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...


Mr. Hand said...

I think GPH ranks in importance with the best of his second-tier novels. Give it a solid B plus. (I'd say Game Players of Titan and Now Wait for Last Year are other good examples of B+, but perhaps lacking the same peculiar magic that makes GPH beloved of some) It's a great Faust novel, just not as notorious (I'd argue it has a "cult following" among Dickheads if that's fair to say, whereas the accepted "A" novels are now mainstream) as Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (which is only considered greater because it actually blows folks' minds rather than simply entertaining them with metaphysical comedy). Structurally it's well done but also an interesting example of an exception proving the rule (the Glimmung is a problematically supernatural "big man"), good for Dick's "originality". It's a great "working man" figure typical of PKD and worthy of any of his "little guy" schlub-antiheroes. In terms of mystical or occult value (post Crowley discourse on the "Holy Guardian Angel" is one territory worth mentioning where there's much interesting overlap) I would argue from academically-useless personal experience that it's in the top 5. VALIS is too advanced a novel to hand to somebody first, but I'd say GPH gives a fairly decent impression of Dick at his best. It's important because, even for a PKD novel, it's easy for weird people to relate to.

Larry said...

If metaphysical pulp literature exists, GPH is it. Obviously it would not be very satisfying for a hard SF audience, nor does it stand particularly well as a novel - in fact it stands less well than many of PKD's other novels since so much of it reads like a pretty thin literate dressing up of metaphysical ideas, only nominally satisfying on the level of character and plot. Its closest kin in that respect would be The Divine Invasion, which goes even further
(to the detriment of that novel I believe) with forsaking conventional novelistic trappings in favor of almost unmasked religious allegory. Nevertheless I share the pleasure other PKD aficionados derive from this book simply for experiencing yet another portion of PKD's mind and obsessions, and for the gifts of his humor, profundity and humanity which show through the book's best moments.

I was also struck by the poverty of the physical description of the environment, but found that, to an extent, this enhanced the the eerie dreamlike quality of the book. Which is strangely appropriate for a story that is difficult to comprehend as anything but a kind of symbolic interior journey.

LarryS said...

I read this last year and while I enjoyed parts of it I just generally found it too weird and tedious in parts. Flow My Tears, the next PKD book I read, was a different kettle of fish-super novel! This though, well.....

robin said...

For me GPH is a first-rank PKD novel, due to the pure joy I experience when reading it. VALIS is much poorer, IMO, since the large tracts of exegesis completely overwhelm the narrative. Take these out and you'd be left with a (much superior) short story. The lighter touch taken with GPH allows the emotional content of the book to shine through. It's funny; it's sad; it's inventive. I agree with Larry regarding the "eerie dreamlike quality", something that keeps me coming back to this book.

Zack said...

I am glad you brought up the point about the almost total lack of visual description regarding Plowman's Planet and the underwater environments. I am glad for a strange reason--because I didn't actually notice it.

Even now I have a very, very vivid image of Mare Nostrum in my mind. It is a dim, inky, sunken underworld populated by phospherescent globs of colored light and strange archetecture...and aparently, I just made all of this up as I read the book.

The saying goes "show don't tell," and in GPH PKD doesn't really seeme to be doing either, and yet the natural, physical landscapes still came to me strong, stronger even that in almost any other novel of his that I've read. I didn't find the lack of visual description disconcerting at all, and our different readings really fascinate me.

I don't know if my copy's striking cover helped kick in a false sense of visual detail or what. I wonder just what I might have seen had their been a lot of visual detail in the book. Would my picture have been as vivid as the one I now have? Who knows. I can only say that I find it all very interesting.

Mr. Hand said...

I'm enjoying these great comments on the lack of visual detail issue. I hadn't thought much about it, or the way that it leads to many differences of perspective in readers. It's a great example of a place to look at the "oddball" quality of PKD's style. In certain familiar criticisms he's said to sacrifice niceties of style such as detail in favor of the ideas. Too many adverbs, etc. But in the case of GPH he's doing brilliant visionary descriptions in other ways, both direct and allegorical. Some of the descriptions of the Glimmung remind me of the Hermetic text Poimandres. There plenty of psychedelic visual material in the book. in order to fulfill the requirements of an underwater cathedral, much has to be left to the imagination. It's interesting that some of the visuals are in part aporia-driven. The book applies a hermeneutic of suspicion to visionary experience itself. It plays with introspective altered states of consciousness and cosmological weird physics, but exposed to a dramatically harsh light of withering post-metaphysical comedy.

ThrewLine said...

Mr. Hand's comment makes a lot of sense:

"The book applies a hermeneutic of suspicion to visionary experience itself."

This statement could equally apply to Dick's extensive re-evaluations of his own mystical experiences in early 1974.


As a reader, excessive detail bores me, so I appreciated Dick's approach here. The emphasis on labor and "doing" holds throughout the novel -- even when Joe lands on another planet. The underwater scenes especially are evocative even without details.


I probably consider this in the second rank of PKD novels, though I absolutely love the first five chapters or so. It's an important work in Dick's oeuvre, but not an especially important book in the history of science fiction (much less 20th century American fiction more generally). I think "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" and "Martian Time-Slip" are among the most important novels of the century (though "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" is my favorite).

dave kleiser said...

Now I find all this quite interesting.

Pot healer was my first Dick novel, it just kindof randomly showed up- I had head of Dick before, but he existed in a sea of people id heard of and didnt care much about...

I found its lack of detail, which caused confusion, to actually be quite comforting, and took it to be his signature- it created images that would fully form- I had no idea where anyone was half of the time (i didnt understand the space flight to plowmans planet scene until i read it a third time)- and my impression of this was basically just good riddance to unessesary detail...

You don't need the atmosphere described to you, because you are able to automatically form one in your head as you read- it may be a better environment than the one in Dicks head as he wrote. I took this to mean that he was giving the reader the benefit of the doubt, and felt it formed a strong bond between me at the text- I was allowed creative freedom as i read, something I'd rarely experienced with ANY literature, let alone Sci Fi, which is usually written by dongs trying to stuff their "brilliant" ideas down your throat.

Considering so much of what Dick wrote was about perception as a substitute for reality, I'm surprised you frown upon the lack of detail (which Im sure was not intentional, he probably left it out cause he was in a mid 60's hurry- further more im sure if you asked him if in was intentional, he'd lie and say yes. It is the kindof happy accident that no artist can control, it has to just END UP in the text)

So back to it being my first Dick novel.

It has a character that almost anyone can identify with, and is set in a distopia that is not any more or less violent or terrible than our own world now, nor Dicks world then. This blew me away, and I've yet to read another Dick novel that was this "timeless".

What I took away from the novel was that no matter how fantastic the future seems, it will probably be just as boring as your current life is, which is almost the opposite of the traditional Sci Fi text, which embellishes the good or bad aspects of a hypothetical future to the point where the message that the author is trying to get across is so obvious that you don't even need to finish the book.

Galactic Pot Healer and VALIS are two completely different books, almost uncomparable. VALIS is a masterpiece of crazy, and Pot Healer is a nugget of gold hidden inside crap.

Pot Healer infact subscribes to the moral behind one of my favourite lines from VALIS, about how the signs of the universe manifest themselves at the trash stratum.

Galactic Pot Healer is, (without much help from Dick, as he probably didn't care any more about this novel than the others he was working on at the time) filled with hidden universal/timeless messages that are hidden inside a trashy whipped off novel, and whether it was intended to be so, it is exactly what Dick did best, a sneak attack of brilliance that you don't expect.

I also wanna note that VALIS had two drafts, and so many ideas behind it that they still havent even published a fraction of them (the exegesis). The first draft, which i gather was Radio Free Albemuth, doesn't tickle me even close to the degree that galactic pot healer does.

If he had written Galactic Pot Healer 10 years after he did, and had a first draft, we would probably be having an entirely different conversation. Tho maybe it would have sucked ass.


Dave Hyde said...

The quote from GPH when PKD first describes Plowman's Planet reminded me closely of what I thought of East Bay looking over to San Francisco when I was there for the PKD fest. That pretty much describes the view from El Cerrito.