J.B. Blackford

Refine. Hone. Distill. The self is a text, too.

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Written in memory of friends dead or otherwise seriously impaired by drugs, Philip K. Dick‘s A Scanner Darkly can be considered many things: a cautionary tale of substance abuse; a twisted thriller in which many of the characters are more than they seem; a psychological exploration into the self versus façade; or one man’s jumbled tragedy — drug addiction, brain impairment, some unrequited love, and a life-altering set-up.

Bob Arctor was a family man who hit his head and realized he hated his wife, his house, his daughters, his job, so he walked away from his entire world. When we meet him, he’s Bob the drug dealer and addcit, but he’s also Fred, an undercover “nark” who’s already showing evidence of drug-related brain damage.

Dick’s 1970s L.A. balances his science fiction elements, so readers may not seek to intimately understand each detail of the “scramble suit” that allows Fred (and his superiors and other narks) to interact with total anonymity. There’s high-tech, police-state surveillance that can be viewed as a full-sized hologram into which the observer can walk. There’s a drug called Substance D, “death,” or — as we’re told by one character — mors ontologica, “Death of the spirit. The identity. The essential nature.”

Arctor’s corpus callosum has deteriorated and now the halves of his brain are competing, misidentifying or misinterpreting information, so that when Fred is assigned with finding enough evidence to take Arctor down, the “terribly burned and burning” circuits of his brain can’t keep up. He views the surveillance of Arctor and his group of drug-addict friends with the disconnect of someone who isn’t actually on the video he’s reviewing, speculating about Arctor’s actions and motives without the memory of the person who acted them in the first place.

To me, this premise is terrifying, this loss of self, loss of understanding — Arctor calls it “murk,” and, during a period of lucidity, knowing that he’s both Bob the burn-out and Fred the nark, he muses on the hidden cameras spying on him at all times:

What does a scanner see?….I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a…scanner see into me–into us–clearly or darkly? I hope it does…see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because…if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I do myself, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.

Bob and Fred allow us to have two perspectives, or, as you can ask yourself later on as the discussion of brain damage and reflection intensifies, is it a single, more-complete perspective, the real and the mirrored merging and letting us see more of Arctor?

A Scanner Darkly takes its name from a biblical passage in which the Apostle Paul tells us that “for now we see as through a glass, darkly.” Fred is reminded of this when one of the psychologists assessing his level of brain damage tells him it’s as though one hemisphere is “perceiving the world as reflected in a mirror….so that left becomes right, and all that that implies.”

Fred thinks,

A darkened mirror…a darkened scanner. And St. Paul meant, by a mirror, not a glass mirror–they didn’t have those then–but a reflection of himself when he looked at the polished bottom of a metal pan….reversed–pulled through infinity.

And later,

The main thing wrong with a reflection is not that it isn’t real, but that it’s reversed.

However you want to classify this story, it’s impossible to hide from its examination of the self. How do we know ourselves? How can we be certain that our self-perceptions are accurate?

At the close of the novel, we’re given a glimpse of possibility — a shred of foreshadowing to cling to in the hope that Arctor isn’t entirely lost in the murk, that one day he may find and recognize himself again, but we don’t know.

For me, it’s these stories — the devastating ones, the frightening ones — that, in the end, are often the most worthwhile as they demand that we consider the difficult, refuse to let us gloss over the uncomfortable, and make us question whether we see ourselves clearly or darkly.

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