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P. K. DICK'S GLORIOUS TRASH AND TERROR ART
on June 18, 2004
THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH is certainly one of Dick's most important books. It casts a stronger, clearer and more unsettling light on a certain aspect of Dick's vision than perhaps any other of his books. I am referring to Dick's deep interest in the peculiarly post-modern experiential blend of banality and terror. This is one of the most important and least appreciated or correctly understood aspects of Dick's artistic vision and accomplishment. If you take the time to examine it, you will see that banality and terror form the poles between which the content of THE THREE STIGMATA moves and it is important to understand that this banality and terror are inseparable from the high-tech nature of this imagined future world. For Dick, the predominant effect of pervasive technological advancement has been that it intensely magnifies the banality of ordinary consciousness which, confronted then with its excruciatingly boring self, demands to be entertained, amused, ( 'Perky Pat' is only a futuristic extension of ordinary post-modern society) to the point of a sort of addiction and so the chief function of technology becomes to create a world that is a diversion from reality and then to protect that world from any possible threat. Let us note before going any further that for Dick ordinary consciousness is a sort of artificial consciousness in the sense that its main thrust is not toward a connection with the challenging mystery of reality but toward diversionary false 'realities' and this is ultimately why Dick so often blurs the line between ordinary humans and various forms of androids. They are both forms of repeatable, artificial life. The sort of open, genuine exploring of reality that was so important to Dick is alien and even taboo to ordinary consciousness. Dick saw this exploring as absolutely necessary for maintaining sanity, that is, being in touch with reality. This is a sort of law of life and the consequence of violating it is that doing so eventually leads to the manifestation of dominating monsters and terror. In a very real sense, Palmer Eldritch is nothing more than a high-tech fascist monster and the terror that he represents has its roots in the very banality of the lives of most of the people he comes to dominate. If my view of this book seems to neglect its sci-fi nature, please remember that for Dick technological advancement, however expansive, does not in itself entail any advancement in awareness or understanding in human beings, it rather only magnifies what they already are and Dick's entire body of sci-fi work is a radical rebellion against that common sci-fi fantasy. THE THREE STIGMATA is a truly visionary book of a very frightening nature.
Finally, I would like to comment on the fact that one often hears and reads statements on Dick's work claiming that it is unfortunate that he was not more conscientious about the quality of his writing, the implication presumably being that if he had been he might have produced some real literary masterpieces instead of the flawed but interesting works he did create. I believe this attitude reveals a serious lack of understanding of what it is that makes Dick's work so important, far more important than that of the majority of his contemporaries who have a more 'polished' style. It is well known that Dick wrote very rapidly, sometimes entire works gushed out of him in a very short time and it is often stated that he should have taken the time to re-write and produce a more'literary' work. I believe that Dick's gut feeling was totally against this and I also believe that his feeling was absolutely correct. Dick knew that he had a rare and deep connection with and feel for certain crucial characteristics of post-modern civilization and their implications for the future. One of these characteristics was its chronic, unique and deadly type of banality and trashiness which is so rawly present in his work. He saw it for the deeply rooted disease that it is, so deeply rooted that the common reaction to it is to try to make a virtue of it rather than face the seemingly impossible operation of trying to dig it out. He had the same deep feel for the possible fantastic terrors of the future and he sincerely struggled all his adult life to find a reality that could genuinely liberate him from, take him beyond these things. Dick's approach to writing was his way of keeping immediately in touch with his own deepest sense of things and for him to attempt to be more 'artistic' in any conventional sense of that term would only have weakened his work by turning it back toward the past and would not have improved it. Dick's work is inevitably imperfect, but it is a bold and beautiful step forward that none of his contemporaries can match.