Assaulting the High Castle, concluded

Thursday , 16, July 2015 8 Comments

If the eye could see the demons that people the universe, existence would be impossible. — Talmud, Berakhot, 6

So, over the past few weeks, we’ve gotten a good look at lies, damned lies and maybe even a few “statistics.” Now I’d like to return attention to The Man in the High Castle, with those notions in mind.

***SPOILERS ahead.****

Counterfeiting – the creation of falsehood that intentionally resembles the truth – is not just a critical idea behind Philip K. Dick’s most renowned novel, it was something of a lifelong obsession. It is easy to get lost in the “real or Memorex” parlor game of the novel while losing sight of the driving point, which is this: reality may not always be what it seems to be, but it is real, and it does matter.

PKD’s America, through the eyes of a certain counterfeit Italian…

Mr. Tagomi, Gunslinger

Back in part one, I suggested you take a look at the only two characters who kill other characters in the course of the story. The first – Mr. Tagomi – does so in self-defense, using a counterfeit gun designed to look like a historic Civil War era Colt .44. (the U.S. Civil War – both in reality and in counterfeit – factors in as an important talisman; the U.S. is divided between the “allied rivals” Nazi East Coast and the Jap West Coast, with a very narrow Midwestern and Plains State buffer zone that resembles the actual U.S. of 1962*.)

Fortunately for him and for his colleagues holed up in his office under assault, Tagomi is a champion quick draw competitor, a sporting interest that itself is an outgrowth of his obsession with “authentic” Americana. The defense itself is a major historic event in the history of alternate America; the attackers were attempting to thwart a leak of German intelligence to the Japanese. That bit of intelligence was this: Operation Dandelion, a planned surprise attack on the unsuspecting nation of Japan.

So, the Japanese Tagomi kills German agents in a direct symbolic representation of Japan temporarily defending herself against the threat of nuclear annihilation. The shooting, incidentally, instantly contributes “new historicity” to the formerly fake historic gun. Shortly thereafter, Tagomi falls into a strange reverie, and his obsession with Americana leads him to take a look at authentic American craftwork – anti-counterfeits, if you will, modern stuff that, even if it were mass produced, would genuine, even if mass produced. His next experience is to suddenly rip the veil between PKD’s alternate U.S. and the real thing. Tagomi “visits” the real world (as represented by the novel-within-the-novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.)

The Second Kill Confirms the First

The other killer is Juliana the heroine who slashes the throat of the Swiss assassin (who himself is a counterfeit Italian war hero) before he can take the final step to kill The Man in the High Castle. Shortly after this act, she is the only character who actually gets behind the shroud of the famous author to see him – and warn him – in the flesh. Some have misinterpreted the end of The Man in the High Castle as a mistake, or at the very least, proof that Juliana is mistaken.

However, Dick himself repeated Juliana’s own interpretation of reality as the proper one: that the only full truths in a mostly artificial world is that of the Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and that the best key to understanding that truth is through the I Ching.

Note that the I Ching is historical and authentic, and every passage used in the novel is non-fictional; that is to say the I Ching of The Man in the High Castle is fairly represented, and, unlike nearly every other historic artifact (other than The Holy Bible), is 100% authentic.

Julianna, therefore, despite being accused by Abendsen of being a “daemon” (both in the spiritual sense and in the computational: that she was simply carrying out her programming), her insights, consistent with Dick’s later analysis, as well as being the ones that most accurately harmonize the I Ching‘s promptings with the ample evidence that, in the real world, the Nazi West did not divide and destroy the world, and the Japanese East did not save and preserve it.

The Book Within The Book Is True

Note Dick’s low view of the author character  – represented by the reckless and vain Abendsen, and his high view of the reader character, represented by the willful and determined Juliana. Mr. Tagomi and Juliana at turns seem mad or ghostly or demonic, but the truth is that they may be the only two characters who – at a minimum – become aware of the real world beyond the pages of the book that imprisons them. This truth only becomes clear to them after they have taken “life” from other characters. The madness that seems to descend on them is merely the realization that they are far more alone in the simulated world than when they thought their world was real. As horrific as such a realization might be for some, it also comes as a relief to both of them. It is as if their primordial suspicion of the world as they knew it had been confirmed, and now they could see more clearly than anyone else.

Although Hawthorne Abendsen now lives openly (no longer in the heavily defensed high castle, but in a 24-hour party atmosphere in an unsecured suburban home) and with an intentional disregard (over his wife’s objections) for self-defense by firearm against the real threat (as proven by the odd Italian, Cinandella) of assassination, he is extremely defensive about one thing: that he may have consulted the I Ching in plotting the Grasshopper Lies Heavy.

Important: PKD himself consulted the I Ching for plot direction of The Man in the High Castle. This, in part, may be why he felt disappointed in the novel’s stellar and tidy ending. He was pulling for the author character to come off looking like more than a partying simulation, a mere vessel for the truth, rather than Truth’s pupil.

“[An] intuition I’ve had for some time: that the Bible is the real world and appears in our spurious “world” as a putative book the way “Grasshopper” does in TMITHC. If what we possess in the form of a book (info) is actually a world, then what we experience as a world is perhaps only info–a book. Everything is backward.” – Philip K. Dick, from his Exegesis, 64:E-12]

So, ultimately, The Man in the High Castle is not about the uncertainty of reality, but instead of our strong resistance to face the naked truth.

*Not only was The Man in the High Castle written at the 100-year anniversary of the U.S. Civil War, but the novel that inspired PKD to write it was Bring the Jubilee, a steampunk alternate history in which the Confederacy wins at Gettysburg and eventually triumphs in the War of Southron Independence.

8 Comments
  • Jack Amok says:

    Daniel, I assume you’ve read this essay by PKD from 1978. If not, it’s worth the time to read. For one thing, he discusses the idea that the Bible is the real world and we experience some simulation laid over it, only occasionally glimpsing the unchanging truth beneath.

    For another thing, it highlights the pitiful state SF/F has come to today. After reading that essay, can anyone credibly imagine a Swirsky or a Scalzi thinking thoughts quite so big?

    • Daniel says:

      This essay is a great intro to PKD’s more complex motivations, and yet you can see how he might be – on the surface – mistaken for a somewhat mad pagan, or at least recruited posthumously to become one…can’t let truthtellers – even the mad ones – just wander about unminded…

  • Jill says:

    Oh, brother, I just accidentally deleted my comment. This was the gist of it:

    “So, ultimately, The Man in the High Castle is not about the uncertainty of reality, but instead of our strong resistance to face the naked truth.” I’m glad you recognize this. It’s an important distinction to make in light of where literature has gone since then.

    In Sunday school the other day, the pastor discussed how mankind has created the reality of his sin nature, that this didn’t originate from God, which led to a discussion of how this is a false reality. Humans are not true creators; they can’t be. And this discussion got me thinking about Dick because this seems to be his prominent worldview: we are living in a false reality. It isn’t that reality is uncertain, but that it is false because we can’t face the truth.

    I keep thinking that Dick is the best Christian author I’ve ever read. The weird thing about that is sometimes he comes across as being gnostic on a cursory reading, but his work doesn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth like L’Engle’s, which also has a gnostic flair. But that is getting off the subject, and I could go on and on….

  • Daniel says:

    Yeah, PKD had a strong interest in Gnosticism, and even half accepted that he would be viewed as one…but while he considers a ton of different philosophies, the only practice of Gnosticism that he indicates in his 8000+ page exegesis is that of skepticism that the lesser gods of this world are benevolent, or that the earth is filled with honest men.

  • LGCM says:

    Good observations (both parts), especially about the theme of the counterfeit and the real than runs through smaller and grander scales of the novel, and about the importance of the fact that Juliana and Tagomi are the only characters who (on stage) kill anyone.

    I can’t help thinking that Dick had read The Dream of the Red Chamber, and knew of the famous inscription that features in the frame story, “When the fake is taken to be real, then the real becomes fake; where what doesn’t exist is taken to exist, then even what exists doesn’t exist.”

    Nit: I don’t think “daemon” had the computing meaning back in 1963.

    • Daniel says:

      Computer Daemon has its origins in Maxwell’s Demon, from the 1860s, and was officially coined by MIT in 1963, so yes, too late for any overt dual-meaning in High Castle. I meant the general concept of faith-tech duality for the meaning of daemon, as in Gilbert Ryle’s “ghost in the machine” from the 1940s.

      • LGCM says:

        I hadn’t realized that the “daemon” of computing deliberately harked back to Maxwell’s demon. Thanks for that.

        I think you are definitely onto something with respect to there being a duality to Julianna’s presence — especially for Abendsen. I suspect it is in part to do with the old and well known ambiguity of the contrast between “demonic” and “daemonic”. Certainly for Abendsen (and arguably for Julianna herself, given her fluid state of mind) there is a sense that she is, or at least acts, as someone who is somehow “possessed”. Whether that possession is malign (demonic) or vatic (daemonic, perhaps possessed by a spirit of truth) or something ambiguously between the two, is a key issue. It may not have been the one you were trying to identify, but even so it may be worth considering.

        • Daniel says:

          Yeah, Abendsen has a ton of chances to challenge the reigning delusion that he is very much aware of:

          1) In recognizing that the alternate America is a counterfeit, instead of maintaining the high castle and offering refuge to the aware people, he instead abandons it…overtly and expressly denies self defense, even! This can only be because he realizes that by adopting the counterfeit life, he can’t die. So what if he can’t really live, either? Party on.

          2) When recognizing Juliana for an essence beyond the counterfeit world, he dismisses her as mythology.

          3) His interest in her dress (itself a counterfeit artifact designed to draw attention, concealing nothing) is remote and unnatural, as if he finds the fake wrapping more comforting than the real contents.

          4) Most important, he will not breach his “agreement” with the I Ching…an agreement that assures him a fake life of safety, fame and pleasure, but keeps himself intentionally in the dark. Where Juliana becomes an acolyte for the truth, Abendsen expresses the truth without living it. The truth is quite literally not in him.

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