Disconnection / Dystopia
Disconnection from the self in Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
Both Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? illustrate the ‘dehumanizing effects of bureaucracies and technology’; a vein already present in earlier Modernist works, famously in Eliot’s The Waste Land. Bend Sinister and Androids were written in 1947 and 1968 respectively, when fear of Nazi and Communist totalitarian regimes was both real and immediate. The relation between dystopian fictions and the political situations of the twentieth century is a common topic but Nabokov himself highlights a more individual-based emphasis: ‘the main theme of Bend Sinister…is the beating of Krug’s loving heart’, likewise, Dick’s novel ‘begins as a search for six renegade androids and becomes a quest for an uncontestable essence of human being’. Both these novels are concerned with the experience of emotion and, as in the case of many characters in dystopian worlds, emotional disconnection, rendering them alienated from a crucial part of themselves. This disconnection is at least partly responsible for the unsettling, surreal and disjointed atmosphere in both novels.
In Androids, ‘empathy [...] exist[s] only within the human community’ (p.27); it apparently crucially distinguishes humans from replicants in the Voigt- Kampff test. Although empathy has a more specific meaning than ‘emotion’, Dick himself described the androids as ‘cruel, cold, and heartless. They …don’t care what happens to other creatures. They are essentially less than human’. Rick Deckard thinks to himself that Rachael has ‘[n]o emotional awareness, no feeling-sense of the actual meaning of what she said’ (p.162). The level of feeling the androids experience is an issue in the novel however, particularly in the character of Luba Luft, whose appreciation of opera and art (p.114) makes her more than a ‘cruel, cold, and heartless’ machine. The confusion surrounding what constitutes an android is heightened when the question of whether Rick himself might be a replicant is covertly posed. Although he does merge with the god-like Mercer, something the androids are supposedly incapable of, he never in fact takes the empathy test. Peter Fitting argues that incidents such as the scene with the torture of the spider, show that ‘the androids are meant to be understood as evil and inhuman’. When we examine human history however, we are aware of man’s vast capacity for cruelty; this suggests torture is not conclusive proof for an inability to experience emotion. Anything horrific that androids could conceive of, humans probably could do or have already done; yet if people can be as detached as androids this does not necessarily mean androids can be as genuinely empathic as humans. Rachael bluntly says ‘I’m empathic about myself’ (p.163) and even in this, they do not measure up to human passion ‘I can’t stand the way you androids give up’ (p.171), Rick says in exasperation at their apparently resigned attitude to death. He is nevertheless increasingly sympathetic towards them. Although he does not necessarily identify with the replicants, perhaps he sees in them a potential future he fears; they are a metaphor for the disconnected individual. The inhabitants of his city are already extremely isolated; with their reliance on Penfield mood organs, Buster Friendly, Mercer and empathy boxes, they represent our dystopian nightmarish fear of the future, but they are not yet machines. In Dick’s world Deckard has his own, even more extreme fear; of being as deadened as the androids. There is an implied fear of an even worse dystopian world, creating an unsettling spiraling mirror affect that is also present in the theme of entropic degeneration, encapsulated in Dick’s concept of ‘kipple’ (p.56). The reader is introduced to the idea of the ‘flattening of affect’ (p.33) in schizophrenics, some mentally ill humans already cannot pass the Voigt- Kampff test and therefore cannot be distinguished from androids unless they undergo a bone marrow test. Patricia Warrick develops this link by suggesting that the androids may be seen as a representation for ‘[tlhe schizoid individual [who]. . . . denies his emotions and operates as an intelligent, logical machine’.
Similarly the characters that are compliant with the regime in Bend Sinister can be seen as disconnected from their emotions, rendering them dehumanized, and in the most extreme case of Crystalsen, indeed android-like. Many of those in Paduk’s regime however, lack the power of logical reasoning that Dick’s androids possess, as Krug humourously thinks to himself: the city is full of ‘those who are because they do not think, thus refuting Cartesianism’ (p.21). The subjects of Padukgrad operate in a distorted, disconnected world, running around almost like broken robotic toys; Nabokov himself refers to them as ‘uniformed waxworks’ and ‘dummies’ (p.8). If as readers we are struck by their thoughtlessness, we are even more struck by their lack of sensitivity and emotion. The regime sends Krug printed propaganda in which it states that the new press intends to ‘guide the activities and the emotions of their readers in the necessary direction’ (p.140). No longer feeling and following their own emotions, the followers of the system are consequently disconnected from themselves. The party line also proclaims that ‘the only true Art is the Art of Discipline’ (p.142). This mechanical, controlled attitude reflects the scientific drive of the 20th century that is frequently explored in dystopian fiction. ‘Science and Administration’ (p.49) are hailed as the cornerstones of the university. The rejection of emotion as something unreliable and unverifiable is depicted in conjunction with the efficient disciplined image of totalitarian government; except ironically Paduk’s regime is anything but efficient, echoing instead the practical problems of Communism., The most unsettling party representative is Crystalsen; the ultimate example of self-discipline. He ‘alone had retained a most perfect calm’ (p.190) during the description of Krug’s son’s horrific death and the following events, he even sits down to begin ‘cleaning his nails’ (p.190). He is the picture of clinical coldness and impersonality, even his name suggests his biting ‘perfection’, he is in fact a dehumanized monster in his immovability.
There is likewise an obsession with the control of emotion in Androids. Unlike the rejection of personal emotion in Bend Sinister however, individuals constantly induce feelings through The Penfield mood organs. The drug-like addiction of ‘dialling moods’ reveals an obsessive desire to feel, however the artificiality of the emotions and the level of control renders it a very different state to natural feeling. The moods all have numbers, removing the expressive ability of language to signify variation. Ironically the very thing that separates the humans from the androids is being controlled by a machine and is reduced to a scientific process. The Penfield mood organ again brings into question human identity and reveals the lack of freedom in Dick’s dystopia; the inhabitants of the city fear the very thing that proves they are alive. Negative or unhappy moods are particularly feared, when Iran tells Rick about her scheduled ‘self-accusatory depression’ (p.4) he reacts by telling her it is ‘dangerous’ (p.6) and that it ‘defeated the whole purpose of the mood organ’ (p.4). Positive feelings are encouraged, most of all empathy, the basis feeling of Mercerism; but it is not human to be happy all the time. Their artificial indulgence renders the population dependent, Dick admits ‘he relied’ on mood 481 ‘greatly’ (p.6), and simultaneously deadened to reality: ‘What difference does it make?’ (p.7). This in effect instates a process of devolution whereby people are at risk of forgetting how to cope with emotions; they are in danger of forgetting how to be alive without technology. Iran realises the problems of mental balance in the disconnected self that many of Nabokov’s characters in Bend Sinister display: ‘although I hear the absence intellectually, I didn’t feel it…But then I realized how unhealthy it was sensing the absence of life, and not reacting’ (p.5). Like Nabokov’s ‘dummies’, Dick’s characters in Androids stupefy themselves by dialling moods such as ‘The desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it’ (p.6).
Adam Krug, Nabokov’s protagonist in Bend Sinister, enters the novel with the news that his wife has just died and consequently he experiences a state of extreme negative emotion. His initial shocked disconnection from the animated world is cinematically described; he does not appear to hear the nurse speaking:
The movement (pulsation, radiation) of [her] features (crumpled ripples) was due to her speaking, and he realised that this moment had been going on for some time…The continuation of her voice came into being as if a needle had found it’s groove. Its groove in the disc of his mind. (p.15)
The nurse’s face is defamiliarised with adjectives that suggest textures of some strange substance. The sterile words ‘pulsation, radiation’, and the ‘needle’ on the ‘disc’ evoke images of mechanisation and technology. Krug, like a machine, is experiencing a time glitch as the processes of the brain are affected by trauma. This disjointed numbness is understandable for someone in a state of shock. What is unsettling however, is that this recently traumatised character is more recognisably normal than any of those supporting the new regime. As he cries for his lost wife we are told: ‘the throbbing man in him was soaked. As usual he discriminated between the throbbing one and the one that looked on…This was the last stronghold of the dualism he abhorred’ (p.17). Krug as a balanced individual experiences emotion and dislikes the divisions of dualism. However, the historical significance of Plato’s writings which have been perpetually revisited throughout the ages, and the fact that Krug cannot help but see traces of this dualism within himself, show us a certain tendency to separate and divide the self that is part of the human condition.
Krug becomes increasingly disjointed as the novel progresses and he attempts to deal with his grief. Nabokov reflects Krug’s unsettled mental state through mimesis in the syntax; by confusing changes from third person narrative to first person narrative, moving across both time and space, and changing focus onto different characters. We are told in third person narrative that Krug rings his friend Ember, we are transported from Krug’s to Ember’s house, and Ember proceeds to relate the conversation he has just had with Krug in the first person (p.33). It then appears that Ember is writing in a journal to a mysterious ‘you’ or speaking to an unnamed and unvoiced person. All these changes occur in just two lines. At this point we discover that Krug’s ‘attitude towards death prevents his going to the ceremony’ of his wife’s funeral (p.34). This seems odd and we begin to suspect that Krug is not coping well with his bereavement. He escapes to the country and is unable to speak to his friend Ember in person about his loss. It is in fact Ember who ‘bursts into tears’ (p.100) and Krug, ‘[i]n order to bring things back to a less emotional level…tells him about a curious character…’ (p.100). This kind of emotional restraint may be unhealthy but it is not an uncommon human characteristic. Krug is not so detached from himself that he does not feel emotion, and this is painfully illustrated when the overwhelming love and grief for his son drives him mad; or as Nabokov wishes to remind us, ‘his maker’ (p.11) allows him this sanctuary ‘saving him from the senseless agony of his logical fate’ (p.194). Paduk calls him ‘mad Adam’ (p.125 and p.130) and Krug himself reflects on the strength of his paternal feeling: ‘what agony, thought Krug the thinker, to love so madly a little creature’ (p.156). Krug is the opposite of the mechanized Crystalsen. By the end of the novel he experiences a complete lack of control over his emotions. He is the ‘non-driver’ (p.188), not least because if we step out of the narrative world, as Nabokov’s creation, he is not free at all. The puppets of the regime are unable to experience serious emotion whilst Krug experiences an excess of it; ironically Nabokov’s solution to Krug’s position is to stop him feeling or understanding his feelings and thoughts. In the illustration of such painful emotions the fear of negative emotions and the desire for a Penfield Mood Organ in Dick’s world is, although unhealthy and unnatural, perhaps understandable.
It is the shockingly casual attitude to violence showing emotional incapability and lack of empathy that most separates the subordinates in Paduk’s regime from Krug and his friends. The soldiers demonstrate a frivolous attitude to human life: ‘when we get fed up with guarding you, we’ll chuck you into the water and shoot at you while you drown’ (p.19) They display a twisted pleasure in the idea combined with a strangely childish lack of serious understanding. They are desensitised to violence. This is particularly shocking in the female characters of Mariette and Linda; women, traditionally associated with gentleness and emotionality are here depicted as monstrously callous. Mariette plays the stereotype of the helpless woman who needs to be carried to the car because ‘she might catch cold’ (p.169); one cannot help but wonder why she doesn’t just put some clothes on. They giggle and chat about fashion and ‘black lace panties’ (p.167) but thefemale characteristic of maternal instinct has been eradicated in them. Mariette is ‘making up her lips’ while David is screaming ‘off stage’ (p.168). They are impressed by Mac’s sickeningly precise violent outburst that leaves Krug with two temporarily paralysed arms, ‘Mac’s awfully good at this sort of thing’ (p.167) Linda calmly remarks. They observe the entire scene with ‘bored amusement’ (p.69). The shocking depiction of the women crescendos as Mariette gleefully asks for details of Hustav’s death and Linda answers with cold emotional disconnection. She relates how her ex-lover was murdered:
I said…I don’t want to spend all day cleaning up. So they took him to the bathroom and started work on him there. Of course my morning was ruined. I had to be at the dentist’s at ten, and there they were making simply hideous noises… (p.173)
Although the whole scene has been shocking, it is so far removed from what we can relate to that it verges on the ridiculous. Consequently a surreal black humour creeps in to the edge of the text that is also found in sections of Nabokov’s Lolita, particularly in the descriptions of Charlotte Haze and her death. At the close of the novel the Elders’ ridiculous offer of compensation for the murder of Krug’s son shows how little they understand what Krug is feeling: they offer an elaborate funeral with toy soldiers in the coffin ‘which at this very moment several experts at the Ministry of War are minutely checking in regard to the correctness of uniforms and weapons’. Additionally ‘the six main culprits will be executed by an inexperienced headsman in your presence. This is a sensational offer!’ (p.189). These characters are incapable of understanding complicated emotion, only instinctual pain and revenge. The violence that Mariette is so excited to hear about is one of the few things that breaks through the numbness of these desensitised characters, and even then only a little; she feels excited not appalled. The gentleness of sensitive perception has disappeared from Padukgrad.
Alienation from the self and from emotion has important implications for sexual relations. Hustav speaks of sex with the language of plain physical desire that needs to be gratified: ‘I might ask you to leave the room, while Miss Bachofen and I remain here for a brisk business conference. I need it badly.’ (p.114). Rachel tells Rick in Dick’s novel: ‘We androids can’t control our physical, sensual passions’ (p.167); and there is something correspondingly mechanical about human sex in Bend Sinister. Mariette displays a desperate unromantic physical desire for Krug. She still begs him to sleep with her despite his warning that ‘this is going to be a bestial explosion, and you might get badly hurt…And I don’t love you.’ (p.164). Far from appalling her, like the violence, it seems to mildly excite her. Resch in Androids similarly tells Deckard that ‘Love is another name for sex’ (p.123); where characters are disconnected from themselves in these dystopian novels they are unable to meaningfully connect with the opposite sex.
The approval of violence and sexual degradation in Bend Sinister brings questions of morality into the novel that culminate in the ‘experiment’ resulting in David’s death. This is by far the most morally shocking point of the narrative and the moment that most clearly illustrates the subjects’ lack of emotive responses. Appropriately it is Crystalsen who informs Krug of what has happened to his child. Crystalsen is associated with the ‘ghostly blue’ (p.181) of the windows; both sterile and unnatural. Krug and the reader are told of how ‘orphans’ are:
…now and then used to serve as a ‘release-instrument’ for the benefit of the most interesting inmates with a so-called ‘criminal record (rape, murder, wanton destruction of State Property, etc.). The theory – and we are not here to discuss the worth, and you shall pay for my cuff if you tear it – was that if once a week the really difficult patients could enjoy the possibility of venting in full their repressed yearnings (the exaggerated urge to hurt, destroy, etc.) upon some little human creature of no value to the community… (p.181)
The information is relayed in the detached measured manner of a news broadcast. The term ‘release-instrument’, used by Crystalsen for its dehumanizing effect in order to distance the reality of the horror, merely serves to highlight how dehumanized he himself is. The contrast between the coldness of the word and the painful reality of a child being tortured to death ironically renders the scene all the more vivid and disturbing. The scientific presentation of the situation as an ‘experiment’, a ‘theory’, and the child an ‘instrument’, highlights the horror of mechanized and pre-meditated violence. The use of words such as ‘worth’ and ‘value’, echo the economic language of a consumerist culture and remind the reader how the characters of Paduk’s regime have lost their ability for comparative moral judgment. The ‘worth’ of the theory is not going to be discussed but the value of Crystalsen’s cuff is. Crystalsen is completely unaffected by Krug’s physical threats; when he is punched he ‘carefully wiped the blood from his mouth and offered his…handkerchief to Krug – to wipe Krug’s knuckles’ (p.182). Like an automated announcement he continues unfazed to talk about the ‘release-games’, ‘squeezing game, ‘spitting game’, ‘limb tearing, bone breaking, deoculation, etc’ (p.183). The doctors describe the scene with fascination, the leading doctor, a woman, and numerous female nurses, like Mariette and Linda, appear devoid of any maternal instinct. The immorality of the situation does not strike them at all; morality requires an emotional response at least in conjunction with reason. Nabokov tells us that
crime is punished at the end of the book when the uniformed waxworks are really hurt, and the dummies are at last in quite dreadful pain, and pretty Mariette gently bleeds, staked and torn by the lust of 40 soldiers (p.8)
They never realise the horror of the situation however, the punishments and the apologies are not for the torture and the murder but for the ‘carelessness in the performance of one’s official duty’ (p.189). They are incapable of realising their real errors because they cannot empathise; as a result we are incapable of sympathising with their pain. The reader does not feel like any order has been restored to this twisted world.
Although many of the characters in both novels are disconnected from themselves, paradoxically, the presence of a religious drive for union and belonging shows a crucial desire to connect. The empathy box in Androids connects the participants with the god-like Wilbur Mercer, and with any other participants using the device at that moment. It simulates a religious experience in the form of an uncertain uphill struggle (p.20-21). Again, like the mood organ this is artificial because it is somehow mechanically induced and because Buster Friendly reveals that Mercer was actually a bit actor named Al Jarry (p.178).
In Bend Sinister there is an underlying idea that Paduk’s group are not comfortable with their individual identity and therefore wish to belong to a homogenous mass. They all had some ‘back-ground of insecurity’ (p.69); the kind of boys that would be bullied at school for being different. Krug on the other hand is a ‘healthy criminal’ (p.83) and is comfortable with his individual identity; he was the bully. The Toad can easily be compared to the figure of Mercer as his speech encourages a similar ecstatic union: ‘by adjusting ideas and emotions to those of a harmonious majority’ and ‘letting your person dissolve in the virile oneness of the State…Your groping individualities will become interchangeable’ (p.88). This dissolution of personal identity into ‘the immortality of the State’ (p.189), like religion, seems to diminish the fear of death. The Ekwilist classic song closes with a strange celebration of human mortality: ‘no life without death’ (p.72). The ‘spiritual uniformity’ (p.71) makes the population mill around like ‘ants’ (p.115). The desire to connect is not genuinely fulfilled because the paradox of this unity is that people must disconnect from the self in order to be submerged into the collective. No meaningful connection can take place between individuals alienated from themselves who are essentially dehumanized. Added to this is the inherent flaw of forced unity; Krug several times asks ‘Leave me alone’ (p.127) but the regime will not allow this: ‘”Alone” is the vilest word in the language’ (p.127), Paduk insists. William Fisher identifies in Blade Runner ‘the pull of an older individualism and the push of a nascent collective life’ whose members’ are subjects of ‘passivity’, there is a similar incongruity in Bend Sinister between Krug the individual and the machine of the state beehive.
One possible reading of Bend Sinister is that the dystopian world is all Krug’s nightmare or a representation of his psyche, as he himself wonders ‘Surely this is a dream’ (p.85). Likewise when Deckard merges with Mercer unmediated through an empathy box, he experiences what could be called a breakdown, or a ‘brush with schizophrenia’ as Kevin R. McNamara terms it. Deckard concludes that ‘Mercer isn’t a fake…Unless reality is a fake’ (p.201). There is again the possibility that all reality is in the individual’s mind, as he chooses to believe. Through his protagonist Deckard, his very name a pun on Descartes, Dick explores what defines the human state. According to McNamara, in Androids ‘we are asked to accept emotion as the foundation of reality’, or at least a crucial mechanism for interpreting, filtering, reacting and staying alive to it. The fantastical desire to control emotion in these novels can be linked to the twentieth century rise of technology and perhaps is a reaction to the focus on emotion in Romantic literature and then the sentimental in Victorian writing. The growing secular society began rejecting religion and the metaphysical because of its unreliability and unverifiability; emotions can be seen as part of this same realm of ineffable belief. Nabokov and Dick however show the inescapability of individual feeling that is part of our identity and without which we are dysfunctional and alienated from ourselves.
- ed. Baccolini, Raffaella and Moylan, Tom, Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination (Routledge, 2003)
- Begnal, Michael H., ‘Bend Sinister: Joyce, Shakespeare, Nabokov’, Modern Language Studies, Vol. 15, No. 4, Fifteenth Anniversary Issue. (Autumn, 1985), p.22-27
- Dick, Philip K., Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Orion Publishing Group, 1999)
- McNamara, Kevin R., ‘Blade Runner’s Post-Individual Worldspace’, Contemporary Literature, Vol. 38, No. 3. (Autumn, 1997), p. 422-446
- Moylan, Tom, Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia (Westview Press, 2000)
- Nabokov, Vladimir, Bend Sinister (Penguin, 2001)
- Nabokov, Vladimir, Lolita (Penguin, 2000)