Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle, in Four Novels of the 1960s (Library of America, 2007). First published in 1962.
The Man in the High Castle is a book about racism. Racism imbues every interaction, every relationship in the novel. But racism, while the most immanent, is simply a particular case of essentialism, and it is essentialism that is the underlying concern of the whole novel. The question of what characteristics are essential to a person or object, what is immutable and what can be changed, is almost an obsession throughout the book. The most obvious example is the question of historical necessity; what, for us, is alternative history is common sense and historical fact for the characters in the book. They feel towards The Grasshopper Lies Heavy the way we feel towards The Man in the High Castle, the eerie feeling of a history - that most personal, subjective, and powerful feeling of belonging - that has been perverted, sent off course. Essentialism is a concern of many of the characters.
“Historicity” - a particularly ubiquitous essentialism - is a common concern and an important plot point:
‘This whole damn historicity business is nonsense. Those Japs are bats. I’ll prove it.’ Getting up, he hurried into his study, returned at once with two cigarette lighters which he set down on the coffee table. ‘Look at these. Look the same, don’t they? Well, listen. One has historicity in it.’ He grinned at her. ‘Pick them up. Go ahead. One’s worth, oh, maybe forty or fifty thousand dollars on the collectors’ market.’
The girl gingerly picked up the two lighters and examined them. ‘Don’t you feel it?’ he kidded her. ‘The historicity?’
She said, ‘What is ‘historicity’?’
‘When a thing has history in it. Listen. One of those two Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn’t. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it?’ He nudged her. ‘You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no ‘mystical plasmic presence,’ no ‘aura’ around it.’
We are introduced to one element of essentialism on the first page - an element bound up in the racial essentialism that looms so large throughout the novel. In this case, the idea of “place” has become a cultural norm within the Japanese occupied Pacific States of America, to the extent that Robert Childan, an American who subscribes to the racial essentialism that has become common place in the world of the novel, is extremely conscious of maintaining, gaining or losing place, until - later in the novel - he achieves a sense of hope in American culture.
But there is also wabi and wu, essential elements that belong to particular object and play important roles within the novel.
Tasteful in the extreme. And — so ascetic. Few pieces. A lamp here, table, bookcase, print on the wall. The incredible Japanese sense of wabi. It could not be thought in English. The ability to find in simple objects a beauty beyond that of the elaborate or ornate. Something to do with the arrangement.
‘It does not have wabi,’ Paul said, ‘nor could it ever. But — ‘ He touched the pin with his nail. ‘Robert, this object has wu.’
Of course both wabi and wu are elements within the larger essentialism of race contained within the larger essentialism of historical truth. What Dick has constructed is a matryoshka - nesting doll - of essentialisms in order to play them against each other and to interrogate both the ideas of free will and historical necessesity.
This is the world Dick has has constructed, a world which takes racial essentialism so seriously as to make it common sense, a world in which racism is both always-present and always-contested due to the shifting dynamics of power in the uDick has has constructed, and in which racial essentialism (racism) is taken for granted because it is part of a network of other essentialisms. Frank F(r)ink, a Jew who has managed to survive both the Holocaust and the Nazi race laws that now govern most of the US, has had to change his features and name in order to pass as non-Jewish. Dick shows how anti-semitic essentialism is essentially contradictory: anti-semites place great stock in the “essential features” of Jews, but also maintain that there is some essential “Jewishness” that inheres despite outward features.
It is the unquestioned nature of essentialisms that I think horrified Dick, and provide an undertone of horror to the novel. Essentialism forces people into patterns of behaviour that never have to be questioned or challenged… or changed.
There are two elements from outside the essentialism that makes the novel so claustrophobic. The first is the novel written by “The Man in the High Castle” himself, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which describes an “alternate history” in which Germany and Japan lose the war. The novel disturbs all of the characters who read it, challenging their common sense about the essential and eternal truths of their lives. The second elemetn is the I Ching itself, which on the face of it seems to be simply a hippie affectation of Dick’s. But the cleromancy of the I Ching takes decision away from the characters’ reliance on essentialism. Of course, the idea is that the Classic of Changes taps into some lower level of essentialism of which the characters are unaware, from from the perspective of the novel and Dick’s writing of it, it adds an element of chance - randomness being diametrically opposed to essentialist determinism.
This was a reread for me. Two years ago, when I finally ot into PKD, this was the first novel I read. It stands up as one of his best, along with Ubik and A Scanner Darkly. It repays rereading in many ways, and challenges the reader’s preconceived notions of what PKD is about.