Digressions on The Man Who Japed

by Frank C. Bertrand


Some 25 years after it was published Phil Dick said of The Man Who Japed (hereinafter MWJ), “That was my attempt to introduce humor into the science fiction novel… it does have, for the first time, my sense of humor is beginning to show up in a novel.” (In His Own Words, 1984, pp. 127-28.) In chapter 4 of MWJ, Allen Purcell explains japed to his wife, Janet, as “A term we use in packet assembly. When a theme is harped on too much you get parody. When we make fun of a stale theme we say we’ve japed it.” (p. 32 — all references are to the 1956 “Ace Double Novel” edition of MWJ) The operative word here is parody, a potent means of satire and ridicule even as far back as Aristophanes.

We might, at this point, start to wonder if Allen Purcell’s explanation of japed applies to MWJ itself. Is the theme of MWJ harped on to the extent that it becomes a parody of itself, or of certain kinds of science fiction? Or, does MWJ make fun of a stale theme in science fiction and thereby jape it?

One possible answer is the blatant allusion, in chapters 22 and 23 of MWJ, to Jonathan Swift’s infamous 1729 short tract, A Modest Proposal, also alluded to in Dick’s The Unteleported Man (1966). For those too squeamish to recall, Swift proposes that Irish children be of benefit and not a burden by having one hundred thousand of them sold annually for eating at a year old. As he matter-of-factly puts it:

“That the remaining Hundred thousand, may, at a Year old be offered in

Sale to the Persons of Quality and Fortune, through the Kingdom; always

advising the Mother to let them suck plentifully in the last Month, so as to

render them plump, and fat for a good Table. A Child will make two Dishes

at an Entertainment for Friends; and when the Family dines alone, the fore

or hind Quarter will make a reasonable Dish; and seasoned with a little

Pepper or Salt, will be very good Boiled on the fourth Day, especially in

Winter.” (Rinehart Editions, 1959, p. 261)

Swift’s work is, in part, a parody of the various plans, in his time, for the relief of political and economic problems in Ireland, in particular a literal application of the widely accepted economic theory that people constitute the real wealth of a nation.

In MWJ the concept of “active assimilation” is a jape presented on a TV program called The Pageant Of Time by a panel of four “distinguished” authorities, moderated by Allen Purcell. It is given a history and etymology. We are told that “…we know active assimilation was basic, preceding the autofac system which eventually supplanted it,” (p. 149) and that the first official assimilation “…was May of 1987…one hundred Russian ‘impossibles’ were captured, killed, and processed…” (p. 150) As it is summarized in the penultimate paragraph:

“So the term ‘active assimilation,'” Mr. Purcell said, “can historically be

used to encompass any form of killing, cooking, and eating of hostile

groups, whether it be by boiling, or frying, or broiling, or baking; in

short, any culinary method apropos, with or without the preserving

of by-products such as skin, bones, fingernails, for commercial

use.” (p. 150)

That Phil Dick chose to base this satiric episode on Swift’s work is no mere coincidence. We need only note, as Phil tells Mike Hodell in a June 26, 1976 interview (KPFK-FM, North Hollywood, California, HOUR 25 radio program): “I wrote my first novel when I was 14. It was called Return to Lilliput… Some guys discover Lilliput in the modern world, but it’s only accessible by submarine because it’s sunk under the water.” For those non-Swiftian fans (are there any?), Lilliput is one of the more famous settings in literature, being from Part 1 of Swift’s equally infamous novel Gulliver’s Travels (1735).

Politics in MWJ is at, or very near, the narrative surface with interwoven strands from a variety of sources. Nazi Germany is represented by the Cohorts, “…the storm-troopers of the Morec Society.” (p. 67) Major Jules Streiter (Streiter is a German word meaning fighter, disputant, and champion) was “originally a powerful figure in the Afrikaans Empire — the re-created Transvaal State…” (p. 7) This suggests British Imperialism, Colonialism and their annexation of the Transvaal in 1877 which, in part, lead to Afrikaaner Nationalism and the Boer War (1899-1902).

The word omphalos, mentioned four times in MWJ, was in Greek antiquity (6-7th century B.C.) a rounded or conical stone, in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, thought to mark the center of the earth. This is also home to the Delphic Oracle which was consulted, in part, by Greeks seeking advice prior to establishing colonies in Ionia.

These modest side-swipes at Nazism, Imperialism, Nationalism, and Colonialism are upstaged by Phil Dick’s very humorous and sharp satire in MWJ on Chinese Communism. He writes of MWJ, in a letter to James Blish, dated February 10, 1958, “…the topic is not American culture but the society coming into existence on Mainland China…. You see, I wanted to show that as dreadful as commercial bourgeois US culture could be, there are things that pose a greater danger, go further in destroying the integrity of the individual.” (PKDS Newsletter, No. 6, April 1985, p. 10)

In MWJ this is manifested by the weekly block meeting, described in detail in chapter seven. In the housing unit where Allen Purcell and his wife live these are held every Wednesday morning in “one large chamber” on the first level, a room where all the “local Leagues, Committees, Clubs, Boards, Associations, and Orders met.” (p. 44) The meeting is overseen by a board of middle-aged ladies of which the resident block-warden is chairman. In Purcell’s building this is a Mrs. Birmingham, installed by the “Parent Citizens Committee,” and characterized as “plump, florid, in her middle fifties, she wore a flowered and ornate dress and wrote out her reports with a powerfully authoritative fountain pen.” (p. 10)

What happens at these weekly block meetings, where “Failure to arrive was in itself a lapse,” (p. 45) is that “…a man’s business was everybody’s business. Centuries of Christian confessional culminated when the block assembled to explore its members’ souls.” (p. 44) How this is done is from information initially gathered by a “juvenile,” a metal-hulled, foot and a half long, earwig-like sleuth that “…scuttled close to the ground — or up vertical surfaces — at ferocious speed, and they noticed everything.” (p. 45) That is, the victim was arraigned mechanically. “The juveniles did not accuse; they only reported what they heard and saw.” (p. 45) These “juveniles” are an early precursor of the various “scanners” that show up in later Phil Dick novels.

This hilarious episode (the ambiance of the block meeting, Mrs. Birmingham, the way evidence is gathered, the type of accusation, the incognito questioners vs. the eventual “punishment”) is modeled on the Chinese Communist Party instituted “accusation meeting,” also called “truth-telling” or “struggle” meeting. Through “People’s Tribunals” and “Peasant Associations” the rural cadres encourage peasants to air their grievances publicly against ideologically lapsed individuals and eventually to file formal charges with the government offices. In such a meeting each person is called upon not only to make criticisms of other people but to express his own ideas on various issues, to accept humbly the criticisms made by other people, and to acknowledge his errors by making public confessions.

These meetings were part of a “thought reform” (ssu-hsiang kai-tsao) campaign started in 1951. The Chinese Communist Party described them as a “democratic” method of education and ideological transformation through a ongoing process of group criticism and self-criticism. They were meant to be an “educational” tool to produce “correct thoughts” which in turn would result in correct social and political behavior.

What then is the purpose of satirizing this amalgam of political ideologies in MWJ? Is it their form, content or results Phil Dick is more concerned with? A strong indication is to be found, I think, in the already cited remarks by Phil about MWJ in the letter to James Blish. They end with “…there are things that pose a greater danger, go further in destroying the integrity of the individual.” The integrity of the individual!

If we agree that the two most important themes in Phil Dick’s fiction are “What is Reality” and “What does it mean to be a Human being,” then a corollary theme would be how humans understand/cope/interact with reality. Further parsed, how the integrity of the individual human is affected by reality, as manifested by, say, politics. In MWJ we find the individual, Allen Purcell, vs. Morec Society and its fascist brand of totalitarianism, control by the state over individuals and organizations so that all activity is harmonized with the policies and goals of the regime.


A different, and potentially more important, perspective on the “political” satire in MWJ can be gleaned from Jonathan Swift’s definition of satire: “Satyr is a sort of Glass, wherein Beholders do generally discover every body’s Face but their Own; which is the chief Reason for that kind Reception it meets in the World, and that so very few are offended by it.” (Jonathan Swift: Selected Prose and Poetry, 1959, p. 155) “Satyr is a sort of Glass” suggests comparison with a recurring motif used by Phil Dick in his work, a “glass darkly,” from I Corinthians. He alludes to it in The Cosmic Puppets (1957), The Man in the High Castle (1962), and most significantly, A Scanner Darkly (1977).

I would also note Stendhal’s phrase about the novel, that it is “a mirror walking along a highway” (Le Rouge et le noir, 1927). And, in a 1947 essay, “Why I Write,” George Orwell wrote “Good prose is like a window pane.” Finally, one of Phil Dick’s acknowledged influences and “intellectual heroes,” the Swiss analytical psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), wrote in a 1930 essay titled “Psychologie und Dichtung,” that “…the primordial experience is the source of his [the poet’s] creativeness, but it is so dark and amorphous that it requires the related mythological imagery to give it form. In itself it is wordless and imageless, for it is a vision “as in a glass, darkly.” (The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, 1972, pp. 96-97)

Phil Dick’s biblical allusion, from Paul’s first letter (c. 52 A.D.) to the church at Corinth (a mere 46 miles across the Gulf of Corinth from the Oracle at Delphi), situated near the center of the Roman province of Achaia, in one of the most important cities of ancient Greece, has to do with Egyptian mirrors which Hebrew women used. They were burnished metal plates made chiefly of copper that did not yield a clear image. One pietistic explanation claims that gifts such as prophecy give us only an indirect, second-hand, fragmentary knowledge of God, as in a “glass, darkly.” The subsequent phrase, “then face to face,” indicates that in the life of the world to come we shall see Him face to face, that our knowledge of Him will be first-hand, complete.

Far more important, and realistic, to Phil Dick’s work than this “religious” connotation is the implied metaphor of how knowledge is obtained and the clarity of that knowledge. It strongly suggests the philosophical archetype of the perceiving mind as a mirror, a reflector, of the external world. The main source for this concept is Plato. In the tenth book of the Republic we find Socrates engaged in a dialogue with Glaucon, an elder brother of Plato’s, about the visual and dramatic arts, specifically what is meant by “representation” in general. In contrasting the divine Demiurge of the creation myth in the Timaeus, as the maker of natural objects (plants and animals), with the craftsman who makes artificial objects (tables and beds), Socrates states:

“…in fact there are several ways in which the thing [the creation of objects]

can be done quite quickly. The quickest perhaps would be to take a mirror

and turn it round in all directions. In a very short time you could produce

sun and stars and earth and yourself and all the other animals and plants

and lifeless objects which you mentioned just now.” (The Republic of

Plato, Cornford edition, Oxford Univ. Press, 1971, p. 326)

Such a mirror, turned round in all directions, would only give fleeting glimpses of the external world. It could not capture and retain a likeness as painting or photography can. At best the mirror image would be a two-dimensional simulacrum of a three-dimensional object. And what of the ideas, the knowledge, generated and acquired by the perceiving mind from these mirror images?

The English philosopher John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), a treatise dealing with the nature and scope of human knowledge, writes that:

“These simples ideas, when offered to the mind, the understanding

can no more refuse to have, nor alter when they are imprinted,

nor blot them out and make new ones itself, than a mirror can refuse,

alter, or obliterate the images or ideas which the objects set before

it do therein produce.” (Ch. I, sect. 25)

Just 58 years later the Scottish historian and philosopher David Hume, in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, appears to criticize and modify Locke’s view when he writes:

“When we reflect on our past sentiments and affections, our thought

is a faithful mirror, and copies its objects truly; but the colours which

it employs are faint and dull, in comparison of those in which our

original perceptions were clothed.” (Sect. II, pt. 11)

A second possibility is the aesthetic theory of Mimesis, of art as imitation, of the mirror as an analogue for poetry. In this instance the literary work is compared to a mirror presenting a selected and ordered image of life. The images are again, however, momentary for the poem only reflects the external, visible world indirectly, by the significance of its words. This in turn raises the question of “Truth” in a literary work, its correspondence, in some fashion, to the matters it is held to reflect, that is, reality. And what of the shaping influence of artistic conventions? Or, the individuality of the author?

As Samuel Johnson aptly notes in The Rambler, No. 4, March 31, 1750:

“It is justly considered as the greatest excellency of art, to imitate

nature; but it is necessary to distinguish those parts of nature,

which are most proper for imitation….If the world be promiscuously

described, I cannot see of what use it can be to read the account;

or why it may not be as safe to turn the eye immediately upon

mankind, as upon a mirror which shows all that presents itself

without discrimination.” (Rasselas, Poems & Selected

Prose, Rinehart Library Classics, 1966, p. 63)

It is far more likely that Phil Dick was implicitly connoting the mind as mirror, and the literary work as a mirror of imitation, with a “glass, darkly” than its strictly biblical interpretation. If not that then there is always a third possibility, as suggested by Mark Twain in his essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” first published in The North American Review, July, 1895. Therein he wryly observes that “Cooper’s proudest creations in the way of “situations” suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer’s protecting eye. Cooper’s eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly.” (The Unabridged Mark Twain, 1976, p. 1244)

This acerbic criticism by Mark Twain, in particular the phrase “as through a glass eye, darkly,” is something Phil Dick would laugh uproariously at and philosophically empathize with. It would also not make an unlikely or virginal bed-fellow to Jonathan Swift’s definition of “Satyr is a sort of Glass.” Together they conspire to give us a means of characterizing the “political” satire in MWJ, that is, a glass (mirror) darkly held up to the mid 1950s, featuring “communist” China but implicitly including “commercial bourgeois US culture,” and how such a “political” culture can destroy the “integrity of the individual.”


As important as the “political” satire in MWJ is, it but gives us the surface structure. It is, if you will, the burnished metal of MWJ. The cynosure, or perhaps omphalos, of MWJ resides elsewhere, in the integrity of several of its characters. This is suggested by an obsolete meaning of “integrity.” According to the O.E.D. the “moral sense” of “integrity” once meant “unimpaired moral state; freedom from moral corruption; innocence, sinlessness.”

The core importance, then, of MWJ, and what makes it a far more significant Phil Dick novel than reviewers, critics, and scholars give it credit for, is its ethical philosophy, as manifested in the moral decisions of certain characters, in particular Allen Purcell, Tom Gates, “Professor” Sugermann, and Mr. Wales. That Phil Dick would embed this within the context of a “political” satire is not unusual. As the venerable Northrop Frye writes in his 1957 classic Anatomy Of Criticism:

“Satire demands at least a token fantasy, a content which

the reader recognizes as grotesque, and at least an implicit

moral standard, the latter being essential in a militant attitude

to experience….The satirist has to select his absurdities, and

the act of selection is a moral act.” (Anatomy Of Criticism,

Princeton Univ. Press, 1957, p. 224)

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