Encounters with Reality: P.K. Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly”

by Frank C. Bertrand

re >al>i>ty (rÇal’ itÇ), n., pl. -ties for 3-6.

1. the state or quality of being real. 2. resemblance to what is real. 3. a real thing or fact.
4. Philos. a. something that exists independently of ideas concerning it. b. something that exists independently of all other things and from which all other things derive. 5. something that is real. 6. something that constitutes a real or actual thing, as distinguished from something that is merely apparent.


The above is the definition entry for the word reality in The Random House Dictionary of the English Language. By itself it seems somehow austere if not facile. There are, nonetheless, several points of interest, not the least of which are the implications of the subtle differences between definitions two and five. Consider also the thorny philosophical issues hinted at by definitions four and six, especially six which is a bald summation of the appearance vs. reality problem; many, many erudite books have been written on this one aspect of reality alone.

Of even more interest, however, are the sundried ways in which these definitions of reality have been the basis for diverse efforts by artists, writers and poets to explicate reality by example and/or depict the futileness of attempts to do so. T.S. Eliot, in his poem Burnt Norton, from Four Quartets (1943), sums up this dichotomy best when he writes, “What might have been is an abstraction / Remaining a perpetual possibility / Only in a world of speculation.” Later, in the same section of the poem, Eliot states that, “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality,” words which are also spoken by Thomas Beckett in Part II of Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral (1935).


Maybe so. One writer who has singularly and inventively explored whether or not Man can bear very much reality is Philip K. Dick. At various times he has written about reality as follows:




  • If I knew what a hallucination was I would know what reality was. (“Will the Atomic Bomb Ever be Perfected, And if so, What becomes of Robert Heinlein?”, in Lighthouse, no. 14, October 1966, p. 5.)


  • If two people dream the same dream it ceases to be an illusion; the basic test that distinguishes reality from hallucination is the consensus gentium, that one other or several others see it too.
    (“The True Stories of the Three Stigmas of the Five Break-Ins of Philip K. Dick,” by Paul Williams, in Rolling Stone, November 6, 1975, p. 93.)


  • Most of the SF readership knows that in my work I am constantly asking, “What is reality?” and, “Why does it seem to differ from person to person?” (from a letter, in Scintillation, no. 12, March 1977, p. 38.)


  • I like to fiddle with the idea of basic categories of reality, such as space and time, breaking down. (from the Afterword, The Best of Philip K. Dick, ed. John Brunner, NY: Ballantine Books, 1977, p. 448.)


  • We also have a desire to fill in all the missing pieces in the most startling or unusual way: to add to what is actually there, to piece out the concrete reality which can only say so much and no more, to share my own glimpse of another world. (“Who is an SF Writer?”, in Science Fiction: The Academic Awakening, ed. Willis E. McNelly, a CEA Chap Book, 1974, p. 47.)


  • But I have never had too high a regard for what is generally called “reality.” Reality, to me, is not so much something that you perceive, but something you make. You create it more rapidly than it creates you. (“The Android and the Human,” in Philip K. Dick: Electric Shepherd, ed. Bruce Gillespie, Melbourne: Nostrilia Press, 1975, p. 65.)


From these excerpted quotes can be gleaned the intellectual seeds that have germinated into many of Dick’s 31 novels and 112 short stories, to date. One key word, associated here with reality, would certainly be hallucination. And at least one key concept is whether or not reality is an individual thing, differing from person to person, and at times being difficult to differentiate from hallucination.


It is this idea that is apparently one of the two main motives for Dick’s latest novel, A Scanner Darkly (1977), the other being the horrors of drug use/abuse. In A Scanner Darkly the main character lives the contrasting realities of two personas, Robert Arctor (a “doper”) and S.A. Fred (a “straight” and undercover narcotics agent), “Robert Arctor” being Fred’s undercover role. But a drug enhanced, if not induced, schizophrenia of the hebephrenic type makes it increasingly difficult for Fred/Arctor to distinguish between the two realities of himself and his undercover self. Which reality is real, or more real, Fred’s or Arctor’s? Or, as he states it, “I would know, if anyone did, because I’m the only person in the world that knows that Fred is Bob Arctor. But, he thought, who am I? Which of them is me?” (pp. 74-75)

Possible answers lie in Dick’s use of the word reality in A Scanner Darkly, wherein it occurs eleven times, ranging from “He felt, in his head, loud voices singing: terrible music, as if the reality around him had gone sour,” (p. 63) to “If He is active here, He is doing that now, although our eyes can’t perceive it; the process lies hidden beneath the surface of reality, and emerges only later.” (p. 205) The words and ideas associated with reality in A Scanner Darkly are varied and rich in implications. Most intriguing, though, is its use on page 100 where a character named Luckman reads from a book either by or about Teilhard de Chardin:

He to whom it is given to see Christ more real
than any other reality in the World, Christ everywhere present and everywhere growing more great, Christ the final determination and plasmatic Principle of the Universe, that man indeed lives in a zone where no multiplicity can distress him and which is nevertheless the most active workshop of universal fulfilment.

Of all possible historical figures, why Teilhard de Chardin? (He is also mentioned in chapter nine of Dick and Zelazny’s Deus Irae (1976)) And why this particular quote?


Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a Jesuit Priest, paleontologist, and philosopher who trekked through Asian deserts to the Himalayas, dug for clues to man’s ancestry in Africa, survived both the Japanese and the Communists in war-torn China, and aided in the discovery of the several-million-year-old Peking man. But it is as a philosopher that de Chardin interests Dick and is of importance here. De Chardin’s major work, which wasn’t published until after his death, is The Phenomenon of Man (1955; english trans. 1959). His major thesis is a doctrine of cosmic evolution, which attempts to show that evolutionism does not entail a rejection of Christianity. In this respect he sought to convince the church that it can and should accept the implications of the revolution begun by Darwin, but he met with uniform opposition from ecclesiastical superiors. More relevant here are de Chardin’s ideas and comments about reality.

As delineated in Emile Rideau’s The Thought of Teilhard de Chardin (1967), de Chardin maintained that knowledge of the real (reality) is obtained by two complementary means. The first is the classification of the forms, or ideas, of reality in an organic system whose boundaries are ever expanding. This organic system includes scientific knowledge, which leads directly to philosophical knowledge and is normally continued in moral and religious action, or spiritual existence. The second way considers the movement in time that makes of reality a history, that is, the process that makes it possible to determine the place that every phenomenon must occupy in the order of its appearance, thus making knowledge itself a historical fact. By these means Man’s knowledge of reality proceeds from the abstract to the conrete with thought (reason) regulating the passage from the manifestation of things to their law and their reality. But, it is faith only that will give a new consistence and new certainty to this truth of the real that has come from reason. And the reality obtainable by this method is the world (universe), but only in so far as it is itself united to Man and thought by him; more importantly, only in so far as Man himself, the thought of the world, is united to God.


There is one additional aspect of de Chardin’s concept of reality alluded to in the quote from A Scanner Darkly that merits some explication, that of his interconnected notions of form and energy. Being (absolute reality), in knowledge of the world, emerges as truth in the discovery of the movement of the phenomena towards a maximum of order, or unity (form, structure, organization, internal finality). The multiple whole of phenomena (world/universe), then, in time and space is physically held together by an organic interdependence of its elements through the influence of forces of convergence and attraction. Intrinsically linked with this notion of form (structure) is de Chardin’s notion of energy, that which constitutes the internal structure of beings. This energy is of two kinds, tangential and radial. The latter is spiritual and internal, increasing and irreversible, an energy of arrangement and unification. The former is mechanical and external, superficial and peripheral, an energy of dissipation and dissociation. Tangential energy is manifested in a tendency towards maximum order (form, structure), radial energy is a tendency towards maximum disorder (repetition, inertia, death). The life-matter whole, then, is woven together by a dialectic of continuity and discontinuity; against order there always stands disorder.

It is this aspect of disorder, of radial energy, that is most pertinent to the de Chardin quote in A Scanner Darkly, for one prevalent kind of radial energy is entropy, what de Chardin calls “The mysterious involution of the world.” And entropy results in unorganized multiplicity, multiplicity being inertia, a check or break, a drag, a tendency towards dissociation. This multiplicity is, no doubt, of the same kind as that mentioned in the de Chardin quote, “…a zone where no multiplicity can distress him…” It is, in turn, meant to implicitly point towards, I think, what the main character in A Scanner Darkly experiences, i.e., multiplicity or dissociation; dissociation in its psychiatric sense means the unconscious defense mechanism of keeping conflicting attitudes and impulses apart, a way of satisfying two opposing urges and still maintain a sense of integrity and self-esteem. In its extreme form dissociation can result in a loss of personal identity, or a splitting into two or more contrasting personalities; both of these happen to the Arctor/Fred character in A Scanner Darkly.


Almost as intriguing as the reality quote from page 100 in A Scanner Darkly is the one of page 63, where reality is modified by the adjective sour, sour here meaning as in sour music, i.e., off pitch or badly produced, for there is a mention of “loud voices singing; terrible music.” A reality that is off pitch or badly produced implies its obverse, a reality that is “on” pitch or “rightly” produced. This generates, in effect, contrasting realities and one possible answer to Dick’s question in quote three, “Why does it [reality] seem to differ from person to person?” The other, and probably more common meaning of sour should also be noted, that of a bitter or acrid taste. It is not entirely inconceivable that Dick intended this to be a secondary “After taste” quality of the reality perceived (experienced) by Arctor/Fred in A Scanner Darkly, of a kind not unlike that intimated by a line from Act I, scene iii of Shakespeare’s King Richard II, “Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour.” Or, as Arctor might paraphrase it, “reality, sweet to perception, proves in experience sour.”

Compare this, now, with part of quote six, wherein Dick states that “Reality, to me, is not something that you perceive, but something you make. You create it more rapidly than it creates you.” What this means can be better understood by briefly considering what is technically referred to in philosophy as the coherence theory of truth. This theory, which is one of the two traditional theories of truth (the other being the correspondence theory), has to do with poetic truth, truth created by a process of making; reality that is discovered and in a sense created in the very act of perception. In the coherence theory, the epistemological process is accelerated by intuitive perception; evidence is replaced by self-evidence. The stress is on the individual experience, the individual vision. As Maupassant wrote in his essay, “Le Roman,” prefixed to his novel Pierre et Jean (1888), “how childish it is, anyway, to rely on reality when each of us carries his own in his mind and body.” This appropriately echo’s Dick’s words above and provides another answer to his question in quote three, “Why does it [reality] seem to differ from person to person?” That it does so is also explained by something Ian Watt wrote in his seminal study, The Rise of the Novel (1957): “from the Renaissance onwards, there was a growing tendency for individual experience to replace collective tradition as the ultimate arbiter of reality” [emphasis mine].


The most perplexing reality quote is on page 75: “strange how paranoia can link up with reality, now and then, briefly,” a notion that is found in two earlier Dick novels. In Time Out Of Joint (1959) there is mention of “the odd blurring of reality and his insanity,” and in The Game Players Of Titan (1963) it’s noted that “there’s a relationship between the telepathic faculty and paranoia.” Though initially thought in response to the actions of another character, Barris, in A Scanner Darkly, Arctor soon includes himself: “knowing what I know, I still stepped across into that freaked-out paranoid space with them…” (p. 78). But, just what does Arctor’s reflection mean? Paranoia is a psychotic disorder marked by slowly developing systematized delusions of persecution and/or grandeur. And while delusions of persecution categorize, in a general way, the actions of Arctor and his friends, pages 75-79 in passim, the connection with reality is not at all clear. It makes more sense if the inference to paranoia is meant to be the paranoid type of schizophrenia. In this psychosis the major symptoms are poorly organized, internally illogical, changeable delusions, often accompanied by vivid auditory, visual, or tactile hallucinations. The individual’s grasp of reality progressively loosens until, in some cases, there is a total withdrawal from reality; the person becomes apathetic and indifferent to everything outside itself. As Dr. Bruno Bettelheim observes in his article “Individual and Mass Behaviour in Extreme Situations” (1943) the self seeks refuge in schizophrenia when reality “becomes unendurable,” a view that is similar to T.S. Eliot’s phrase about man being unable to bear very much reality. It is this sense of paranoia that gives more significance to the congruence of reality and paranois quote on page 75, for it aptly describes not Barris’s but Arctor’s state of mind in A Scanner Darkly.

By now it is apparent that despite several incongruities enough similarities exist among the excerpts to generate at least one answer to our query near the beginning about which reality is real, or more real, Fred’s or Arctor’s; it is an answer that reflects viewpoints expressed by Dick in his quotes. Noting, in particular, the allusions to de Chardin and the coherence theory of truth, both Fred’s and Arctor’s reality are real as individually perceived and experienced by each. But, the fact that Fred and Arctor are one in the same person makes this conclusion at best problematic. Perhaps the whole story is a hallucination viewed by Arctor in the midst of his drug enhanced (or induced) hebephrenic schizophrenia. In this case, the first Dick quote is a fitting epithet for Arctor and A Scanner Darkly: if I knew what a hallucination was I would know what reality was.

[publishing history: Philosophical Speculations in Science Fiction & Fantasy,


Vol. 1, no. 1, March 1981, pp. 12-17.]

One Response to “Encounters with Reality: P.K. Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly””

  1. A Scanner Darkly | andrewj21 Says:

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