August 9th, 2014
(Above: Two different covers to P.K. Dick’s “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”)
It’s hot enough to melt your organs if you stray out into the open air for too long, & it’s getting hotter all the time. Better stay in your ultra-cooled conapt.
The very rich pay to accelerate their evolution, ballooning their brains & growing rinds and ridges on their mutated craniums in the process of becoming “bubbleheads”. “Pre-cogs” see into arrays of possible futures and are able to identify probable outcomes, such as fash (fashionable) trends to come.
But you’re no pre-cog or bubblehead. You’re someone who has just been drafted to work in wretched conditions on some freezing colony on Mars. And the only way you can endure it all is to chew an illegal substance called Can-D — a drug derived from an alien lichen which paralyzes you & slips your consciousness to a shareable alternate reality, however brief.
Welcome to Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.
I don’t know if I’ve ever re-read a novel so quickly after reading it the first time. Stigmata obsessed me that immediately, that profoundly. I had to understand its premises, underlying logic; or, if its logic was flawed, at the least the logic Dick was yearning for (Dick wrote under extreme duress and often elided certain points descriptively and contextually in order to get to the meat of his plots and metaphysics). I had to understand the full implications of its themes and narrative. Reading it and re-reading it wasn’t enough, scattered note-taking wasn’t enough. I’d have to write about it and see if, through words, I could satisfy myself. Which is why I’m here.
I’m sharing this with whoever cares to read it, but due to certain pressing exigencies in my life, & my dislike of plot summaries, I’m going to just dive into the core problems & questions I have concerning the novel without preamble. My apologies in advance to anyone who comes to this text not having read Stigmata and expecting — as they rightly should from a long piece on a book — some measure of narrative, biographical, and/or cultural-historical context.
The constellations of questions I have about Stigmata revolve around the following four hubs: the nature of Can-D, the nature of Chew-Z, the nature of the entity that inhabited Palmer Eldritch, and the narrative flow & timeline of major events in the novel.
The following observations are all my best efforts to close-read & distill the text — clearly marking my speculation as such if it departs from the text — as it pertains to the four major areas above.
Note: all pages citations draw from the Library of America collection of four of Dick’s novels entitled Four Novels of the 1960s (2007).
1. The Nature of Can-D
Can-D is a chewable substance derived from an off-Terran (“Terra” being Dick’s word for Earth in this dystopia) lichen. Almost immediately upon consumption, the drug sends the user’s body into a paralytic state, while the user’s mind is “translated” (as Can-D users refer to the process) to an alternate reality that feels, to the user, fully authentic. The trip (‘transit’ as it is sometimes called) takes about 15-30 minutes, with increased usage over time leading to diminished time spent in translation. To the outside observer, Can-D users fall into a catatonic stupor, and their bodies & faces give no indication of whatever may be transpiring in their drug-induced alternate realities: be the events blissful, harrowing, violent, sexual, ecstatic, etc.
A Terran conscription service is in place to randomly call citizens to their permanent off-world duties, and Can-D users are mostly these off-world colonists struggling to eke out an existence on Mars, Venus, and other planets. In order to cope with the hopelessness of their lot, they resort to Can-D. In some cases, they treat the experience of translation as a kind of religious experience (pp. 266-267).
In addition, Can-D almost exclusively a) ingest the drug in groups and b) ingest it while a using what’s called a layout.
A layout is a ubiquitous off-world consumer good — in most cases, an extremely detailed, modular, finely crafted miniature toy playset closely mimicking Terran dwelling and it surroundings, and featuring the popular Barbie-and-Ken like characters of Perky Pat and Walt Essex (which exist as dolls in the layout). The only manufacturer of these layouts is one P.P. Layouts, a company that also works closely with modern designers, sculptors, ceramicists, architects, kitchen appliance makers, tailors and virtually anyone who’s on the cutting edge of their respective industry in order to license products from them to “min” (minimize) and feature in layouts, or sell separately as accessories. (In the course of the novel a rival, upstart company also begins plans to min reality to form their own layouts — more on that later).
The function of the layout is twofold: 1) to provide the Can-D translation an environmental structure, and 2) — and this is the singular novelty of the Can-D experience — to provide a male & female avatar for all the off-world hovel users (which tend to be groups of co-ed couples) to communally inhabit (p. 311).
To better illustrate what I mean, here’s an example of a typical off-world Can-D scenario: on the floor is placed a layout of a beach-side apartment with fireplace, washing machine, original art, pet dog, and Perky Pat and Walt Essex figurines, with whatever latest fashionable minned accessories the users care to use. The layout serves as a focal point around which a group of Can-D users gathers and ingests the drug. Upon all of them taking the drug simultaneously, they will each find their translated consciousness routed to and inhabiting the waiting mind-vessels of either Perky Pat (if the user is a female) or Walt Essex (if the user is a male), the piled-up consciousnesses fusing with one another while herded into each avatar. All of this transpires with the miniature layout serving as an imaginative starting setting for their drug fantasy. Majority rules with the consciousness-fusions: unless a majority is reached, the inhabited Pat or Walt avatars will be unable to act. Multiple, stacked consciousness can communicate (or bicker, as is described in the novel) whilst inhabiting an avatar in order to try to reach consensus. Since the goal of translation for the Can-D users in the novel is pleasure and increased intimacy & escape from a painful existence, it’s in the best interest of everyone to cooperate.
In this striking way, Can-D in the novel provides a true communal drug experience, not just to the extent that multiple people take it at once, but inasmuch as multiple minds collect and fuse into one aggregate consciousness (that of Perky Pat or Walt Essex) in translated reality.
(Various Google Image search results for “Can-D”)
All of this is fairly straightforward in the text. Some questions remain however, and this is where the speculative fun begins.
First, where does the ‘transit’ or ‘translation’ of Can-D take place? Where, if anywhere, does the user’s consciousness get translated to when he or she takes the drug? & how is it able to properly navigate away from its seat in the users body to inhabit or help construct anew some temporary translation zone? Do the users’ consciousnesses return to Terra, as some users feel? The text is not clear on these points, but it offers numerous suggestions, and examples of Can-D usage to study.
Let’s consider three Can-D scenarios, some of which occur in the text, some of which do not: a) a gathering of three or more around a Perky Pat layout, b) just two people with no layout; and c) just one person.
Starting with a) — given that multiple Can-D users gathered around a layout seem to each inevitably find their consciousness pooled into one gendered vessel — women to Perky Pat; men to Walt Essex — let’s first establish that this cannot be happening solely in the locality of one user’s brain. It would seem to strain the capacities of human consciousness to have multiple consciousness pile in and occupy that one user’s sentience. Moreover, there is no indication in the text that this is what occurs. Therefore Can-D mind-fusion in the case of multiple users must be happening elsewhere. One (rather unlikely) possibility is that, in group scenarios, the original lichen from which Can-D is derived is able to serve itself as the consciousness vessel for the user groups’ pooled consciousness. Perhaps at the molecular level the lichen still “lives” and the simultaneous human chewing allows it to spring ‘awake’ in multiple souls and be activated, thereby linking them all and forming the unseen translation setting for them. In other words, think of each chewed dose of the drug as a little portal to a big shared room that exists invisibly around the users, linking them all, a big unseen cloud enveloping everyone’s head. Transit here would mean the passage of consciousnesses users’ body to that shared residual-Lichen cloud.
Still considering scenario a), a second possibility is that the usage of Can-d super-activates each user’s consciousness, allowing it to expand and become porous in a near-field way, like multiple devices or iPhones using near field communication. Suddenly, minds close enough to each other can meld, without the need of some residual lichen-mind cloud. In this way, it could be evolutionarily advancing consciousness; perhaps near-field mind-melding is sneak-previewed by way of Can-D of what our minds will be like in millennia to come.
A third possibility for scenario a) is that a dominant “setting” is established/created by the primary or most powerful-minded Can-D user in a group — either consciously or subconsciously –; subsequent users whose “transit” starts to kick in are automatically joined into the host translation consciousness the power user has created.
Based on the nature of the evidence offered by the text — chiefly the Martian hovel users’ accounts and that of Leo Bulero (head of P.P. Layouts), who uses the drug sans layout — I opt for the near-field theory. Whether or not layouts are used — a consideration I’ll come to soon — I posit that the fundamental precursor is one of increased psychic porousness based on physical proximity, hence the need to gather in groups to take full advantage of the communal potential of the drug. Consciousnesses, empowered by the drug to hover near or around bodies in fields, are able to intersect, allowing users to share visions, feelings, thoughts and sensations (this precedes the funneling into layout doll, segregated by gender). The text goes into none of the details here, so needless to say this is just my speculation. It seems the most elegant and the least complex way of accounting for this aspect of translation.
Also, I’d like to expand on a sub-feature of the drug when groups and a layout are involved — gender clumping of consciousnesses. As it’s described in the novel, there seems to be no choice whatsoever in this process for men and women gathered around a layout taking Can-D. Just as water molecules exhibit universally a tendency toward cohesion, perhaps something similar is going on with the near-field consciousnesses that have merged via the drug. Perhaps they also exhibit this tendency toward needing to fuse, & not just randomly, but based on some shared mental characteristic: gender. Gender makes sense to me, since I believe in the pre-natal sexual dimorphism of certain brain structures (see this article for more information) as the only inherent differentiator of the brains of homo sapiens. Only gender is able to exhibit such a pull on Can-D user consciousnesses, funneling them into the layout doll vessels. If you had other differentiators exhibited in a layout — say an old gender-neutral doll and a young gender-neutral doll, or a black gender-neutral doll and an Asian gender-neutral doll — the consciousness fusion would not occur, because the user’s brains would not find enough of a fundamental affinity, nothing as bedrock as gender.
So we’ve discussed what transit means when a group of users take Can-D around a layout. What about scenario b) — what is the nature o the ‘transit’ if only two people take it, of the same sex & of different sexes, and without a layout?
I posit that near-field mind-melding would still occur, and the setting would be an enhanced, ecstatic, hyper-vivid version of whatever was right around the two users at that moment — whether it’s a layout of Perky Pat, some other ‘layout’, or just a sky and a field at night. Setting doesn’t matter, the drug will still enact mind-meld. Gender-clumping will still occur if there are layouts being used which feature gendered figurines. There is nothing in the text to support some of this, only Leo Bulero’s (pp. 252-253) discussion of non-layout Can-D usage, and my speculation based on this.
Finally, where does an individual’s consciousness go who takes Can-D alone, with no layout? Let’s say someone seated on a dock by a pond, at night, just popping Can-D. The text has no examples of this to help me describe what could occur; all I have is theory based on my reading of the text. What I expect would happen is this: within a short period the user would feel an intense MDMA-like sense of wellbeing and serotonin-boost (the Can-D experiences as described seem to have some element of bliss-boost apart from the transformative intimacy of mind-meld). Then the user would find himself transported, in a manner akin to LSD, to a hyper-vivid, synaesthetically charged version of whatever surroundings he/she started in. Finally, the user would, via the drug’s near-field consciousness expansion, find his consciousness melding, if not with a partner’s, then at least perhaps tangentially with other consciousnesses in the vicinity, even if not amplified by Can-D: that of bugs, plants, birds, maybe a human a hundred yards away on a sidewalk. It would still begin as a pleasurable and expansive experience, thought it would have the capacity to upset the user if, say, the setting drastically changed.
(More Google Image search results for “Can-D”)
The next set of questions I have regard the emotional quality of the Can-D experience. We’ve established some theories about where a Can-D user’s mind travels — but what’s it like once it gets there? Why is the Can-D experience always described in certain consistent ways: as carefree, happy, blissful? A group of Mars-dwelling Can-D users in the novel are described as always experiencing the Perky Pat Layout on a sunny Saturday in San Francisco — why is this?
My theory regarding the joyousness/bliss is that in its effects, Can-D resembles something like MDMA, and is able to boost serotonin levels in the user. This would explain the feelings of well-being & the acute post-trip emotional crash that users experience.
However, this sense of wellbeing is imperfect. As we see in the case of Sam and Fran’s trip (pp. 266-273), each user during his or her trip has various inklings of their “real”, sober reality crop up and infect their experience together. It’s a fraught experience for that reason, and in that way, quite unlike an experience with MDMA, which is often much more complete and overwhelming (temporarily) in its takeover of mind and emotions. The Can-D translation therefore cannot properly filter out objective reality; or perhaps Sam and Fran, long inured to the drug’s effects, simply weren’t able to fully enter into the translated experience.
But why Saturdays? Why San Francisco? Are these features of Can-D translation unique to the cast of characters in the Martian hovel that we encounter in the novel? If so, is it perhaps because all of them are from San Francisco, and all of them just happen to have very positive experiences of their hometown such that when the MDMA-like Can-D activates their serotonin, they immediately think of it? The same explanation could account for Saturdays — they all just happen to identify Saturday as the ultimate bliss-day.
Another possibility, we’ll call it possibility B, is that users of Can-D aren’t accessing these unconscious, collectively-agreed-upon markers of Terran bliss — Saturdays, San Francisco — but rather are accessing the marketed attributes of the Perky Pat layout. Perky Pat is part of a Terran marketing empire, and as such probably has all its own attributes, accouterments and story-lines baked in to the product. The ubiquitous Perky Pat layout is probably always very plainly sold with its little narratives and fantasy storylines, all of which happen on a Saturday, with its star couple probably written as San Franciscan. Can-D serves to open up the users emotionally to such an extent that they’re helpless to do other than soak in all the marketed signifiers adhering to the layout product.
Another, if stranger possibility (C) is that the lichen from which Can-D is derived, in its vestigial liquefied state is able to access collective human memory upon user ingestion and derive from it some sense of ideal conditions under which to snare and emotionally entrap its subjects, get the addicted and get them chewing more. Whether it does this knowingly or just as a byproduct of its bioavailability/bio-interfacing with the human mind-body I cannot say. This theory would dovetail with B above — perhaps the remnant activated lichen forming Can-D can pick up on the powerfully-marketed aura surrounding the layout. Or perhaps, by way of the individual users, the Can-D vestigial consciousness can pick up on the marketed signifiers. Regardless of how it is able to ‘learn’ them, it could use them to make it the setting/narrative of the collective translation, as touched on above in the cloud theory of Can-D transit.
The final consideration, possibility D: what if the Can-D experience is actually purely subjective, but just seems as though every conjoined consciousness is experiencing the objective reality of the perky Pat layout? In the pivotal example in the book, Sam and Fran first take Can-D, heading to Saturday San Francisco beach time as Walt and Pat. Not long after, the rest of the hovel mates “join” their translated experience and fuse sentiences into each of the two avatars. Does each conjoined male “see” through the eyes of the original Sam perceptive window? Or does each conjoined male see and experience its own private hallucinatory translation that could be based on anything — Terra, Venus, farming, sex, whatever. I think this final theory is invalid — the cognitive dissonance that would result if the fused gendered consciousnesses each tried to “think” aloud its own unique perceptive world would be far from pleasurable, perhaps sanity-unseating. The fused consciousness couldn’t act or respond properly to multiple simultaneous perceptive gestalts.
Thus, I’m inclined to possibility B here. The marketing efforts, storyline and universe of the Perky Pat brand of consumer goods and toys have so thoroughly marked the consciousnesses of all Terrans and Martians that this allows all grouped users around a P.P. Layout to inhabit its consistent Terran setting with respect to place, mood, time — at least as starting points.
Now for a twist. The novel describes another Can-D experience which is very different qualitatively from the Martian hovelers’ described above, and which adds complexity to our understanding of the baseline Can-D experience. This other described Can-D account concerns Leo Bulero, founder of P.P. Layouts. At one point he’s flirting with a woman and discussing taking Can-D with her. The passage makes clear several things about Can-D: “the reaction you get to Can-D depends — varies with — your imaginative-type creative powers” (p. 252); Can-D users’ minds fuse as long as they chew it “in concert” (pp. 252-253); and Bulero never uses a layout — the first time in the novel that Can-D usage is discussed sans layout. Bulero thinks to himself in this passage how layouts aren’t important for Terrans, given they only reproduce a slice of Terran life: “what did a Terran have to gain from a layout, inasmuch as it was a min of the conditions obtaining in the average Terran city? For settlers on a howling, gale-swept moon, huddled at the bottom of a hovel against frozen methane crystals and things, it was something else again; Perky Pat and her layout were an entree back to the world they had been born to.” (p. 253)
A great deal is revealed here.
First, here is confirmation in the novel that Can-D need not be experienced with a layout. Second, here is a suggestion that a Can-D user is able to influence the course of his/her translation depending on his/her imaginative capabilities — thus possibly undermining the unified aggregated consciousness that is elsewhere. How can you have unified aggregate consciousness in a Perky Pat or a Walt Essex if one or more of the piled-up psyches is experiencing things around him/her differently? My theory is that what Bulero is getting at is this: whether with or without a P.P. layout, if a group of users are piled into two dolls, controlling each video game character as it were, they’ll still be acting as one unified consciousness and will, but somehow individual subjectivity will be retained. Perhaps it’s like twenty people in real-time controlling some online virtual reality character through multiple user device inputs, and some centralized server aggregating the varying inputs and producing a normalized output, and each of those twenty people experiencing the results visually/sonically differently depending on the resolution of their monitors or quality of their speakers. I.e., they’re acting in congress, but they’re experiencing the results a) the same [their monitors show the same baseline data] and not the same b) resolution/device differences lead to variance in color, clarity, etc. Finally, here’s confirmation that it’s possible for two or more Can-D users to fuse consciousnesses not simply via the gender-lumping that automatically accompanies Pat+Walt doll layouts, but just by eating Can-D at the same time when near each other.
So, in summary, the Can-D experience, based on the text and my own speculation, can be described as follows: human consumption, alone or in groups, of the alien lichen-derived Can-D leads to temporary surge in near-field consciousness porousness with human and non-human entities. Simultaneous consumption of the drug & physical proximity of ingestors of the drug enhances near-field synergy. This mind-meld experience alone can result in profound intimacy and wellbeing, but the drug itself has a serotonin-boosting component apart from this. Mind-meld allows for shared fantasy experience guided by optional subliminal aids (i.e. the Perky Pat Layout), including sexual, escapist, and other fantasies. Users’ capacity for imaginative exploration can help then subjectively experience the mind-melded fantasy with increased or diminished intensity, vividness, even while acting in concert in aggregated consciousness. Similar, physical experienced setting of mind-melded translation is a mixture of subjective and objective: objective comes from either the layout near them & its associated marketed signifiers or the immediate surroundings in the case of a non-layout Can-D experience. Subjective comes from individual imaginative and creative capacity to enhance said experience in its amplitude & degree, but not in kind (otherwise there could be no notion of unified consciousness).
Further Can-D considerations:
* I like thinking of the Can-D experience as it’s described in light of modern day virtual realms and online video gaming. The parallels are clear. At the simplest level, you have people controlling characters & avatars today, in a sense inhabiting their versions of Walt Essex and Perky Pat. What else? You have those same people today often coping with the blight of their cubicle lives, their divorce from the meaning & tangible result that labor can & should provide, their disenfranchisement, their suppression by fear-mongering police and surveillance states, their sense of being trapped and helpless — coping with all this through virtual realms. You have people dosing themselves with keyboards, headsets and joysticks, entering a predictable, controllable alternate reality where they can interface through text or voice with others to gain a meager sense of community. Their money siphoned into an industry of accessories and modules (think Sims) for never-ending mimicry of an idealized earth. And all the while they’re yearning for intimacy and sex with other avatars (see, for example Second Life). Any of these elements find their analogue in the Perky Pat+Can-D experience.
* I also greatly enjoyed PK Dick in his element here as he highlighted the powerful predacious marketing forces at play and the endless consumption-depression-consumption loop that enables corrupt corporate-sponsored rulership to subjugate nations. It’s a grim vision: the same company responsible for growing the Can-D lichen, shipping the final product to off-world markets, and paying off the UN for this privilege also creates the layouts that users (as they mistakenly believe) require to enjoy Can-D, all of which in turn makes being drafted to off-world colonies tolerable. You have forced slavery and a lifetime’s supply of dope to go with it — with the added barb of a fake marketed need for Barbie doll-esque layouts siphoning the rest of your cash. There’s never an opportunity to imagine another form of life, to focus on institutionalized evils and mount resistance, even mentally. Everyone’s doped, broke and toiling. It’s the perfect setup for a remorseless corporatocracy such as is described in Stigmata to endlessly subjugate the population.
* What’s more unfortunate for the off-world slaves is this: most of them are convinced that Can-D allows them to become deity-like, or immortal, or cleansed of sin, or otherwise spiritually expanded, ennobled, purified. The religious parallels abound for the off-worlders: Can-D as Eucharist, leaving behind the imperfect flawed sinning body for the sin-less timeless eternal of the translated world; being reborn into eternal selves (p.340). So you not only have a fully controlled narcotized slave population, you have them convinced that the very substance which keeps them in an ineffective, depressed lotus-eaters’ sleep is also some kind of agent of spiritual purification. Brilliant!
*Can-D, as I’ve noted above, and based on the evidence of the text and its handful of Can-D usage scenes, allows consciousnesses to fuse. What’s never discussed is what large scale consciousness-melding would actually *mean* if it wasn’t constrained by a layout.
The potential for consciousness revolution, so dangerous to a corrupt corporatocracy the likes of which is depicted in Stigmata, is very real here. A group of twenty people suddenly having access to everyone else’s innermost fears, dreams, hopes, loves, desires, flaws, sins, would be catastrophic in the short term but in the mid to long term could create a powerful bond and unusually heightened/ shared sense of purpose. With the veils lifted between self and self, between self and other, with this unprecedented soul intimacy happening across offworld communities, you could have these pockets of off-world populations no longer chained to their own scared islanded egos, but linked in mental colonies of awakened purpose, stripped of illusion, completely aware of their joint fears and hopes. Completely aware of their rights: to love, live, enjoy life, not be held in thrall to some faceless galactic overlords, to have families, to live proud human lives, to be noble, to be the redeemed, actualized, fulfilled beings we all should have the chance to be. What a force! And how capably it’s suppressed by the Perky Pat layouts, which constrain that mind-meld and immediately corral it in the gaudy male-female sex-focused trappings of some Californian doll fantasy. I wonder if PK Dick was aware of this, and whether he envisioned some force behind P.P. Layouts and the UN which was subtly steering the introduction of and maintenance of the P.P. industry to help keep the Can-D experience as free from psychoactive emancipation as possible.
That’s it for Can-D.
In Part two I’ll discuss Chew-Z, the nature of the Entity/Palmer Eldritch, and re-cap the complex plot as best I can. Writing this took a lot out of me, so I’m going to take a few posts’ worth of delay on this project, stay tuned.