significance. But when Joe gets to Heldscalla, even when Fernwright has a vase to repair, he is in some fundamental sense still passive, still repairing what others have made, and while I think this is a job he also would have found fulfilling and could have been satisfied doing, this is not where he ultimately ends up.
Fernwright trades the certain but mundane life he has on Earth for this much more exciting but uncertain existence. When Joe enters the wider world of mystery, he also finds that he can no longer be certain of anything: the Books of the Kalends predict seemingly contradictory outcomes, the Glimmung's powers are clearly quite advanced, but it's also accident prone.
Joe and the other assembled artisans are there to assist the Glimmung and this complicates matters for Joe. Part of the danger of being a follower is the real possibility that you will be made to do something you either don't want to do, or something you think is fundamentally wrong. Now Joe must trust the Glimmung's intentions in addition to his ability to accomplish its objectives. Ultimately, the artisans must merge with the Glimmung in order to raise Heldscalla.
Joe Fernwright ultimately leaves the Glimmung, opting instead to strike out on his own. Now he is ready to go to Mali's planet rather than return to Earth. Our follower is now marking his own course forward, free to follow his own desires. How is the final bit of this transformation accomplished? Through the creation of a ceramic pot of his own.
Many readers complain the book ends abruptly; others say it kind of peters out. I think readers get this feeling mostly because the theophanic climax is so hokey (there, I said it). I actually like the ending, because it suggests perhaps the greatest victory Joe (or any of us) is capable of is pursuit of our own artistic desires. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, written the year before GPH, features a similar character arc for Deckard who goes from operating under society's (flawed) moral code to living based on his personal moral code, and it turns out that what he thinks is right and wrong is a lot better than that society's formulation. Fernwright goes from mending others' ceramic art to making his own. Joseph Campbell quotes someone (is it Schopenhauer?) who said that at the end of your life you look back and it reads like a novel, replete with irony, comic relief, unexpected twists and turns, recurring themes. You either write that novel for yourself, or it is written for you.
And so Joe Fernwright goes from saving up money to pay a psychic to divine his future, to giving his life over to a superior being in service of its goals and objectives, to creating his own future, with his own hands. As Josh Lind points out in his essay, 'Vessels of Spiritual Transformation' the final line about the pot has a double meaning:
"...the pot is ‘awful,’ an object that inspires awe. It is a sublime object that is simultaneously greater than him, but also somehow his own product. It joins matter and form, conscious and unconscious, and therefore reflects what Jung referred to as the coniunctio, the joining of opposites (Hopcke 124)."
Stay tuned for our next exciting installment when we'll discuss the novel's allegorical meanings...