Appearance and Essence in Adorno and Philip K Dick: ‘The Man In The High Castle’

At the end of Philip K Dick’s alternative-history novel The Man In The High Castle, Juliana Frick consults the I Ching in the house of Hawthorne Abendsen, author of the alternative-history novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy (in which, contrary to the world of the book, the British and Americans won World War II) and discovers that, according to the ‘inner truth’ revealed by the Oracle, the Nazis and Japanese did not in fact win World War II: Grasshopper, which was constructed by consulting the I Ching, is giving us an account of how the world actually is. This truth is not especially comforting to anyone. Abendsen seems almost angry about it; Juliana vaguely considers returning to her estranged husband. What are we to make of this?

It is a conjecture of mine, that applies to his work more generally than just The Man In The High Castle, that we can only properly understand Philip K Dick’s ‘false world’ stories via the conceptual framework afforded to us by Adorno’s critical theory. This conjecture goes beyond mere literary criticism, though, because I also think PKD’s work can help explicate certain key concepts in Adorno, in particular the distinction between appearance and essence and the relation of this doctrine of Adorno’s to the idea that world we exist in is (as for PKD’s protagonists) somehow false. PKD was a philosophical writer and I believe he should be seen as an important thinker. I have recently drafted a paper about this, provisionally titled ‘The Distinction Between Appearance and Essence in Adorno, Explicated Through the Work of Philip K Dick’. This blog post acts as something of an appendix to this paper, as I think The Man In The High Castle has a particularly interesting presentation of the relevant themes, though I have been (maybe, when I come to redraft, this will change) unable to shoehorn it into the paper proper.

This is in part because The Man In The High Castle is somewhat atypical of PKD’s false world novels. Whereas in the standard Dickian scenario the drama is provided by the characters’ grappling with the fact of their assumed universe melting away as it gradually becomes clear it is in whatever way (in later work, frequently complicated by the fact that it is not being replaced by the genuine truth) an illusion, in The Man In The High Castle there are just two points at which the appearance-world is disrupted: first, when Mr Tagomi contemplates the jewellery Frank Frink has made and is seemingly transported into a version of San Francisco that is not occupied by the Japanese, and second, the scene at the very end described in the first paragraph. And in the case of the second, nothing melts away, or is changed. Most of the events in the novel are about how the characters feel unable to act truly, or any differently from how they do. In this sense it is really a novel about how ideology gets taken as immutably real.

One of the most telling sections of the novel, in this regard, is where the industralist Wyndham-Matson, whose mistress is reading Grasshopper, laughingly dismisses the possibility that anything it describes could have come to pass (pp. 67-71, all citations from the 2001 Penguin Classics edition of the book). Every difference his mistress relates: Roosevelt not getting assassinated, the American fleet being absent from Pearl Harbour, etc. he guffaws at and responds that nothing could ever have prevented the events of the War happening in the way they did happen (“no strategy on earth could have defeated Erwin Rommel” for example). Wyndam-Matson simply refuses to believe that the world might be at all different from how it is, he cannot imagine this being the case at all. Similarly, when the slimy, bigoted antiques salesman Robert Childan decides to read Grasshopper, he assumes it will teach us how lucky we are that Germany and Japan won the war. He perhaps can think the world might be different, but assumes with no conceivable reason (he hates the Japanese he takes such pains to emulate and impress) that the one we have is the best, so there is no point changing it. “In spite of the obvious disadvantages… we could be so much worse off.” (p.118)

The significance of the distinction between appearance and essence in Adorno (I argue this at something resembling proper length in the paper I have mentioned) is not that we ought to be trying to penetrate to the world of appearance to discover something more real in a Platonic sense, that is: something objective, timeless. Rather, it is that we are penetrating the veil of ideology to attempt to discover what has been covered up and might be true for us. The false world prevents us from acting ethically. It is permeated by unfreedom. The characters in the novel clearly feel this way: Tagomi struggles to understand his being forced to kill the two SD thugs; Baynes despairs of the possibility of a moral choice at all between Goebbels and Heydrich. But in speculation, thought is free. If we come to believe we cannot speculate on how the world might have been different, or better, then we are truly unfree.

In this sense Wyndham-Matson and Childan are both radically unfree, more so than Baynes and Tagomi even in their respective moral crises (Childan arguably realises he is unfree, in his hatred for the Japanese, but Wyndham-Matson evidently does not, as in our own world no rich men ever do… both have anyway in their different ways enslaved themselves). Tagomi is indeed afforded a literal glimpse of how the world might have been different. But neither they, nor Juliana Frink following her revelation, feel able to really act any differently than they might otherwise have done. PKD is telling us, or at least suggesting to us, that critique must be ongoing. This theme occurs in other work (the best example is perhaps the short story Precious Artifact, in the We Can Remember It For You Wholesale collection), as well as in Adorno (again, expanded on in the paper proper). Art (the jewellery Frank Frink creates), literature (Grasshopper) or certain forms of religion (the I Ching) might allow us a glimpse of another world. But it is up to us to work out how to exploit that glimpse. These things can teach us a lot, but they can’t force us, tell us how, or perhaps most importantly, make it at all possible, to act.

To a careless reader, it might seem as if PKD is saying, at the end, that the absolute ethical truth of World War II is that the allies won: that only this world, with the Nazis and Japanese in power, is the false one, and ours is true. This would be a mistake. The ‘inner truth’ the Oracle reveals is only that the Nazis and Japanese lost the war, not that the Americans and British won. In Abendsen’s book, the British construct concentration camps in order to detain the Chinese (p.157). There were always elements of fascism fighting on both sides of the second world war. The really true world would be one in which all the fascists lost. If we simply rest complacent thinking this world is the true one, then we are no better than smug Wyndham-Matson or pathetic Robert Childan, and no less unfree.

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