The Political Gnosis of The Man in the High Castle

Spoiler alert: if you haven’t watched the series or read the book, this piece contains spoilers.

I have just finished watching Amazon Prime’s ten episode adaptation of Philip K Dick’s classic alternative history novel, The Man in the High Castle. It was beautiful, eerie and moving to watch, but it lost some of the profundity that I remember from the book.

Although the broad theme and narrative arc are the same, the TV series is not a faithful reproduction. There are new characters and new scenarios. It looks fantastic — the vision is beautifully, hauntingly created — but I found the pace too slow. The plot revolves around a central mystery — a mystical secret, even — but this is de-emphasised in favour of a highly stylised thriller about political resistance, with a complex romantic entanglement at the heart.

Juliana Crane and Joe Blake

It’s entirely possible to watch the series and see the primary dynamic as the one between reluctant Resistance heroine Juliana Crane, and Nazi spy but apparent good guy Joe Blake. This misses the deeper mystery: The Man in the High Castle should have had the uncanny atmosphere of Twin Peaks, not the feel of Charlotte Gray or Bridge of Spies.

Trade Minister Tagomi

The ending feels like a disappointing deus ex machina, conceived to hurriedly tie together a complicated plot: Trade Minister Tagomi sits down in Union Square with Juliana’s charm and meditates, and when he opens his eyes Axis America is gone, and he is in the “correct” version of history. This is pretty much the cinemagraphic equivalent of ending a story at the high point of the action by saying “and then he woke up and it was all a dream”.

What are we supposed to infer from this? That the entire story played out in the fevered imagination of an ageing Japanese bureaucrat? That he was able to change history by meditating? What about the deadly missions carried out by the Resistance? Do they have any bearing on this result, or are they just the handsome backdrop to this metaphysical shift?

The Man in the High Castle as Hermetic Literature

The interesting thing about The Man in the High Castle is that it is two stories in one: like any classic of Hermetic literature, there is a surface story and a hidden, inner message. “The masses” can enjoy the apparent story, while perhaps intuiting some deeper insights, while “initiates” will grasp the deeper meaning.

On one level, it’s a classic of the alternative history genre: imagine what it would be like if the Axis powers won World War Two. But on another level, it’s a profoundly more interesting exploration of consensus reality, and finding escape routes from reality tunnels.

The TV series focuses lavishly on the former story, but only hints at the existence of the latter — even though the resolution of the narrative depends on it.

How The Man in the High Castle helped me escape my reality tunnel

I first read The Man in the High Castle when I was 15 years old. I took it out of the science fiction section of Springs public library, near Johannesburg, South Africa. It was 1989, the apartheid regime was in crisis, but there seemed to be no way out. There was an air of an illegitimate regime stumbling towards chaos and doom, which I am sure added to the atmosphere.

I loved the book, but I didn’t get it. The narrative is like a Moebius strip that folds in on itself. It turned my head inside out, and left me stranded. Huh?

Years later, I became interested in consciousness as a construction that defines the world it experiences. When I was living in Cape Town in my early twenties, I took a fair amount of acid and became interested in how it shaped — or dissolved — my perceptions of reality. I would take a trip and head out into Newlands forest or up Table Mountain and watch the world dissolve. I felt my body melt into the earth. I put my arms through tree branches.

The experiences I had on acid were, from the point of view of perception, exactly as real as getting up in the morning to work my shift at the coffee shop — except they were more powerful due to their strangeness. Subsequently, I have woken from dreams convinced that waking life is an illusion, and that the real world lies in the Kingdom of Hypnos.

I became convinced that reality — with its apparently immutable physical laws — was a construct held together by our belief in it. Belief systems about the nature of the universe are very rigidly policed, and mental hospitals are filled with psychic dissidents.

I called this “consensus reality”, and I was never entirely sure whether I believed this was literally true, or just a very powerful metaphor. I understood it politically one day when I was walking back from spending a day — literally — away with the fairies.

M3 traffic at Newlands Forest, Cape Town. Photo by Gugu Ntuli

To get home, I had to cross the busy M3 motorway, which was gridlocked with traffic. I had just come from the Garden of Eden, from a place where everything was connected and in perfect harmony, to the reality of commuting in a modern capitalist economy. Hundreds of people were sitting next to a beautiful mountain in their expensive metal boxes, burning fossil fuels and seething with resentment.

There was a clear divide for me between the way the world was, and the way it could be, and it was clearly composed of consciousness. Why buy into a consumerist mythology that convinces us we need to sit in traffic to chase a salary? The rat race is for rats.

Changing how people see the world is the key to change

It was at around about this time that I read The Man in the High Castle again, and understood it better. The characters in the book are trapped in a version of reality that exists because they believe it does. The alternative shown in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy shows the world how it really is, or how it could be if people believed in it. This is why the book — in the TV series, it becomes reels of film — is ruthlessly suppressed. The role of the Resistance is not to overthrow, through force of arms or some other method, the oppressive regime, but to withdraw psychic consent from it — to stop people believing in it, so that it stops existing.

Oracles and dreams

This is made all the more enticing through the role played by the I Ching, which guides the actions of the trade minister. Dick apparently used the ancient Chinese oracle to plot the book, and it’s the guidance of the I Ching that leads Trade Minister Tagomi to see through the reality tunnel he is trapped in and find another story.

Anyone who has ever spent time with oracles will know that they are confounding: moments of astounding insight appear in a sea of confused complexity. It is thus for Tagomi: although the pronouncements of the oracle seem at odds with the unfolding reality he is caught it, following its guidance faithfully leads him to liberation through the realisation of the non-existence of the fascist world. It is a false construct, held in place through belief, and he has stopped believing.

Our subjective experience of the world is key to our engagement with it. What we believe matters.

Reality tunnels

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are. — Anais Nin

Changing consciousness is key to changing the world. The Man in the High Castle is, of course, metaphorical. I am not suggesting we try to change the world by casting the yarrow stalks and meditating, but our perceptions about reality are key.

Can we dream ourselves to a better world? I have underlying suspicions about the permanence of what I perceive as reality, and I am not always convinced that this world is “real”. However, it seems to persist, and be remarkably consistent from one day to another, so I need to engage with it. The point is that we are all in a reality tunnel of some kind, and it is almost impossible to have any kind of objective view on it.

All reality tunnels seem internally consistent: confirmation bias means we ignore contradictions and focus on what reinforces our worldview.

In the same way, an Idea about Reality can become, to all intents and purposes, the reality experienced by most people. Consciousness is crucial to political change. Marx argues that ideas take on material force when they they grip the minds of people: for instance, when people believed that God created the order of the universe, with Kings as his ambassador, hierarchy was natural, and resistance was blasphemy.

But philosophy — deep, intuitive thought — penetrated that reality tunnel and revealed another version of history: class society, where everyone who works for a living has more in common with each other than with their rulers, who have made up the stories about the Gods to sanctify their control.

This lead, during the peasant revolts in Europe, to the Reformation, which was an attempt to seize control of the spiritual world from the ruling class, and later to secularism and the growth of working class movements. We would have no ideas of socialism, of trade unions, of the possibility of creating a fairer world, if we hadn’t shifted our beliefs, if the great mass of people hadn’t chosen to believe a different story about ourselves.

A Marxist theory of history is another reality tunnel — it is not objective truth, but a set of ideas formed to counter the status quo. It is a reality tunnel that functions at a deeper level than the apparent world, and takes us closer to truth and liberation. It is the negation of the current version of the world, based on hierarchy and exploitation. The goal is always to negate the negation, to always move beyond into both a deeper understanding, and more profound engagement with the world.

Building a new world by telling a different story

What this comes down to is that truth is illusive, but what people believe about the world is crucial. While people believe that the status quo, however unpleasant and unfair, is inevitable, their focus will be on looking after themselves and those closest to them, and making the most of a bad situation.

If people come to the belief that this is a transient historical moment — which it is, because all empires fall, and the world changes — they have an interest in investing their energy in a different future.

The Man in the High Castle, crafter of the version of events spelled out in the book and newsreel footage The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, was involved in crucial political work: presenting an alternative vision of reality.

Just as Tagomi is able to enter a better world by perceiving it, just as there was a vision of reality where the Allies won the war, we can’t build a better future until we can begin to perceive it and tell its story.