Digressions on Allusions in P.K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly

by Frank C. Bertrand

The venerable Joseph Addison (1672-1719), essayist, poet and statesman once wrote, in The Spectator, no. 421, July 3, 1712, that:

”The Great Art of a Writer shews it self in the Choice of pleasing
Allusions, which are generally to be taken from the great or
beautiful Works of Art or Nature; for though whatever is New
or Uncommon is apt to delight the Imagination, the chief Design of
an Allusion being to illustrate and explain the Passages of an
Author, it should be always borrowed from what is more known

and common, than the Passages which are to be explained.”

Quite so. And though often overlooked and/or snobbishly ignored, literary allusions generate fascinating, if not significant, insights about a work of fiction.

Such a work is a recent Philip K. Dick novel titled A Scanner Darkly (1977). Right off the title should ring at least a small bell. It’s an allusion to chapter 13, verse 12 of I Corinthians which, in the King James version of the Bible reads, “for now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” As noteworthy are variants of this from other Bible editions, ranging from “We see now through a mirror in an obscure manner” (Confraternity edition of the New Testament) to “Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror” (The Jerusalem Bible).

Two aspects of the biblical quote are pertinent to the theme of A Scanner Darkly. The first is that the eye was traditionally described as glass, a notion implicitly found in the first chapter of an earlier Dick novel, The Game Players of Titan (1963), “… with eyes, she thought, like broken glass that had been glued there, and glued slightly awry…” (p. 7). The second is that mirror here means a polished metal surface that does not yield a clear image. Both of these produce meanings within meanings for the title of Dick’s novel and point toward the nature of its theme, the perception of reality.

This is reinforced by the central use of the title within the book, on pages 146 and 169. The former reads, “What does a scanner see?… Does a passive infra-red scanner… see into me — into us — clearly or darkly?” The second is, “Through a mirror… a darkened mirror, he thought; a darkened scanner.” We should also note that Dick’s use of this biblical quote in A Scanner Darkly is not due to a momentary interest with its epistemological implications. There is additional reference to it in at least two previous Dick novels, The Cosmic Puppets (1957) and The Man In The High Castle (1962). In the former a character named Meade says, “Like it says in the Bible, ‘We see as through a glass, darkly.’ But how does it hurt me? Maybe I was worse off, before. I don’t know!” (p. 91) In the latter novel Mr. Tagomi thinks, “Now one appreciates Saint Paul’s incisive word choice… seen through a glass darkly not a metaphor, but astute reference to optical distortion.” (p. 213, Brt. ed.)

There is one additional important mention of this biblical quote in Dick’s infamous speech, “The Android and the Human,” delivered at the 1972 Vancouver SF Convention. Therein he says, “We see as through a glass darkly… will this someday be rewritten as, we see as into a passive infra-red scanner darkly?… This, for me, is too pessimistic, too paranoid. I believe I Corinthians will be rewritten this way, the passive infra-red scanner sees into us darkly; that is, not well enough to really figure us out.”

In all of these there is a strong intimation of Dick’s concern with how each of us perceives reality and whether or not the reality perceived differs from person to person, which in turn indicates Dick’s effort to come to grips with the argument posited by post-Kantian metaphysicists that the world’s reality is entirely a matter of perception. M.H. Abrams, in Natural Supernaturalism (1971), describes this argument in relation to Romantic Art as:

Whether a man shall live his old life or a new one, in a universe of

death or of life, cut off and alien or affiliated and at home, in a state

of servitude or of genuine freedom… all depends on his mind as it

engages with the world in the act of perceiving. Hence the extra-

ordinary emphasis throughout this era on the eye and the object and

the relation between them. (p. 375)

The second literary curio in A Scanner Darkly is the main character’s last name, Arctor; his middle name will be taken up later. The most obvious allusion is made by Arctor himself when he thinks, “In the script being filmed, he would at all times have to be the star actor. Actor, Arctor, he thought. Bob the Actor who is being hunted; he who is the El Primo huntee.” (p. 106) There are several levels, at least, of meaning discernible here, the most obvious of which is the very one Arctor himself thinks about, that he is an actor (“the star actor”) in the 3-D hologram surveillance of his house. Aside from the implications of one’s being viewed on a surveillance video-tape or 3-D hologram somehow making them an “actor,” I find two significant notions suggested.

The first is that Arctor considers either himself or perhaps his Fred persona but an actor in their respective realities, the other being not an actor; actor as in to act on a stage or in a film. The second involves a different aspect of the meaning of the word “actor,” an individual who represents a fictitious or historical character with their own person. An actor when he/she acts is “pretending” to be someone else, someone that is not him/her. Thus, Arctor/Fred is not at all sure whether he is an individual or an actor “acting” the reality of someone else.

It is interesting to note here that the word “person” derives from the Latin “persona,” meaning a mask or face; in Greek drama the mask represented the role or character which the actor depicted. While Arctor/Fred does not literally wear a mask, it is conceivable to think of Arctor as Fred’s mask and vice versa, to the extent suggested by some of the works of the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936). Perhaps best known for his 1921 drama and Noble Prize winner, Six Characters In Search Of An Author, Pirandello posits the notion in his works that there are real (public) selves and fictive (invented) selves, of which the latter are personal masks assumed by the former. These masks reflect external forms and social laws in that when a real (public) self becomes uncertain of his identity due, most often, to harsh reality, he takes refuge in and accepts the identity given him by others and ends up imprisoned in a role/mask defined by his external, social public.

A less tenuous explication for Arctor’s name is that Arctor is meant to suggest the Latin word auctor, from which the word “author” derives, auctor meaning one who gives increase, an originator, causer, doer. Perhaps Arctor thinks himself, or would like to think of himself, as the originator, the cause, of his own reality.

Almost as intriguing as Arctor’s last name is his middle one, Postlethwaite. The very fact that he has one, an uncommon one at that, to which specific attention is given in the book during a conversation between “Fred” and his superior, Hank, deserves critical attention. The Penguin Dictionary Of Surnames suggests several possibilities. Postle is apostle (of). Thwaite is a clearing or meadow. Wait(e) is a watchman or watch. A stronger hint is given in A Scanner Darkly itself, during the conversation between Hank and Fred that brings up Arctor’s middle name. Fred just happens to know that Postlethwaite is Welsh and alludes to those who sang of the men of Harlech. Harlech is an allusion to Harlech Castle, a great coastal fortress in Wales that held out for no less than seven years against a Yorkist siege during the War of the Roses (1455-1485), finally succumbing in 1468. A bit of history. But what relevance does it have for Arctor/Fred in A Scanner Darkly? Why mention it at all? One possibility is oblique symbolism suggesting, in effect, that Arctor/Fred’s “reality” is under siege and though he puts up a “heroic defense,” of sorts, it ultimately falls to drugs. But, who will “sing” of Arctor/Fred? Donna Hawthorne or Mike Westaway?

Then, too, why is the first stanza of a poem by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) included in chapter fourteen of A Scanner Darkly? Why mention it? It breaks up a short paragraph wherein “Bruce” (Arctor/Fred) realizes that Thelma’s impairment continues, has not, in fact, been cured at all. The four lines are, in translation:

I most unfortunate Atlas! For a world,

The entire world of suffering I must carry,

I bear what can’t be borne, and feel the

Heart in my body breaking…

Noting that Bruce “wondered how it could be that such sadness could exist,” with the stanza cited being inserted after the word “that,” are we to conclude that “such sadness” (Thelma’s condition) is what Bruce “must carry,” though it “can’t be borne”? Or, should we equate Bruce with Atlas? Either possibility gains more significance if we also consider the second, and concluding, stanza of Heine’s poem:

You haughty heart, you wanted it like this!

You wanted to be happy, infinitely,

Or infinitely wretched, haughty heart,

And now, in truth, are wretched.

This poem is the twenty-fourth in a section titled “Die Heimkehr” (the home-coming) of Heine’s first verse collection, Buch der Lieder (Book of Songs, 1827), which brought together poems that had appeared in Heine’s four previous books and contained all poems written by Heine since he was nineteen years old. Those in the “Die Heimkehr” section were composed from 1823-1824, when Heine was twenty-five years old, and exemplify what is a central element in his poetry as a whole, the “Doppelganger” image. In fact, one of the earlier poems of the “Die Heimkehr” section, number twenty, is perhaps the key poem of the Buch der Lieder. Three stanzas in length, the third stanza reads:

You double of mine, you pallid other!

Why do you mimic my love’s wild woe

Which tortured me, your wretched brother,

So many a night here long ago?

It was this poem that Franz Schubert (1797-1828), born the same year as Heinrich Heine, used as the inspiration for his song Der Doppelganger. Heine’s “doppelganger” poem, however, was not the first time a second self had appeared in his writings. In one of Heine’s two verse plays, William Ratcliff (1822), is a second self who is the wraith of the hero’s father. At one point the hero, Ratcliff, exclaims:

Cursed double, nebulous being,

Stare not at me with those vacant eyes —

With your eyes you would suck up my blood,

Make me stiffen, pour ice water

In my burning veins, make my

Body become a night phantom…

All of which indicates that the inclusion of part of a Heine poem in A Scanner Darkly was not frivolous. In fact, the four lines quoted can also be found, paraphrased, in chapter eight of Dick and Zelazny’s Deus Irae (1976). Now, where in the “Die Heimkehr” section of Buch der Lieder the doppelganger figure is a pervasive and foreboding symbol for a division into an acting and a watching self, a second self that derides the posturings of the first, in Dick’s A Scanner Darkly the doppelganger figure, as suggested by the Heine poem excerpt, bear’s “what can’t be borne.” Arctor/Fred’s drug induced (or enhanced) schizophrenia causes him to be, indeed, “infinitely wretched.” He is, too, a pervasive and foreboding symbol, but of schizophrenic reality, a reality that can’t be borne.

Not as easily explained are the five excerpts in A Scanner Darkly from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1808 masterpiece, Faust, a work that is alluded to in at least four of Dick’s other novels. The key excerpt, however, is surely the fourth which, in translation, finds Faust saying to Wagner, his assistant:

two souls, alas, live in me: one

wishes to leave its brother;

one with gripping organs clings to earth

with a rough and hearty lust;

the other rises powerfully from the dust

toward the region of the great forefathers.

These few lines of verse are crucial to understanding not only Faust’s romantic “split personality,” but Arctor/Fred’s schizoid existence as well. For, to the extent that Faust is an exploration of individual consciousness, of individual personality in terms of its inner depths and cultural background, of the contrast between surface consciousness and the deep unconscious, it functions as an intricate allusion and involved metaphor that mirrors the nature of Arctor/Fred’s consciousness and personality in A Scanner Darkly.

The lines occur as Fred is riding in a yellow cab and reflecting on Bob Arctor’s behavior:

I know Bob Arctor; he’s a good person. He’s up to nothing. At

least nothing unsavory. In fact, he thought, he works for the

Orange County Sheriff’s Office, covertly. Which is probably…

What a powerful ironic understatement. Of course Fred knows Bob Arctor; they are one in the same person. Obviously, at this point in the book, Arctor/Fred’s drug enhanced schizophrenia has progressed to near total breakdown. Can we, as obviously, identify which “one wishes to leave its brother?” Does Fred or Arctor cling to “earth with a rough and hearty lust?” Evidence for an answer can be gleaned from the other Faust excerpts.

The first, on page 139 in A Scanner Darkly, is actually a continuation of the one on page 141. They can be found together in the first part of Faust, where Faust is alone in his study and says:

What does that grinning hollow skull mean, save

That in its brain, confused like mine, once lived

Something that sought bright day, desiring truth,

Yet in the heavy dusk went miserably astray?

Surely this apparatus mocks me with its wheels,

Rollers, cogs, and tackle. I stood at the gateway;

These should have been the key. The wards

Are intricately made, but move no bolts.

The latter four lines interrupt a scene in A Scanner Darkly where Arctor is at the Englesohn Locksmith Shop to pay for a check that bounced, “at a counter where two huge key-grinding machines loomed up, plus thousands of key blanks dangling from racks….” The apparent reference is that the “two huge key-grinding machines” are analogous to the apparatus that mocks Faust, instruments he once thought would reveal to him the secrets of nature, that “should have been the key.” For Arctor the bad check is a “key” to his “nature” in that he cannot remember writing it and suspects Barris of forging his signature. And it is as he continues to reflect upon it that the first four lines interject, the important and revealing part being, “in its brain, confused like mine, once lived / Something that sought bright day, desiring truth….” Arctor’s brain is undoubtedly “confused” and trying to seek the truth of his own nature, his reality. Is he Arctor or Fred?

The fifth and last excerpt from Faust is somewhat of a chinese-puzzle-box in that it interrupts a second apparent quote from another source, “some famous old-time double-dome philosopher,” while Arctor is leafing through a third word, The Picture Book Of Sexual Love. The lines from Faust, spoken again by Faust while alone in his study, are:

Alas, am I still stuck in this prison?

This damned damp hole in the wall

Where the sweet light of heaven

Breaks gloomily through the painted panes!

Shut in by this heap of worm-gnawed

Dust-covered books, that reach to the high arches

Where smoke-stained paper clings…

These somber thoughts reflect Faust’s anguish and despair at being confined to a desk, bored with his studies. To escape from this dusty boredom he picks up a book written by Nostradamus, a famous French alchemist and magician of the Middle Ages. Arctor, though not bored, is clearly perplexed, if not frightened, as he reflects on the purpose and nature of cube-type holo scanners. “What does a scanner see?… I mean, really see?” From the living-room bookcase he takes down a volume at random, The Picture Book Of Sexual Love. Opening at random, he says aloud, as if reading to himself:

Any given man sees only a tiny portion of the total truth, and very

often, in fact almost perpetually, he deliberately deceives himself

about that little precious fragment as well. A portion of him turns

against him and acts like another person, defeating him from

inside. A man inside a man. Which is no man at all.

This is fraught with multiple meanings, foremost of which is “a portion of him turns against him and acts like another person, defeating him from inside,” which thought pointedly characterizes Arctor/Fred’s situation in A Scanner Darkly. Now, whereas Faust turns to magic, Arctor ostensibly turns to sex; “he perceived a page which showed a man nibbling happily at a chick’s right tit, and the chick sighing.” But, it actuality, Arctor recites a quote about man seeing “only a tiny portion of the total truth.” What tiny portion, then, have we been given? That Arctor in some way feels “shut in by this heap of worm-gnawed / Dust-covered [sex] books?” No. What makes more sense here is that our chinese-puzzle-box is Arctor’s reaction to the holo-scanner system in his house. Both he and it see only a “tiny portion of the truth.” The illustrated sex book is used more to deceive the holo-scanner that distract Arctor’s thoughts.

Having noted this, let us return to the fourth Faust excerpt and answer our question about which “one wishes to leave its brother?” Arctor does not “wish” but is rather forced to leave Fred via acute hebephrenic schizophrenia; he eventually deteriorates into a mental patient named “Bruce”! What few tiny portions of truth (reality) Arctor manages to assimilate result in his becoming “a man inside a man. Which is no man at all.” He is, in a sense, an alienated outsider who is frustrated in his attempts to gain knowledge and wisdom of himself. He is, as George Santayana wrote in the chapter of his Three Philosophical Poets (1910) devoted to Faust, a “Man… constituted by his limitations, by his station contrasted with all other stations, and his purposes chosen from amongst all other purposes.” But, this all becomes, again, at best paradoxical in that Arctor and Fred are not brothers but one in the same person.

Two other less significant but nonetheless meaningful allusions that implicitly help explain Arctor/Fred’s situation in A Scanner Darkly are the reference to “Mime” on page 110 and the excerpts in chapter 13 from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. The former is a character in Richard Wagner’s opera Siegfried (1856-1871), the third of his Der Ring des Nibelungen tetralogy. Initially encountered in the third scene of Das Rheingold (1853-1854), the first of the four operas, Mime is a Blacksmith and Alberich’s brother. It is Mime who finds Siegfried’s mother in the forest, becomes his foster-father, and makes Siegfried a sword with which to kill Fafner who has the Nibelungen Ring. Mime is also a shifty, treacherous individual who wants the Ring himself, for the Ring controls the Nibelung dwarfs, black spirits that dwell in the depths of the Earth and obtain gold for Alberich by means of which he can master the world. But Siegfried learns of Mime’s plan and kills him.

Now, in that Wagner’s Siegfried is a dramatic exploration of the human psyche, psyche shaping the basic plot from beginning to end, various characters symbolically function as distinct aspects of Siegfried’s psyche. Mime’s symbolic purpose is that of Siegfried’s fearful and unheroic side. With this in mind, in A Scanner Darkly Mime is mentioned in connection with Arctor’s “friend” Jim Barris. As Fred, Arctor is watching a live hologram transmission showing Luckman and Barris in Arctor’s living-room. At one point Luckman “reached for a fifth half-full can, knocked it over, spilled it, grabbed it, and cursed. At the curse, Barris peered up, regarded him like Mime in Siegfried, then resumed work.” The O.E.D. defines “regard” as a “habit or manner of looking.” If Barris’ manner of looking is like Mime’s, just what is Mime’s manner of looking? Being that Mime has already been characterized as a treacherous, shifty person, his habit of looking is no doubt equally shifty-eyed or deceptive and evasive. In turn this intimates that Barris’ manner of looking, if not his character as well, is also evasive and deceptive. But, let us recall that it is Arctor, as Fred, who is observing all of this on a hologram cube and describes Barris’ way of looking to be “like Mime in Siegfried.” Which in turn implies that Arctor/Fred is literate enough to know of one particular character, Mime, in Wagner’s Siegfried.

The Mime allusion, however, does not also imply, indirectly, that Barris functions in A Scanner Darkly as the fearful and unheroic aspect of Arctor/Fred’s psyche. What it does help indicate is that Barris is a more significant character than he at first appears to be. In fact, a few pages after the mention of Mime, while Arctor is riding with Donna in her MG, Donna says, “I don’t like Barris… You know, he’s crazy. And when you’re not around him you’re okay.” (p. 113) Even more trenchant is what Hank tells Fred shortly after informing him that he knows that he, Fred, is Bob Arctor: “We really are interested in Barris, not you; the scanning of the house was primarily to keep on Barris.” (p. 182) Arctor/Fred, then, has been used to entrap Barris; Barris gets his as did Mime. Yet, Arctor is dumbfounded that he has been used, even though his description of Barris’ way of looking suggests some knowledge of what kind of individual Barris is. This inability to relate and understand past and present bits of experience is but another indication of Arctor’s plight in A Scanner Darkly.

One last allusion that helps generate some insight into Arctor’s dilemma, as well as character interrelationships in A Scanner Darkly, are the excerpts in chapter thirteen from Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. First performed in November 1805, with the third and final version debuting on May 23, 1814 at the Vienna Kartnertor-Theater, the plot of Fidelio is based on historical fact, the last minute rescue of an innocent man in 1789 during the French Revolution’s Reign Of Terror.

Beethoven’s version, in collaboration with Joseph Sonnleithner, then Stephan von Breuning and finally Georg Friedrich Treitschke, has Florestan, an idealist and champion of truth, unjustly imprisoned in the lowest dungeon of a fortress near Seville by his enemy, Pizarro. Lenore, Florestan’s wife, disguises herself as a boy named Fidelio and goes to work for old Rocco, the jailer in charge of Florestan. At the crucial moment she comes between Pizarro and her husband, drawing a pistol, just as a trumpet call from the castle ramparts announces the arrival of the minister-inspector from Seville who saves both of them.

The short alluded excerpts in A Scanner Darkly are all associated with Arctor/Fred as he interacts first with two police psychologists, then a secretary in a “tight blue sweater,” and finally with Hank. The second of these is perhaps more significant. It occurs as Arctor/Fred’s “mind buzzed with confusion. Confusion and despair.” (p. 174) He is, in fact, in the final stages of mental disintegration caused by his use of Substance D. And he realizes that “if I’m off everything… then I’ll never see any of them again, any of my friends, the people I watched and knew… most of all Donna Hawthorne.” (p. 174)

It’s as he’s thinking about Donna that he remembers “a song his great-uncle use to sing years ago, in German. “Ich seh’, wie ein Engelim rosigen Duft / Sich trostend zur Seite mir stellet,”… singing in the house, or reading aloud, “Got! Welch Dunkel hier! O grauenvolle Stille! / Od’ ist es un mich her. Nichts lebet auszer mir…” (pp. 174-175) The former excerpt associates Donna with Lenore and the latter, Arctor/Fred with Florestan. In translation the second one reads, “God, how dark it is here, and totally silent. / Nothing but me lives in this vacuum….” Though it is Florestan who is saying this while locked up in the fortress dungeon, it aptly describes Arctor/Fred’s condition as well, the state of his mind and personality, “dark,” “silent,” “this vacuum.” And as did Lenore for Florestan, Donna in a sense “rescues” Arctor, driving him to the New Path residence in Santa Ana where he “will never again in his life, as long as he lives, have any ideas. Only reflexes.” (p. 203)

This outcome is reflected to some degree in all of the aforementioned allusions, from the novel’s title, A Scanner Darkly, to the succumbing of Harlech Castle, to Heine’s “I bear what can’t be borne,” to Goethe’s Faust “once lived / Something that sought bright day, desiring truth,” to fearful Mime. In each instance Dick has chosen an allusion whose details and meaning(s) provide an apt context supportive of the nature and progress of Arctor’s coping with his Substance D generated reality.

4 thoughts on “Digressions on Allusions in P.K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly

  1. Thank you very much for posting this, great research and very helpful in contributing to my research too. Keep up the good work.

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