Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Second Variety

‘“Let’s go find some of the people. So we can begin discussing things. Metaphysical things.” He grinned at Ryan. “I always did like metaphysical things.”’  [‘Jon’s World’]

The second volume of the Collected Short Stories of Philip K. Dick, Second Variety, holds 27 stories published in the period between 1952 and 1955 – in which year Solar Lottery, Dick’s first novel, was published. Here I’m referring to the Gollancz Second Variety, and not the one which is the third volume in the Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick put out by Citadel Press, and which contains a different set of short stories.

As Norman Spinrad notes in his ‘Introduction’, this collection represents ‘a kind of fascinating time capsule’, constituting as it does ‘the compressed short fiction apprenticeship of a writer who was to go on to become one of the great novelists of the twentieth century and arguably the greatest metaphysical novelist of all time’. As Dick’s early philosophical writing, the stories show the signs of imaginative genius: tightness, compression, visionary definition. There is that Villette sense of inevitable gestation; their conception strikes one as having involved an unconditioned organicism, a faultless development. Each story hits like a mathematical equation, or a crystalline structure that has sprung suddenly into being. There is a phrase in ‘Survey Team’ which describes the way each vision enfolds the reader’s attention: ‘the semantics hut’.   

Most crucially, in philosophical terms, these stories display the emergence of Dick’s concern with anthropology. In a note written in 1976, he observed that in ‘Second Variety’, ‘my grand theme – who is human and who only appears (masquerades) as human? – emerges most fully. Unless we can individually and collectively be certain of the answer to this question, we face what is, in my view, the most serious problem possible. […] I keep working on this theme; to me nothing is as important a question.’ In this post I want to suggest that Dick, rather like Karl Jaspers, evolves a ‘transcendental anthropology’ (in Thornhill’s phrase), upon which to ground his thinking about human-being. For Spinrad, empathy is indeed both ‘the great theme and the spiritual core of Philip K. Dick’s whole career’: ‘the empathy that, in the end, is finally what distinguishes the human from the machine, the spiritual from the mechanical, authentic being from even the most cunningly crafted pseudo-life’. A transcendental anthropology founded on empathy is one open to incorporating, as a key term, the experience of the vulnerable – for instance what Dick’s note to ‘Small Town’ calls ‘the frustrations of a defeated small person’. It also foregrounds human singularity, and interrogates unfreedom, for instance in its communist form. This is how razor-fingered robot-life is discussed in ‘Second Variety’:

‘“It only takes one of them. Once the first one gets in it admits the others. Hundreds of them, all alike. You should have seen them. Identical. Like ants.”
            “Perfect socialism,” Tasso said. “The ideal of the communist state. All citizens interchangeable.”
            Klaus grunted angrily. “That’s enough. Well? What next?”’ 

Allison, in ‘The World She Wanted’, thus refuses planned interchangeability in favour of an existentialist upholding of individual experience, when she asserts that ‘“We each have our own world”’. ‘“The Great Designer has to be economical – like all good artists. Many of the worlds are similar, almost the same. But each of them belongs to only one person.”’

The story ‘James P. Crow’ focusses in on robots as prime emblems of what Spinrad calls ‘baleful anti-empathetic pseudo-life’, for example because they are key players in what Jaspers (in The Spiritual Condition of the Age) termed the modern ‘world of advanced technique’: the unfree realm of planned, mechanical functioning. Discussing the matter with L-87t, Crow contrasts ‘“Robots who think and plan and design machinery”’, and who are ‘“purely intellectual”’, to ‘“emotional humans”’:

‘“Humans and robots are completely different. We humans can sing, act, write plays, stories, operas, paint, design sets, flower gardens, buildings, cook delicious meals, make love, scratch sonnets on menus – and robots can’t. But robots can build elaborate cities and machines that function perfectly, work for days without rest, think without emotional interruption, gestalt complex data without a time lag.”’

Dick expands the emotional life versus mental life split into a division between manual (human) and intellectual (robot) forms of labour; a divide presaged in the racial divisions of 1950s America.

‘Human beings had their place. They were understood and wanted: as body servants, entertainers, clerks, gardeners, construction workers, repairmen, odd-jobbers and factory workers.
            But when it came to something like civic control coordinator or traffic supervisor for the usone tapes that fed energy into the planet’s twelve hydro-systems – ’

But the intellectual labour performed by the robots within the society of ‘James P. Crow’ is purely technical. It is a practice of the sort of focussed (‘without emotional interruption’), unimaginative, invariant intellectual life which we see gaining precedence in our bureaucratized, tick-box educational system now, increasingly centred as it is on consumerist league tables and standards of false achievement. ‘The Lists were geared to robot minds. Made up by robots, phased to a robot culture. A culture which was alien to humans, to which humans had to make difficult adjustment. No wonder only robots passed their Lists.’

This is why non-technical – spiritual – intellectual life emerges as a crucial component of the transcendental anthropology evolved in these stories. Making a claim for a human’s intellectual freedom, the story ‘The Hood Maker’ recalls the way in which the word Geist, so central within the German philosophical tradition, refers to both ‘mind’ and ‘spirit’. ‘If he wore the hood his mind would be his own. Nobody could look into it. His mind would belong to him again, private, secret, to think as he wished, endless thoughts for no one else’s consumption but his own.’ In ‘Planet for Transients’ the idea of free, inviolate mental life (‘gnosis’) is culturalized, or situated along the lines of anthropological science within a shamanic context, when Dick returns us to the notion of a conveyance of tradition, or of a spiritual education gifted by a representative of ‘true man’ – an embodiment of Spinrad’s ‘authentic being’.

‘A human was wanted here too. A human brought with him valuable gnosis, odds and ends of tradition the mutants needed to incorporate into their shaky social structures. Mutant cultures were still unsteady. They needed contact with the past. A human being was a shaman, a Wise Man to teach and instruct. To teach the mutants how life had been, how their ancestors had lived and acted and looked.’

Dick’s concern with the human defined as a repository and transmitter of traditional gnosis – of spirituality which expressed itself in historical forms of culture – bears affinities with Jaspers’ concern with existence, ‘the key term’ (as Thornhill notes) in his transcendental anthropology.  For Jaspers, in the relation of existence to an ‘original unity of being’, Thornhill writes, ‘humans ceaselessly dispose themselves differently and originally towards the terms of their historical life: they thus become more, and more reflexively, human’. It is a matter of a continuous, if faltering, hermeneutic access to the transcendent background of history.

‘Existence reflects a progressive (although invariably incomplete) disclosure of original human capacities. Existence is thus a category of experience, in which human beings, in their historical immanence and particularity, relate themselves to the possibility of an originary unity of being. This unity is not produced by history. It is neither realized as a fact of personality nor an ontological fact of knowledge, but it is interpreted, in however fragmented form, as and in existence itself.’

In ‘Souvenir’, Williamson states that the inhabitants of Williamson’s World ‘“worship in common a vague animism. A sense of the general positive vitality of the universal process”’. Dick’s interest in (re)vitalization – which will become a central theme of his novel Ubik, of course – emerges already in the opening story of Second Variety, ‘The Cookie Lady’. ‘The change, the glow, was coming over her, the warm, rising feeling. She was blooming again, filling with life, swelling into richness, as she had been, once, long ago.’ We could argue that the sort of human spiritual life asserted within Dick’s transcendental anthropology is indeed comparable to that held out by a ‘vague animism’, in that for Dick, as ‘Planet for Transients’ shows, genuine humanity is by definition implicated with its environment’s natural vitality, just as animist spirituality is. In that story, the mutant life-forms represent ‘“endless varieties of life”’ which are adapted to the new conditions of the planet, to all the new ways in which ‘“Earth is alive, teeming with life”’. In contrast, the original humans have failed to adapt. ‘“We’re a rocket-ship stopping at an alien world on which we can’t survive.”’ This means, Dick asserts, that they (‘“Closed helmets”’) no longer represent genuine humanity. ‘“We’re the true humans,” Trent said. “Not any more. […] We’re one form, an old form.”’   

When Dick defines genuine humanity as implicated with natural vitality, he sees both humans and their environment to be impermanent, changeable: this perspective aligns his thinking with a Buddhist viewpoint. It also aligns him with Jaspers’ questioning of anthropological thinking which, as Thornhill explains, is underwritten by his definition of existence as ‘a possible relation to transcendence, which cannot be defined or articulated in fixed structures as a positively formed human quality’. Jaspers’ is a transcendental anthropology which refuses to be bound by the terms of anthropological science. To posit existence as a possible hermeneutic relation to vitalist transcendence, as Jaspers does, is to critique the freezing and curtailment – the reification – of humanity effected by anthropological sciences.

‘[Jaspers] and Heidegger are close together in their attempts to move the conception of the human being away from unitary realized models of human essence. “No anthropology”, Jaspers states, “recognizes what the living being of the human really is”. He thus rejects anthropology both in its guise as a positivistic science of human life-forms, and as a philosophical science of human nature and human attributes.’

A comparable sense of the denaturalizing, disunifying effect of (our interpretations of) transcendence on conceptions of the human, emerges from Dick’s representation of the experience of the vulnerable. In ‘Jon’s World’, the epileptic, Jon, experiences transcendental ‘visions of ultimate reality’, which seem to give him access to quasi-Platonist forms or Ideas: ‘“The world behind all this.”’ This access radically denaturalizes and fragments what we think we are experiencing here. ‘“A real world. Much more real than this. It makes all this just a shadow world. Only dim shadows. Shapes. Images.”’ Dick’s empathetic narrative point of view does not seek to distance the reader from Jon’s relation to transcendence, and instead affirms his identity as a member of the human family and a relative of all those who have sought to restructure our conception of what we can be.

‘His own son. Retrogression. A thousand years lost. Ghosts and gods and devils and the secret inner world. The world of ultimate reality. All the fables and fictions and metaphysics that man had used for centuries to compensate for his fear, his terror of the world. All the dreams he had made up to hide the truth, the harsh world of reality. Myths, religions, fairy tales. A better land, beyond and above. Paradise. All coming back, reappearing again, and in his own son.’
[Since writing this post, I have seen that Jaspers scholar Alan Olson, in his review of Thornhill’s book on Jaspers (here), questions Thornhill’s emphasis upon the importance of Lebensphilosophie – as connecting Jaspers with Dilthey and Simmel – and maintains that ‘Jaspers’s indebtedness to Kant [...] prevents him from identifying with the romantic side of the “philosophy of life” or vitalism of any sort’. I guess a reading of Jaspers’ Nietzsche may be one way to try to establish more clearly the terms (if there are indeed substantial ones) of Jaspers’ relation to vitalist thinking…]     

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