Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch hasn’t received the same attention as the movie-spawning Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or A Scanner Darkly, but it offers a richly painted future universe as well as an exploration of what identity comes to mean in an age of inescapable influence.
Set in a near future with a completely colonized solar system, Barney Mayerson is selected to be sent to the Mars colony, while at the same time space traveler Palmer Eldritch crashes on Pluto among rumors that he has discovered a hallucinogenic in his voyage. The producers of the currently popular hallucinogenic fear losing their market share and enlist Mayerson to try the new substance while making himself sick, in order to cast doubt on its safety. Upon taking the substance, Chew-Z, Mayerson enters a hallucination in which his consciousness merges with Eldritch’s and the experience is controlled by the latter. The hallucination becomes a nightmare in which Mayerson is nearly killed before he returns to consciousness. However, he can’t escape the lingering paranoia that Eldritch’s influence remains in his mind. Dick leaves us with the lingering hint that Mayerson has merely crossed into a new hallucination, the state finally inescapable.
Having taken Chew-Z Mayerson can no longer lay claim to singular personal agency, the experience leaving him unable to separate from Eldritch, in consciousness or being. He discovers that the connection established through Chew-Z is an irreversible process: “And the trouble is, he thought, that once you get into one of them you can’t quite scramble back out; it stays with you, even when you think you’re free. It’s a one-way gate, and for all I know I’m still in it now.” Stuck in a world shaped by Eldritch’s consciousness, he is unable to reach either a physical place or mental state in which he can confidently extract himself from Eldritch’s influence over his perceptions. As the two become intrinsically linked in their faculties, neither can be said to be a wholly independent being of the other: “‘Part of you has become Palmer Edritch’ she said. ‘And part of him became you. Neither of you can ever become completely separated again…’”
Examining the effects of a parallel confusion of literary subjectivity and influence, David Shields, quoting Emerson, in Reality Hunger offers: “Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands.” It is an essential problem of post-modernity. As one’s perceptions, consciousness, motivations are shaped by an external Other, the degree to which one can be said to be in sole possession of one’s own agency greatly diminishes, perhaps to the point of being merely a collection of the influences of manifold external Others.
Dick’s narrative offers an accessible way of approaching the condition of influence in literary post-modernity by a means less intimidating than the thicket of theoretical writing.
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