Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (1852) and Philip K. Dick’s VALIS (1981)

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The Forms

Art generally or literature specifically, insofar as it comes down to the present from the past, tends to be conservative and traditional.  Any essay, poem, play, story, or novel is formed in its completion by its author and retains that form every time it is re-read or re-issued.  Not even the postmodern contemnors of Shakespeare as the exemplary Dead White Male dare to alter his text, however spitefully they address it; they never speak of a “Living Hamlet” in the way that they speak of a “Living Constitution” that lends itself to re-composition on a whim.  The interpretation of Hamlet changes, but the document possesses a taboo that protects it from tampering.  In the moment when any essay, poem, play, story, or novel is formed, moreover, the spirits of the age and place imbue the work with their character even in cases where the author opposes himself to their character.  George Elliot (a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans) might have been a socialist and feminist, but she was also a child of the Victorian era – and many things that scandalize Twenty-First Century conservatives and traditionalists would have scandalized her just as much.  H. G. Wells advocated such programs as a type of radical but non-Marxist socialism, world government, eugenics, and much else, but one will find in his novels and essays no promotion of “gay marriage,” abortion, or mass immigration.  Wells criticized the English society of his day, but he remained fond of England.  He would no doubt be shocked by aspects of Twenty-First Century London.  And then there are the authors who are thematically conservative.

Cervantes might be the first, in that his Quixote, Part II, criticizes the notion of the modern, finding in it a type of bland self-orientation.  Indeed, as the centuries pass, modernity creates a bifurcation among writers: There are those who see themselves as modern and conform to modernity’s expectations; and there are those who breast the stream.  The present essay treats two American novelists who belong to the second category.  One of these novelists lived in the first half of the Nineteenth Century.  The other lived in the middle of the Twentieth Century.  Whatever the expectation might be, they are startlingly close to one another in their moral analyses of modernity, especially of its “progressive” aspect.  Whether either author would have applied to himself the label of conservative or traditionalist, in the present context that label settles on him willy-nilly.  Perhaps it is so that integrity – of insight and judgment as well as of literary execution – is an intrinsically conservative trait.

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The Blithedale Romance (1852)

I. “No sagacious man will long retain his sagacity, if he live exclusively among reformers and progressive people, without periodically returning into the settled system of things, to correct himself by a new observation from that old standpoint.” So says Miles Coverdale, the more or less autobiographical first-person narrator in The Blithedale Romance (1852) – a novelistic critique of Transcendentalism and socialism rooted in the author’s participation in George Ripley’s ill-starred Brook Farm experiment of the 1840s – by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864). Coverdale comes by his opinion two-thirds of the way through the novel – or idyll, or romance – after a revelation concerning his fellow utopians.  Critics charge Coverdale with being what they call an “unreliable narrator,” but this should not deter readers from inferring truth on the basis of his testimony.  Coverdale is reliably unreliable.  He is at least as reliable as the other characters, whose egos and idiosyncrasies do manage to insinuate themselves through Coverdale’s account of events.  But the genius of The Blithedale Romance lies paradoxically in its portrait of characters without character, self-forfeiting mere individuals, not persons, who have sacrificed themselves (not only metaphorically) on the altar of ideological true belief.  The Blithedale Romance is one of the earliest fictional critiques of socialism, which Hawthorne by clairvoyance perceives as a heretical strain of Gospel Christianity, but it amounts beyond that to an early critique of ideology, as generally conceived.  The Blithedale Romance, like Dostoevsky’s Devils or Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, is a novel apposite in its significance to the crisis-fraught situation of today.

Hawthorne’s narrative opens with Coverdale recounting his last night as an ordinary bourgeois person before presenting himself at what will acquire the moniker of “Blithedale,” so as to enroll in its Charles Fourier-inspired experiment in militant reformist collectivism.  Dostoevsky and Conrad would have recognized Hawthorne’s gaggle of early Nineteenth Century intelligentsia, beginning right away with Coverdale, a dandy and poetaster who fancies that he belongs to the socio-political avant-garde.  A rootless young man of modestly independent means, more or less educated, and with his knack for verse, Coverdale has up until the moment lived a life of drifting voyeurism, hotel-residency, and nightly theater going.  He gravitates to the endeavor of Fourier-type socialism by a purely natural, un-reflective tendency, feeling vaguely resentful towards the world, vaguely guilty in his listlessness, and vaguely hopeful of finding actual status through the pending demonstration of radical, socially transformative audacity.  Significantly, in the second paragraph of Chapter One, Hawthorne imbues his carefully observed Transcendentalist-socialist milieu with the hazy afflatus of early-Nineteenth Century spirit rapping and mysticism.  A certain “Veiled Lady” has made a stir recently on the Athenaeum circuit, whom – in her mundane guise, as the consummately ordinary Priscilla, an insipid seventeen-year-old girl – Hawthorne will place at the symbolic empty center and focal point of all the insipid fantasies of Blithedale.  Of the “Veiled Lady,” Coverdale divulges that “she was a phenomenon in the mesmeric line; one of the earliest that had indicated the birth of a new science or the revival of an old humbug.”

The “humbug” comment, which Coverdale makes in retrospect, fifteen years after the events, conveys his delayed judgment that the enthusiasm of his Blithedale comrades for creating “A Modern Arcadia” corresponded, in its moment, not with anything modern or new but rather with something old, historically recurrent, and rather less than admirable.  The references to mesmerism suggest furthermore that the Blithedale utopianism had entailed the surrender of personality and judgment to a dream-existence strongly at variance with reality and that its cohesion corresponded only to a type of collective hypnosis.  A dreamy atmosphere, veering into the nightmarish, does indeed pervade the project, once Coverdale arrives on site and begins to meet and mingle with the other participants, as does a strong but largely unspoken conformism.  Dominating the others in their common milieu are Zenobia, a feminist and socialist whose persona borrows certain traits from Margaret Fuller, and Hollingsworth, blacksmith by trade and social reformer by vocation, who schemes to hijack Blithedale’s resources for his own radical, but related program.  The word “feminism” was invented, incidentally, by none other than Fourier.  It is worthy of note that American college students, who can be fairly obtuse about such things, have a strong instinctive aversion to all the characters of The Blithedale Romance, whose narcissism and hypocrisy remain in view even when Hawthorne puts into their mouths flowery, politically correct oratory that, in other contexts, the same students would, either by cynicism or conviction, endorse, and which they might employ themselves in other, conformist contexts.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864)

Coverdale arrives at Blithedale after dark in the midst of a snowstorm, shivering and soaked to his skin.  Greeting him, Zenobia offers empty flattery and invites the same in return.  She then remarks that because of the lingering snow, “we shall find some difficulty in adopting the Paradisiacal system for at least a month to come,” but she has reckoned only with the recalcitrance of nature, failing to take account of human nature.  At every step, Hawthorne depicts his radicals as pitting themselves against nature and the self-regulating social order, which they regard as arbitrary, inconvenient, and pliable under the command of any idea, no matter how much it might vary from human actuality and the order of being.  The only person present who demonstrates his contact with reality is the farm-supervisor and factotum Silas Foster, a crusty New Englander the dart of whose scorn regularly bursts the over-inflated balloon of dilettantish earnestness.  One incident is telling because it concerns the relation of utopianism to the market.  When the utopians try to make a start on agriculture, the question of raising “early vegetables for the market” comes up.  “We shall never make any hand at market-gardening,” says Foster, “unless the women folks will undertake to do all the weeding.”  Foster reasons that: “We haven’t team enough for that and regular farm-work, reckoning three of you city folks as worth one common field-hand.  No, no; I tell you, we should have to get up a little too early in the morning, to compete with the market-gardeners around Boston.”  Foster’s remark might be Hawthorne’s sly reference to Voltaire’s Candide, where subjects of serial misfortune resolve their misery by tending a garden and taking the produce to the bazaar in Constantinople to sell.  Utopia is nowhere.  Happiness requires labor.

Coverdale now wrestles with a deeply seated reflex provoked by Foster’s invocation of competition and the market: “It struck me as rather odd, that one of the first questions raised, after our separation from the greedy, struggling, self-seeking world, should relate to the possibility of our getting the advantage over the outside barbarians in their own field of labor.”  Hawthorne has struck at an essential element of all ideologies that unites the socialism of the French Révolutionnaires two hundred and fifty years ago with victim-cult practitioners in contemporary North American politics: Profound resentment against the self-motivated industry of free people whose un-coerced negotiations with one another result in the constant general increase of total wealth and in its fair distribution among the willing participants in the system.  Fourier himself (1772 – 1837) equated what he sarcastically called “the noble art of lying” with “the art of selling.”  He recorded how once, as a child, he “swore eternal hatred of commerce.”  One can see in the view of Hawthorne’s utopians and that of their real-life model Fourier the fearful, immature reluctance of the late-adolescent person to enter the adult world of the market and to test himself through its ordeal.  Fourier’s “eternal hatred” functions as a rhetorical detour around a more honest and time-honored term: Resentment.  What the socialist really resents and therefore hates is the confidence of the one who braves the ordeal.  The socialist wants the rewards of the market without participating in it.  He imagines himself as the bearer of an aristocratic privilege.  That is the meaning of his self-election.

Hawthorne understands the rebarbative style and the dualistic tendency in such thinking.  Coverdale remembers that, in response to Foster’s remark, he swiftly, “became sensible that, as regarded society at large, we stood in a position of new hostility, rather than new brotherhood.”  In that thought, remarks Coverdale, he recovered from his disequilibrium of the moment, reminding himself that until such time as “the bigger and better half of society should range itself on our side,” the utopians would remain “estranged from the rest of mankind in pretty fair proportion with the strictness of our mutual bond.”  Estrangement, hostility…  The New Arcadians see themselves as a community of the morally pure, who must avoid contamination by the wicked external society.  Culturally, if not politically, such a Puritanical vision of existence can fairly lay claim to being the founding vision of North American settlement, and probably more for worse than for better.  One might hazard the hypothesis, indeed, that the social history of the United States consists in the regular recrudescence of an original Puritanism, which the rational politics of the Founding Fathers could never fully assimilate or suppress.  The Left’s bout of collective falling-sickness over the presidency of Donald Trump, who is not a Puritan, bears all the marks of an essentially religious – primitively religious – hysteria.   But so then does every war on this or that since the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.  Hawthorne, who stemmed from Puritan stock, satirized Puritanism elsewhere, as in The Scarlet Letter and the short story “Young Goodman Brown.”

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The Idyll of Brook Farm (Blithedale)

Protecting the pristine unanimity of the saintly in-group from the miasmatic hypocrisy of the devilish out-group and designing to extend theocratic dominion provide recurrent themes in Puritan homiletic, as Hawthorne well knew.  Hawthorne arranges for a number of conversations in The Blithedale Romance to occur in the vicinity of a rocky outcrop that Coverdale and Zenobia dub “Eliot’s Pulpit.”  Coverdale refers to his co-denizens on the farm as “descendants of the Pilgrims, whose high enterprise, we sometimes flattered ourselves, we had taken up.”  The followers of Fourier sought, like the Puritans, radically to demarcate themselves, under the positive notion of Harmonie,” from the surrounding degenerate world, for which they used the term, entirely negative for them, “Civilisation.”  Fourier famously predicted that as his new dispensation gained adherents, the oceans themselves would cease to be salt and would become lemonade.  Vacillating somewhat from his previous sense of solidarity with the Blithedale scheme, Coverdale shows himself skeptical by chiding Hollingsworth about the fantastic tenor of utopian speculation, Fourier’s eschatological limonade à cédre serving as case in point: “Just imagine the city docks filled, every day, with a flood tide of this delectable beverage.”  Coverdale assumes that his compatriot shares the vetted judgments of Blithedale.  Hollingsworth puts faith, however, only in his own scheme.  Hollingsworth bodies forth the Satanic logic of puritanical doctrines, hence also of ideology, in simple.  The existing radicalism always appears to someone among its late-arriving devotees as insufficiently radical; and its Puritanism appears as insufficiently pure.  Nothing strikes one prophet as more unsatisfactory or vile than his most conspicuous precursor-prophet.  So it is with Hollingsworth, whose idea of effective social reform (more to come) reveals the pathology of all political fantasies that begin in resentment of the market.

First, however, it will be profitable to give some consideration to Hawthorne’s careful representation of Hollingsworth’s psychology.  Fourier, who preached against selfishness, is for Hollingsworth nothing less than a selfish swindler: “I will never forgive this fellow…  He has committed the unpardonable sin; for what more monstrous iniquity could the devil himself contrive than to choose the selfish principle, – the principle of all human wrong, the very blackness of man’s heart, the portion of ourselves which we shudder at, and which it is the whole aim of spiritual discipline to eradicate, – to choose it as the master-workman of his system?”  But it is a case of plus Fourieriste que Fourier.  Coverdale guesses that Hollingsworth represents a Christian notion of charity severed from the Gospel morality as a whole and concentrated into a mental “idol”: “Hollingsworth had a closer friend than ever you could be; and this friend was the cold, spectral monster which he himself had conjured up, and on which he was wasting all the warmth of his heart, and of which, – as these men of a mighty purpose do, – he had grown to be the bond-slave.  It was his philanthropic theory.”  In this grim man, Coverdale discerns “a stern and dreadful peculiarity,” something “not altogether human,” which it “is not cowardice, but wisdom, to avoid.” The retributive obsession of Hollingsworth-types “grows incorporate with all they think and feel, and finally converts them into little else save that one principle.”  Like a Jonathan Edwards sermonizing about the Angry God, Hollingsworth is wont to “ascend Eliot’s pulpit” to preach to his “disciples.”

Yet this glowering evangelist of fierce reform ultimately finds himself derailed in his grim business by his adolescent infatuation with the slip of a girl, Priscilla.  Hawthorne has revealed that Priscilla is, or rather has been, the fabled “Veiled Lady” of recent renown, whose oracular declamations from the hypnotist’s stage supposedly betoken the breaking-in on mundane reality of Transcendental powers, but in the mantic exertions of whose performance Coverdale belatedly perceives only so much “humbug at the bottom” indicating that “the soul of man is descending to a lower point than it has ever reached.”  Perceiving Hollingsworth’s preference for the vapid girl as a betrayal, which it is, Zenobia drowns herself.  Hollingsworth, in an access of guilt, becomes a broken man, but he is at least delivered from his former monstrosity.  The scandal reveals the inescapable pathos of the human-all-too-human.  It also reveals that seeming moral audacity might disguise the moral hesitancy referred to earlier.  Hollingsworth is at one with the other utopians in being afraid to test his prowess in the actual world.  Ironically, then, despite his attempt at escapism, the ordeal of actuality finds him out and delivers him a humiliating blow.  But Zenobia too has demonstrated cowardice.  The character Westervelt speaks to Coverdale after Zenobia’s funeral.  Westervelt tells Coverdale that Zenobia had “life’s summer all before her.”  Now, however, he says, “Twenty years of a brilliant lifetime thrown away for a mere woman’s whim!”

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Fourier’s Phalanstery

What is the prime symbol of Hollingsworth’s fanaticism – and therefore of the human betrayal inherent, not merely to Blithedale or Brook Farm, but to all ideological schemes?  “His specific object,” Coverdale says, “was to obtain funds for the construction of an edifice, with a sort of collegiate endowment.”  Within the confines of this building, Hollingsworth’s “visionary edifice” and “castle in the air,” its imaginer “purposed to devote himself and a few disciples to the reform and mental culture of our criminal brethren.”  The reformatory “was the material type in which his philanthropic dream strove to embody itself; and he made the scheme more definite, and caught hold of it the more strongly, and kept his clutch the more pertinaciously, by rendering it visible to the bodily eye” in innumerable sketches, projections, and drawings.  The prototype of Hollingsworth’s reformatory, Fourier’s Phalanstery, suggests that Hawthorne’s perverse “philanthropist” would cast his net far beyond any nucleus of mere criminals.  Later the idea becomes “a scheme for reformation of the wicked by methods moral, intellectual, and industrial, by the sympathy of pure, humble, and yet exalted minds, and by opening to his pupils the possibility of a worthier life than that which had become their fate.”  And, naturally, everyone but the philanthropist qualifies as “wicked.”  Hawthorne sees in the Manichaean division of the saints and the sinners a propensity for sacrifice, as in the Salem witch-trials or the French Revolution.

To such bloodless yet bloody Mumbo-Jumbos, all utopian schemers invariably “consecrate themselves [as] high-priest, and deem it holy work to offer sacrifices of whatever is most precious.”  They “never once seem to suspect… that this false deity, in whose iron features, immitigable to all the rest of mankind, they see only benignity and love, is but a spectrum of the priest himself, projected upon the surrounding darkness.”  The ideologue’s ultimate conceit is that he is a better god than God; that to redeem men he requires absolute power over them; and that the system of redemption can only function in the form of an iron-walled prison, purged of all dissent, embracing the world.  The idealist reveals himself as a Gnostic, dividing the human world into the minority of the elect and the great remainder of the preterit.  Coverdale, coming at last into a degree of clarity concerning his sins and follies, summarizes his experience.  “The moral which presents itself to my reflections,” Hawthorne gives it to Coverdale to say, “as drawn from Hollingsworth’s character and errors, is simply this, that, admitting what is called philanthropy, when adopted as a profession, to be often useful by its energetic impulse to society at large, it is perilous to the individual whose ruling passion, in one exclusive channel, it thus becomes.”  Coverdale adds, “I see in Hollingsworth an exemplification of the most awful truth in Bunyan’s book of such, from the very gate of heaven there is a by-way to the pit!”  Coverdale remarks that “the [Blithedale] experiment, so far as its original projectors were concerned, proved, long ago, a failure.”


VALIS: 1980s Paperback Edition

II. The mid-Twentieth Century novelist Philip K. Dick (1928 – 1982) never figures in the literary histories as a successor to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Yet Dick’s late-in-life novel VALIS (1981) has, on consideration, a good deal in common with The Blithedale Romance, not least that it belongs, like Hawthorne’s novel, to the generics of romance – the fantastic tale, or the tale of someone’s involvement with the fantastic, the grotesque, the curious, and the distorted. More than this, The Blithedale Romance and VALIS share a central symbol.  That symbol powerfully connotes the collective delusion and sacrificial character of ideological enthusiasm.  Hollingsworth’s Phalanstery in The Blithedale Romance becomes the sinister “Black Iron Prison” of Dick’s story about schizophrenia, paranoia, group-delusion, and the abject misery caused by pathological resentment masquerading as an avatar of Christian charity.  Hawthorne’s setting is ante-bellum New England, still charged with the urgency of the Puritan theocracy, but disturbed and confused also by a newer, vaguer mysticism of table-rapping on the one hand and socialist, anti-market enthusiasm on the other.  For Hawthorne, the two are ontologically inseparable even when they are analytically distinguishable.  Hawthorne’s characters see themselves as apostles, not of the incarnated Christ, but of an idea, rather vague, of charity and good works that has split from Christianity to become the whole of a decadent heresy.  Their need for an idol is their need for fixation because mentally they are unfixed – they are loners and wanderers through life.

Dick’s setting is California, both north and south, during the heyday of 1960s counterculture: Berkeley, on the one hand, constantly riled by academic radicalism and a politicized vision of existence, and Orange County, on the other, generally conservative and middle-class, home even to the John Birch Society, and yet afflicted by the incipient drugs-sex-and-rock-and-roll indulgences of the late and unlamented 1970s.  As Dick’s narrator says (he is the author himself, more or less), the combination of Leftwing moral stridency and ubiquitous narcotics made of the radical antinomian life in this milieu something “totally f—-d.”  In this beatnik formulation Dick restates bluntly Miles Coverdale’s discovery that, “no sagacious man will long retain his sagacity, if he live exclusively among reformers and progressive people, without periodically returning into the settled system of things, to correct himself by a new observation from that old standpoint.”  As in The Blithedale Romance, so too in VALIS, a perversion of philanthropy mucks up Bay-Area and Los-Angeles-Basin life and, more than that, kills people.  The two narratives share motif of female suicide and of the sickly obsession of one or more characters with the suicidal female.  Those characters, in their folly and confusion, not to say in their narcissism, see themselves as substitutes for Christ who, by magic if not miracle, might hal the sick.  Of course they are just as sick as those whom they presume to heal.  Dick’s protagonist, a second version of himself named “Horselover Fat,” needs to do two things, namely “get off dope (which he hadn’t done) and stop trying to help people (he still tried to help people).”  Narcotic drugs and the hallucinations that they produce function both as topical references to the Bohemian way of life and as metaphors.  The Bohemian way of life is, itself, a type of narcotic.  That one might remain in the Bohemian way of life and yet wean oneself of a narcotic addiction consists therefore, if not exactly in a hallucination, then in a delusion.

Because Dick could call on a full additional century and more of historical experience unavailable to Hawthorne – the two world wars and the rise of the totalitarian empires, for example – he evidences an awareness of ideological toxicity unsurprisingly more acute and alarmist than Hawthorne’s, as acute and alarmist as Hawthorne’s awareness is.  Dick has observed what Eric Voegelin observed in The New Science of Politics (1952): That ideological enthusiasm, or what the ideologues themselves call commitment or engagement, requires the construction of a second reality to be imposed by coercion on the actual reality, the structure of which fails to legitimize the program.  The enthusiast must veil himself in a self-imposed delusion.  The construction of the second reality poses many problems for the constructor because the actual reality must, through its recalcitrance, prove persistently scandalous and threatening and so constitute itself an object of ever increasing hatred and denial.  It is the Fetch that comes back to haunt the self-accursing sinner.  Dick cannily casts an atmosphere of pervasive hysteria over the events of VALIS; the characters live in continuous reality-denial, self-denial, logical contradiction, and debilitating paranoia and rage.  The split between “Phil Dick,” more or less sane, and “Horselover Fat,” Dick’s clinically depressed, suicidal alter ego, serves for the primary symbol of the dissociation.  “Dick” must pay his rent, buy groceries, and live, as best he can, in the world; “Fat,” parasitizes “Dick” by delegating to him these adult errands while he, “Fat,” dwells childlike in a resentment-driven fantasy in the sustenance of which any number of other parasites collaborate.  The tendency of this fantasy is nihilistic.


The Idyll of Orange County

Consider the two women, with whom Fat becomes involved, disastrously.  These are Gloria Knudson and Sherri Solvig.  Gloria, like Fat, is listless, disaffected, filled with silent rage against the non-negotiable demands of reality; she brings to her miserable life the attitude that it has cheated on an endowment that it owed to her, as though happiness and wellbeing entailed no responsibility or effort on the part of the subject.  (Hawthorne’s characters have the same attitude.)  Dick diagnoses Gloria as “rationally insane.”  The descriptor means that Gloria has come to attribute her failure at social integration to a non-specifiable “they,” a magical blocking-agency, and that she has elaborated her petulance into “a panorama of relentless madness, lapidary in construction.”  Fat judges it to be “rationality at the service of… nonbeing.”  Gloria’s suicide, in which she has involved Fat cynically if indirectly, is what tips Fat himself into psychosis.  Gloria must share her delusion with others because she suspects that it is a delusion.  From Fat, she can obtain not only the extra Nembutal tablets that she wants in order to kill herself (as it happens she jumps from a window), but also the verbal support that, in empty words, ritually sustains her willful dissociation.  Gloria stands for the 1960s counterculture, of which Dick writes that, “it possessed a whole book of phrases which bordered on meaning nothing,” which Fat habitually “used to string… together” in pointless disquisitions.  In using such phrases, a person’s judgment would “drop to a new nadir of acuity.”

Sherri is Gloria rediviva.  Another failure of social integration, she fixates on death, ultimately willing her own fatality in a recurrence of remitted lymphoma.  As Dick writes, “she like Gloria planned to take as many people into misery with her as possible.”  Sherri’s hold on Fat consists in Fat’s screwy notion of philanthropy.  Freshly discharged from a mental ward himself, he refuses to see in Sherri a pathological case, who “expressed fury and hatred, constantly, at the doctors who had saved her” by bringing about her renewed illness.  As Dick puts it, in the apocalyptic, Platonic-Christian vocabulary of VALIS, “Fat had decided to bind himself to the Antichrist,” and he had done so “out of the highest motives: out of love, gratitude, and a desire to help.”  Dick says, “If you did something for Sherri she felt she should feel gratitude – which she did not – and this she interpreted as a burden, a despised obligation.”  Obligation is another word for reciprocity; and reciprocity is the fundamental moral principle of the market.  Reciprocity moreover belongs to the fundamental and universal social institution of gift giving.  Dick’s misfits would opt out of the gift giving cycle, which is mandatory, not optional.  They would therefore opt out of society, whose benefits they nevertheless wish to retain.  When Sherri finds an apartment for which the state pays the rent, she rancorously moves out of Fat’s digs, where she has been staying.  That Sherri is a putative Catholic and dotes on “Larry,” her priest, only sharpens Dick’s analysis of the second reality in which his neurotics exist, for, like Hawthorne, he sees formulaic shared delusion as a degenerate form of religiosity.  The question whether “Larry” is a Christian or a priest by any sign except his collar also poses itself.  He seems more in the nature of social worker and a socialist.  Insofar as readers become acquainted with him, they detect nothing religious in him.

The shifting ad hoc social groupings, in which Fat participates, function as does the sodality at Blithedale; the group always conceives itself as enlightened and pure and under siege by the surrounding deviltry, expelling those whom it comes not to trust and adopting substitutes.  Hawthorne says that Hollingsworth’s obsession diminished the value to him of everything else, including love.  Dick says something similar about Sherri: “Everything else, all people, objects and processes had become reduced to the status of shadows.”  Worse yet, “when she contemplated other people she contemplated the injustice of the universe.”  Anyone, whom Sherri conceives as better off than she, betokens for her the great unfairness of existence and so justifies her in her hatred of reality.  Lawrence Sutin’s biography of Dick makes it clear that much of Dick’s fiction is rooted in autobiography, which VALIS affirms by its inclusion of Dick (more or less) as a character under his own name.  Dick understands the seduction of resentment and the masochistic allure of psychosis because, experiencing both, he managed to fight his way back to something like an appreciation of reality.  Fat follows a similar death-and-rebirth and ends up assimilated once more to Dick, so that the split in reality is healed.  It is during Fat’s deepest psychosis that a symbol emerges in the novel, which sums up, in its adamant image, Dick’s “take” on ideological delusions.  This is the symbol of the Black Iron Prison.

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Philip K. Dick (1928 – 1982)

What Dick as narrator calls Gloria’s “lapidary” paranoia foreshadows the Black Iron Prison.  Gloria’s persecution-fantasy and hatred of existence have taken on the massiveness of a masonry bulwark designed to protect the unreal picture of existence, the second reality, from being contradicted by the experience inherent in the first, the actual reality.  It is the fate of every second reality to become ever more complex and baroque in the attempt to save its counter-intuitive version of the appearances.  As Fat tries to justify his own denial of reality, he comes to believe that he has been the subject of a new Revelation, supplementary to the Gospel.  Dick himself had such a psychotic episode, managing eventually to integrate it.  In Fat’s gnosis, too, there is a gist that permits the subject’s reintegration in life.  Fat claims to have discovered that the great tension in history is the tension between the true vision of reality, and of individual dignity and responsibility, as granted by the Gospel, and the false vision of reality, rooted in fear, that abhors freedom and execrates the fruits thereof because it secretly considers itself inadequate to the requirements of existence.  The false vision insists that reality itself suffers from a flaw and that the true believers can reconstruct reality after their own, more perfect plan for it.  Critics who refer to Dick as a Gnostic have it wrong; the real strength of Dick’s fiction, and the trait that binds it to Hawthorne’s authorship, is its anti-Gnosticism.

Whenever the true believers gain power over others, as they sometimes do in cults and even in states, or when they establish themselves as the elites in a society, they act imperiously to suppress any articulation of the actual reality and they propagandize inveterately to impose their second reality.  The term ideology refers to this simultaneous war on reality and campaign for unreality.  Aware that ideology demands the surrender of common sense, of genuine subject-hood, and of one’s right to traffic in values and opinions as tested by experience, Dick has Fat sum up the nihilistic trend in the trope of the Black Iron Prison, whose other name is “Empire.”  The Prison traps the individual in the system of lies, willingly adopted, that shields the frightened subject from the openness and unpredictability of existence.  In the falsehood, not in reality, originates “entropy, undeserved suffering, chaos and death”; falsehood entails “the aborting of… proper growth and health.”  In its character, falsehood is “deranged… tormented, humiliated” and its functions are “blind, mechanical, purposeless… processes.”  In a finely crafted essay, “If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some Of The Others” (1977), Dick the fantasist affirms objectivity, but also the revelatory function, of the external world.  He begins by addressing the mediocrity of most of what pass for ideas in novel-writing.  Much of novel writing including implicitly his own involves recycling worn-out plots and tropes.  If the novelist ever added a new idea, it would probably be “entirely… useless.”  Dick continues: “Once in a while, however, [the novelist] happens by chance onto a thoroughly stunning idea new to him that he hopes will turn out to be new to everyone else.”  Characteristic of these ideas, extremely few but justifying the author’s work “to himself and to his God,” is that, in respect of any one of them, “He did not invent it or even find it.”  Rather, “in a very real sense, it found him,” and “it invented him.”  Dick wrote in a private note around 1975: “This is not an evil world, as Mani supposed,” but rather “there is a good world under the evil” which when the evil is “stripped away” reveals a “pristine glowing creation.”

Dick 12 VALIS Image

The Vast Active Living Intelligence System

The foregoing fails to do full justice to VALIS, one of Dick’s finest achievements.  Dick had studied the Gnostic documents, which might well have influenced the composition of the novel.  The characters revel in their delusions and paranoia, which they elaborate in a baroque efflorescence, as did the Gnostic authors.  At one time or another Fat and his friends convince themselves that the Roman Empire at its dictatorial worst never ended; that the Empire is one with the Black Iron Prison, and that the orderly, more or less functional, and even pleasant social setting in which people live is a dream induced by the wardens to deceive them.  One remarks that the Matrix franchise rips off Dick’s trope without acknowledgment.  Meanwhile, according to paranoid rumor, the seemingly ultra-conservative President of the United States is, in fact, a Soviet secret agent and usurper – a genuine piece of political prophecy anticipating the delusions of the contemporary North American Left in 2018.  A satellite from another star system – VALIS or “Vast Active Living Intelligence System” – orbits the earth and transmits messages of supernal truth to receptive subjects – like Fat.  The Federal Government wants to destroy this satellite and liquidate anyone who has communicated with it.  A recently released science fiction movie, viewed allegorically, reveals the great conspiracy and, like the satellite, speaks supernal truth to receptive subjects.  The two-year-old baby daughter of a rock-star and his wife has been zapped by VALIS and now channels the Gnostic goddess Sophia.  She speaks like an adult in mystic aphorisms.  The baby-daughter later dies of brain tumor, possibly induced by exposure to electronic equipment.  She is another sacrificial victim of the second reality.

III. At the end of The Blithedale Romance, Coverdale admits his own sin.  He had loved Priscilla and had timorously and foolishly refrained from acting on the impulse.  He denied truth.  He has carried the guilt ever since, but his offering the narrative as interesting to an audience indicates that he had discovered some small compensation, at least, in participating in the writerly trade.  His salvation, in fact, is his reintegration, however modestly, in the market.  In the epilogue of VALIS, once the characters have fought their way clear of collective delusions, they, too, take jobs, seek girlfriends, and live, according to their talents, in the unstructured structure of the spontaneously self-organizing human world.  Fourier, who, like Comte and Marx, hated the unstructured structure of the spontaneously self-organizing human world, wanted to replace Civilisation with his Phalanstery.  In Nicholas Riasanovsky’s summary in The Teachings of Charles Fourier (1969), the reader learns how: “All members of a phalanx were to live in one huge building known as the Phalanstery, which served both as their residence and as the locale for most of their indoor activities.  In fact, except for the Phalanstery itself, Fourier’s plans provided for only a few supplementary constructions, such as stables, storehouses, and certain workshops, located in a regular and symmetric pattern in its immediate vicinity.”  According to Riasanovsky, “correct building called for a huge Phalanstery, some six stories high, with a long main body and two wings.”  In Fourier’s totalizing vision, every human being on the planet would eventually be incorporated into one of the innumerable, identical Phalansteries.  At Brook Farm, the basis of Blithedale, Ripley undertook the construction of a Phalanstery, which providentially burned down before its completion.

Fourier hated the market, as much as he hated the Jews, whom he identified with commerce, and quite as much as he hated – or saw himself as a rival of – Christians and Christianity.  The Western Continuum exhibits a curious split, which Hawthorne and Dick have observed. From Plato, the Prophets, and the Gospel, it has inherited its acknowledgment of reality and its appreciation that unless resentment is contained, it inevitably spreads and destabilizes the community.  The human reality belongs to the cosmic reality, from which it follows that moral reality is as objective as the cosmic reality, in the hierarchy of which it is a constituent level.  The universe itself, through bitter human experience, has demonstrated or revealed to humanity that reciprocity is necessary.  Reality invents man; man never invents reality.  The market belongs to reality.  The market, which depends on truth as much as it depends on reciprocity, is an outgrowth of these things.  This compounded “reality principle” seems to have inspired, from its beginning, an opposite “unreality principle” devoted to the cherishing, finally, of nothing, but rather to vilifying what its devotees see as the Trinity of Oppression – Philosophy, Judaeo-Christian Ethics, and the Market.  In the late Twentieth Century and in the incipient Twenty-First century, the characterless advocates of unreality have captured and perverted the institutions.  They are now using the institutions to insist that we share their weird delusions.  Modern North Americans live in something that conforms ever more closely to a Phalanstery.

Almost all Western governments now exhibit certain common, antinomian traits.  They pontificate ceaselessly.  They are averse to standing custom and local habit; they mistrust free transactions and lie in wait for opportunities to interfere in commerce and trade.  Judaism and Christianity irritate them and they seek to repress the symbols of those faiths while making common cause with dubious faiths hostile to Judaism and Christianity.  Barack Obama asked the administrators of Georgetown University, nominally a Catholic institution, to conceal the image of Jesus in the campus venue where he spoke, but he bowed to a wretched king.  What would Hawthorne or Dick make of that?  The Fourier-like anti-market pejoratives in The Blithedale Romance meanwhile take renewed life daily in the admonitory rhetoric of American and European liberals, whose shared conceit, that they know more than the mass of people in its agreeable traffic does, drives their current schedule of urgent restructuring – that is to say, of destroying – wealth and civic society.  Modern Western governments, like old-style Marxist and contemporary Third-World governments, which they are coming to resemble, repress the observation and reporting of reality under a system of censorship called political correctness.  An old teacher of mine used to say that modernity is a nightmare through which we are doomed to pass.  It is so.  Hawthorne and Dick foresaw the nightmare.

10 thoughts on “Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (1852) and Philip K. Dick’s VALIS (1981)

  1. Pingback: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (1852) and Philip K. Dick’s VALIS (1981) | @the_arv

  2. Excellent post. VALIS was my first encounter with gnosticism as a concept when I read it in high school, but knowing nothing about it, I didn’t notice Fat’s own gnosis as being in opposition to the very fundamentals of that tradition. I’ll have to revisit it sometime. Although it might easily be the best of Dick’s work, it’s too cerebral to lend itself to a film adaptation. If it were adapted, it would probably turn out more like A Scanner Darkly than the others, since that was largely about a bunch of paranoid people flipping out and running around, with just enough of a twist at the end to make a serviceable sci-fi movie.

    A hidden gem I hope that others take away from this: “The socialist wants the rewards of the market without participating in it. He imagines himself as the bearer of an aristocratic privilege. That is the meaning of his self-election.” This rings true, up to and including, perhaps especially, the SJWs of today.

    • Permit me to welcome a fellow Dickhead to the Orthosphere. I have the suspicion that a number of other Orthosphereans are, like you and I, Dickheads, but are keeping a low profile for fear of social embarrassment. There is a film version of a Dick novel related to VALIS, Radio Free Albemuth, which Dick might have written as the first version of VALIS. One of the central characters in the film is played by Alanis Morisette. I forget who the other actors are. It’s not bad, not bad at all, and that is perhaps because it was made, by the looks of it, on a low budget. The Amazon serial based on Man in the High Castle was for me disappointing. I am, of course, an eternal fan of Blade Runner. I liked the recent Blade Runner sequel although many others did not. It was too slowly paced, many said; but I viewed from the knowledge of Dick’s appreciation of Wagner’s Parsifal. It made sense to me.

      One value of reading and then re-reading classic books like The Blithedale Romance is that the poignant indirect analysis provokes one’s own thinking. My characterization of socialism is me channeling Hawthorne – or collaborating with him. That is how books work.

      • Thanks for the tip on Radio Free Albemuth. I see it’s at Amazon Prime if you’re a member.

        I read a lot of Dick in the 80s. Great writer. But I never got to Valis. I’ll check that out too.

  3. “George Elliot (a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans) might have been a socialist and feminist.”

    If only they were like her! I myself might even entertain the notion of female suffrage if the average woman had the intelligence and insight of George Eliot. What a woman, warts and all.

    • She spoke and read German and was the translator into English of Ludwig Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity, which Voegelin classifies under his modern political gnosticism label!

      • Let me put it this way. When I read her work, I realize that I am encountering a real human being. That may sound trivial, but there are precious few people that really manifest their humanity. I assume that they are people, but perhaps, fundamentally, I am not committed to the idea. When I read Eliot or Dostoevsky, there is no doubt.

        When Nero moved into his domus aurea, he reportedly noted that he had finally found a house fitting for a man. That is supposed to show his monomaniacal egoism, I guess, but I always have found it interesting and insightful. In a similar manner, I am delighted when I open a book by a real human being rather than an articulate flea. I hope one day to graduate from fleadom, myself, and I make no pretense otherwise, but I feel confident in recognizing the difference between flea and man.

  4. Yes. — The mark of a great artist whether he is a novelist or a painter or a composer is that his work takes on a human personality. We re-read our favorite novels and listen again to our favorite musical compositions for the same reason that we sustain our friendships. We require communion.


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