by Frank C. Bertrand
The reason I have chosen philosophy to investigate The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (hereinafter T3S) is twofold. In an essay titled “Manners, Morals, and The Novel,” Lionel Trilling at one point contends that “All literature tends to be concerned with the question of reality — I mean quite simply the old opposition between reality and appearance, between what really is and what merely seems.” Though initially stated with respect to American manners, Mr. Trilling’s hypothesis being that “our attitudes toward manners is the expression of a particular conception of reality,” his contention aptly notes a long standing affinity between Philosophy and Literature. The two are coordinate methods of articulating experience. Philosophy takes as one of its duties an account and analysis of the grounds of experience; Literature takes as one of its tasks the presentation and realization of specific experiences. Or, as succinctly suggested by Richard Kuhns, “What Philosophy explains, literary art realizes or makes.” This is echoed by Albert William Levi’s observation that “modes of poetic perception and novelistic style are functions of systems of knowing and philosophic points of view.”
Explicit in the aforementioned is the notion of experience. It assumes central importance when philosophically analyzed and/or artistically realized. But, one might well ask, just what aspects of experience are being analyzed and presented? Is it experience that “really is” or “merely seems”? Ian Watt writes, in his seminal study The Rise Of The Novel, that “From the Renaissance onwards, there was a growing tendency for individual experience to replace collective tradition as the ultimate arbiter of reality.” Being a literary critic, theorist and scholar rather than a professional philosopher makes Watt’s observation that much more appealing, that individual experience is the final judge of reality. Yes, this is a idea that is posited by philosophers as well. One such philosopher believes that “philosophical and literary modes of statement do enlarge one another in the sense that they take for exploration different aspects of our awareness of ourselves.” Another notes that the “metaphysics of the imagination… is the expression of a self in its confrontation with the world.”
A nice phrase that, metaphysics of the imagination. It fittingly describes the important relationship between Philosophy and Literature that we have been delineating. The kinds of experience actually realized in Literature reflect, are the counterpart of, what Philosophy analyzes as the way(s) in which experience is possible at all. More specifically, in Literature there is a kind of novel that, as one critic states, is “more seriously concerned with the nature of experience itself.” And it is due to this that I have chosen Philosophy to probe T3S. For, as we shall discover, and this is the second part of my twofold reason, Philip K. Dick has singularly devoted himself to depicting, exploring and explicating the nature of experience, or reality. He has written that “I like to fiddle with the idea of basic categories of reality, such as space and time, breaking down.” And, in a published letter, says, “I am constantly asking, What is reality?” This latter statement clearly indicates experience and suggests an agreement with Ian Watt that individual experience is the “ultimate arbiter of reality.” That he does is further evidenced by his definition of metaphysical, given in an interview, “as anything which being observed by more than one person, those observers, plural, do not agree on what they have seen or experienced.”
But, in T3S, Dick does not use a philosophic point-of-view or style that one would expect from a mid-twentieth century writer to analyze the nature of individual experience, of individual reality. He does not use Pragmatism as formulated by William James and John Dewey. Nor British Analytic Philosophy as postulated by G.E. Moore and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Nor the Continental Existentialism of Kierkegaard and Sartre. Instead, Dick uses Medieval Scholasticism for his philosophical framework in T3S. It is, however, an implicit framework. Nowhere in T3S is Scholasticism explicitly mentioned. Its elaboration occurs by way of allusion in and certain Scholastic concepts that are an integral part of the plot structure.
A problem that was perhaps the central one of Medieval Philosophy in general is that of universals. About this question Roger Hancock writes that universals “dominated metaphysics in the early Middle Ages; it was discussed by metaphysicians from Boethius in the sixth century to Roscelin and Abelard in the twelfth century.” What the discussions concentrated on was the relation between certain words that we use and the things we use these words to refer to, or the relation between Universals and Particulars. Scholastics posited this as the distinction between the “essential determinations which reappeared identically in every representative of a species, and the individualizing determinations which distinguished each representative from every other within the species.” Some Scholastics further inquired of this notion of specific essence (Universals) and individual essence (Particulars) whether, in an actual being, its fundamental or constitutive reality (essence) is one thing, and the actuality or act by which that reality exists (existence) another thing. Analogous to this is the classification of things into substances and accidents. Man, Gorilla, and TV set are substances whereas the righteousness of the righteous man, the size of the gorilla and the color of the TV set are accidents. In Scholastic philosophical parlance accidents are ontological determinations of substance and substance or substantial being is that which exists without needing any other being in which to inhere for its existence, i.e., a individual thing is a substance because it underlies accidents.
Of these the latter two sets of distinctions, essence/existence and substances/accidents, figure significantly in P.K. Dick’s T3S. One of each pair are first mentioned in chapter three by Sam Regan amidst discussion with Fran Schein:
Fran tended to take the position that the
translation was one of appearance only,
of what the colonists called accidents —
the mere outward manifestations of the
places and objects involved, not the
Most notable here is the implied resemblance between essence and substance, and between existence and accidents. Also indicated is a relationship between appearance and accidents that recalls Lionel Trilling’s “old opposition between reality and appearance,” and suggests the following schema:
Sam Regan —vs. —Fran Schein
(Reality) vs. (Appearance)
“What really is” vs. “What merely seems”
Essence vs. Existence
Substance vs. Accident
Assigning Regan and Schein a position at all, let alone the first one, in this schema is not a mistake, for P.K. Dick definitely intends them to be associated with a particular philosophical belief; Fran Schein’s last name exemplifies this. “Schein,” a German word, can mean shine, light, semblance and appearance. More specifically, according to one lexicographer, “schein” means “outward appearance(s) as opposed to reality. It can be used only when the purpose of the statement in which it occurs is to make this opposition clear.” This is corroborated by Fran Schein herself:
“Am I what’s-her-name-Fran?” she
asked suddenly. “Or am I Patricia
Christensen?”… “the accidents
they’re Pat.” She put her hands
beneath her breasts, then, languid-
ly lifting them, a puzzled expression
on her face. “These,” she said, “are
Pat’s. Not mine. Mine are smaller; I
That a “clear” opposition between outward appearance and reality does exist in T3S, an opposition that is initially delimited by the beliefs and actions of Schein and Regan, is further indicated in chapter six by two other characters, a child named Monica and the Chairman of the board of directors of P.P. Layouts, Leo Bulero. At one point the following exchange takes place between them:
”Take the medieval doctrine of substance
versus accidents,” the child said pleas-
antly. “My accidents are those of this
child, but my substance, as with the
wine and the wafer in transsubstantiation –“
”Okay,” Leo said. “You’re Eldritch; I be-
lieve you. But I still don’t like this
place. Those glucks –.”
Two oppositions, then, are salient to a philosophic understanding of T3S, appearance/reality and accident/substance. Just how “clear” these oppositions are, however, is another matter. Several complications arise even in the few excerpts from T3S already given. What is “translation” and why does it apparently cause Fran Schein to doubt her identity and act perplexed about her breasts? Why does Leo Bulero identify the child Monica as Eldritch? What does transsubstantiation have to do with substances? And, what is a gluck?
The key answer, that in part or whole resolves all of these problems, is to be found in the effects generated by two drugs used in T3S, Can-D and Chew-Z. Each drug creates a particular “reality” for those who use it, a reality that is analogous to and derives from the prime philosophic oppositions in T3S. Can-D (Candy!), obtained from a Titanian lichen, is used by colonists as a “translating agent” to enable them to join together in the “fusion of doll-inhabitation,” to become Perky Pat and Walt Essex dolls amidst miniature artifacts in a Perky Pat layout. But “translation” is more than “two figures comprising the essences of six persons,” or however many individuals choose to participate. For Sam Regan “translation” is “the near-sacred moment in which the miniature artifacts of the layout no longer merely represented Earth but became Earth.” In translation, then, one is transported outside of time and local space from Mars to Earth-as-it-was. One meaning of the word “translation” is a change or conversion to another form, appearance. And while translated “one could commit incest, murder, anything, and it remained from a juridical standpoint a mere fantasy, an impotent wish only.” To some Martian colonists what Can-D produces is indeed a “fantasy” or “impotent wish;” to them the layouts are merely “symbols of a world which none of them could any longer experience.” What the colonists do experience is a “gloomy quasi-life of involuntary expatriation in an unnatural environment,” to the extent that once, when Sam Regan “returns” from the “reality” of the Can-D induced Perky Pat layout to the “reality” of being a UN-drafted Martian colonist, he experiences the bitter realization of coming “back to the hovel, to the pit in which we twist and cringe like worms in a paper bag, huddled away from daylight.”
Now, colony life as depicted in T3S is difficult and essentially meaningless. And in order to get by from day to day, the colonists think in terms of very finite intervals, tasks, pleasures and escapes. The use of Can-D greatly facilitates their obtaining these pleasures and escapes. But which is Appearance and which is Reality, which Accident and which Substance? Accidents, in Scholastic Philosophy, have no independent and self-sufficient existence, but exist only in another being, a substance or another accident. Substance exists in itself, independently from another being. Thus, while accidents may change, disappear or be added, substance remains the same; it is what underlies the accidents.
Fran Schein believes the Can-D generated translation to be appearance only and her breasts, while in translation, are “accidents,” the mere outward manifestations of the places and objects involved, i.e., Perky Pat layout and Perky Pat doll. Her substance, “Fran Schein,” remains the same. Or does it? What she believes happens in translation is that:
We loose our fleshly bodies, our corporeality, as they say. And put on imperishable bodies instead, for a time anyhow… when we chew Can-D and leave our bodies we die. And by dying lose the weight of… Sin.
Sam Regan’s reaction to this religious concept is disgust:
A denial of reality, and what do you get instead? Nothing… that’s not why I chew it; I don’t want to lose anything… I want to gain something… Something to which we’re not normally entitled.
Aside from an implicit hint at the age-old philosophic quandry of mind-body, Fran and Sam’s views on translation indicate a position that is more immediate and personal, as opposed to the previously stated philosophical oppositions. But, what does Fran’s emphatic phrase, “we die,” mean? Does her substance or essence “die”? And if it does, is it a “denial of reality”? What reality? Equally pertinent is that which Sam wants to gain, that “something to which we’re not normally entitled.” For him life on Mars has few blessings. The fact, therefore, that while translated one can commit anything accustoms him to the use of Can-D. He tries to obtain as much as possible from translation, to gain whatever pleasures he can via the “escape” offered by Can-D. His “reality,” his pleasure of escape, is adultery, what is at one point called “Martian musical chairs.” And the UN encourages this because it means more children to populate the Mars colony.