Sunday, March 02, 2008

We Were in Our Perky Pat Layout Chewing Can-D When We Heard the News 

Philip K. Dick died twenty-six years ago today.

In honor of the occasion, we would like to repost an excerpt from Thomas M. Disch's introduction to the 1984 Bluejay edition of Mr. Dick's 1964 novel The Penultimate Truth:
In October of 1962, Kennedy had his moment of macho glory when he declared a quarantine around Cuba, where the Russians were building missile bases. For a few days everyone was waiting for the bombs to fall. The sensation of dread and helplessness was just the stuff nightmares were made of. for those who had read more than the government's bromidic brochures on the subject of nuclear destruction and who were living at that time in a major (i.e., targeted) city, there was little to be done but figure the odds for survival. The poet Robert Frost, legend has it, reckoned doomsday even likelier than that, and when he appeared at a symposium at Columbia University, he declared himself to be delighted that now he would not die alone (he was then eighty-eight) but would take all of humanity with him.

A year and a month later, in November of 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated, probably as a quid pro quo for his earlier efforts to play a similar dirty trick on Castro. However, at the time we were asked to believe that the deed was accomplished by a single bullet fired by Lee Harvey Oswald. Earl Warren, having been admonished by President Johnson that continued doubts of the scapegoat's sole guilt could lead to nuclear war, was directed to write a scenario to this effect. The Warren Commission issued its report in 1964, the same year in which
The Penultimate Truth was published. Neither was nominated for a Hugo, for indeed both books were much too hastily written to deserve such an honor . . . .

The Penultimate Truth] concerns the conspiracy of the yance-men of Callisto, a satellite of Jupiter, to brainwash the guileless Callistotes into a condition of abject conformity by means of the televised speeches of a (nonexistent) homespun philosopher [named Yancy] who is a cross between Arthur Godfrey and George Orwell's Big Brother. The problem is resolved not by revealing the deception to the gullible population, but by using the Yancy mannikin to inculcate a preference for Greek tragedy and Bach fugues among those who formerly were satisfied by Westerns and the songs of Stephe Collins Foster . . . .

What it meant for Dick -- as for his novel's protagonist, Joseph Adams -- to be a yance-man was that he knew, as most of his fellow citizens did not, that the real sociopolitical function of the cold war and the arms race was to guarantee comfortable "demesnes for corporate executives and other officials of the military-industrial establishments." Only as long as there was the menace of an external enemy would a majority of people agree to their own systematic impoverishment. But if one's "enemy" was in the same situation with respect to its captive populations, then a deal could be struck to keep their reciprocal menace ever-threatening -- not at all a difficult task with the unthinkable power of the nuclear arsenals both sides possessed . . . .

The great difference between Orwell's world-nightmare and Dick's is that the possibility of nuclear holocaust has not yet informed Orwell's vision, while it dominates Dick's. Never mind that the future Dick has imagined could not have come into being, that the radiation released by a nuclear war would have had far more awful and widespread consequences than the singeing represented in
The Penultimate Truth . . . . It is a denial we all learned to make, having passed through the twin crises of 1962 and 1963: the Missile Crisis and the Assassination. Robert Frost died alone after all, and the rest of us, by and large, survived. If we'd never bothered listening to the news, there'd have been no reason to be fussed. Life went on. The Beach Boys produced new and better songs. Ditto Detroit and cars. That segment of the entertainment industry devoted to politics had an election, Johnson versus Goldwater, and the plot was that Goldwater would lead us into war. So we voted, by and large, for Johnson . . . .

Indeed, Eisenhower's nomination in 1952 [had been] denounced by Taft's supporters as a triumph of showbiz over politics, while, with the benefit of hindsight, Kennedy's entire career seems a pageant choreographed by the yance-men around him -- Schlesinger, Bradlee, even Mailer. Christopher Lasch writes, in the October 1983 issue of
Harper's magazine: "Never was a political myth so consciously and deliberately created or so assiduously promoted, in this case by the very people who had deplored Madison Avenue's participation in President Eisenhower's campaigns." As Norman Mailer wrote in his account of the 1960 Democratic Convention, which helped to fix Kennedy's image as an "existential hero," the "life of politics and the life of myth had diverged too far" during the dull years of Eisenhower and Truman. It was Kennedy's destiny, Mailer thought (along with many others), to restore a heroic dimension to American politics, to speak and represent the "real subterranean life of America," to "engage" once again the "myth of the nation," and thus to bring a new "impetus . . . to the lives and imaginations of the American."

If this is how one of the man's vassals speaks of him, in public, in his lifetime, Lasch's cae -- and Dick's -- seems fairly unassailable. Of course, those intellectuals who promoted Kennedy for his mythic potential felt with a certain complacent knowingness that they were privileged to see the reality behind the myth (for that is a yance-man's greatest reward) . . . .

[T]hat element of the story that all readers remember, after the lapse of however many years, is the notion of the human race imprisoned in underground factories because they've been tricked into believing that a nuclear war has destroyed the world. It's an extraordinarily resonant idea. One thinks of the dwellers in Plato's cave who know nothing of reality but the shadows cast on the wall; of the similar destiny of Wells's Morlocks; of the prisoners in Beethoven's
Fidelio; an dof ourselves, living in the shadow of a nuclear threat that is only bearable when we pretend that it does not exist. To have recognized that our situation is a kind of madness ("What, me worry?" sang the Titanic's passengers)has not helped us toward a solution, for our situation with respect to the bomb is not much different in 1983 than it was in 1964. And for that reason The Penultimate Truth, for all its flaws, remains a book that can speak to the terror that is the bedrock of our social order.

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