Philip K. Dick, “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said” (1974): Class and the Police State

While I do not deny that Philip K. Dick did have his metaphysical turn later in his life, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, which was one of his final novels, seems to remain rooted in the questions of power, class antagonism, and state structures.  It is also one of his most familiar dystopias, with a functioning police state, active suppression of dissent, and the total regulation of every aspect of daily life.  The novel is incredibly powerful and in my view his greatest work.  One thing to keep in mind about good dystopias is that characters may be confined, repressed, or otherwise miserable but they can rarely dream of up alternatives.  In Flow My Tears, the resistance is taking place in kibbutz-like communities in college campuses.  The major characters, however, are at least initially totally invested in the power structure.  They are forced to reimagine their investment in the system only after great trauma.  As it turns out, it is the policeman who seems to make the most progress.


Philip K. Dick had a life-long love of John Dowland and mentions his lute music in several novels.  In Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, Dick reached the ultimate and named the book after one of Dowland’s most famous airs, “Flow My Tears.”

The four sections of the novel are each proceeded with one of the verses of this song.  We should perhaps read the novel with this structure in mind.  Part One begins with:

Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

The first part of the novel deals with the main character John Traverner trauma at being ripped out of the world he knew.  He is clearly exiled and thrust into a darkness.  John Traverner is a member of the genetic and economic elite. He hosts a television variety show and is world famous, maintains a massive home, and had several past mistresses.  He is genetically superior to most humans, being a “six” reaching an exceptional intellectual capacity.  He surrounds himself with other “sixes” such as his current lover Hearth Hart.  It is revealed that he reached this celebrity through manipulation and even violence. In the first chapter, the police are his guards.  In this police state that he lives in, the police protect the powerful.  To focus on their power and no longer responsible for respecting the morality of a democratic society, they have decriminalized prostitution and drug use.  After this window into the life of the gated community, Jason is thrust into the underworld.  After being attacked by an ex-lover, he wakes up in a hotel room without any identification.  To make matters worse no one recognizes him, something that is completely foreign to him.  In a world where people without an identity can be sent to forced labor camps to work to death, this put Jason in desperate situation.  He is not only lacking an identity (perhaps a strange feeling for a celebrity) but he is outside of the gated community.  His displacement is immediately felt as a class displacement.  “And that’s important to your image, he said to himself.  What kind of suits you can wear, especially those tucked-inwaist numbers.  I must have fifty of them, he thought.  Or did have.  Where are they now? he asked himself.”  Unable to secure his identify and his class status, he is homeless.  He learns that crime has a different meaning for the economically excluded.  Forced to work with criminals to construct a new identity for himself, he runs into the first of several women who will frame his story, Kathy.  She is a police informer but works at the office constructing fake identifications.  She only turns in people she dislikes.  However, her apparent mental instability only frightens Jason and contributes to his isolation.  In the early phase of the novel, Jason insists that class will save him.  He uses his acting ability and contributes to believe that if he will call Heather he would be saved.  If we bracket the first part, essentially we have the old tale of The Prince and the Pauper, only set in a science-fiction context and questioning a late capitalist police state instead of monarchical privileged.

Part Two begins with:

Down vain lights, shine you no more!
No nights are dark enough for those
That in despair their last fortunes deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose.

Perhaps this is a deepening of the darkness Jason feels, but the major character of the second part of the novel is Felix Buckman, a talented police-general with a shady past and juggling many lies.  He lies to the people he investigates, claiming to be a rare “seven.” He is always working to cover up his incestuous relationship with his twin sister Alys Buckman.  “Light doth but shame disclose” seems to describe Buckman’s situation more than Jason’s.  After being captured by the police, Jason was able to convince the police that he lost his cards and recently had cosmetic surgery.  He flees to Las Vegas where he runs into an old fling.  Being promiscuous, Jason is able to convince her that he was a former lover.  In a rather long conversation, the two of them debate the relationship between love, pain, death and humanity.  The woman, Ruth Gomen seems to be expressing Dick’s own point of view that emotion, sacrifice, and pain are the heart of the human experience.  By avoiding those things through an excessively liquid world, Jason is avoiding grief and therefore his own humanity.  We are tempted by this interpetation – as is Jason from time to time – that his dilemma is merely an extension of the liquid, flexible life he lives.  After this philosophical aside Jason is arrested and taken before Buckman who interrogates him.  We learn much about Buckman’s background and how he rose to power after a second Civil War by helping crush student movements.  But by treating the students with some basic humanity, Buckman’s reputation suffered and he was demoted to “police general” from “police marshal.”  Buckman’s capacity for empathy is striking.  Although an enforcer of a brutal system, he is not quite as aloof as Jason, Heather and other denziens of the gated community.  The enforcers of the system are required to be brutal, of course.  Jason eventually meets up with Alys Buckman, who invites him over to take some mescaline.  His hallucinogenic experience is disabling but for a moment we wonder if we are in the world of “Faith of Our Fathers,” where drugs provide a window into reality.  The earlier assassination attempt may have weaned him off an earlier chemical dependency.  Maybe his entire stardom was a constantly sustained hallucination.

Part Three begins:

Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my
weary days
Of all joys have deprived.

This cannot be referring to Jason, so we assume this is Buckman again.  Jason comes off his bad trip to find Alys dead, as a pile of bones.  Soon after this, Jason finds himself recognized once again.  His music is being played and people ask for his signature.  He is no longer in a world where he never existed.  Buckman learns that his sister died after taking a new drug KR-3, which somehow caused Jason’s displacement.  In order to hid his incest – somehow connected to Alys drug use – Buckman accused Jason of the murder leading to a celebrity trial.  Thankfully, we are saved the details of this trial and Jason’s acquittal.  Jason’s story is over.  Dick is much more interested in the development of Buckman’s character.  Unlike Jason who can consume women like any other commodity, Buckman is unable to come to terms with his sister’s death.  Most of the last chapter is devoted to his devastation and his striving for some sort of human connection.

Part Four begins:

Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world’s despite.

The rest of the novel is a short epilogue, which narrates that Jason escaped prosecution, the student movements failed but the police state weakened anyway.  This weakening seems to have something to do with Buckman’s exposure of police conduct.  This leads to his assassination, but he seems to have played a role in undermining the enforcement mechanism of the system.

Clearly, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Says summarizes many of Dicks reoccurring themes: the importance of empathy, the class divide, the nature of liquid modernity, the dilemma of sexual exclusivity in a liquid world, and the drug culture.  This could have been his capstone project, but he went ahead and expanded on some of these very themes in A Scanner Darkly three years later.

8 responses to “Philip K. Dick, “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said” (1974): Class and the Police State

  1. Pingback: Philip K. Dick, “Introduction” | Neither Kings nor Americans

  2. Well,very well put I suppose,don’t really know what to say.I know there’s been some minor controversy over this one,so opinion has been divided.Unlike his more widely and undeniably accepted books however,it proberly allows a greater freedom of choice as to whether you like it,so it’s proberly not suprising you think it’s his greatest work…..that’s your privilage then of course.

    Written in 1970,FMTTPS marks the border between and the end of his 1960s novels that famously begun with “The Man in the High Castle” in 1962.It was a new direction that would leave his previous stuff far behind it seems.It was a matter of necessity as much as choice.Dick’s editor at Ace,Terry Carr…..I assume this is about the time he wrote “Our Friends from Frolix-8″………said to Dick that instead of him keep asking what reality is as he did in novel after novel,why doesn’t he just say what it is.In an interview,Dick said that he couldn’t say what it was,because he didn’t know what it was,so decided to fake it:the only thing that was really real was love,and of course this was the genesis for the book.

    Larry Sutin in his biography of Dick,”Divine Invasions”,says of FMTTPS,that it’s a culmination of post 1964 novels,in which the terror of living in a police state dominates the characters lifes.Of course,it’s so much more than that though,and the themes lurking in the previous books,now come to the fore.Not that any of these previous novels,particularly “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”,don’t deal with empathy and what it is to be human,but here it dominates the purpose of the story.

    What I don’t really care for though in the story this time,is the presence of the old reality theme.Peviously it was the reason for and the power behind the books he wrote,and wouldn’t have minded it here,but for the fact it now seemed obtrusive to the meaning of the story and only used only as a plot contrivence for the awful situation that Jason Tavener finds himself in.It seems insignifigant to the plot and out of place this time.A stronger merger with the main ideas should have been made.

    It is signifigant though,that following the first draft of the novel,Dick endured a two and a half years hiatus in which he did absoulutely no writing.This was due to personal problems of course,but also I think a bug had entered his system,one that was sceptical of his personal obsessions and morality.He had temporarly lost the power to produce,and when it did return,following his trip to Canada and return to California,a change in outlook and a cessation in output had manifested itself,and of course would never be the same again.Some of this could already be seen though in FMTTPS.

    This came together in his next novel,”A Scanner Darkly”,which to my mind is a better constructed novel,still containing the old bleak humour that infused his earlier stuff with such searing power.Gone now is the theme it seems of shifting realities and the Martian frontier theme that linked his earlier stuff into a sort of coherent whole,and an absence of anything to do with planetery colonisation or aliens.There is a line in the book though,where Donna Hawthorne,contemplating where the drugs come from,thinks,”Proberly some wise race”.This is a very neat touch that alludes to his previous books and gives a glimpse behind the apparent reality of the new Dickian world,but doesn’t affect the sanguine nature of the book.

    I suppose it’s quite a powerful and meaningful drama.I’m not here to stand in judgement of your qwn preferences.I wonder what books he would have written if not for his 1974 experiences though.

      • Exactly.Something similar happened when he wrote “Martian Time-Slip”.It’s not immediate publication meant that he changed track,although not as drastic as those following ASD…..he still kept his feet on the ground.

        This time though he plunged into the deep end without looking……I don’t know….sad?

      • I deal with this at a thematic level in the Divine Invasion post. My manuscript has 6000 words or so on the VALIS trilogy (plus RFA) where I look at what I think was lost in this “religious turn.”

        I am on this PKD fan site on facebook. I am one of the few who seem to want to look at Dick’s themes by starting in the 1950s and tracing their development. Most seem to want to work back from the Exegesis. I suppose this is not bad, but it seems to lead to difference places in understanding his work. Maybe because I am a historian I feel the need to start at the roots.

  3. I absoulutely agree…..can’t see any other way.The point I meant to bring up earlier though,was your comparison with “Faith of Our Fathers” on the drug theme.If you mean is this the same world as depicted there,an oppressive dictatorship,then I can understand,as there are striking comparisons I suppose.However,as for it dealing with the subject of drugs,I think the comparison is only superficial.

    In the novellette,drugs provide the ultimate unveiling of truth,where an oppressive government is revealed as a facade for an orthodox but evil God,that draws comparison with the Form Destroyer in “A Maze of Death”.The world behind the apparent one is purely symbolic and metaphysical.In FMTTPS,I don’t see any theological unveiling here,the situation seems to remain purely political.
    Are you referring to the one that Jason Taverner remembers?

    I don’t know,maybe you have a better insight on it than me.The’ll be different views of course.

      • I went back and looked at the part where Jason takes mescaline… seems pretty harrowing for him,but can’t see anything revelatory in the experience.It just seems to give him a bad trip.It wasn’t a bad scene though.

        “Divine Invasion probably is an unfortunet novel,but has a strong theological rather than a political background.I’ll have to read “Valis” and TDI again before I write in depth of them.I’ll proberly go to the “Valis” entry soon though.

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