Sunday, 22 September 2013

A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.   (1 Corinthians  13:12)
I don’t think that Philip K. Dick chose this title by accident.  I’ve been looking forward to reading this novel, wondering how it related to St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  Paul, like Bob/Fred in the novel, knew a thing or two about living a double life—first he was Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of Christians, until he had a supernatural experience on the road to Damascus, after which he became an apostle of Jesus and eventually Saint Paul.  Fred is at first a policeman doing undercover work to prosecute drug addicts and dealers, until he becomes addicted (as Bob Arctor) and eventually unravels, finally becoming “Bruce” in drug treatment.
In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul is comparing how we see life while we are involved in it to how we will see it at/after death.  Corinth was apparently *the* place to buy mirrors in the ancient world, but not the glass kind that we are used to—they produced polished metal mirrors, in which one saw their image faintly, rather like the reflection off a silver teapot.  So one never saw themselves clearly, as others saw them—rather like life, where we are too closely involved in our own circumstances to be able to be objective about them.  Paul maintained that we would see clearly after death, when we were removed from those circumstances.  And indeed Bob Arctor, when he becomes Bruce and is removed to the drug rehabilitation facility, does gain some perspective on his situation, although he is so damaged that it is debatable how much good it will do him.
My little bit of research on Philip K. Dick reveals a very complex man—a mystic, a drug addict and a man suffering from mental health issues as well as a first rate writer.  Like St. Paul, he also had a transforming supernatural experience and for a time he felt he had been possessed by the prophet Elijah.  He also understood Bob Arctor’s drug addition, having lived many of the experiences in the book during the 1970s and being involved in its drug culture.  In one interview, he said, “Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw.”  He was addicted to amphetamines at one point—a drug which revs up the limbic system (emotional part of the brain) and disconnects the prefrontal cortex (higher decision making & planning part of the brain).  This novel gave me the rather surreal experience of seeing life as an addict does. 
One of the premises of the book seems to be that each hemisphere of Bob/Fred’s brain becomes a separate personality, until they both break down.  I’ve read a bit about epileptic patients who have had their corpus callosum (the fibres that connect the two brain hemispheres) cut in order to control severe seizures.  One of the possible side effects is a psychological phenomenon known as Alien Hand Syndrome, where the patient’s non-dominant hand seems to acquire a life of its own under direction from its associated brain hemisphere and the patient loses the sense that they have any control over it.  Rather like Fred losing control of his alter-ego Bob, and Bob starting to make his own independent decisions.
PKD is a damn good writer—he kept me caring about Fred/Bob/Bruce right to the end and I did not find him a particularly sympathetic character in the beginning.  He also writes the paranoia, the drug-addled confusion and the total loss of perspective very honestly.  It is such a joy to read a well crafted book!

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