Pots and Reality in Philip K Dick

Just because my paper is done – you can read it here if you want – doesn’t mean that my fascination with Philip K Dick’s novels has ended. On the flight and various layovers to San Antonio for the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting, I read Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974).  The novel tells the story of Jason Taverner, a celebrity in a futuristic 1988, who suddenly finds his entire identity erased. The setting for the novel will be familiar to anyone who has seen Ridley Scott’s dystopian film Blade Runner (based on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)). Flying cars, constant surveillance, identification cards, and a global government provide backdrop to a novel that explores where reality is not so much a point of reference, but a source for paranoid confusion.

In the novel, Jason Taverner does more than simply lose his formal identity (or discover that it has been deleted), but finds himself completely erased from his own reality. In other words, the world that Taverner inhabits is not the world that he remembers and recognizes. His celebrity is gone, his wealth and privilege are gone, and most importantly, his personal relationships are gone. He remembers those things, but no one else in the world does. His girlfriend hangs up on him, his lawyer will not take his calls, and addled old lovers only recognize him through a haze of booze and faked memories. He awakes in a dirty hotel room missing all forms of identification which is a crime worthy of deportation to a forced labor camp. To avoid this fate, Taverner descends into a gritty underworld to get forged papers, to negotiate his bizarre status with the police, and to find some vestige of his former life.

Like many Dick novels, the book leaves the reader confused as to what is real. For Taverner, his reality only returns after a horrendous mescaline trip that results in the death of the sister (and paramour) of a police chief who had been dealing with the Taverner case. Taverner becomes aware that his celebrity reality is returned after he meets a local potter, Mary Anne Dominic, who is both sympathetic to his drug-induced confusion, but also simply kind. He offers Taverner a gift of a pot, after he accidentally drops one of her creations. Like so many Dick novels, the hands of a artisan restores reality. 

In the final section of the novel, Dick explains that the policeman’s sister, Alys, had taken a drug that not only caused her death, but also distorted reality. Taverner had been unwittingly drawn into Alys’s reality which she was under the influence of this drug causing him to be disconnected from his own experiences and memories and injected into hers. Her death released Taverner from her reality, but the encounter with the authenticity of artisans things – the hand-thrown pot – is what cemented his return. 

Dick’s fascination with ceramic pots echoes our archaeological dependence on these kinds of objects to establish a kind of authentic reality in our work. Endless catalogues, exempla, and typologies structure so much archaeological knowledge as they form a bridge between the encounter of the archaeologist (or the craft of archaeology) and human actions in the past. The unmistakable signs of human intervention in the world of things anchors a reality so firmly that Dick, like so many archaeologists, looks toward these objects as fixed points in his novels around which he arranges the kaleidoscopic realities of modern life.

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