|Edward, Spitalfields 1989|
by Marketa Luskacova
Thursday, 16 August 2012
‘Helio, lowering his book, said, “This child has a speech impediment which I am overcoming.”’
It is, surely, Dick’s unflinching presentation of the interface between mental illness and impaired communication in his 1964 novel Martian Time-Slip, which brought Patricia Warrick – as Umberto Rossi notes in The Twisted Worlds of Philip K. Dick – to comment on the ‘terrible sincerity’ of the text. For Fredric Jameson, in his ‘History and Salvation in Philip K. Dick’, the settlements on Mars in Martian Time-Slip represent ‘the most depressing of all his novelistic “realities”’ – though I would add that the settlements presented in A Maze of Death are none too cheering either. The sincerity which Dick achieves in Martian Time-Slip is particularly sobering, I would argue, because it posits the misery involved with mental illness to be an increasingly generalized condition within contemporary life. When Rossi writes that ‘the title of the 1963 novella “All We Marsmen” – that Dick expanded into the novel – might also suggest that it is a story about “All We Madmen (and Women)”’, I would go further and emphasize Dick’s intention in the novel to suggest that, increasingly, We Are All Madmen and Madwomen now. Martian Time-Slip has Jack Bohlen remark that schizophrenia poses ‘“one of the most pressing problems human civilization has ever faced”’; later the text describes schizophrenia as ‘the most pervasive, ominous psychic process known to man’.
Mental illness is repeatedly presented by Dick in terms of a breakdown of communication and relationality. He has the psychiatrist, Dr Glaub, observe that ‘“In autism, especially, the faculty of interpersonal communication is drastically impaired.”’ As Rossi comments, in connection with the novel’s autistic protagonist Manfred Steiner and his disturbance in time-sense, ‘the time-slip that allows Manfred to see what will happen also prevents him from communicating with others in the present’. Dr Glaub describes ‘“disturbed persons”’ as ‘“encapsulated individuals cut off from ordinary means of communication”’. Bohlen articulates Dick’s understanding of such noncommunicative isolation:
‘Now I can see what psychosis is: the utter alienation of perception from the objects of the outside world, especially the objects which matter: the warmhearted people there. And what takes their place? A dreadful preoccupation with – the endless ebb and flow of one’s own self. The changes emanating from within which affect only the inside world. It is a splitting apart of the two worlds, inner and outer, so that neither registers on the other. Both still exist, but each goes its own way.’
Dick’s understanding of mental disturbance as a confinement within interiority, relates to his sense that contemporary mental illness derives from the influence of the exercise of modern rationality. Manfred Steiner’s father traces his son’s autistic alienation back to the influence of Manfred’s mother’s academic personality, with its detachment from lived sensuous experience, its coldness and lack of love. Her dominative, instrumental rationality has reified her. By contrast, Silvia Bohlen is ‘a genuine mother and woman, vital, physically attractive, alive’:
‘In his own mind, Steiner blamed it all on his wife; when Manfred was a baby, she had never talked to him or shown him any affection. Having been trained as a chemist, she had an intellectual, matter-of-fact attitude, inappropriate in a mother. She had bathed and fed the baby as if he were a laboratory animal like a white rat. She kept him clean and healthy but she had never sung to him, laughed with him, had not really used language to or with him. So naturally he had become autistic; what else could he do?’
Dick consolidates an imputed critique of today’s academic culture and academic reason, when he has Dr Glaub refer to disturbed ‘“minds so fatigued by the impossible task of communicating in a world where everything happens with such rapidity that -”’. Here it is difficult not to think of the purposelessly accelerated, bureaucratized conditions of contemporary academic production – or this society’s ‘publish-or-perish’ privileging of the quantity of academic research produced over its quality – and the damage that these conditions do to our mental health. Martian Time-Slip in fact offers a potent Weberian or Frankfurt School-like prophecy of our existing culture of enforced higher education, intensified social differentiation and career specialization:
‘The ad listed all the skills in demand on Mars, and it was a long list, excluding only canary raiser and proctologist, if that. It pointed out how hard it was now for a person with only a master’s degree to get a job on Earth, and how on Mars there were good-paying jobs for people with only B.A.’s [sic].’
Jack Bohlen further illuminates this vision of a fast-paced, specialized polis, the complexity of which entails an ultimately changeless, reified and reifying, density of experience which threatens our sense of the freedom of the self.
‘“Frankly, Kindly Dad, I emigrated to Mars because of my schizophrenic episode when I was twenty-two and worked for Corona Corporation. I was cracking up. I had to move out of a complex urban environment and into a simpler one, a primitive frontier environment with more freedom. The pressure was too great for me; it was emigrate or go mad. […] I went mad standing in line at the bookstore. Everybody else, Kindly Dad, every single person in that bookstore and in that supermarket – all of them lived in the same building I did. It was a society, Kindly Dad, that one building.”’
The novel develops its critique of the modern use of instrumental reason in the course of a conversation in which Heliogabalus describes schizophrenia as ‘“the savage within the man”’, and Arnie Kott responds by calling it a ‘“reversion to primitive ways of thought”’. Helio identifies psychoanalysis, taken as an instance of the sort of modern instrumental reason which would reshape suffering selves, to be a ‘“vainglorious foolishness”’ which is mistaken in its therapeutic mission of restoring the subject to optimum functionality and sense of purpose.
‘“Question they never deal with is, what to remold sick person like. There is no what, Mister.”
“I don’t get you, Helio.”
“Purpose of life is unknown, and hence way to be is hidden from the eyes of living critters. Who can say if perhaps the schizophrenics are not correct? Mister, they take a brave journey. They turn away from mere things, which one may handle and turn to practical use; they turn inward to meaning . There, the black-night-without-bottom lies, the pit. Who can say if they will return? And if so, what will they be like, having glimpsed meaning? I admire them.”’
Dick here suggests that in a real sense mental illness is itself a valid response to the perennial philosophical question of human purpose. Modern instrumental rationality involves an objectivizing use of reason, which latches on to objects to ‘turn to practical use’; in contrast, (rational) irrationality can refuse objectivity and seek not practical purpose, but the impractical purpose of uncovering the absolute grounding humanity. It is in this context of the ‘turn inward to meaning’ that Dick’s conception of irrationality, converges with the conception of existential reason developed in Jaspers’ thinking: as Chris Thornhill notes in his Karl Jaspers, 'transcendence' is for Jaspers 'an inner attribute of truthfully self-interpreting humanity'. Dick’s defence of the schizophrenic turn inward to meaning is also supported by the novel’s depiction of the Martian environment; Mars is presented as ideal territory for asocial interior voyagers towards the sources of human value, in a way that recalls a phrase from Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat : the ‘private moon voyage’. Early in the novel, Bohlen judges that his father will adjust to Mars precisely because he is ‘in touch with some level of knowledge which told him how to behave, not in the social sense, but in a deeper, more permanent way’. Then the ‘lonely’ children of Mars appear; frantic yet diffident, Kafka-solitary pursuers of the transcendental beneath the surface. Young hermeneuticians, slightly dazed by the austere immensity of their ‘black-night-without-bottom’, the landscape of their quest.
‘The children had a large-eyed, haunted look, as if they were starved for something as yet invisible. They tended to become reclusive, if given half a chance, wandering off to poke about in the wastelands. […] When he flew by ‘copter, Arnie always spotted some isolated children, one here and another there, toiling away out in the desert, scratching at the rock and sand as if trying vaguely to pry up the surface of Mars and get underneath…’
The novel’s foregrounding of the schizophrenic turn inward to meaning has a sociopolitical correlate in Dick’s characteristic vaunting of repairman Otto Zitte’s doomed bid for personal economic freedom.
‘He hated the big racketeers, too, same as he hated the big unions. He hated bigness per se; bigness had destroyed the American system of free enterprise, the small businessman had been ruined – in fact, he himself had been perhaps the last authentic small businessman in the solar system. That was his real crime; he had tried to live the American way of life, instead of just talking about it.’
Of course these statements are representative of Dick’s typical populist celebration of, in Jameson’s words (in his ‘Philip K. Dick, In Memoriam’), ‘small employees such as record salesmen, self-employed mechanics and petty bureaucrats […] caught in the convulsive struggles of monopoly corporations and now galactic and intergalactic multinationals’. Darko Suvin, Rossi records, has interpreted the AM-WEB building in Martian Time-Slip as a reference to the ‘American Web of big business, corrupt labour aristocracy and big state’. The novel’s defence of an individual’s freedom, in the face of both the right-wing and left-wing varieties of reified intersubjectivity which manifest in our contemporary convergence of monopoly capitalism and bureaucratic statism, is clear.
To be continued.