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A Scanner Darkly

(Pantheon Books)

What’s got to be gotten over is the false idea that hallucination is a private matter.
—Philip Kindred Dick, In Pursuit of Valis: Selections from the Exegesis


The new graphic novel edition of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly opens on a hallucination: “Charles Freck stood all day shaking bugs from his hair, even though the doctors told him there were no bugs in his hair.” In constant pain, Freck showers and scratches; he even showers with his dog, Millie, also contaminated with insect invaders. Later he explains to his friend, Fred Barris, “I looked ‘em up. They’re aphids.”


The scene is a synecdoche for Dick’s entire oeuvre. He once said, “My major preoccupation is the question, ‘What is reality?’” The question is unanswerable, because for Dick ‘reality’ is a precarious construct built over an abyss. The impossibility of grasping a final, objective ‘reality’ has posed an epistemological problem for centuries (it reoccurs in certain interpretations of quantum physics), but for Dick is not just an intellectual weight, but also an emotional one.


His best work—books like Ubik, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and VALIS—is infused with an existential paranoia. In the Scanner Darkly scene, Charles Freck perceives a certain variety of reality, what William S. Burroughs termed “the naked lunch”: the raw, unpalatable truth “at the end of every fork.” It is, however, a purely subjective truth: Freck’s bugs don’t translate to shared experience. (Many of Dick’s works deal with the mutability of what he might call “consensus reality”—the public hallucination that dreams a world.  In Ubik, for example, the characters’ shared world is constantly crumbling beneath their feet, revealing new and strange forms.)


The doctors, experts in another brand of reality, cannot see Freck’s bugs, creating a conflict of perceptual authority. Who to believe? The bugs appear real. And they cause pain.


It seems a purely philosophical question: the irresolvable tension between individual and shared experience. But part of Dick’s project, as evidenced by the above quote, is to illustrate the interplay of the two realms, especially the liminal area between them. Hallucination is not a private matter, after all; a subjective reality, backed with the force of unyielding belief, can become consensus reality.   


This brings us to A Scanner Darkly‘s main character, Bob Arctor. Arctor is a middle-aged burnout. He’s addicted to Substance D, an ambiguously-described but ubiquitous street drug. As Barris puts it, “There’s no weekend warriors on the D. You’re either on it or you haven’t tried it.” But Arctor is also Fred, an undercover officer of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department tasked with infiltrating the D culture. Fred/Arctor’s very identity is in flux (is identity anything more than an untranslatable matrix of perceptions and interpretations?) as he moves between two conflicting social hallucinations. There’s the world of Substance D, with its rambling late-night conversations and romantic orbits. There’s the world of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, with its constant surveillance and emotional detachment. At their intersection is Arctor/Fred, cloaked in a “scramble suit” that renders his appearance a vague blur. His belief in either world, and thereby his participation in them, is as murky as his appearance.


The two worlds are linked by their paranoia. (A third perceptual sphere is added later, but explaining it here would spoil the ending.)  The police—despite helming a total information awareness network so embedded in 2013 America as to go uncommented upon in the story—fear Substance D will corrupt their children and destroy society. The Substance D addicts fear the police, their friends (who could denounce them to the authorities at any moment), and the eventual death brought on by their addiction. These conflicting weltanschauungs sustain identities—narcs or druggies, whose side are you on?—but doom the characters to lives of twitchy restlessness.


In the America of A Scanner Darkly, there’s no path out of the hall of mirrors. Arctor/Fred prays for an objective, omniscient watcher, be it God or the ubiquitous scanner of the title: “I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because if the scanner sees only darkly the way I do, then I’m cursed, and cursed again, and will only wind up dead this way. Knowing very little. And getting that little fragment wrong too.” Dick’s echo of the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known,” suggests transcendence is the only escape, and one available only at the end of time.


But there is another way, a theme that runs through all of Dick’s work. Paranoia, as Arctor/Fred puts it, is “the desertion of your friends from you, you from your friends. Everyone from everyone.” Paranoia, whether among drug users, in government surveillance vans, or in corporate boardrooms, is a system of alienation. It’s what Dick would’ve termed an entropic process, one that breaks down the natural human affinity for other humans. Paranoia’s opposite is loving kindness toward others—“caritas” in Latin, “agape” in Greek. Simple empathy, Dick proposed, is the uniquely human trait that allows us to bridge that isolation. It counters paranoia, entropy, and allows us to build realities, however contingent, among those we care about.


It seems like a small thing, caritas, underwhelming in its simplicity. But Dick realized that, too. In a 1970 letter, he wrote, “Perhaps [my critics] are bothered by the fact that what I trust is so very small. They want something vaster. I have news for them: there is nothing vaster.”

Tagged as: philip k. dick
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