Science Fiction Studies

#81 = Volume 27, Part 2 = July 2000

Kenneth Krabbenhoft

Uses of Madness in Cervantes and Philip K. Dick

A mild-mannered, middle-aged bachelor lives a quiet life in a small midwestern town. One day he goes up to the attic. He opens a trunk and pulls out an old pistol and his grandfather’s World War I uniform. He puts on the uniform, throws the gun in his aging Volvo, and sets off in search of a former girlfriend who may be trapped in an alternate reality controlled by a sinister Intelligence. This creature is using its power to corrupt reality, changing it now and then in order to confuse those who, like our hero, know what is going on and want to stop it.

Needless to say, strange things happen when he interacts with people who don’t see things the same way. Word of his peculiar quest gets around and eventually a journalist publishes the story of his quest. When he finally sees a copy of this book, he discovers that his biographer has invented characters and events and ridiculed his goal of rescuing his old girlfriend, as if she didn’t really exist. He starts running into people who have read the book and recognize him from descriptions. Some of the more mischievous readers intentionally alter their lives to make it seem that the sinister Intelligence is meddling with reality in exactly the way he imagines, and he consequently becomes increasingly enmeshed in these fake corruptions of reality. Meanwhile, invented characters from the unauthorized biography begin showing up in his real reality. He notices inconsistencies between the fake corruptions of reality and the real ones—inconsistencies he imagines to be the work of the sinister Intelligence. Growing more and more disoriented, he finally returns to his home town. Broken in spirit, he takes ill and dies. On his deathbed he renounces his belief in the sinister Intelligence, but he never acknowledges that his old girlfriend was a figment of his imagination.

Substitute Castile for the Midwest, a lance and coat of armor for the pistol and uniform, a sway-backed nag for the Volvo, Dulcinea for the girlfriend, and the enchanter Frestón for the sinister Intelligence, and instead of a possible Philip K. Dick plot we have Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605-1615). We even have a historical model for the unauthorized biography, in Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda’s El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (The Ingenious Squire Don Quixote de la Mancha), the spurious sequel to the first part of Don Quixote that appeared in print a year before Cervantes’s own second part of 1615. Why the similarity? Why is it so easy to "reconstruct" Cervantes’s most influential novel from what could plausibly have been a Philip K. Dick plot? The search for an answer leads to a comparative study of novelistic technique that cuts across the boundaries of time and place to show how Dick, the modern master of alternate-reality sf, belongs to a literary tradition founded by the master of Spanish baroque fiction—a tradition devoted to probing the relationship between the imagination and reality, madness and sanity, the telling of stories and their reception.

Don Quixote was the first important work of prose fiction to view reality as a kind of fiction, and fiction as a kind of reality: Don Quixote converts the world to his own point of view through the sheer force of his madness, and with such success that a majority of the other supposedly "sane" characters in the novel end up acting as "crazy" as the Knight of La Mancha, as if they were characters in a script written by the deluded Knight.1 The first modern studies of Cervantes’s narrative technique in the context of early-modern literary theory explained this innovation as a rejection of Aristotelian mimesis, or at the very least of a narrow definition of tò pithanón (the plausible).2 More recently, Cervantes’s teasing manipulation of such mimetic devices as the captatio benevolentiae, his invention of multiple—often unreliable—narrators, his subversion of the convention of the story’s basis in historical fact, and his introduction of a mise-en-abîme in the Second Part of the novel, have been read as an anticipation of literary postmodernism.3

Whatever we choose to call them, these techniques, which were exploited in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by such writers as Lawrence Sterne and Machado de Assis, became the hallmark of the novelistic avant-garde in the wake of World War II, when the updating of Cervantean narrative maneuvers and fresh interest in the literary use of insanity helped experimental novelists break with the norms of modernism. In the eighteenth century, like Cervantes (and Fielding), Sterne pointed the way by playing games with his readers, making them accomplices in sustaining the wildly improbable stories of his quixotic narrator Tristram Shandy and his eccentric Uncle Toby. In his 1900 novel, Dom Casmurro (Mr. Taciturn), the Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis gives the Othello story an updated Cervantean twist by having the obsessively suspicious husband tell the story of his wife’s supposed infidelity. Through him, Machado constantly reminds us that what we are reading cannot be taken at face value—and in fact Dom Casmurro’s narrative is so warped by his paranoia that we cannot in good conscience come to any conclusion about his wife’s guilt or innocence. Vladimir Nabokov follows suit in Lolita (1955), a novel full of oblique references to Don Quixote and conceived when its author was researching the course on Cervantes’s novel that he gave at Harvard in the spring of 1952. Nabokov’s critics often fail to consider the possibility that the entire novel takes place in Humbert Humbert’s mind, but even if we accept his version of events as true, we are faced with the realization that we are getting a skewed interpretation at best, the word of an avowed erotomaniac who portrays himself as a cheat, a liar, and even a murderer.4 Similar claims for the Cervantean source of unreliable narrators and mad protagonists can be made for the French nouveau roman, as in Samuel Beckett’s trilogy Molloy, Malone meurt (Malone Dies) and L’Innommable (The Unnameable) (1951-53) or Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Le Voyeur (The Voyeur, 1955) and L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961). The same can be said for key works of the Spanish American boom, such as José Donoso’s El obsceno pájaro de la noche (The Obscene Bird of Night, 1970). In this light, Philip K. Dick’s fondness for delusional heroes and for stories in which fabrication and reality become indistinguishable creates a place for sf in the Cervantean tradition and allies it with the novelistic avant-garde of the postwar period.

This essay approaches Dick’s achievement by taking Don Quixote as a model—consciously emulated or not—for the creation of characters and themes in Time Out of Joint (1959). It examines related themes in such later works as Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964), The Penultimate Truth (1964), Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), and A Scanner Darkly (1977), and ends by comparing these to novels by Ursula K. Le Guin and Orson Scott Card, the better to underscore Dick’s originality.

Insanity as Authorship.

"He gave us the idea for all this." Time Out of Joint (§14:240)

Don Quixote and Ragle Gumm have one important thing in common: they are both the authors of their own insanity. Whatever the material causes of Don Quixote’s madness, its form and content come from the chivalric novels that Cervantes’s hero cannot stop reading: his obsession is so all-encompassing that it leads him to sell off his land bit by bit, when only his land stands between him and penury. Similarly, in Time Out of Joint, we learn that Ragle Gumm, who discovers that the life he has been leading for two and a half years is a delusion, is himself the author of this alternate reality—a mental place to which he has regressed in a psychotic flight from reality. The profoundly modern twist to the situations of both heroes is their recursive, totalizing quality which traps Don Quixote and Ragle Gumm in a vicious circle that makes them both perpetrators and victims of their own wild invention: before the crucial "break" that impels them to question and ultimately unmask the truth, Don Quixote and Ragle’s total surrender to the fake realities that they themselves have fashioned is in effect the only thing that keeps them alive—an oblique justification of the original act that they set in motion.

The particulars of Don Quixote’s career are stated eloquently in the visual icon that has made him the most universally recognizable character in all literature: his sinewy, drawn-out frame, deep-set eyes, and haggard, intense expression. The anonymous narrators of the prologue and the opening chapters of the first part of Don Quixote describe him as "a lean, shriveled, whimsical child," a middle-aged man "of tough constitution, lean-bodied, thin-faced" (§1.0:25, 31). As has often been pointed out, this fits the language of the reigning psychological theory of Cervantes’s time, which attributes personality types to the influence of the four bodily humors: the blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. According to this view, a predominantly choleric temperament is created by an excess of yellow bile in the blood, aggravated by heat and dryness.5 Characteristics of the choleric type are a vivid imagination, arrogance, generosity, wit, a dark complexion, and tough, sinewy flesh—an exact profile of the Knight of La Mancha (Johnson 40).

To be choleric by early-modern standards does not necessarily mean to be insane. What pushes Don Quixote over the brink into delusions, violence, and eventual disillusionment is a sudden "drying of the brain" provoked by the obsessive reading of novels of chivalry that end up providing him with a blueprint for "acting out" his paranoia and erotomania.6 He becomes fixated on a single imaginary woman, Dulcinea del Toboso: he believes that she has been enchanted by evil sorcerers and that it is his duty to do battle with anyone who would prevent her from being released. In her name, he is prone to attack his perceived enemies without warning and with no regard for the consequences to his victims or to himself—as for example when, early in the novel (Part I, Chapter 8), he assaults a group of Benedictine monks he has mistaken for a "monstrous and diabolical crew" engaged in kidnapping a noblewoman; in fact they are part of her entourage. The narrator notes that one of the monks, "if he had not slid from his mule, ... would have been thrown to the ground and badly hurt, if not killed outright" (§1.8:72). In the next chapter, Don Quixote beats another character until blood flows from his mouth, nose, and ears; in Chapter 14, he attacks a group of mourners dressed in white (Don Quixote thinks they are ghosts) and leaves one of them with a broken leg; and so on. In general, Don Quixote’s delusions transform the everyday reality of early seventeenth-century Castile into the implausible world of Amadis of Gaul, Palmerin of England, and the other heroes of the chivalric novels that had been in vogue in the time of his grandfather. Seen through the deforming lens of the character’s madness, a tawdry roadside inn becomes a castle and two prostitutes lounging around the entrance become noble damsels; windmills become giants; herds of sheep become warring armies; a wine-skin becomes a monster; and so forth.

Where is the similarity to Ragle Gumm? Like Don Quixote, at the beginning of Time Out of Joint Ragle lives in an invented reality: where Don Quixote’s insanity leads him to emulate a profession that had all but disappeared in Europe generations prior to his birth, Ragle, too, takes refuge in the past—in his case, the year 1959 (the year in which Dick wrote the novel), nearly forty years prior to the time in which the action takes place. Much has happened between 1959 and 1997, including the outbreak of a war between a conservative earth-side faction that is opposed to interplanetary travel and rebel forces on the Moon who want to be free to colonize other worlds. In 1996, Ragle is a wealthy industrialist who considers it his patriotic duty to aid the Earth faction. Because he has a unique talent for predicting where the rebels will launch their missile attacks, he saves countless lives in the conflict. For this he is named Time magazine Man of the Year for 1996. The dilemma that drives him into madness is his realization that Earth’s isolationism is backward and repressive, and this knowledge is in direct conflict with his commitment to save lives by predicting the missile strikes.

His psychosis takes the form of regression to the reality of his childhood. He believes he is residing in his home town, with the difference that now he makes a living by winning a weekly prize from the local newspaper, in which he guesses correctly the future whereabouts of a cartoon character called the Little Green Man, which it turns out is really the location of the next rebel missile strike. Ragle’s obsession with the game is really an obsession with saving people’s lives, and it is the equivalent of Don Quixote’s obsession with disenchanting Dulcinea, which is really the Spanish hero’s way of battling injustice and evil. In the same way that other characters in Cervantes’s novel encourage Don Quixote to persist in his fantasy, Ragle is aided in maintaining his delusion by the government of the Earth faction, which has created for him a facsimile of his childhood town, a kind of Potemkin village of props and façades and volunteers who let themselves be brainwashed into believing that the town is real and the newspaper contest is just a contest.

What connects this scenario to Don Quixote is the fact that all of it, down to the last detail, is an actualization or projection in the real world of Ragle’s insanity. As one of the men responsible for running the fake town explains,

[Ragle] gave us the idea for all this. He got himself into a dilemma, and the only way he could solve it was to go into a withdrawal psychosis ... a fantasy of tranquillity.... Back to the period before the war. To his childhood. To the late ’fifties, when he was an infant (§14:240).

In a nice Dickian touch, when Ragle begins to suspect that the town is not what it seems, he berates himself for giving in to what he thinks is paranoia:

I’m retarded—psychotic.... Insane. Infantile and lunatic. What am I doing, sitting here? Daydreams, at best. Fantasies about rocket ships shooting by overhead, armies and conspiracies. Paranoia.

A paranoiac psychosis. Imagining that I’m the center of a vast effort of millions of men and women, involving billions of dollars and infinite work ... a universe revolving around me. An outward radiation of importance ... to the stars. Ragle Gumm the object of the whole cosmic process, from the inception to final entropy. All matter and spirit, in order to wheel about me. (§7:119)

In this self-portrait there is a great deal of truth: he is in fact psychotic, and he is in fact the center of a vast effort. But the above passage is also, ironically, the daydream of Ragle’s sanity—the working of a mind that is simultaneously sound and deranged. Dick drives home the complexity of this interplay of sanity and madness by playing with the meaning of the word ‘lunatic.’ In the literal sense of someone living a delusion, it describes Ragle Gumm, "stuck" in the 1959 reality. It is at the same time the term for a member of the Moon faction. Ragle is a lunatic in both senses: in the first sense insofar as he believes in the fake 1959 reality he is living, and in the second sense because, in the "real" 1996 of the novel, he has gone over to the rebels. Consequently, the saner he becomes—that is, the more he acknowledges the 1996 reality that he really lives in—the more he is at one and the same time less lunatic (sense 1) and more lunatic (sense 2).

When Don Quixote crosses the line between reality and madness, he, too, is responding to a dilemma: how to reconcile his humdrum existence in a Castilian backwater with the grand adventures and high ideals of chivalric fiction—the Spanish equivalent of the Knights of the Round Table. The equivalent of Ragle Gumm’s "withdrawal psychosis" is Don Quixote’s self-willed transformation into a living anachronism by projecting his identity back in historical time to a period before the death of chivalry—not Ragle’s Bradburyesque childhood idyll, to be sure, but an equally rich imaginary world full of meaningful action and fulfillment. If he were no more than a raving madman, however, his adventures would have little more than clinical appeal. What makes Don Quixote far more familiar to the reader is the fact that, like Ragle Gumm, his madness alternates with spells of complete lucidity. "Cuerdo" (sane), he possesses great wisdom, as can be seen in his speeches on arms and letters, or on the Golden Age, or in his dealings with Sancho and other characters. Sane, he is also free of the violent impulses that characterize his delusional episodes. The word often used to describe him is "loco-cuerdo": "crazy-sane." In the same way that Ragle Gumm becomes simultaneously more and less of a lunatic, Don Quixote eventually seems saner than many of the other ostensibly sane characters—or at least more noble—the more he pursues his manifestly crazy chivalric ideals.

Madness is "catching"

As Ragle Gumm knows very well, his talent for predicting rebel missile strikes is an important part of Earth’s defense against the Moon. Don Quixote’s madness also has a "use," and it is when this use is discovered that Cervantes’s novel takes the turn that anticipates much of the fiction that has been written since Don Quixote.

The beginning is in Part II, Chapter 2, when Sancho reports to his master that the story of their adventures has been written down by a Moorish historian named Cide Hamete Benengeli and that they are now famous literary characters. We soon learn that there are more than twelve thousand copies of the book in print, with more editions about to appear in Spain and abroad; in other words, Don Quixote’s story is being put to use as entertainment. From this point on, his madness doesn’t belong to him any more: it has become the shared property of his readers (including not a small number of readers who are also characters in Part Two of the printed story). There is a precedent for this is the first part of the novel, because from the very start, Don Quixote’s madness draws other people into its ambit, beginning with Sancho and culminating early on in the priest and barber’s plot to lure their mad friend home. The priest disguises himself as a damsel and strikes off in the company of the barber to trick Don Quixote into swearing allegiance to a different woman (i.e. the fake damsel), who will then order him to return to the village. The plot fails, but the idea of creating a reality to conform to the madman’s delusion lives on when another character—Dorotea—disguises herself as a beleaguered princess named Micomicona who appeals to Don Quixote for help. There is a crucial difference between the characters’ actions in Parts I and II: the expropriations of madness in the first part are designed to cure Don Quixote, while in the second part they have exactly the opposite purpose— namely, to further or enhance his madness. In Part I, Dorotea/Micomicona plays along with Don Quixote’s delusion, pretending to buy into it in order to draw him eventually into her reality (that is, the contemporary, non-chivalric day-to-day); but the unnamed Duke and Duchess of the second part—the novel’s most assiduous reader/imitators—feign belief in the knight-errant’s fictitious world in order to push him more deeply into it, as a kind of experiment—we might even say a kind of literary vivisection that cures the observers of boredom at the price of the subject’s life.

Cervantes’s innovation was to realize that, with the publication of the first part of the book, these bored but resourceful readers possessed a script for the fake reality in which they ensnare the unsuspecting madman—unsuspecting and innocent, insofar as Don Quixote doesn’t know he is mad. The Duke and Duchess, on the contrary, know that they aren’t mad, and so we must impute to them a willful cruelty in their mockery and abuse of the poor Knight. The story of their trickery begins with a chance encounter between Don Quixote and the nobles, who are out on a hawking party, and takes up nearly half of the second part of the novel. When they have realized who the madman is, the narrator reports that "the Duke rode ahead and gave his servants orders as to their behavior towards Don Quixote" (§2.31:666). We later learn that the published account of Don Quixote’s adventures—i.e., Part I of Don Quixote—"was the Duke’s ordinary reading," and that this has gotten him into trouble with his priest, who tells him it is "folly to read such follies" (§2.31:673). In other words, the Duke shares more than a little of Don Quixote’s obsession with books, so much so that the Duchess’s words to Sancho might easily apply to her husband: "Since Don Quixote de la Mancha is a crazy fool and a madman, and Sancho Panza, his squire, knows it, yet, for all that, serves and follows him, ... there can be no doubt that he is more of a madman and a fool than his master" (§2.33:687).

At the Duke’s estate, the hero and his squire are met with great ceremony, and attention is lavished on them by the servants, who are in on the joke. The Duke and Duchess’s only originality is in their use of Don Quixote’s madness to ridicule him, and to this end they spare neither time nor expense. First they have the servants soap Don Quixote’s beard (the Duke is also "soaped," to lend an air of legitimacy to this fake ritual, but when it is Sancho’s turn, the fragrant soap is replaced with dish water).Then the guests are introduced to an elaborate scenario: although they assume that it is real, it is in fact a carefully crafted theatrical display featuring servants disguised as the Devil, the wizard Merlin, and other characters from chivalric fiction. The punch-line of this elaborate joke is Merlin’s announcement that Dulcinea can only be disenchanted if Sancho receives 3,300 lashes "on his two most ample buttocks" (§2.35: 701). The culmination of the episode is even more ambitious: Don Quixote and Sancho’s ride on "the famous horse Clavileño," a wooden contraption that is supposed to take them on a flying journey to unknown lands. As the narrator remarks, "so well had the Duke, the Duchess, and their steward planned the adventure that no detail was lacking to make it perfect" (§2.41: 731)— including a brisk wind generated by bellows and the heat of the sun generated by pieces of burning tow. The ride ends when the Duke’s people set off the firecrackers that Clavileño is stuffed with, sending Don Quixote and Sancho really flying.

Behind the Duke’s charade is Cervantes’s parody of classical epistemology: presented with clear and unequivocal sense-data (the winds and the scorching heat), Don Quixote arrives at what must be the empirically correct conclusion. Sancho knows better, because he has "cheated"—peeked out from under his blindfold—although in the end he bows to his master’s conviction that the journey was real. But when it comes to a more seductive test—when Sancho is made Governor of the non-existent territory of Barataria as a reward for his loyalty and steadfastness—he resembles his master on the wooden horse: he never cottons to the fact that it is all a fake. At the village that masquerades as Barataria, Sancho is the butt of the same joke as Don Quixote at the Duke’s. Of course the Duke and Duchess intend not to reward but to get laughs out of witnessing the humiliation and ridicule of a stupid peasant—whence their astonishment when he turns out to be a wise and just ruler, truly Solomonic in his perspicacity and fairness. The Duke and Duchess succeed, however, in starving, beating, and terrifying Sancho to the point that he resigns from his governorship and "escapes" to reality, anticipating his master’s eventual disillusionment.

Sancho’s resignation from the governorship is especially ironic in light of the fact that he was converted to his master’s madness from the moment of their first encounter, at least to the extent that he believed he would be rewarded for joining Don Quixote’s quest. He is an apt pupil: like Ragle Gumm’s neighbor Bill Black, Sancho shows that he is quite capable of using Don Quixote’s madness against him, in "sane" calculation—as when he tries to fool his master into believing that three village girls are Dulcinea and her ladies in waiting (Part II, Chapter 10).The joke, of course, is that this is one of the episodes in which Don Quixote does not accept the other character’s manipulation, showing himself rather to be quite sane. The antecedent in the first part of the novel is the encounter with the fulling hammers (chapter 20): far from letting himself be carried away by his emotions, as Sancho does (to the point of losing control over his bowels), Don Quixote draws on the Stoic virtues of prudence and fearlessness, aided by a judicial dose of skepticism, and waits until morning light, at which point he and Sancho discover that they are not facing hostile enchanters and violence but simple machines. In this episode Cervantes sets up an ironic juxtaposition with what comes later at the house of the Duke and Duchess—those clever manipulators who have the means to create a skepticism-proof simulacrum of Don Quixote’s madness, one that he cannot help but accept as true.

It is the same as with Ragle’s "handlers": they are manipulating the delusions of their victim for their own ends, to which he is no more than the indispensable means. Earth wants to protect itself from military defeat by the Moon, the Duke and Duchess want to save themselves from death by boredom—different goals, identical means. In order to safeguard itself, the Earth government has to do everything it can to keep Ragle working on his predictions, a task that becomes synonymous with hiding from him the true nature of the weekly newspaper contest and the fact that he is living in a fabricated reality. The equivalent of the Duke and Duchess’s total mobilization of their resources is the Earth government’s creation of an ersatz town populated by people who are not what they seem.

The town is "a reconstruction of several old towns which got blown away in the early days of the war [between the Earth and the Moon]," in one character’s description (§13:229). It was built by Seabees, who named it the Old Town. We learn that some of the buildings are complete in every detail, for example the houses that Ragle and his neighbors live in and the stores where they shop. But everything else is a sham, false-fronts and scaffolding that only seem to be the real thing to minds that have been specially conditioned. We are told that the town is populated by sixteen hundred people:

Sixteen hundred people, standing in the center of a stage. Surrounded by props, by furniture to sit in, kitchens to cook in, cars to drive, food to fix. And then, behind the props, the flat, painted scenery. Painted houses set farther back. Painted people. Painted streets. Sounds from speakers, set in the wall (§14:238).

The novel is vague on the "training" that compels the citizens to accept the simulation for the reality: they are said to have had training "on a nonrational level," a "systematic brainwashing" of the kind used on enemy prisoners in Earth’s concentration camps (§14:240, 252)—or, for the purposes of our comparison, like the readers who surrender to Don Quixote’s chivalric fantasy, transforming their lives entirely in the interest of perpetuating its author’s mad projection.7

The breakdown of the frontier between madness and sanity is underscored by the fact that, unlike Don Quixote, the other characters in Cervantes’s novel are not mad, and that unlike Ragle, the sixteen hundred inhabitants of his faked boyhood town are not psychotic. The disruption in the lives of Dick’s volunteer-victims is nevertheless fully comparable to Ragle’s, and their identities are completely intertwined with Ragle’s delusion. He feels a strong attraction to June Black, for example, the wife of his neighbor Bill. But June is not really Bill’s wife: she is a means to enforce Ragle’s attachment to his fantasy, chosen for her sex-appeal. In 1997 reality, Margo, Ragle’s "sister," is in fact Bill Black’s wife; in the fake reality, Margo is married to Ragle’s neighbor Vic Nielsen. Sammy, the boy whose crystal radio set picks up military transmissions that spur Ragle’s "recovery," is Vic’s son in real life, but since he has had to take on Margo Black, his real wife is left on the outside, along with Margo and Bill’s two daughters. So deep is these characters’ immersion in Ragle’s delusion that Margo has forgotten the existence of her daughters, and even Bill—an Army colonel who has not been conditioned to accept the fake reality as real—cannot remember if Vic’s real wife’s name is Betty or Barbara (§14:242). We can draw parallels with Cervantes’s characters: June resembles the seductive Altisidora, a member of the Duke’s retinue who comes on to Don Quixote the better to anchor him to that fake reality, and Bill Black plays a Merlin-like role, with "sister" Margo reminiscent of the Duchess’s lady-in-waiting Doña Rodríguez.

Dick drives home the depth of his characters’ involvement in Ragle’s madness by showing how the majority of them are as ignorant of the incongruities in their reality as Ragle, despite the fact that they are voluntary participants. They share familiarity with brand names and soap operas, H-bombs and the Cold War: they all know who Sid Caesar is, and that Ike is in the White House. At the same time, only Bill Black can answer Ragle’s questions about Marilyn Monroe and Jim Beam bourbon. Similarly, none of them remarks on the presence of Tucker automobiles on the streets of the town: in reality these cars were hardly ever seen, since they were never mass-produced. Ragle smells a rat when he finds Chevrolet, Plymouth, and De Soto dealers in the old phone book, but nothing for Tuckers. In any contrived reality, there are glitches.

Desengaño: Disillusionment

Somehow, in some manner, Ragle found himself poking through reality.  -- Time Out of Joint (§6:108)

It is one thing to be tricked into accepting illusion for reality, but it is quite another thing to be pinched, scratched, and publicly ridiculed by that illusion. In the second part of Don Quixote, Cervantes indicates that even a delusional madman like the Knight of La Mancha has his limits. When the theatrical manipulation of his insanity veers into grand guignol, and the illusions go from the visual and auditory to the painfully physical, he begins to internalize his humiliation and despair and doubt his ability to disenchant Dulcinea. This is a variation on the Spanish baroque motif of desengaño, the process by which the truth is revealed by the removal of layers of deception. Cervantes gives this a new twist by wedding desengaño to the psychology of defeat, making Don Quixote’s separation from his illusions tantamount to questioning his worth as knight errant.

He is provoked into taking the first steps down the road that leads him to abandon his quest by an intensification of the Duke and Duchess’s game playing. Simply put, there is a qualitative difference between fooling Don Quixote into believing that he is flying through the air on a wooden horse and letting howling cats and pinching women loose in his room. The episode with the cats begins when Don Quixote is serenading Altisidora from the window of his room, while from the room above the Duke’s, servants lower a sack full of cats with bells tied to their tails on a cord to which more than a hundred sheep bells have been attached. Not only is the din terrifying, some of the cats get loose in Don Quixote’s room. When he has gone after them with his sword, "all of them rushed to the window and jumped out, except one which, finding itself hard pressed by Don Quixote’s sword-thrusts, jumped at his face and dug its claws and teeth into his nose" (§2.46:763). He has scarcely recovered from his wounds when he is caught in a jealous conflict between Doña Rodríguez and Altisidora. The details don’t matter: what is important is that at one point Altisidora and a friend hide behind the door of Don Quixote’s bedroom when Doña Rodríguez is there, and jump out to slap and pinch them (§2.50:789-90). Such things do not have a place in the chivalric novels after which Don Quixote has modeled his delusional world. Is it any wonder that, when he arrives at the outskirts of his village in the next to last chapter of the novel, Don Quixote takes two chance events as signs that he will never see Dulcinea disenchanted?8

I see a close similarity between Don Quixote’s desengaño and Ragle’s gradual awakening to the truth of his situation. One of the most chilling moments in Time Out of Joint occurs when Ragle hands a coin to the counter man at a soft-drink stand and it falls into nothingness:

[Ragle] saw the soft-drink stand go out of existence, along with the counter man, the cash register, the big dispenser of orange drink, the taps for Coke and root beer, the ice-chests of bottles, the hot dog broiler, the jars of mustard, the shelves of cones, the row of heavy round metal lids which were the different ice creams. In its place was a slip of paper... On it was printing, block letters.


Ragle later comes into possession of more slips of paper: "soft-drink stand, door, factory building, highway, drinking fountain, bowl of flowers" (§4:60). This leads him to believe that a great deal of the physical reality around him, if not all of it, is nothing but props, and that the reality they are supposed to represent is somehow supplied by him. In another shocking moment, Ragle is riding on a bus, when suddenly:

The sides of the bus became transparent. He saw out into the street, the sidewalk and stores. Thin support struts, the skeleton of the bus. Metal girders, an empty hollow box. No other seats. Only a strip, a length of planking, on which upright featureless shapes like scarecrows had been propped. They were not alive.... He was the only person on the bus, outside of the driver (§6:110).

There are other hints that reality is not what it seems: we have already mentioned the phone book from the real 1959 that alarms Ragle, the Tucker automobiles, and Sammy’s crystal radio.

Taken together, these incongruities drive a wedge into Ragle’s regressive psychosis. His doubts about his own sanity eventually compel him to escape the town. The first attempt fails: he is deceived by a cabdriver, waits to buy a bus ticket on a line that never moves, and is eventually apprehended, drugged, and taken home by force. In the midst of this escape attempt, however, the people most responsible for Ragle’s disillusionment enter the plot: the two agents that the lunar faction has "planted" in the town, Mrs. Keitelbein and her son. They live in a house near the fake town and make forays to plant old phone-books and magazines from the real 1959 (like Cervantes, Dick often signals the switch from reality to madness or fiction by a change of names: Alonso Quijana becomes Don Quixote de la Mancha, Mrs. Keitelbein becomes Mrs. Kesselman when Ragle stumbles across the farmhouse-hideout; she later "reverts" to her original name). The encounter in the Lunatic agents’ house during his first escape attempt is a turning point in Ragle’s reconnection with 1997 reality. Even though she is not yet in a position to reveal the entire truth—presumably for fear that too much sudden reality would drive Ragle further into psychosis—Mrs. Keitelbein prompts his memory by "seeding" her house with connections to the present. She makes sure that Ragle hears his name, sees himself on television, notices the date on a newspaper (May 10, 1997), finds the latest issue of Time magazine (April 7, 1997) (§9:162-3), and sees his picture on the cover of the Time Man of the Year issue for 1996.9 Later, after Ragle has been captured and returned to the town, Mrs. Keitelbein contrives a civil defense block meeting in order to show him a model of one of the ore-processing plants that he has built in "real" reality (§11:181).

As Ragle reads the materials that the Lunatics provide him after his second, successful escape, he recovers his memory: "Names, faces, experiences drifted up to him and resumed their existences" (§14:231). He recaps the history of the conflict between the lunar settlers and the Earth government, the outbreak of civil war, and his own role in predicting the pattern of Lunar rocket attacks—a talent that Ragle had originally used in predicting fashions in women’s hats and that had made him a fortune that he later invested in manufacturing synthetic aluminum. Most importantly, he remembers what changed his allegiance in the war: his first interplanetary voyage, to Venus—a vacation from the stress of his pre-psychosis work plotting missile strikes. On this space voyage, he realizes that the Lunatics’ cause is freedom—the same impulse that has kept the human race moving, migrating and evolving throughout history. All the rest, he thinks—the economic competition, the power struggles—simply masks the underlying issue (§14:244-5). The conflict between his change of mind and his need to continue protecting Earth from Lunatic missiles drives him into the safe haven of delusion.

The process of recovering from a cherished illusion can be difficult, not to say traumatic. Don Quixote’s death conforms to the conventions of chivalric and epic romance that Cervantes consistently parodies, but it is also the bitter consequence of his desengaño, his personal disillusionment with a "gentler" alternate reality: the frequent violence of his acting out of the chivalry fantasy notwithstanding, the world his madness creates is a friendlier place for him than his little Castilian town. Ragle fares better insofar as he is still alive at the novel’s end: he has not only survived the transition out of his protective childhood reversion-world, but stands poised, it seems, to resume the role of leadership that his crisis of conscience forced him to abandon—a deferment of responsibility that will surely bring its own share of difficulties. We can easily imagine those moments of Ragle’s hypothetical future when he thinks back nostalgically to Old Town and the days when his only task was to solve the newspaper puzzle and figure out what to do with June Black.

From Don Quixote to Drugs

A look at the madness and reality-as-fiction themes in Dick’s later novels reveals a two-phase evolution. In the first, represented roughly by novels written prior to 1970, there is a movement away from the Cervantean complexities of Time Out of Joint to a more purely clinical treatment of madness; in the second, madness is seen increasingly as a symptom of drug abuse. As a consequence, Dick’s characters are portrayed less as authors of their own persuasive madness than as victims of more purely material forces.

Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964) is an example of the first phase, in which madness is viewed as an alternative mental state that exists alongside sanity. Dick presents us with a stalemate between the two, and little or no tension is generated by the possibility of characters passing from one state to the other. Granted, many of the characters in the novel are clinically insane inhabitants of a world reserved especially for them. But unlike Cervantes’s novel or Time Out of Joint, there is little or no ambiguity about who is sane and who isn’t. The fact that the Deps, Manses, Skitzes, Heebs, Pares, and Polys have worked out a modus vivendi on the Alphane moon is of course a hilarious parody of the real world (as is the fact that the novel’s sanest character is a Ganymedan slime mold named Lord Running Clam)—and it explains why the arrival of various nominally normal characters does not seriously disrupt either group’s perceptions of the world. Even at their worst, however, the non-Alphane human characters are neurotic, not psychotic, and they have no difficulty differentiating between one mental state and the other. In another novel published in the same year, The Penultimate Truth, the plot turns on the interplay of illusion and reality insofar as one part of humanity that lives quite well on the surface of the earth has tricked another part, which lives miserably underground, into thinking that a devastating war still rages on the surface. But there is no ambiguity in the end about what is what, and madness doesn’t enter in at all.

The second phase of Dick’s changing treatment of the topic can be seen in novels from the 1970s in which madness and the distortion of reality are progressively conflated with drug addiction. Take, for example, the story of Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974), which is set in 1988. Jason Taverner, rich and famous singer and television personality, wakes up one day stripped of his identity: from being a media star of world-wide fame, he has become an unknown, undocumented denizen of a shadowy counterculture—an "unperson." As he stumbles along in search of answers, he discovers inconsistencies, such as the appearance of two recordings he made in a past that virtually no one seems to remember. The plot moves through various twists and turns, made interesting by the fact that Taverner isn’t alone in his puzzlement (the police, for instance, can’t believe that there is no record of his file having been erased). In the end, these distortions of reality turn out to be the side-effects of an experimental drug that bends time not only for the user but for those involved in the user’s delusions. As a police coroner reports:

Anyone affected by it is forced to perceive irreal universes, whether they want to or not.... To the subject an actualized environment envelops him, one which is alien to the former one that he always experienced, and he operates as if he had entered a new world" (§27:210).

Taverner has been sucked into a drug addict’s time-distorting world, a world in which he doesn’t exist. He himself is nevertheless sane, and the perpetrator of the confusion—who is the sister of a police general—is not insane but neurotic, mired in chemical addiction, not psychosis.10

Dick’s 1977 tour-de-force, A Scanner Darkly, tells the story of a drug-addicted drug enforcement agent with two personalities: he is simultaneously Bob, an undercover narc, and Fred, a cop who does not work undercover but who wears a scramble suit—a device that makes it impossible for anyone to recognize his features or his voice. Because of the drugs that Fred/Bob takes, each of his personalities ignores the existence of the other, with the result that when Bob is assigned the undercover surveillance of Fred, he sees no contradiction. Fred/Bob ends up in rehab, but the rehab workers are really drug agents who use the rehab inmates to harvest more drugs. Their goal is ultimately to destroy the rehabs, which would mean that the last recognizable effort to mediate between the worlds of the addicted and the non-addicted would be wiped out.11 The main character’s dual personality makes for much confusion, as does the drug agents’ subversion of the rehabs, but, as in Flow My Tears, the misperceptions are symptoms of drug use. To the extent that this view leaves open the possibility of the existence of an independent reality that is not threatened by the projections of quixotic obsessions, in this novel Dick moves even further from the Cervantean tradition represented by Time Out of Joint.

When we ask: "Why? What happened?" we run up against the story of Dick’s psychological problems and drug dependency—a topic that goes beyond the scope of this essay. For our purposes it is enough to see the possible (or probable) connection between the author’s experiences and those of his characters, which may go some distance toward explaining the evolution of his treatment of madness in his fiction.12

Counter-examples: The Lathe of Heaven and Ender’s Game

In order better to focus on what is specifically Cervantean about Time Out of Joint, let us examine two novels by other sf masters in which madness and the conflation of reality and imagination figure prominently.

The first is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (1971), a classic novel about the instability of reality in which neurotic greed and the lust for power might be confused with insanity. A significant difference between this story and either Don Quixote or Time Out of Joint is that the well-intentioned but selfish scientist—Dr. Haber—requires a machine to augment and manipulate the dreams of his victim George Orr—dreams that, even unenhanced, have the power to change reality (for Haber, read Faust or Victor Frankenstein). Note that we are talking about dreams, not regressive fantasies or obsessions: in Le Guin’s novel, dreams constitute an inexplicable power of nature, an apparently universal energy or force whose effects make Orr doubt whether he knows what is real or not. Nonetheless, dreams are qualitatively different from quixotic or Dickian regressions and delusions. In the novel’s violent climax, what threatens the fabric of the world is Haber’s spiritual bankruptcy, his inability to reach out to others: "The emptiness of Haber’s being, the effective nightmare, radiating outward from the dreaming brain" (§10:167). Without this safeguard, he falls victim to the impulses of the unconscious mind, which (as Orr reminds us) "are incoherent, selfish, irrational—immoral" (§2:18). He is like Dr. Morbius of the film Forbidden Planet (1956), whose id is inhabited by monsters that pose no threat to others unless they are fueled by Krell machines.

As in Forbidden Planet, the psychology of The Lathe of Heaven is Freudian, not Cervantean. In Don Quixote and Time Out of Joint, the questioning goes deeper, and the ambiguities are never resolved: Dick follows Cervantes in leaving open the "postmodern" question of whether it makes any sense to talk about an objective reality. Le Guin does play with illusion versus reality, principally in the form of the mise-en-abîme that keeps revealing ever-shifting "base" realities to Orr, the only person aside from Dr. Haber who has any idea of which realities have been changed. Orr asks the doctor if he has ever wondered whether others also alter reality through dreaming, if "reality’s being changed out from under us, replaced, renewed, all the time.... Only the dreamer knows it, and those who know his dream" (§5:71.) Later, after multiple reality shifts, Orr concludes:

This isn’t real. This world isn’t even probable. It was the truth. It was what happened. We are all dead, and we spoiled the world before we died. There is nothing left. Nothing but dreams. (§7:105)

By the end of the novel, Orr has learned how to control his power, ending the danger to reality.

The plot of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel Ender’s Game hangs on a two-part manipulation of the main character’s perception of reality. The first is the military’s training of children to be future commanders in the war against the aliens (buggers), when in fact the final "games" they play in their program are actual battles: what Ender and the others believe to be computer simulations are direct control over the human battle fleet, communicated to it by faster-than-light means. The second deceit is interwoven with Ender’s progress toward the culminating xenocide. It tells the story of how the buggers enter Ender’s computer, through telepathy or telekinesis, and alter the course of a certain game in order to send him a message about how he will save the race he will have annihilated, by finding and safeguarding a single fertilized egg. At the end of the novel Ender discovers, first, that he has destroyed an entire race when he believed he was still rehearsing battle plans and, second, that he has not quite destroyed them. The reality is that he has rescued mankind from what it thought (erroneously, it turns out) to be a threat to its survival, and that he has also been given the chance to redeem himself from his near-murder of an entire alien race.

What is different between this game of appearances vs. reality and its equivalent in Don Quixote and Time Out of Joint is that Ender is never insane, nor are the people (or the aliens) who manipulate his understanding of reality. It’s a simple matter of deception—perceptual and psychological—motivated by politics rather than metaphysics. There is no ambiguity or crossing over from one reality to the other, except to the extent that the buggers have foreknowledge of their destruction—a function of their mysterious means of "hive" communication, which human beings can never fathom. The moral dilemma stems from the radical unknowability of the other, not from a deep confusion about what is real and what is imagined. Empirical error can’t be confused with fantasy.

Conclusion. There are limits to any comparison between Cervantes and Philip K Dick. For one thing, the sheer length of Cervantes’s parody of chivalric fiction enables him to create parallel plots and explore the comic possibilities of the "madness is catching" theme in a way that the brevity of Time Out of Joint precludes. Humor in Dick’s novel pops up primarily in Ragle’s initial encounters with the youth of the novel’s "real" reality of 1997. Dick comes uncannily close to our reality in his description of their dress and speech—I’m thinking of the self-styled anarchists that live on the streets of New York City only a few blocks from where I am writing.

We should also bear in mind that the intellectual and literary contexts that shaped these uses of madness are almost entirely dissimilar. Cervantes’s laughter reflects the response of Counter-Reformation Spain to the neo-Skeptics of his time: he answers their attack on the criteria of knowledge with the view that life is knowable, even if it is no more plausible than madness, or dreaming. Spain seems to answer that, even if life is a dream or a delusion, we can trust in divine providence and go about our business in a spirit of humility and resignation. Segismundo, the hero of Life is a Dream (ca. 1635), Calderón de la Barca’s classic statement of this theme, sums up this view when he says: "Whether [life] is the truth or a dream, what matters is to do good works" ("Mas sea verdad o sueño,/obrar bien es lo que importa," 158).

The viewpoint of Time Out of Joint and much of Dick’s other fiction, on the other hand, reflects the political climate of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, McCarthyism, and a burgeoning drug culture. Influenced by a psychological makeup not dissimilar in some respects to Don Quixote’s, Dick creates realities that are often controlled by hidden powers and heroes who are pawns in the hands of invisible conspiracies and whose reactions to the truth, when they eventually discover it, are often self-destructive. But whatever the differences in context, Dick’s novelistic treatment of the theme of madness is a point on the line of influence that extends from the early seventeenth-century birth of the novel in its modern form to the troubled questioning of the postwar twentieth century.

Postscript: Although the screenplay of Peter Weir’s movie The Truman Show, which premiered in June 1998, gives no credit to Philip K. Dick, the similarities with Time Out of Joint strike me as far from coincidental.


1. The topic falls within the general framework of what Carl P. Malmgren has called the epistemological and ontological theme in sf. Cervantes has been linked to sf and fantasy before, but not specifically to Philip K. Dick. See, for example, Slusser who discusses Cervantes’s novella "El coloquio de los perros," in which two dogs enter into a conversation fully aware that what they are doing is impossible.

2. See especially Riley.

3. I use "postmodern" in the literary-formalist sense explored by such critics as John Barth, Ihab Hassan, Robert Alter, Carlos Fuentes and Lucien Dallenbach. Although it makes sense to speak of Don Quixote in these terms, Cervantes’s other, relatively more traditional novels are best understood as points on a line of experimentation that lead to the Quixote.

4. For more on the topic, see Krabbenhoft (1996). Nabokov’s meticulously prepared notes for the Harvard course were published as Lectures on DON QUIXOTE.

5. The semi-arid landscape of La Mancha, and the heat of a Spanish July, are thus the environmental factors that combine with the humoral imbalance to produce Don Quixote’s madness. Given the Spanish role in founding the first European hospitals for the insane (as early as 1409), it is not surprising that Cervantes was so intrigued by the nature and consequences of madness. It is also possible that he read Juan Huarte de San Juan’s popular 1575 treatise on the humors, Examen de ingenios para las ciencias (An Examination of Men’s Wits). For an overview of the subject, see Carroll B. Johnson’s book, especially Chapter 1: "Psychiatry and Don Quixote."

6. The often-quoted passage from Huarte is in the fourth chapter, where he remarks that the clever man who suffers from a mental condition that provokes a sudden change in the temperature of the brain "can instantly forget everything he knows and utter endless nonsense" ("en un momento acontesce perder, si es prudente, cuanto sabe, y dice mil disparates"). Melancholy, delusion and madness are among the mental conditions he specifies. If, on the contrary, the man is a fool—like Sancho Panza, perhaps?—he will acquire more wit and ingenuity than he had before ("si es nescio, adquiere más ingenio y habilidad que antes tenía," 304-305).

7. Ian Watson noted this effect in a 1975 article. Comparing Dick’s "warping of reality" to the interplay of dreaming and waking in Ursula Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven, Watson remarks on how this warping "involves the reader himself ultimately in a dissolution of the sense of reality" (72), an effect that Cervantes was the first to manipulate consciously in fiction.

8. The first "sign" is the words Don Quixote overhears one boy saying to another: "Don’t worry, Periquillo, you won’t see it in all the days of your life." The second is a hare that, fleeing from hunters, hides underneath Sancho’s donkey. Sancho picks it up and hands it to Don Quixote, who cries: "Malum signum! Malum signum! A hare flies; the hounds pursue her; Dulcinea will not appear!" (§2.73: 930).

9. Is Dick thinking of Cervantes when he has Mrs. Keitelbein remark to Ragle that he has regained his sanity by reading the newspapers and magazines that tell his story? She says:

You see, they didn’t do anything to you, to your mind. You slipped back yourself. You’ve slipped back now, just reading about it (§14:248).

It is the perfect inversion of Don Quixote’s path to madness.

10. In Ubik (1969) ) one of Dick’s most imaginative novels—there comes a point where the semi-defunct characters living their strange half-lives realize that they survive only by doing harm to the fully living. This shift in their perception of reality resembles similar moments of recognition in other Dick novels, but the context has little to do with Cervantean madness.

11. See also Patricia Warrick’s discussion of madness in Martian Time Slip (1964), Eye in the Sky (1957), and We Can Build You (serialized 1969, book 1972), and Dick’s 1967 plot proposal, "Joe Protagoras is alive and living on earth," in which a dictator falsifies reality "by planting fake fakes which are meant to be exposed only halfway, i.e., as fakes, thereby making the fakes look real.... The problem is that someone else is manipulating his fake fakes to her own advantage, without his knowing it, and he becomes confused about what is real." The dilemma is resolved when the hero discovers the team that is planting the fake fakes in his world. See Sutin, 138 and 141.

12. See for instance Wagner. Dick claimed to have had mental problems at ages 19, 24, and 33, and dated his first experience of psychosis to March 1974 (see Warrick and Stathis).


Calderón de la Barca, Pedro. La vida es sueño. Madrid: Cátedra, 1987.

Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. The Adventures of Don Quixote (1950), trans. J.M. Cohen. London: Penguin, 1954.

Dick, Philip K. Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964). New York: Carroll & Graf, 1988.

─────. Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974). New York: Vintage, 1993.

─────. The Penultimate Truth (1964). New York: Carroll & Graf, 1989.

─────. A Scanner Darkly (1977). New York: Vintage, 1991.

───── . Time Out of Joint (1959). New York: Carroll & Graf, 1987.

Huarte de San Juan, Juan. Examen de ingenios para las ciencias (1575). Madrid: Cátedra, 1989.

Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game (1985). New York: Tor, 1994.

Johnson, Carroll B. Madness and Lust: A Psychoanalytical Approach to DON QUIXOTE. Berkeley: U California P, 1983.

Krabbenhoft, Kenneth. "Don Quixote and Lolita." Atlantis 18:10 (1996): 213-227.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Lathe of Heaven (1971). New York: Avon, 1973.

Malmgren, Carl D. Worlds Apart: Narratology of Science Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on D ON QUIXOTE . New York: Harcourt, 1983.

Riley, E.C. Cervantes’ Theory of the Novel. Oxford: Clarendon, 1962.

Slusser, George E. "The ‘And’ in Fantasy and Science Fiction." In Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin, ed. Intersections of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987. 133-70.

Stathis, Lou. "Afterword," Philip K. Dick, Time Out of Joint (1964). New York: Carroll & Graf, 1987. 256-263.

Sutin, Lawrence, ed. The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick. New York: Pantheon, 1995.

Wagner, Jeff. "In the World He Was Writing About: The Life of Philip K. Dick." Foundation 34 (1985): 69-96.

Warrick, Patricia. Mind in Motion: The Fiction of Philip K. Dick. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.

Watson, Ian. "Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven and the Role of Dick: The False Reality as Mediator." SFS 2.1 (March 1975): 67-75.


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