15 March 2007

Mors Ontologica

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 10:27 am

Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair.

– Philip Dick, A Scanner Darkly, 1977

My copy of this book has disappeared, but then I found an online version at, oddly, the American Buddha website. Still, it’s been awhile: no telling how much the book has changed since I read it. Recently Jonathan at Theos Project posted about the film adaptation of Dick’s novel. After reading my post yesterday about The Departed, a friend who’s an avid Philip Dick fan sent me an email pointing out that A Scanner Darkly explores similar psychological territory.

A central theme of The Departed is what Freud called “the uncanny”: split identity and mirrored realities, the hollowness at the center of the self, the inevitable victory of Death as the ultimate Master. This is Hegel’s world viewed through a distorted lens ground by Freud and polished by Lacan, a paranoiac world that threatens to devolve into hallucination and madness. That’s precisely where Philip Dick takes you.

Like The Departed, Dick’s story is about an undercover cop. Agent Fred’s job is to infiltrate a drug ring by posing as Bob Arctor, a local dealer and head of a loosely held-together houseful of junkies. Problem is, Fred/Bob is addicted to Substance D, a powerful psychoactive drug that blocks the connections between the brain hemispheres, resulting in double personality. So Agent Fred doesn’t realize that he is also Bob Arctor, and vice versa. Bob is paranoid because he suspects that he’s under surveillance, and he’s right: he’s being spied on by himself. In The Departed, Colin was in the same boat but he was fully aware that there was only himself in that boat; in A Scanner Darkly, Fred/Bob suspects there are two in the boat, but one of them can never be seen by the other.

Substance D: in Dick’s street parlance it’s known as Slow Death, or just Death. Its chemical name is Mors ontologica: ontological death, or death of being. It’s the substance that everyone desires to make them whole, but it’s effect is to split the self wide open, exposing the hollow center. Eventually Fred/Bob goes into rehab, where he’s assigned a new identity: Bruce. Bruce is a burnout, catatonic, noncommunicative, one of the living dead. A flicker of awareness remains, but it will probably never come out again.

Compared to Dick’s world, The Departed feels like a walk in the park. They’re two different manifestations of the postmodern turn on Hegel. The Departed reveals the nearly arbitrary structures of the realities that shape us, that seemingly opposite poles on the same continuum — law and crime, master and servant — might really be two alternate realities that mirror and mutually deconstruct each other: honor among thieves, deception within the law, and so on. This doubling induces a neurotic division of the self that threatens to blow wide open. In A Scanner Darkly the explosion happens; the territories of the mind can no longer be mapped. The destruction isn’t violent or abrupt, but it wreaks a total psychic destruction that’s more alienating, more psychotic, ultimately more frightening than anything in The Departed.


  1. I saw Scanner Darkly and couldn’t really handle it. It too-deeply violates my sense of the relationship between how things hold together (in the end – Incarnation) and how things tend to fall or spread apart (and it must go far in that direction, considering my own role in most of my conversations with others). The moment it ended I left it behind. The film is supposedly dedicated to all those who’ve gone mad, or something of the sort…but considering the nature of art as “microcosmic”, it over-weights the possibility, need for concern of – or reality – of the explosion. Keep in mind that this is coming from one who has “seen” the ground of things; its not exactly a duct-taped-closed cardboard box. I’m interested though in seeing The Departed.


    Comment by Jaosn Hesiak — 15 March 2007 @ 9:59 pm

  2. Maybe I’m just not cut out to be a psychologist. Who knows.


    Comment by Jaosn Hesiak — 15 March 2007 @ 10:01 pm

  3. John,
    Had you heard or come across split brain patients before? That’s people that have two separate sets of consciousness inside of the one head? For anyone not familiar, there was a surgical procedure I think in the 70’s that had tried to heal people with severe seizures. They sliced the brain physically down the centre. The treatment initially worked very well and many more were done, but people started having this bizarre reaction of having dual entities in their head. One arm could be holding up a book to read whilst the other arm fighting to push the book away.
    For Christians, I had wondered if this meant 2 souls or a separation of souls, mentally at least, one extra person was formed Im guessing.

    John is that odd or what? we both bring up the same quite odd subject at the same time?!


    Comment by Ivan — 15 March 2007 @ 10:36 pm

  4. Ivan –

    I had heard about this procedure but didn’t realize it could lead to such dramatic side effects. And the fact that we both brought up this topic at the same time: maybe you and I are really two hemispheres of some single brain. Or maybe there were more of us yesterday who had this thought: some kind of viral infection by aliens or communists or gods.

    Jason –

    This breakdown of the individual self is the kind of thing that Deleuze and Guattari talk about. Nietzsche too, for that matter. The idea of a unified self or an “identity,” is itself what D&G call a territorialization of desire. If your desires flowed freely you wouldn’t have to concern yourself with how what you do makes you look, whether it’s consistent with who you “really are,” and so on. You just go for it. On the other hand there are guys like Philip Dick: he really is schizophrenic, he really is an addict. There is no freedom in Dick’s disintegration of identity. It’s the dark side of deterritorialization, when things fall apart and don’t ever reassemble themselves.


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 March 2007 @ 7:57 am

  5. This post sucked, John. You are a horrible blogger. I do not support your efforts. I think that you copy too much of Erdman’s ideas. He sucks too. You both suck, so stop posting all this mess.


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 March 2007 @ 6:30 pm

  6. Help me! I’m breaking apaaaaaaaaaaaaart!!!!!


    Comment by ktismatics/John/Jon/Jonathan/Erdman/Doyle — 16 March 2007 @ 6:31 pm

  7. What the…?! How did he… I mean I…


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 March 2007 @ 6:36 pm

  8. Neitche…pray to the god of madness and you get madness…?

    One might say that insanity is defined by a loss of the relation between inside and out. Or a loss of orientation…to the ground.

    That building was designed in 1954, right around the time of the cultural shift from the modern to postmodern worlds. The architects littel guiding phrase was “the ground is falling away.” He noticed something happening around him, and engaged with it.

    But a poet attemps a reconciliation. On your left in the photo the building is anchored, to a degree. That’s the chapel of the monestary. The little structure jutting out from the chapel is the organ box.

    If you are actually standing in that position…BEHIND you on the horizon is a “cleft mountain”, which appeared on the horizon of every Gk. temple sight. The cleft mountain tells the story of stone masonry. Imagine earth being carved out.
    Scroll down to the first image of the page, and you will see the cleft mountain in the center of the photo.

    “The palace commands a fertile plain and harbor. It has been sited in a sheltered valley with its north-south axis aimed toward a high point in the distance that is shaped like a baby’s desire. To the left, the mountain slopes down to a V cleft. The cleft is repeated in the bull’s horn sculpted at the far end of the courtyard. The king knows that ruling by fear and force only goes so far. You need some legitimation, and the strongest comes by reference to nature. What appears natural is reason for being. The natural order of the mountain is repeated in the palace design and the king is the embodiment and interpreter of the earth mother goddess.”

    Some might say that bull leaping is “insane”, no. But it was a basic part of manhood for them. To come together you must risk falling apart. But this is different from simply falling apart.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 16 March 2007 @ 8:37 pm

  9. It’s strange to think about a modern monastery. I see Ste. Baume rejected Corbousier’s design for a Magdalene reliquary of some sort. Ste. Baume is a very ancient-looking place: monastery up on top of a long ridge next to the cave where Magdalene supposedly spent the last 30 years of her life. I saw three monks doing evensong there once — quite chilly, you could see the monks’ breath coming out of their mouths as they sang. Very mystical. Looking down from the cavern you see a vast field of flowers, and also a vineyard. At the foot of the hill is a convent that also serves as a hotel/retreat center. The nuns run the hotel, serve meals, etc. A lot of such places in France — even one in Paris. Magdalene’s tomb is under the cathedral in the town near the cave. It’s surely a very old tomb: carved in the stone is an image of baby Jesus at the feet of his mother. That makes it prior to the 4th century synod that made it obligatory always to show baby Jesus in his mother’s arms. And it’s been a pilgrimage site since the 3rd century or so — they discovered the ruins of a large complex underneath the area where they built the parking lot. Is it really Magdalene? Did she really come across on a boat from Israel with Lazarus and some other dude, landing in France? Mysteries that may remain forever open.


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 March 2007 @ 9:54 pm

  10. Its interesting. Speaking of bifurcation of identity. Monks actually do go there for long streteches of time and be silent other than to sing hymns and what-not.

    And yeah…I didn’t know that his design was rejected. As far as I knew, it just wasn’t built. That’s one I really wish would have been built. As far as the mystery of where Mary is…who knows.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 16 March 2007 @ 10:58 pm

  11. Sorry, it wasn’t this design that was rejected. This other monastery rejected an early Corbusier design, which made him decide not to design any more religious structures for a long time. Eventually he changed his mind and got back into monastic architecture, I guess.


    Comment by ktismatics — 17 March 2007 @ 6:13 pm

  12. Aahhh, yeah…that sounds more like it. He was a bit moody, lol. A lot of times when a “client” came to him, he straight up said, pretty much, “My way or the highway.”


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 17 March 2007 @ 6:24 pm

  13. And at first he didn’t want to design the following building because he took the church to be a dead institution (but a monk talked him into it):

    There are cleft mountains all over the place at that site. Opposite the openings.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 17 March 2007 @ 6:28 pm

  14. A Scanner Darkly is the best drug novel I have ever read!!! I loved it!!! The first time I watched the movie I was on 8 tabs of Acid and I don’t remember most of it, but my flash backs are awesome!!! Then I watched the movie sober and realized how depressing it was, but it was still good!! Then I found out there was a novel and I just had to read it because I knew that if the movie was deep, then the Novel must even be deeper!!! And, a big shock to some one who hates books it was!! It has been the first novel since September 2005 I have read the whole way through!!! It was the most amazing thing I have ever read!! Incredible!! Especially how the ending happens!! Like when he goes insane in the room when he is talking to the Hank!! My God, what a master piece you have blessed us with!! And like all good things and people, they must come to a quick ending!! Like Jimi Hendrix, Cliff Burton, and the best guy ever 2pac!! Ya I am a music guy!! I love Rock’n Roll!! LOL!! And at the ending, the very, very ending when he picks up the flower, My God that was amazing because he did, after all, serve his purpose a little spark went off in his head and he remembered!!! I was like “OH MY GOD, AS IF, NO FUCK’N WAY, DID HE JUST DO THAT!!!” Yes and then it got me thinking about my own life and how I could end up just like him if I continue to do what I do, this of course is recently enough that I have to write this down!!! But, of course I still smoke a little pot, but hell have I cut back!! Man I used to smoke a gram like it was nothing!! I mean like I would finish a Half Ounce in a 2 person session!! And now, thanks all to the greatest author in the world, Philip K. Dick, I smoke maybe a gram to myself in a week!!! Thats CRAZY!! Now I have been addicted to other shit, but thank God for Rehab, otherwise I could have eneded up like My Ex-Girlfriend, Charlotte, and move to BC because she heard the Herion was good there!! Like fuck!! I mean, like ya we are in a bit of a rut here with shitty Herion, but I am not about to move to BC to get good Herion! You know what I am saying? I mean like if it controls your life that much, then I think that means you need a break!! You know what I am saying? Anyways I wish I could personally thank Philip for changing my life around, but I can not because he is dead because of exactly what I was going to do with my life. And how about those Undercover cops? You know I have had a lot of run in with the Authorities in my life, but now I find Philip has made my view on them change!!! I mean me, the guy with the record almost a standard size peice of foolscap, respecting what they do for a living now!!! Wow, thank you Philip, thank you for changing ny life


    Comment by Chris Enos — 30 March 2010 @ 1:24 am

  15. It’s true: Dick writes a cautionary tale with a little bit of redemption glimmering at the end. Maybe he’s more of an old-fashioned do-gooder than I’m giving him credit for, even if he didn’t always follow his own advice. Sounds like you’ve had an interesting life so far, Chris. I’m glad you liked the book; I did too. Some day I’ll have to see the movie.


    Comment by john doyle — 30 March 2010 @ 7:32 am

  16. You characterise mors ontologica as “ontological death”, the death of being which is interesting. I read it the opposite way as the ontology of death, the being of death, not only in the sense of anything “being” (alive or dead) but also being in the sense of being alive, as the flower is a living organism, indifferent to the fast death it may bring to a human being.


    Comment by Thomas — 15 July 2017 @ 2:08 am

    • “The being of death” — maybe so. There’s certainly a death drive motivating people to get their hands on the stuff, and the essence that they discover in themselves is an emptiness, a death. The drug doesn’t kill them; it reveals them as already dead, as being-death. I like it, Thomas.


      Comment by ktismatics — 21 July 2017 @ 1:53 pm

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