James T. Farrell, “The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan” (1934): Studs’ Potential Chains

With their economic rise, the Negroes sought more satisfactory housing conditions. Besides, the black boys were happiest when engaged in the horizontals. That meant an increasing birth-rate amongst them, and another factor necessitating improved and more extensive domiciles. All these factors produced a pressure stronger than individual wills, and resulted in a minor racial migration of Negroes into the white residential districts of the south side. Blather couldn’t halt the process. Neither could violence and race riots. It was an inevitable outgrowth of social and economic forces. (457)

I open with this quote because, although it is told from the point of view of James. T. Farrell’s racist characters, it suggests the author’s politics. As much as the working class characters that populate his novels seem to deserve their fate, they were chained to specific institutional and economic realities. The escape route, tended to lead to disasters, but for some that may have been preferable to accepting the confines of these institutions.

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In my last post, I looked at some of the strategies of working class empowerment employed by Studs Lonigan and his friends in the James T. Farrell’s The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan. Lonigan’s commitment to whiteness and masculinity (as well as American jingoism) made it difficult for Lonigan to diagnosis the reasons for his personal immobility. We can add to this a whole host of personal failing. Even thought Studs was oblivious to the chains that bound him, the readers are not. The problem seems to be rooted in the culture of his upbringing and the options the working class communities of Chicago offered young men like Studs. He was given only three real options for community, social position, and respect outside of the streets and the pool-houses: the dialectic moralism of the Church, the banality of work, and family. I will call these “potential chains” because none of them trap Studs, but they remain ominous threats and the only sources for personal uplift offered by his community. It is easy to say that Studs should have suffered and accepted these options given to him, but this is hardly satisfying if we are after a truly free society.

We see many of the efforts of the Catholic church to hold onto Chicago’s young Catholics. Their efforts are not entirely without merit. Attempts to form clubs and hold dancers are authentic efforts to create community. The YMCA at one point attracts the men for health reasons, suggesting the Protestants were engaged in some of the same efforts. The problem was that it could not hold the men due to the strong moralism that all these actions involved. In a sense, it was a return to grade school for young men like Studs with the messages about the threat of hell, the need to live a godly life, and the generally authoritarian messages. Here is a sample of the rhetoric that I am sure rarely works on young men in their 20s.

For, my friends, your minds and your bodies are vessels of the Lord, given unto your keeping. They must not be abused. They are not tools for the indiscriminate enjoyment of what the world calls pleasure. There is one commandment which, above all, you must not violate. God says, clearly and without equivocation: ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery!’ If you do, the torments of Hell await you for all eternity! (494–495)

Studs does not turn from the church at all. Instead he bears it with indifference while asserting his identity in public. Studs’ pursuit of personal freedom was real but misdirected. The promise of a banal life of guilt being offered by the Church was certainly not for him. Studs is provided an alternative. During a conversation with “an atheist,” who introduces Studs and some of his friends to the problem of evil, Studs is at least given the tools to think more critically about the church. This may have set him on a more liberatory path. Instead he remains committed to his Catholicism even though it seems to run contrary to his values. Studs and his friends rejecting out of hand the ideas of others by labelling them “atheists” or “reds” is a common motif in the book and serve as a reminder that a more creative person could have escaped some of these chain (at least at the level of perspective).

Alongside the institution of the church is the promise of work. Studs and his friends are often casually employed. It is not so much that work was hard to get. When the men needed work or set their task to finding work they tended to get it. But no one seems to particularly enjoy the choices they were given, so they mostly fall into and out of employment. It seem to me that voluntary precarious employment is a form of resistance to the work ethic and the type of life work offers. It is not the most radical or liberating of choices (especially when the burden of support falls on someone else), but it is a clear rejection of the work regimen. The Greek socialist, Christy, is the model for a more radical escape from work. Unfortunately, his approach is not so different from the priest. Christy takes to lecturing Studs and his pals about Debs, the war, and capitalism while taking singular pleasure in mocking Catholicism for hypocrisy. Clearly Christy does not know the first thing about organizing working people. His language is good for organizing the converted, but fails to convince others, especially those who evade work anyways.

Bolshevism is going to be justice for the workingman. He will no longer be a slave, work ten, twelve hours a day and have his children starved and underfed. He will have opportunities. Bolshevism will not allow greed, not allow capitalists to steal all the money to crush people, kill them in wars, to waste their toil on jewelry for silly women and silly wives. Russia is trying to make a decent world. America is trying to make a world for greed, capitalists, crooks, gangsters, criminals, and kill the working-man, make him a slave. (476)

Work, for these men, is still a burden they can avoid using it when the need to. Much like the church, it is an institution that has failed to trap them.

The final ominous threat to Studs is family. As this novel makes clear, it is quite unfortunate how young people escape one family only to be inevitably drawn into a new one. Some of his pals marry (which brings up the need for a steady job) and Studs begins to get a bit serious about courting a women he fell in love with as a child, Lucy. This is a disaster when he nearly rapes her after a rather awkward date, where he spends more time showing his contempt for other men than his affection for Lucy. Studs Lonigan’s own incompetence forestalls the shackles of marriage and we suspect that is what he wanted anyway.

So when the novel ends, we learn that however legitimate his evasion of the church, work, and family may have been, Studs is running out of time to chart an independent path for himself. This was not possible for him, because in the end, Studs was a conformist. Smart enough to reject some of the values and expectations of his parents, but not smart enough to think for himself. He had enough inspiration from contrarians, but he could never turn that into something authentic and original and adapted to his own needs and temperament.

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Philip K. Dick, “A Maze of Death” (1970): Alternative Reality and Freedom

In A Maze of Death, Philip K. Dick tries to show us that an alternative reality can lead to the perception of freedom, if not freedom itself.  In the novel, fourteen lost spaceship residents, establish a collective delusion for cathartic reasons.  This delusion is cathartic, provides some limited illusion of freedom, and wastes their time.  The novel might be compared to The Matrix or eXistenZ with its reliance on an alternative reality.  In eXistenZ, the approach is more playful and the reality is always hidden under another layer of delusion to the point the characters do not know where they are.  A Maze of Death presents us with a reality that is brutal and horrible, fourteen progressively insane members of a lost at space spaceship crew with murderous impulses and no hope of escape.  In The Matrix, of course, the delusion is created as a means of exploitation and social control.  The film-makers believe that reality is preferable to delusion and the struggle for freedom comes from escaping the fantasy.  A Maze of Death show us that opposite.  People find their freedom in the fantasy.  Reality is a prison.  Even if the freedom in the fantasy is sexual excess, murder, or a host of conspiracy theories and paranoid, at least it allows us to live out our passions, rather than confining them?

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A question arises by the time you get to the end of A Maze of Death.  If these fourteen people hate each other so deeply and use stimulated realities to, in part, work out their hostilities against each other, why do they not simply murder each other in reality?  Their mission is lost and they have no hope for salvation.  Perhaps the answer is that in reality, despite their unique circumstances, they are still bound by the rules of society.  Philip K. Dick may be saying that our lives are really akin to these fourteen lost in space.  Any freedom we have is a delusion.  We are bound by social obligations beyond any reason.  We have at best a bottle-up disgust for the other members of our species.  We escape into fantasies (television series, adulterous relationships, myths of the happy family, raising children, irrelevant political battles, cruises to Jamaica that never show us anything of Jamaica beyond the resort) because this is the one way we can escape the horror of our enslavement.  It is a false freedom, of course.  To fight for freedom in the realm of the real would require a revolution.  This is something neither we nor the crew members of ship are capable of.  Whatever optimism Dick had in humanity and our capacity to achieve solidarity (expressed in Now Wait for Last Year) is missing in A Maze of Death.  When one fantasy breaks down, they have no choice but to start another one.  In a sense, the hope lies in there.  Overtime our fantasies lose the ability to sustain our interest so we must at some point face reality, each other, and the chains that bind us.

The theological system collectively created by the participants in the fantasy is not uninteresting.  In this particular version, God exists in four different parts.  It is much like Hinduism, where God is divided into Brahma (the creator), Shiva (the destroyer) and Vishnu (the sustainer).  Here the four aspects of the divine are the Intercessor, the Mentufacturer, the Form Destroyer, and the Walker on Earth (closer perhaps to the Holy Spirit or a Buddhist Bodhisattva).  There is a mechanical system by which people can request help from these different avatars through “prayers,” which are not so different from requests to superiors.  Indeed, the first character we meets treats his prayer just like this, asking for and receiving a transfer to a new location.  In this reality, the truth of the divine is uncontested.  Not only are prayers really answered and direct connections to the divine explicable via natural law, but the Walker on Earth is experienced directly by one of the characters.  Created by the participants through a method of collective will (I am reminded of the Jungian psychology here), this theological design is not far from what people really want from their God.

Another layer of the delusion, is that the characters are given an important task.  Again, this is something that is clearly lacking in reality.  On the ship, they are no different from millions of people in office jobs, teaching jobs, government bureaucracies who know that their work is meaningless.

So in their fantasy, they create an important task, consisted with their skills and training.  Everyone has an important task that is worked into the fantasy.  On the surface, they are sent to begin the settlement of a planet Delmak-O and they all have an important task (a psychologist, a linguist, a computers specialist, a repairman, a custodian, a sexy secretary, etc.).  Conveniently, the mission is never explicitly stated, so they can only know they each have an essential role, they cannot know what that role is.  One of the many fantasies of late capitalism is that we matter, that our job has a purpose, that the world needs us.  Liquid relationships proves that this is not even true of our children.  If we die, there is a step-mother waiting at the bar on the corner – more beautiful, more playful, and with a higher income.

The solution to the dilemma of late capitalism, to the world that we live in, is not more fantasies of freedom.  It is to realize our slavery, our insignificance, our hatreds and our passions.  We should wake up to the chains around us and fight to smash them as described in Lu Xun’s iron house parable.  “Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?  But if a few awake, you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house. ”

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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.

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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

Herman Melville, “Omoo,” Part 2: Transgression

The second part of Melville’s Omoo follows the narrator “Typee” as he and his fellow shipmate (and now jailmate) Dr. Long Ghost as they seek happiness and freedom in the South Seas.

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Part two begins with the mutinous sailors in the jail.  It is an easy-going jail.  They can come and go during the day as the please, interact with the local Polynesians, and are fairly well-cared for.  They decide to stay there even after their ship Julia leaves to continue its whaling voyage.  Melville devotes some of the time that his narrator is in jail to continue the anti-missionary and anti-imperial arguments that he started in Typee.  Melville argues for a degree of religious environmentalism suggesting that the missionaries are not only importing degradation into Tahiti but also that the Polynesians are incapable of being true Christian converts.  “There is perhaps no race upon earth less disposed, by nature, to the monitions of Christianity, than the people of the South Seas. . . . Added to all this, is that quality inherent to Polynesians; and more akin to hypocrisy than anything else.  It leads them to assume the most passionate interest, in matters for which they really feel little or none whatever.”  (500-501)  An incompatible religious is perhaps anodyne enough, but much more devastating to the Polynesians is the destruction of their economy: the depopulation by disease, the destruction of the tappa manufacturing industry, and the establishment of sugar plantations.  These sugar plantations pose one of the greatest threats to the Polynesian way of life.  This rejection of Western civilization is Typee’s first transgression in this part of the novel.

After these digressions, the narrative continues with a scheme by Dr. Long Ghost to improve the living conditions in their jail.  With the Julia gone, there is no need to restrain the sailors any longer.  They are becoming an economic burden.  The sailors, content with a life of luxury scheme to demand higher rations.  Like many working-class people, turned off by the failure of work in the achievement of their dreams, choose the “dole” as a way to take advantage of a system that has exploited them for years.  The first scheme, by Long Ghost, is to fake a fit and blame his condition on poor rations and poor conditions.  This fails and they next march on Wilson.  With little hope in jail for an improved life, Long Ghost and Typee set off for the island of Imeeo, where they heard from two deserters that a pair of foreigners established a sugar plantation.  This way, they can at least leave on their own terms.  They are certain that Wilson will get rid of them someway.  Interestingly, and powerfully, Typee “longed for a change.”  It is these whims that drive so much of the plot of Melville’s first two novels.  A form of attention-defect-disorder that is a powerful tool of subtle resistance.  Allowing our whims to drive us is certainly better than allowing the bosses desires control us.  The name of the novel “Omoo” refers to a Polynesian word for “wanderer.”

A Sugar Plantation.  The gift of "civilization."

A Sugar Plantation. The gift of “civilization.”

They take up a job laboring on the plantation, but it is not long before they find the work too odious and seek to venture out to find the employment of a Polynesian queen.  He is searching for a pristine Polynesian way of life, perhaps closer to what he experienced among the Typee but was quickly being lost in places of greater European control, such as Tahiti.  They venture off by lying to their employers.  The second transgression of the narrator and his companion is their rootlessness and vagrancy along with their unabashed ability to take advantage of their captors and employers.

The remainder of the novel follows the “Omoo” as they go deeper into the areas of the Society Islands they hope are untouched by European empire.  Even in Tamai, the Western influence is visible.  A hermit salesman tries to sell them Western-style trousers and Westerners often populate the courts of local kings and queens, working in various fashions.  These people serve as other examples of “Omoo” seeking a place for themselves and averting work by any means possible.  Of course, the Polynesians can play this game too, taking advantage of the Western presence however they can.  Some, like the hermit, sell their artifacts.  Others made their living turning in deserting sailors for the bounty.

Their next stop is Imeeo, where they find a more pristine culture.  They are taken in by Marharvai, the local chief.  They enjoy a dinner party, the company of three girls, fishing, swimming, and relaxing.  Their next to last stop in the novel is a visit with a “dealer in the contraband,” a hermit called Varvy.  Long Ghost drinks heavily with him and losses his boots under suspicious circumstances.

Even in distant Partoowye, the European impact is felt.  Here it is reflected in the native Christian Ereemear, who takes in the “Omoo” as guests.  They also encounter a carpenter from a ship (another deserter) who falls in love with a native girl.  Long Ghost falls in love with Ereemear’s daughter Loo, who rejects his advances.  After a failed attempt to work from the Queen of Partoowye, the omoo part ways.  Long Ghost stays on the island and Typee sails off with a whaling ship.

The major theme of the novel is resistance to capitalism and empire through the individual acts of working people.  Sometimes it took the form of running away other times in fencing stolen goods.  For many it was just the refusal to work when other options presented themselves.  This is a strategy that has been used for centuries to oppose the alienation and exploitation of capital.  I think we should all become “Omoo.”