Speaking of metaphysics, pt. 2

by Carl Dyke

As I’ve mentioned we have this ‘QEP’ (Quality Enhancement Plan) on campus that’s about “creating a culture of reading.” This is the thing for which I teach the reading circle on science fiction (I’ll be doing it again in the Fall). And there’s a little table in my building with a constantly-refreshed supply of free books to take and circulate.

These things came together earlier as I was walking by and noticed a copy of Frank Herbert’s The Santaroga Barrier sitting on the table. I have this amazing ability to completely forget reading I do for pleasure, so although I know I’ve read this book and assume it’s in Herbert’s usual vein of exploring what happens to humans under extreme pressure, it’s ‘as if’ I’d never read it. So I picked it up. And noticed, this I think for the first time, that the main character’s name is Gilbert Dasein and a key plot-point concerns the Jaspers Cheese Cooperative.

It will be interesting to see how far beyond arch conceit Herbert takes this.

3 Comments to “Speaking of metaphysics, pt. 2”

  1. Do be sure to tell us when you find out.

  2. It will be interesting to know what you have explored in the book..

  3. Thanks for the reminder! I ended up not finding the book all that interesting. Herbert wants there to be a sense of subliminal menace about this charming but isolated little town. But he keeps asserting it rather than carefully building scenarios in which the foreboding can develop organically. For example: “It wasn’t normal, though, and Dasein’s senses screamed this fact at him. The brittle surface of this room was prepared to shatter once more and Dasein didn’t think he would like what might be revealed.” Or this: “Dasein had the sudden feeling that he was a moth in a glass cage, a frantic thing fluttering against his barriers, lost, confused.” It often reads like stage direction in a bad play. In this respect the writing is lazy, manipulative and tiresome, although there’s some excuse in the fact that the book was first published as a serial.

    Dasein is framed appropriately enough as an existential hero, a reflective self-regulator who does not go with the flow. Most of the time however he just comes off as stubborn and obtuse. More Rand than Camus, perhaps. The Jaspers is actually a really interesting device, a fungus that is mixed with all the locals’ food and creates a sort of group meta-mind. It raises familiar but interesting questions about community, consciousness and free will, and of course in the Cold War context echoes the creeping menaces of communism, corporate capitalism and mass consumer society. In this respect the novel is indeed of a piece with much of Herbert’s work, in which the nature of human excellence is explored through pressurized situations in which people are forced to choose. We are given a character named Piaget to mediate some of these issues.

    When we finally grind up to the climax, Herbert uses Dasein’s self-talk to deliver a disjointed series of philosophical gems like these: “Life exists immersed in a sea of unconsciousness;” “To remove a man’s delusions is to create a vacuum. What rushes into that vacuum?;” and “What’s reality, anyway? It’s as finite as a bit of cheese, as tainted by error as anything else with limits.” Again familiar stuff from late-night undergrad bull sessions; not the worst stuff, really, and maybe just right for an entry-level audience, but the novel demonstrates how easily the metaphysical tropes can wander off into wifty generalities.

    I’ve been reading a lot of scifi lately for this class, and I have to say I’ve gotten pretty jaded by the standard posture of assertive middlebrow philosophizing and narrow masculine power fantasies proudly paraded as deep, serious thought. So I’m probably not the most sympathetic audience for the novel.

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