A Scanner Darkly: Drug Culture, and American Paranoia
While you may be familiar with Philip K. Dick’s work as the inspiration for movies like Minority Report or Blade Runner, you may not know his book A Scanner Darkly. The novel, although not as popular perhaps as other works, should still be read for its own sake. This novel presents a vision of post-modern American culture that proves Chilean novelist and essayist Roberto Bolaño’s quip that Dick represents in American literature: “Thoreau plus the death of the American dream”. The ghost of Thoreau haunts Dick’s text, not as a symbol of hope, but rather as a long gone dream.
Although published in 1977, A Scanner Darkly remains a critical comment on the status of the American dream and of current American drug culture, and who better to know than Dick himself who struggled with drug addiction through most of his life. The sediment of Thoreau’s long gone spirit in post-modern America appears perhaps no more forcibly than in recounting Robert Arctor’s “former life.” We are given not to much information on this protagonist’s past life and motivations to become a drug addict in California, but from the little we do get we can extract a great amount of meaning. Dick describes in Arctor’s the decision to leave the comforts of suburbia for the “excitement” of a drug-induced existence. Instead of entering the woods of Walden to escape “quiet desperation,” Arctor, an American of the industrialized and media ensconced post-modern era, only finds recourse in the sublimity of drug culture.
Dick’s vision is a grim one for American culture here, where state power and drug addiction are intimately linked, and where the very ideals of individualism and self-possession are shown to be a myth. Bob Arctor, who is also special agent Fred tracking Bob (i.e. tracking himself), is literally split in two through his use of the drug Substance D. As the narrative goes on, we witness the downfall of this man who, after all, just wanted to escape the bondage he felt in suburban culture. We shall restrict our analysis here to a short section where Dick gives us insight into Bob Arctor’s former life. This recourse Arctor only finds indrug culture in Dick’s writing, as we shall also explore, is also linked to the paradox post-modern men find themselves in where state propaganda works both to idealize submissive suburbia and the violent machismo of covert sector operatives in popular fiction.
Dick writes: “It flashed on [Bob Arctor] instantly that he didn’t hate the kitchen cabinet: he hated his wife, his two daughters, his whole house, the back yard with its power mower, the garage, the radiant heating system, the front yard, the fence, the whole fucking place and everyone in it. He wanted a divorce; he wanted to split. And so he had, very soon. And entered, by degrees, a new and somber life, lacking all of that” (Dick 64-65).
What is the main complaint of Arctor’s former life? As Dick notes “It had been too safe” (Dick 65). This complaint makes more sense when taking into consideration Thomas Melley’s observation of the feminization of the American public sphere since the Cold War. The paradox for masculine psychology in America is quite striking, for the images of independence and strength promulgated in the fantasies of the covert sphere, or the sector of the government citizens are aware of but not allowed to know the operations of (e.g. the CIA), are those of generally strong violent men. These strong men (like Jack Bauer, James Bond, etc.) who live behind the governmental fog we only dimly apprehend act dangerously and act heroically through their own moral agency (which is linked to the covert sector’s inherent morality in the popular imagination). However, the “common” American man’s highest desire, that scrawny body watching the screen of idealized masculinity, is towards the equally propagandist images of safe suburban paradise, “the front yard, the fence…,” in lived experience. How can one be macho in suburbia, where the greatest value is its supposed safety? How can one be content in this divided image of what it means to be a virtuous American man (both submissive and violent)?
Is it possible for the mass of men who are celebrated by the propaganda of suburban culture for leading lives of “quiet desperation” under the will of the paternalistic state’s power to find any means of escape in its equally held value of rugged individualism? The safety of suburbia, the intense paranoia over finding safety in the American psyche, has overtaken the paradoxical individuality which runs through the dangerous adventure Americans praise in covert agents. Conspiracy and espionage narratives emerge, in this sense, as a means of preserving the individual amidst the reality of conformity. Paranoia, then, is always present in America’s cultural dialectic; even the “straights” (those in Dick’s narrative not on drugs) do not want to see the druggies for fear that they see more of themselves then they are comfortable with in the druggies’ despondency. Both druggies and straights are doped into submission, one by literal drugs, the other by the state machinery of propaganda and consumerism.
Drugs emerge in Dick as the fantasy escape to the realm of liberation denied in the suburban ideal, the new adventure towards an individual life which, in reality, only further divides the individual in two. Drugs attract Americans who believe, with the ideology of individual freedom, and the disillusionment of the paranoid and feminized suburban culture, that easiest route to individual freedom is through the stimulus suburban culture most explicitly points to as detrimental. Drugs, in this vision, are a rebellion against the suburban ideal, which is, after all, an almost Hobbesian desire for safety. But also, drugs are paradoxically tied to America’s reliance in external stimuli for some diversion, for some false sense of liberation amidst the paranoia that arises from America’s culture. Arctor’s desire for individualism and adventure through the drugs only divided him into two conflicting and competing identities and got him more reliant on external stimuli for a happiness that literally destroys his brain.
Dick invokes the spirit of Thoreau in Arctor’s plight exactly to bring this post-modern paradox of the American psyche which desires individuality as much as suburban safety, and to critique the American state’s ability to provide what it ostensibly purports to make available to its citizenry: “the pursuit of happiness.” Happiness in any real sense is denied Dick’s drug-addled protagonist, and in evoking the spirit of Thoreau, the reader only realizes better how any turn towards that sublime individualism within post-modern American culture is merely illusory, fueled by the destructive drugs of state propaganda and Substance D.
Dick, Phillip K. A Scanner Darkly. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2011. Print.
Melley, Timothy. “Introduction.” The Covert Sphere: Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012. 1-43. Print.
What do you think? Leave a comment.