Digressions on Eye In The Sky

by Frank C. Bertrand

It has been said that sometimes what isn’t written in a work of literature is as important, if not more important, than what is written. I had a strong sense of this as I recently reread Phil Dick’s 1957 published novel Eye In The Sky (hereinafter EITS). There seems to be a lot going on between the lines, a lot of connotative implications that generate far more questions than are answered by what is in the text itself. Such “cognitive estrangement,” if you will, is not an unusual response to a Phil Dick novel.

A second reaction I had was a visual metaphor illustrating what is ostensibly going on in EITS, the infamous 1953 “double helix” of James Watson and Francis Crick. The crystalline structure of the DNA molecule is, according to Watson and Crick, a spiral framework composed on two twining complementary strands, or, as graphically depicted, a spiraling ladder. Each rung of this ladder consists of a pair of bases, with there being four kinds, or half-rungs. In EITS the two twining “thematic” strands of the ladder are religion and philosophy, the four complementary half-rungs being illusion paired with reality, and individual consciousness paired with group consciousness.

A fusion, of sorts, of these two reactions will hopefully result in a viable explication for EITS. Then again, one of Phil’s favorite quotes, from Act III of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1878 operetta H.M.S. Pinafore, is “things are seldom what they seem,” something he talks about in a 1974 interview: “Well, let me quote you from a text by Gilbert: “Things are seldom what they seem / Skim milk masquerades as cream.” It just seemed to sum it up in life. I think the main thing in my writing was that I was trying to show my characters taking things for granted, and then realizing that things were quite different, you see.” (Vertex, Vol. 1, no. 6, February 1974, p. 96)

For instance, to pursue just one small facet, consider chapter 11 of EITS. Therein, during the second of four “private fantasy-worlds,” this one belonging(?) to Edith Pritchet, Jack Hamilton is conversing with Bill Laws about what Bill is now doing. Jack learns that Bill is in charge of research for the Lackman Soap Company which makes “those fancy perfumed bath soaps,”:

”Even if the soap plant doesn’t exist?” [Jack asks]
”It exists here.” Law’s dark, lean face was bleak with defiance. “And
that’s where I am. As long as I’m here, I’m going to make the best of it.”
”But,” Hamilton protested, “this is an illusion.”
”Illusion?” Laws grinned sarcastically; with his hard fist he thumped the
wall of the kitchen. “It feels real enough to me.”
(Eye In The Sky, New York: Collier Books, 1989, p. 149. All subsequent
parenthetical references are to this edition)

Bill Law’s intriguing action and response, “…with his hard fist he thumped the wall of the kitchen. “It feels real to me,” set off a bell of familiarity. It is a creative reworking of, and allusion to, something that the irascible Dr. Samuel Johnson once did (Saturday, August 6, 1763). As reported by his benevolent biographer, James Boswell:

”After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time
together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the
non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is
merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine
is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity
with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force
against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.'”
(Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Hill edn., Oxford Univ. Press,
1971, Vol. 1, p. 471)

The import of this particular allusion has to do with the individual mentioned by Boswell, Bishop Berkeley, and leads us onto one of the two twining thematic strands in EITS, philosophy, and some of its half-rungs.

George Berkeley (1685-1753) was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he became a lecturer in Divinity. He subsequently traveled in Europe as a chaplain and tutor, devoted five years to an attempt at establishing a missionary college in Bermuda, and in 1734 became Anglican Bishop of Cloyne, a village in county Cork, Ireland. Writing, in part, in response to John Locke’s (1632-1704) doctrine of abstraction and distinction of primary and secondary qualities, Berkeley’s most important philosophical works are: An Essay Towards A New Theory of Vision (1709), A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), and Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713). He is best known for his immaterialist hypothesis which asserts that nothing material exists; it denies the possibility of inert, mindless, material substance. His essential view, simply put, is that for something to exist it must either be perceived or else be the active being that does the perceiving, that is, “Their esse is percipi, nor is it possible they should have any existence out of the minds or thinking things which perceive them.” (Great Books Of The Western World, Vol. 35, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, p. 413)

If Bishop Berkeley were standing in Jack Hamilton’s kitchen with Bill Laws he would tell him that he (Bill) can have no immediate perception of the three-dimensional kitchen wall. That’s because the kitchen wall is nothing more than a collection of complex ideas or sensible qualities, of sense-data, of perceptions, which occur only in his (Bill’s) mind; the kitchen wall exists, therefore, only as perceived, not as external (to Bill’s mind) reality. And Bill Laws refutes him by thumping his hard fist against the kitchen wall.

A third, and perhaps relevant, refutation of Bishop Berkeley’s “immaterialist idealism” is attributed to Jonathan Swift, whom Berkeley met and knew. And it so happens that Phil Dick alludes to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in chapter 12 of EITS (p. 156). As related by G.J. Warnock in his book about Berkeley:

”Dean Swift is reported (perhaps apocryphally) to have left him
[Berkeley] standing on the door-step when he came to call, saying
that if his philosophical views were correct he should be able to
come in through a closed door as easily as through an open one….
After all, he explicitly denied the existence of matter; he asserted
that we perceive only ‘our own ideas’; and what is this but to say
that we are all in a dream? Why open the door if there is really no
solid, impenetrable door to be opened?” (Berkeley, Peregrine edn.,
London, 1969, p. 17)

As for Bill Law’s reaction, it is important to consider it within the context of Jack Hamilton’s response, “this is an illusion,” and thereby the larger context of EITS itself.

The “this” which is an “illusion” refers to Edith Pritchet’s “private fantasy-world” (p. 106). Jack is trying to convince Bill Laws that what he is currently experiencing, his job at the soap plant, doesn’t exist. It is part of the illusionary world “created” in Edith Pritchet’s “consciousness.” Which brings us (SMACK!) hard up against the philosophical quandary of illusion vs. reality and the larger issue of how our perception and consciousness perceive/interpret illusion and reality.

In EITS Phil Dick’s premise seems to be that a group of eight people fall sixty feet from an observation platform “through the fantastically charged proton beam” (p. 2) of the Belmont Bevatron. Of the eight “seven were knocked unconscious by the impact of the fall.” (p. 109) One remained conscious. On the next page, however, we learn that they “all lost consciousness while…in the energy beam.” (p. 110) One didn’t. Bit of an inconsistency here. WHEN did seven of the group of eight lose consciousness, while falling through (and being in) the proton beam, or upon hitting the floor?

The former appears to be substantiated by what Jack Hamilton says several pages prior: “All eight of us dropped into the proton beam of the Bevatron. During the interval there was only one consciousness, one frame of reference, for the eight of us. Silvester never lost consciousness.” (p. 105) Jack also states that “Normally, each individual has a unique frame of reference.” (p. 110) The free energy of the proton beam, however, “…turned Silvester’s personal world into a public universe.” (p. 105) In effect, then, Silvester’s “unique frame of reference,” his “personal world,” becomes a public or group consciousness for the other seven. Somehow the energy of the proton beam takes Silvester’s personal consciousness and merges, or infuses, it with the consciousnesses of the rest of the group, and thereby generates the first of the four “private fantasy-worlds” in EITS. Such “what-ifs” are SF (an oxymoron) novels made of.

The second fantasy-world, that of Edith Pritchet, we have already encountered. Hers happens after Silvester’s, who never lost consciousness, because she (it is implied) was next “closest to consciousness.” (p. 177) “She was stirring….There, on the floor of the Bevatron.” (p. 177) This means that the effect of the proton beam’s energy continues after the eight individuals fall through it and impact upon the floor. Apparently the degree, or strength, of consciousness, of awareness, determines whose “personal world” next becomes public for the other seven in the group. While in this personal world, however, is what they “experience” Jack Hamilton’s illusion, Bill Law’s reality, or something else?

The use of such descriptive adjectives as “personal,” “public,” and “private” suggest one possible answer. In a June 8, 1969 letter published in Bruce Gillespie’s SF Commentary (No. 9, February 1970), Phil Dick writes:

”I have been very much influenced by the thinking of the European
existential psychologists, who posit this: for each person there are
two worlds, the idios kosmos, which is a unique private world, and
the koinos kosmos, which literally means shared world (just as idios
means private). No person can tell which parts of his total worldview
is idios kosmos and which is koinos kosmos, except by the achievement
of a strong empathetic rapport with other people.” (Philip K.
Dick: Electric Shepherd
, Melbourne: Norstrilia Press, 1975,
pp. 31-32)

The kosmos he notes was first applied to the world by Pythagoras and signified a particular early Greek combination of order, structural perfection, and beauty. Then, as restated by Plato, to find kosmos in the world was to discover kosmos in one’s own soul. This is apparently an important concept for Phil because he mentions it in a 1965 article, “Schizophrenia and the Book of Changes,” (PKDS Newsletter, No. 14, June 1987), in two of the 1972 letters included in The Dark-Haired Girl (Ziesing, 1988), and in a May, 1979 interview with Charles Platt published in Dream Makers (Berkley, 1980).

In the same SF Commentary letter he mentions that this theory of “plural worlds” parallels Jung’s concept of projection, which involves “projection of unconscious archetypes onto the “real” outer world,” (ibid., p. 32) and more significantly, he refers to Kant twice. Phil states, in the first instance, that “it must be obvious to you by this time that Kant’s concept of the Dinge-an-sich [sic] has influenced me, too.” (ibid., p. 32) Then, towards the end of the letter, he writes “Actually, what I’m proposing is a radically new theory as to what is “real” and what is not….I’m merely repeating Kant when he says that we, i.e., our brains, organize incoming data in order to structure it in a way that we can control.” (ibid., p. 33)

Aspects of all three of these “plural world” theories have relevance for EITS. But, it is Kant’s concept of Ding-an-sich that is perhaps most relevant in that he also wrote, in book II of the Transcendental Analytic chapter of his Critique Of Pure Reason (1781), a Refutation of Idealism. Earlier in the Critique, in section 9 of Transcendental Doctrine of Elements, Kant implicitly accuses Berkeley of “degrading bodies to mere illusory appearances.” (Great Books Of The Western World, Vol. 42, Kant, p. 33) Then, in the Refutation, he writes about the “…dogmatical idealism of Berkeley, who maintains that space, together with all the objects of which it is the inseparable condition, is a thing which is in itself impossible, and that consequently the objects in space are mere products of the imagination.” (ibid., p. 88)

That objects in space, bodies, kitchen walls are mere products of the imagination, mere illusory appearances, Kant disputes because Berkeley does not consider, as he does, “…the relation of the object to the subject, and which moreover is inseparable from our representation of the object….” If we do not regard “…the determinate relations of these objects to the subject, and without limiting my judgement to that relation — then, and then only, arises illusion.” (ibid., p. 33)

We now need to relate this, hopefully, to Kant’s concept of Ding-an-sich, of “thing-in-itself.” It should first be noted that in chapter 5 of EITS, Phil Dick has his protagonist, Jack Hamilton, ask “Haven’t you noticed? Can’t you see any difference between things as they were and things as they are?” (p. 63) Also, Phil alludes to Kant in at least six other novels, from “…the Ding an sich, as Kant said” in Time Out Of Joint (1959), to “Nobody sees reality as it actually is…as Kant proved” in A Maze Of Death (1970).

Kant most clearly summarizes “thing-in-itself” in section 9, General Remarks on Transcendental Aesthetic, of Critique as follows:

”We have intended, then, to say that all our intuition is nothing but the
representation of phenomena; that the things which we intuite, are not
in themselves the same as our representations of them in intuition….For
when we speak of things as phenomena, the objects, nay, even the
properties which we ascribe to them, are looked upon as really given;
only that, in so far as this or that property depends upon the mode of
intuition of the subject, in the relation of the given object to the subject,
the object as phenomenon is to be distinguished from the object as a thing
in itself.” (Great Books Of The Western World, Vol. 42, Kant,
pp. 29, 32)

Or, as epitomized in his famous dictum, “Thoughts without content are void; intuitions without conceptions, blind.” (ibid., p. 34) This, in turn, leads to the distinction between the “noumenal world” of things as they are in themselves and the “phenomenal world” of reality as it appears to a conscious object. With respect to EITS we could distinguish between people in themselves and people as they appear (to other people).

Another way to consider this is suggested by the reference in chapter 7 to “The vast and overwhelming structure of the Copernican heliocentric system…” and “…the ancient Ptolemaic universe.” (p. 85) C.D. Broad, in his book about Kant, intriguingly writes:

”…Kant says that the older pre-critical metaphysics is like the pre-
Copernican astronomy. It regards our minds as mere mirrors, which
passively reflect things-in-themselves….His own view is that the
objects of our knowledge are not things-in-themselves, but are
manufactured products in making which our minds play a part.”
(Kant: An Introduction, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1978, p. 13)

The analogy implied here is that as Copernicus explained the perceived movement of the heavens by the actual movement of the viewer, who is carried with the earth, so Kant explains the perceived arrangement of the world by the actual order of the observer. Man is, therefore, no longer a passive spectator of nature but rather a fabricator of it. The objects of man’s knowledge are manufactured products, structures of experience, in making which man’s mind plays a part.

Let us, then, put Kant in place of Bishop Berkeley in Jack Hamilton’s kitchen with Bill Laws. Kant would tell him that the kitchen wall affects his (Bill’s) faculties of awareness to the extent that wall and faculties thereby jointly produce the sensations of it that he (Bill) has. Kant would explain that Bill can and does have knowledge of the wall as it appears, its phenomena as a sensible thing. But, he cannot have knowledge of the wall-in-itself, its noumena as a intelligible thing. Jack would refute Kant by asserting the wall is an illusion.

And he could well be right, for all of this says little about the philosophical problem of “personal identity” and the consciousness associated therewith. Bill and Jack are, after all, within the idios kosmos, the private fantasy-world of Edith Pritchet, along with five others. The operative word here is fantasy. They become part not of her “real” world, but the world as she fantasizes it should be, based on her particular value-system and life-style. Does this group of eight together, therefore, due to the proton beam, exist in a koinos kosmos? Or, are seven of them but the projection of Edith Pritchet’s unconscious archetypes onto the “real” outer world? And how does Kant’s “phenomenal world” of reality as it appears to a conscious object — and Edith Pritchet is here a seemingly conscious object — affect how the other seven perceive her, and themselves, as a person-in-itself?

Phil Dick states in the already cited letter that “…if a person’s idios kosmos begins to break down, he is exposed to the archetypal or transcendental forces of the koinos kosmos…” (Philip K. Dick: Electric Shepherd, p. 32) This could very well be what happens in EITS. The proton beam breaks down the private world of at least four characters, exposing them all to the archetypal forces of a shared world.

WHAT and WHOSE shared world? What archetypal forces? Is this suppose to be Phil Dick’s “radically new theory as to what is “real” and what is not”? We end up with, as noted in the beginning, more questions than answers. And we haven’t even touched upon the “Eye,” the significance of the Safe Harbor bar, nor the novel’s original title, With Opened Mind. This suggests, to me, that a more appropriate visual metaphor for EITS than the “double helix” is the Labyrinth of Minos. In actuality a vast palace comprised of a maze of rooms and corridors, the Labyrinth has shut within it a Minotaur, a monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull. The Labyrinth is, if you will, EITS. The Minotaur is Philosophy (or perhaps Phil Dick!), in the guise of the nature of Reality and Personal Identity/Consciousness.

We (the readers) did not get very far into the Labyrinth this time. But, do we really want to confront the Minotaur? (FCB 12/93)

2 thoughts on “Digressions on Eye In The Sky

  1. “I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”

    Conan the Barbarian in “Queen of the Black Coast” (1934)
    novelette; Weird Tales 23 5, May 1934
    by Robert E. Howard

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