Between the Idea and the Reality: the Hollow Men in Time Out of Joint


by Frank C. Bertrand

“Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal; bad
poets deface what they take, and good poets make
it into something better, or at least something
different.”
T.S. Eliot, “Philip Massinger” (1920)

The publication of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” occured in 1925
while that of Philip K. Dick’s novel Time Out of Joint was thirty-four
years later in 1959. In spite of this time difference there is a credible
connection between these two works, one that has been scarcely noted to
date. And it derives from PKD’s penchant for, at times, carefully seeding
his stories and novels with literary allusions. In this instance there is
much more to Time Out of Joint than the obviousness of its title coming
from Act i, Sc. v of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Most relevant for the Eliot/Dick connection is the following from near
the end of chapter 6 in Time Out of Joint:

“The scarecrows lolled forward, back, forward, back.
Ahead of him he saw the driver; the driver had not
changed. The red neck. Strong, wide back. Driving a
hollow bus.

The hollow men, he thought. We should have
looked up poetry.”

To this can be added mentions of “scarecrow” and “hollow” in chapters six
and eleven. And there is a description in chapter 3 about the novel’s
protagonist, Ragle Gumm, having “straw-colored, shaggy eyebrows”, a “bony,
grim, scarred face”, and “His hair had a bleached quality, white and
curled”. Now, the opening four lines of Eliot’s poem are:

“We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!”

Why, then, does PKD allude to Eliot’s infamous poem? What is its
importance to the plot and/or theme(s) of Time Out of Joint?

It has to do, in part, with PKD’s interest in metaphysical poetry a form,
prevalent in 17th-century England, characterized by an intellectual blend
of wit and emotional ingenuity. In a 1974 interview PKD states “I’ve
always been much influenced by the 17th-century metaphysical poets like
Donne, and especially Henry Vaughan.” And it’s Eliot who’s significantly
responsible for a critical reevaluation of this style of poetry, in
particular his influential essay “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921), wherein
he puts Donne and other Metaphysical poets of the 17th century at the top
while lowering poets of the 18th and 19th centuries.

A second relevant factor is the Zeitgeist of when these respective works
were written and published. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” came out three years
after the publication of The Waste Land (1922), both works depicting the
disillusionment and disenchantment of a generation affected by WWI. The
desolate modernity of the latter long poem, though, reflects even more
profoundly the fragmented experiences of early 20th-century “disassociated
sensibility” (Eliot’s phrase), during the time between two world wars.
Almost as profound, and quite relevant, are these lines from Yeats’ 1921
poem “The
Second Coming”
:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

PKD’s Time Out Of Joint was written over the winter of 1957-58 and
published by J.B. Lippincott, Co. in spring 1959 as a “novel of menace.
It, to a lesser extent, captures the mood during the aftermath of the
Korean War, McCarthyism, and the peak of the Cold War, a period some
historians depict having an undercurrent of “atomic anxiety”,
apprehension, and alienation. As David Halberstam notes in the preface to his incisive
and informative The Fifties (1993):

“During the course of the fifties, as younger
people and segments of society who did not
believe they had a fair share became empowered,
pressure inevitably began to build against the
entrenched political and social hierarchy….Some
social critics, irritated by the generally quiescent
attitude and the boundless appetite for consumerism,
described a “silent” generation.”

Two other novels that came out the same year as Dick’s, and deal with
similar themes, are Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon and Walter Miller’s classic

A Canticle for Leibowitz. But it’s a poet, W.H. Auden, who recalls the
time after WWI in a long philosophical dialogue, called The Age of
Anxiety
, that won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1948. Also of note for
indicating the tenor of the times are Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950),
Viereck’s The
Unadjusted Man
(1956), Barrett’s Irrational Man (1958), and
Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964).

Finally, we need to understand Ragle Gumm’s actual situation
in Time Out
of Joint
, for PKD uses Eliot’s poem to comment on, and help give a reinforcing
perspective to, the nature and effects of what Gumm experiences, which is
perhaps best summarized as an “artificially enhanced psychological fugue”. Within
the novel Bill Black, the primary antagonist, suggests Gumm has “A
reversion to infancy due to stress” (ch. 2) then later notes “He got
himself into a dilemma, and the only way he could solve it was to go into
a withdrawal psychosis.” (ch. 14) Gumm himself, at one point, thinks it’s
some kind of “paranoiac psychosis”. (ch. 7)

What is more menacing is that this psychosis is purposely encouraged and
perpetuated for 2½ years via an elaborate “stage set” called Old Town
in western Wyoming, complete with streets, houses, shops, cars, painted
props and backdrop scenery, and 1,600 “actors”. Among them is Gumm’s
“brother-in-law” Victor Nielson who, in ch. 6, has the experience of
scarecrows on a hollow bus. But it’s Gumm himself, in ch. 11, that in his
mind “…chased after her, across a hollow, barren hillside. She dwindled,
disappeared. The skeleton of life, white brittle scarecrow support in the
shape of a cross.” Compare this with lines from section II of Eliot’s
poem:

“Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves”

Ragle Gumm is in fact being deliberately “disguised”, victimized and
manipulated by one side in a civil war between the Earth and the Moon, or
the “One Happy World” government against the “Lunatics”. He was planning
to join the latter’s cause before the former “…had taken him from his
office and established him in Old Town”. Ragle has this uncanny talent to
sense patterns in space and time, to “anticipate where the pattern goes if
extended one more point”. And the Earth government is determined to use
this ability to plot missile intercepts for them, to predict where the
next missile launched from the Moon will strike.

Early on though the dread, pressure, tension and anxiety caused by this civil
war triggers Ragle’s withdrawal “into a fantasy of tranquility….Back to a
period before the war. To his childhood. To the late ‘fifties, when he was
an infant”. His last memory is indeed “meditating about the ‘fifties.
And then, one day, he found himself back in the ‘fifties”. The One Happy
Worlders government quickly takes advantage of this.

It’s quite understandable, then, that Gumm in experiencing these things
would feel perplexed, disunified and “hollow,” not unlike the hollow men
in Eliot’s poem; that the nature of his “life” in Old Town would be one of
disassociated sensibility. His innocense is indeed drowned. At one point
in ch. 11 of Time Out of Joint he imagines “dark weeds growing in the
ruins of towns, corroded metal and bones scattered across a plain of ash
without contour. No life, no sounds.” This is reminiscent of the following
lines from “The Hollow Men”:

“This is the dead land
This is the cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand

Under the twinkle of a fading star.”

What PKD wants us to contemplate then, I would argue, via his allusion to
Eliot’s poem, is not so much what is done in the name of war, albeit civil
war, but the effects of such action on an individual, in this instance
Ragle Gumm. In the last few pages of the novel he reflects, “It [civil
war] means the most sacrifices. The fewest practical advantages.” In so
doing both we, and Ragle, are caught between the reality and the idea of
man’s inhumanity to man, of ascertaining the “authentic human” (Dick’s
phrase)
regards the fundamental questions of personal freedom, morality and
individual responsibility. (FCB, 6/01)

One thought on “Between the Idea and the Reality: the Hollow Men in Time Out of Joint

  1. “Time Out of Joint” was needless to say,written in 1958,a time that saw an obvious maturity in his stuff since writing his first sf novel four years earlier,that had developed in isolation writing brilliant mainstream novels for a non-existant career in a two year hiatus from genre writing,and was his first masterpiece,albeit I think a lesser one than “The Man in the High Castle”,3 years later while emerging into literary adulthood.Nevertheless,it is a very fine book,simply but well-written and engrossing as a sort of non-generic,cerebral thriller.

    The so-called “atomic age” tension was derived from the failed literary novels inbetween,that reflected the times and anxiety of the era,and the themes of the earlier writers I think can be seen in more literal form.From these was born an excellent novel of speculative literature.

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