A Scanner Romantically (calicult)

Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Mist [1818]

You’ll have noticed by now that as a means of illustrating Fred/Bob Arctor’s increasing cognitive deficit Philip K. Dick injects a number of passages of German into A Scanner Darkly. In keeping with the theme of blaue blume, these interpolations all come from a Romantic strain in German culture: Goethe’s Faust, a poem by Heinrich Heine and the libretto of Beethoven’s Fidelio.

What this might tell us is that underneath the chain-store banality and late capitalist detritus of Dick’s dystopian Orange County there is an impulse, fragile and ambitious, to transcend that situation. Romanticism‘s obsession with mysticism and heightened states of consciousness find a somewhat degraded counterpart in the drug-fuelled delirium of Scanner’s characters.  The user of narcotics is, in some sense, a wanderer on a quest for Truth or Knowledge and runs many of the same risks as Goethe’s Faust, whose all-consuming desire to know the world in its totality leads him to make a contract with Mephistopheles. As with every deal with the Devil it is only a matter of time until the seeker, over-reaching, is destroyed.  

Here are translations of the German passages:

pages 175-6 (from Goethe):

“You instruments, of course, can scorn and tease

With rollers, handles, cogs, and wheels:

I found the gate. you were to be the keys;

Although your webs are subtle, you cannot break

the seals.

Page 179:

Why, hollow skull, do you grin like a faun?

Save that your brain, like mine, once in dismay

Searched for light day, but foundered in the heavy


And, craving truth, went wretchedly astray.

Page 181:

I’m like the worm that burrows in the dust,

Who, as he makes of dust his meager meal,

Is crushed and buried by a wanderer’s heel.

Page 183:

Two souls, alas, are dwelling in my breast,

And one is striving to forsake its brother.

Unto the world in grossly loving zest,

With clinging tendrils, one adheres;

The other rises forcibly in quest

Of rarefied ancestral spheres.

Page 185:

Still this old dungeon, still a mole!

Cursed by this moldy walled-in hole

Where heaven’s lovely light must pass,

And lose its luster, through stained glass.

Confined with books, and every tome

Is gnawed by worms, covered in dust,

And on the walls….

Page 215 (from the Fidelio libretto):

How cold it is in this underground vault! 

This is only natural; it is so deep.

Page 261 (from Heine):

I, unfortunate Atlas! A whole world,

A monstrous world of sorrows I must carry.

I bear a weight unbearable; a burden 

That breaks the heart within me

As this is a short lyric poem the rest of it bears repeating:

Oh foolish heart, you have what you desired!

You would be happy, infinitely happy,

Or infinitely wretched, foolish heart.

And now– now you are wretched.

2 thoughts on “A Scanner Romantically (calicult)

  1. Ant Man

    what?! no 4 different blogs over weekend?! musta had a busy weekend eh professor…

  2. Joke Rifle

    My translation:

    You, the instruments, freely scoff mine,
    With wheel and combs, barrel and yoke:
    I stood near the door; you should have been the keys;
    Though your beard is all curls, you still cannot open the bolts.

    Why do you grin at me, so hollow skull, and so?
    Such as your brain, like mine once entangled with confusion:
    Both searched the light of day, long into the twilight severe,
    With lust for truth, lament-fully having erred.

    I look like the worm, tunneling through the dust,
    Like that—the worm it is—in natural dusts lives.
    The wanderers’ steps cross the worm, destroyed and buried.

    Two souls belong, O! in my breast.
    The one wants to sever itself from the other:
    The one halts itself, in the dirty lust for love—
    Halts itself toward the world with clasping organs;
    The other lifts itself in violence from the dust
    To the zones and climes of higher ancestors.

    Woe! Stuck in the dungeon still?
    Cursed to this hole-in-the-wall,
    Where still the dear Heaven’s light murky
    Breaks through stained-glass windows!
    Straightened out by these masses of books,
    Gnaws the worms, coated with dust,
    Like that, until high.

Comments are closed.