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Literary Events

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Eyes, the Arm, and the Teeth

Renowned science fiction writer Philip K. Dick had a gravestone waiting for him from a month after his birth. His twin sister died at that time, and his parents put up a double headstone, with one side listing Philip’s name. There was a picture of a cat on the headstone, which remains unexplained. This was the back story that Dennis gave us when he presented The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by Philip K. Dick. Frank added biographical information he remembered from reading Dick’s introduction to his book, Golden Man. P.K. lived in poverty with his wife and was buying cheap horsemeat sold as dog food at a store in the 1950s, when the storekeeper accused the author of buying the meat to eat (which was correct). P.K. says that he was expecting the storekeeper to accuse him of having a “bad attitude.” Then P.K. went on to explain that he did have a bad attitude, being rebellious and often behind on deadlines, even for his publications. The final important biographical fact Dennis told us was that P.K. Dick had a mental breakdown, which the author used as the basis for a novel and the subject of an autobiography, in which he tells about the day it happened.

No one who read The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch would have been surprised at much of Dick’s biography. The man’s writings were imaginative and strange, as was the man. The name, “Eldritch,” means strange in such a way that “Eldritch Horror” is a specific genre that is weird. Some of Dick’s writing was also somewhat prescient. Although Dick wrote The Three Stigmata in 1964, there was a strong theme of global warming in the story: it took place in a future where the environment was very hot and dry, and water was precious.

For our discussion, Dennis gave us the gift of a summary of the story. Why was this a gift? The story was rather complex and parts were convoluted to the extent that it was difficult to know what was happening to some of the characters some of the time. The story took place in an imaginary world based on the real world but far-fetched. The main characters were involved in the business of selling a mind-altering drug and the physical accoutrements used to enjoy experiencing the drug. There were many times during the story when the reader was not sure whether the action was taking place under the influence of the drug or not. Palmer Eldritch was in the business of selling a drug to compete with the established mind-altering drug, and Eldritch’s drug seemed more overpowering, perhaps to the point of altering any imbibers to transform into what Eldritch had transformed into: with the eyes, the teeth, and the arm.

By somewhat organizing the story for us, Dennis helped us to be able to consider themes and aspects of the story, because we were enabled to see how the themes fit together. One theme combination was the environmental issues and how the extreme environment affected lives and the willingness of people to escape into the mind-altering drugs. Another was a religious theme throughout the book, that touched on the communion transubstantiation issue, as to whether Communion is meant to be symbolic or literal. There was a theme about evolution. In the book, there was a method of evolving people into the future, where one’s head would become large, with a thick protective skin around it and with advanced mental capacity. But, some people who tried to evolve would devolve. The theme encompassing Eldritch’s stigmata was deeply embedded in the story and symbolism. Eldritch’s odd body parts, the teeth, the eyes, and the arm, seemed to be showing up in other characters; and it was left to the reader to interpret whether Eldritch was a real person or a real or symbolic deity in the story and whether Eldritch was entering or taking over others’ bodies in a real or symbolic way or whether others were becoming Eldritch, in a real or symbolic way.

Cindy V. interpreted Eldritch as a computer virus and drugs as the opening where the virus could enter.

Pam suggested that Eldritch was the devil and not of Deity caliber. She said that the drug that Eldritch was pushing was a temptation by the Devil.

Linda noted that Eldritch’s drug was comparable to Eve’s apple in Eden in the story of Creation.

Carla said that Eldritch was evil, but that since the Jewish belief was that the Lord created Satan as well as everything else, then the Lord created Eldritch.

Dennis said that when Eldritch was appearing in the story, complete with the teeth, the arm, and the eyes, he was ethereal and had cast off his earthly body and was not the same man but something from outer space. (The story incorporated space travel.)

Linda said that Eldritch left the earth and returned in his new form, perhaps as a Deity.

Pam corroborated Linda’s idea, noting that after Eldritch returned from his travels and from discovering the new mind-altering drug, he was never again seen as a regular corporeal body.  

Then the discussion branched out:

Cindy V. mentioned that the story contained slang from the future.

I said the story reminded me of the movie, Groundhog Day, particularly with Barney seeming to keep going back to various events in his relationship with Emily, his ex-wife.

Dennis suggested that the book might have influenced the development of virtual reality, role-playing games, and various acting-out groups.

Pam said about the mind-altering drugs, that people enjoyed the original drug, but maybe not the second one.

Carla said that after Barney took the second drug, the reader never knew whether he ever came back to reality. She said time might have been suspended in that drug world. This would explain the Groundhog Day repetitive aspect of that drug, too.

Linda reminded us of the part toward the end of the story when Eldritch asked Barney what he wanted to be, and it seemed Eldritch had the power to make that happen. Barney said he wanted to be a stone.

Pam felt that the ending was happy, because Barney changed his mind, perhaps via a lifting of depression, and decided to live in reality and not take drugs any more.

Carla said the author might have meant the reader to have questions.

Frank suggested that the author might have been suffering from mental illness.

Morna said that maybe the author was “smoking something.”

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