Friday, June 29, 2007

Headpiece Filled With Straw, Alas!

Frank Bertrand has a lot of scholarly work on PKD posted over at and there I found, to my astonishment and dismay, a short essay that I certainly should have read before completing my thesis, a very interesting (and what would have been incredibly relevant) examination of Dick's reference to T.S. Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men" entitled "Between the Idea and the Reality: The Hollow Men in Time Out of Joint."

Bertrand writes:

"Most relevant for the Eliot/Dick connection is the following from near the end of chapter 6 in Time Out of Joint:

'The scarecrows lolled forward, back, forward, back. Ahead of him he saw the driver; the driver had not changed. The red neck. Strong, wide back. Driving a hollow bus. The hollow men, he thought. We should have looked up poetry.'

To this can be added mentions of 'scarecrow' and 'hollow' in chapters six and eleven. And there is a description in chapter 3 about the novel's protagonist, Ragle Gumm, having "straw-colored, shaggy eyebrows", a "bony, grim, scarred face', and 'His hair had a bleached quality, white and curled'. Now, the opening four lines of Eliot's poem are:

'We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!'

Why, then, does PKD allude to Eliot's infamous poem? What is its importance to the plot and/or theme(s) of Time Out of Joint? It has to do, in part, with PKD's interest in metaphysical poetry a form, prevalent in 17th-century England, characterized by an intellectual blend of wit and emotional ingenuity. In a 1974 interview PKD states "I've always been much influenced by the 17th-century metaphysical poets like Donne, and especially Henry Vaughan." And it's Eliot who's significantly responsible for a critical reevaluation of this style of poetry, in particular his influential essay "The Metaphysical Poets" (1921), wherein he puts Donne and other Metaphysical poets of the 17th century at the top while lowering poets of the 18th and 19th centuries."

I won't quote the whole thing (it's not too long so if you're interested you should read it yourself) but Bertrand concludes saying:

"What PKD wants us to contemplate then, I would argue, via his allusion to Eliot's poem, is not so much what is done in the name of war, albeit civil war, but the effects of such action on an individual, in this instance Ragle Gumm. In the last few pages of the novel he reflects, "It [civil war] means the most sacrifices. The fewest practical advantages." In so doing both we, and Ragle, are caught between the reality and the idea of man's inhumanity to man, of ascertaining [how] the "authentic human" (Dick's phrase) regards the fundamental questions of personal freedom, morality and individual responsibility. (FCB, 6/01)"

This is an interesting take and I think Bertrand's on the right track (insofar as he seems to be headed towards my own interpretations of the novel). But I disagree with Bertrand's conclusion that Gumm's feelings are caused by the external forces of manipulation. The "Waste Land"-like scenery Ragle encounters outside of Old Town may be the result of a prolonged flight into psychosis.

Freud argues that people expend a fair amount of energy simply dealing with external reality. If a person becomes extremely self-absorbed (perhaps even believing he's the most important person in the world), the energy normally spent relating to the world is channeled into selfish thoughts and the result is that the victim often becomes egomaniacal (perhaps even believing he is the only person who can end a deadly civil war). Freud observed that when this lavish attention is paid to the self, external reality can de-vivify as if the paranoiac now wears thick dark glasses which blot out much of what's worth noticing in life.

The victim's escape from a communal reality into an isolated personal world of their own design makes paranoiacs difficult to treat. It's also what makes Time Out of Joint such a complete mindfuck. What if the seemingly real world Gumm discovers outside of Old Town is his personal delusion? In, Eye in the Sky, Dick's other early novel to examine the human psyche at length, the personal realities the intrepid travelers stuck in the particle accelerator visit speak volumes about the neuroses and dysfunctions the minds that created them suffer from.

I always thought that like "The Waste Land," "The Hollow Men" described a kind of spiritual bankruptcy, what one of the officers on Reno 911 might call "A God-sized hole." I think both Eliot and Dick saw any kind of spirituality fundamentally rooted in emapthy and compassion as an anecdote to the isolation and alienation people suffered from in the face of last century's tremendously bloody and life-negating progress. Both men espouse a morality of sorts, an ethic of kindness and surrender.

So perhaps there is no barren slag heap outside of Old Town. Perhaps Ragle has simply reduced the world to one in his own eyes. Outside of Old Town lies "The Empire" or "The Black Iron Prison" but to my mind these manifestations of "evil" or at least illusory reality in which the universe seems apathetic, are not spells cast by powerful deities, but rather the story of someone escaping inside of himself, closing himself off in his idios kosmos. It is Ragle, not a demi-urge with no follow through, who has become apathetic, who's given up on the world. In this case the geography in Time Out of Joint is internal rather than external.

I think Dick would love the fact that there are two conflicting views as to how "The Hollow Man" references in Time Out of Joint resonate with other aspects in the narrative because I have absolutely no doubt that Dick wanted people to read his work this seriously more than I think he wanted anything else in the world.


FCBertrandJr said...

The last part of your post is the most salient: "...Dick wanted people to read his work this seriously..."
Yes, YES!

But how often to we see this on any of the PKD websites??

Didn't this Bertrand fellow also interview PKD somewhere?

Ragle Gumm said...

Bertrand's interview with PKD is here:

FCBertrandJr said...

Thank you Ragle for that link. Took the time to reread it. Most intriguing, as far as it goes. PKD was far more into philosophy than most of his readers realize. Too bad this interview couldn't have been a lot longer.