The left/right polarization of the country is accelerated, in part, by the manipulation of culture; and today’s culture is driven by television. Some of the most interesting television is found on Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and even YouTube. It is not the formula television of the 1960s, 70s, or 80s, in which each episode is the same story variably reconfigured. Now television aspires to literature by way of the small screen.
The culture warriors of the left are always casting about for new material. It is no surprise, therefore, to see them latching onto the late Philip K. Dick. He was an artist. He was nominally a leftist, it is true; but here they picked the wrong kind of leftist. In actuality, Dick was a nonconformist. His real interests carried him into Jungian psychology, metaphysics, theology and the occult. In his younger days, living in Berkeley, he so enraged a communist that she put her cigarette out in his coffee. An individualist of this type cannot be safely turned to account by anybody. Real art defies political categories; and Dick’s best work, safe to say, was art.
The left has long worked to harness the war chariot of political correctness to artistic power — more often than not to the detriment of art. Their objective has been to present revolutionary anti-values or, at times, to offer new types of heroes, and to depict their enemy as a very old type of villain (i.e., the Nazi); and this is what they have done with Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, The Man in the High Castle.
The brilliance of Dick’s novel is partly drawn from its alternative history setting. He is writing as if the Axis won the Second World War. In this alt-history, the world is divided into regions dominated by Germany or Japan. We see cultural and psychological scars on the Novel’s characters. Some of these seek the approval of the conquerors. Others merely adapt themselves to new conditions if only to survive. An ancient Chinese oracle is frequently consulted, unconsciously reflecting the fatalism of persons subject to despotic regimes.
Axis oppression is not exaggerated in the novel. There is a sense of understatement, where conquest produces a melding of cultures. It is not merely the imposition of Japanese or German folkways on America. Dick writes of a Japanese official with deep Buddhist sensibilities, favoring quotations from St. Paul. A German official finds solace in philosophical individualism while his Nazi bosses fight each other to the death. A young Japanese couple in San Francisco yearn for a taste of authentic Americana, privately hiding their liberal predilections. If this novel is anything, it is nuanced and subtle.
As an intellectual voyage in which murder and intrigue drive the narrative incidentally, the novel’s focus remains on individuals struggling to make sense of their own lives. To be sure, the wider world belongs to the conquerors; yet the world of the individual is robust and separate — merely borrowing its backdrop from history. Except for the man in the high castle, the characters are primarily concerned with their own private lives. The larger world exists as a mental image, seemingly immutable, projected onto humanity by the victorious powers. This projected image conditions the characters, frames them, and haunts them. But it does not determine who they are. It doesn’t determine what is true. The author brings this into focus by introducing a book within the book. The man in the high castle, Hawthorne Abendsen, a resident of Cheyenne Wyoming, tells the story of how the Axis powers lost the war. Curiously, it is not the story familiar from our own history. It is different in its own right. Its title is, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, — banned in German-held territory even as the Japanese are mesmerized by it.
As novels go, this one is clearly unsuited to television; for if the medium is the message, the producers could not have stayed true to Dick’s epiphanous alt-history. The television series replaces abendsen’s book with films depicting an Allied victory. These films give rise to a resistance movement that does not exist in the novel. And why not? Television is the stuff of action heroes. In this instance, an intellectual novel becomes an action/adventure soap opera pitting Nazis against black communist guerrillas and Antifa irregulars. The original plot only appears intermittently. New characters are introduced by the television series, like FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, transformed into a full-blown Nazi. Hitler and Himmler are dragged in as caricatures of themselves. The American arch villain of the TV series, Reichsführer John Smith, is not in the novel at all; neither is the idea of overthrowing the Axis by terrorist bombings and assassinations.
It is unfortunate the Amazon series appropriated Dick’s idea to the disadvantage of his themes. The Amazon production gives us a world divided into two camps: the fascist camp and the sainted camp of the revolutionaries. The last scene of the series appears to be a bizarre slap at President Trump. The victorious revolutionaries open a wormhole between the universes, allowing the free immigration of peoples between one dimension and another. (Who are we to build a wall between universes!?)
There are clever things in the TV series; but in the end, it is predictable, politically correct, and offensive to good taste. The author’s larger questions about the nature of reality and the ultimate meaning of history are ignored. As an aside, the man in the high castle — Hawthorne Abendsen — may be translated as “son of the evening,” an inversion of “son of the morning,” an apparent reference to Lucifer. It is a curious name for the author of the novel within the novel — a man who winks at the reader when he reveals to Juliana (in the final scene) that the Axis really did lose the war. What, then, anchors the heroine to her dark world?
Abendsen’s book is oddly titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, unveiling Dick’s interest in scripture. The title of the book within the book is taken from Ecclesiastes Chapter 12. This passage famously describes the approaching storms of old age, leading to death:
Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.
Vanity of vanity, saith the preacher; all is vanity.
Attaching this scriptural reference to an alt-history within an alt-history, suggests the Second World War — regardless of its outcome — was for Dick a symptom of civilization’s senescence. Victory for either side misses the point; namely, that the spirit of decadence which caused the war has not been turned back; that another war is inevitable, that nothing has been settled, that civilization must finish its process of dying.
For the novelist, as artist, man is still man. Wickedness is yet wickedness, and favorably comparing our failings with those of Adolf Hitler cannot redeem us; for we are uniquely perverse and self-deceiving in our own right. Hitler’s crimes were his crimes, and he reaped the whirlwind for them. We cannot save ourselves by joining Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, mowing down a herd of Nazi dignitaries with a machine gun. This is the counterfeit salvation our “culture” now pushes, second only to that which pretends to save the world by denouncing Donald Trump, or by reducing everyone’s carbon footprint.
In World War II the British and Americans defeated the Axis by aligning with the communists. Seventy or eighty million infanticides later, we elected Barack Obama — twice. We have allowed the great ”Arsenal of Democracy” to wither. It is now controversial to elect a President who wants to strengthen the country. He is hounded by an unprecedented campaign of hate. Given what we have become as a nation, as a civilization, and given the rising totalitarian ethic from within our own society, perhaps Dick was correct in referencing Ecclesiastes. “Vanity of vanity, saith the preacher; all is vanity.”
God and the individual soul is the all-in-all. Philip K. Dick seemed to realize that those who seek salvation through bombings and assassinations will not find it. They are looking in the wrong direction. Too bad Amazon did not respect or appreciate the novel on which their series was based.