Philip K. Dick, “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” (1964): Work, Leisure, and Coping

It is a feeling we all experience sometimes. It is that dread one feels Monday morning before going to work. It is the feeling of futility and pointlessness that both students and teachers feel during a class. It reflects itself in the envy we feel for the squirrel running freely outside of our office window. It reoccurs at the end of the day or the end of the week as that slight feeling of freedom before we realize we have bills to pay, perfunctory “dates” with spouses, or tedious soccer games with the children filled with peers that make us almost miss our fellow employees (at least we share with coworkers the despair). Late capitalist advice mongers call it “burnout” and offer suggestions for finding value in our jobs again. On some level, we know that this advice can only make the unbearable temporarily acceptable. Most of come home and put ourselves in another world through mindless television, the Internet, or drink. Coping is a necessary part of late capitalist life and is – for better or for worse – fully worked into the market. Facebook memes, television series that allow vicarious living, iPad games, and cruises to the Caribbean exist for those lucky enough to live within the gated communities of the industrial West.


Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is set in such a world. Dick sets much of the story in the settlement “Chicken Pox Prospects” on Mars. Not insignificantly, it is much like any other suburban community. They embrace revival religions, engage in extramarital affairs to pass the time, and struggle to make a living in a barren, sterile wasteland. Frederick Jackson Turner is turned on its head. Rather than a crucible of democracy, the frontier in the universe of Philip K. Dick is merely an extension of the most decadent aspects of post-war American life. Like the American West, what was once the hope of a new life, a revival of democratic values and autonomy, became a brutalized landscape of broken souls.
Enter the coping mechanism. The one thing that can make life livable. Can-D is a drug that allows the user to experience, often collectively if taken with others, another world. Corporations sell “layouts”, which are essentially doll-houses, into which people are transported as they use the drug, which they ingest by chewing. In this alternative reality they can have affairs, commit acts of violence, gender-bend, or live out the life of their dreams. Limited by layouts and the length that the drug effects last, the experience provides just enough escape to make life livable on the brutal, pathetic landscape of the Martian frontier.

We all chew Can-D. We do it when we engage in our temporary escapes, when we commit the half-revolution of adultery, when we crash on the couch and turn on the television, or when we pretend to like our co-workers at happy hour. Without a third place (the place that is not work or the home), without real community or lasting ties with our neighbors, we make do with these little escapes. They give us just enough to manage to get up to work.

In The Three Stigmata, for some Can-D is not enough. Anne Hawthorne is one of the Martian denizens who seeks more than a temporary escape. She finds it in neo-Christianity. It “promises” eternal life and a permanent escape from the horrible existence on Mars, but only after death. Perhaps it offers some much needed community as well, although Anne is quite isolated in her believes, surrounded by users of Can-D. It is into this desire for an eternal escape that Chew-Z enters the market. The long lost Palmer Eldritch returns from Proxima with some lichens that have a very different effect on the user. “Because however wonderful being Perky Pat and Walt is for a while, eventually they’re forced to return to their hovels. Do you know how that feels Leo? Try it sometime; wake up in a hovel on Ganymede after you you’ve been freed for twenty, thirty minutes. It’s an experience you’ll never forget. And there’s something else–and you know what it is, too. When the little period of escape is over and the colonist returns. . . . he is not fit to resume a normal, daily life. He’s demoralized. But if instead of Can-D he’s chewed [Chew-Z]”

Chew-Z provides an eternal experience, even though no time is passed in real life. It is not a crude simulacra of existing reality, as experienced by users of “layouts” and Can-D. It is a truly religious experience. But also like religion, the experience is infected with a supernatural power and the mental experiences are controlled by that outside power – in this case manifestations of Palmer Eldritch.

With Can-D and Chew-Z we are presenting with two methods of coping with the banality of late capitalism. The one seeks escape in the religious realm, the other in the aesthetic. Both service the needs of the ruling class. Both are explicitly sold to the people as a means of social control. Among the competitors, Palmer Eldritch and Leo Bulero, the manufacturer of Perky Pat layouts, some honesty about this is revealed. They debate which is better at that function of social control and sustaining the working capacities of demoralized settlers. Most of the settlers are in on the truth as well. They know as well as the manufacturers that these drugs are the only thing keeping their minds together. The technocrats created a world of shit, but thankfully they also created the solution – temporary escape into immediate pleasure and fantasy, or the promise of eternal life.

From the original Perky Pat story

From the original Perky Pat story