Summary & Commentary on
Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata
Of Palmer Eldritch
by Brian Davies
Barney Mayerson is a precognetic consultant at P. P. Layouts, a company that produces miniature accessories for a fictitious couple, "Perky Pat" Christiensen and Walt Essex. He is having a bad day. As the climate on Earth has worsened, the U.N. has started drafting people to become colonists, and Barney has received his draft notice. He is using a computerized psychiatrist to help him beat the draft by becoming mentally unstable. Helping this along is the fact that he is sleeping with Roni Fugate, his ambitious, insubordinate and equally precognetic new assistant.
He had divorced his wife Emily in order to advance his career, and now faces an awkward situation. Richard Hnatt, her current husband, is bringing him samples of Emily's pottery, hoping to have them miniaturized and marketed as Perky Pat accessories. Barney turns him down, over Roni's expressed objections.
Leo Bulero, the head of P. P. Layouts, is also having a bad day. Despite massive payoffs, the U.N. has seized one of the company's shipments of Can-D, the illicit drug that allows people to experience their Perky Pat layouts as reality. Not coincidentally, Palmer Eldritch has crash landed on Pluto after a 10 year flight to deep space, and is rumored to have brought back a sample of an alien lichen that is similar to Can-D. Leo calls U.N. Secretary General Hepburn-Gilbert, requesting that he investigate Eldritch, and the Secretary replies that his chief drug enforcer, Ned Lark, is already doing so.
Deducing that the U.N. is siding with Eldritch, Leo uses Roni's precognetic ability to trace him to Veteran's hospital on Ganymede, where he is convalescing under a pseudonym. Roni also foresees that Leo will be arraigned for Eldrich's murder, and threatens to go to the U.N. with that knowledge.
Returning home from his rejection at P. P. Layouts, Richard Hnatt meets and signs a contract with Mr. Icholtz, a consultant from the newly formed competing firm, Chew-Z Manufacturers of Boston. Richard plans to use the money to pay for evolution treatments for he and Emily, which will shield them from the climatic changes and increase their intellect.
Six colonists on Mars, Sam Regan, Tod Morris, Norman Schein and their wives, have an experience with Can-D. The drug allows them to enter the materialistic culture of Earth for short periods of time, although there is some disagreement about whether they are actually on Earth or are just having a hypnogogic or hallucinatory experience. Sam is having an affair with Fran Schein during their Can-D translations, which is interrupted when the other four take the drug, since everyone present occupies the same persona.
Leo Bulero goes to assassinate Eldritch, but is turned away from his hospital room by Frank Santina, the head of the U.N. legal division, and Zoe Eldritch. So he calls Felix Blau, the chief of a private police organization, and requests help getting to Eldritch. Felix informs him that Chew-Z Manufacturing is setting up a rival drug distribution operation and hiring artists to create layouts.
Leo calls Barney Mayerson and asks him to predict the time and place where he will attack Eldritch. Barney demands a raise and promotion in exchange for the information, that Leo should acquire false identification for a press conference on Luna. Then Leo backs out of the deal, leaving Barney and Roni to contemplate leaving for Chew-Z Manufacturing, or to set up an independent organization.
Richard Hnatt and Emily go to Dr. Willy Denkmal's evolution therapy clinic to gain improved anti-weather traits and increased brain function. With his heightened intellect, Richard deduces that the U.N. approved Chew-Z, giving the alien Proxers a foothold for operations in the Sol system in order to ruin Leo Bulero, which seems like a very bad exchange. Emily, on the other hand, appears to have regressed.
Leo Bulero goes to the press conference, where he is captured and drugged with Chew-Z. Palmer Eldritch, speaking through an electronic device, tells him that the Proxers will invade Earth, but not in the usual manner, and that he obtained the Chew-Z lichen without the Proxers' knowledge. Then reality dissolves, and Leo finds himself talking to a girl in a fantastic landscape. Using a computer that the girl claims is not connected to the outside world, Leo sends a message to Barney Mayerson, asking him to call Felix Blau.
Presumably back in the real world, Felix tells Barney that Leo has been spirited away to a satellite owned by a subsidiary of Chew-Z Manufacturing. Barney calls Zoe Eldritch and confronts her with this information, but she says that Leo is on Luna, resting comfortably in their infirmary. Barney is about to go to Luna to rescue Leo when he has premonition of his own death and decides against the journey.
Palmer Eldritch tells Leo that Chew-Z delivers eternal life, since time does not pass in the real world while you are under the influence. In addition, you can control every aspect of your experience. Eldritch used the fact that you can assume other forms in an eternal cycle of reincarnation to appeal to the Buddhists that control the U.N. Despite these differences, they plan to market Chew-Z as a replacement for Can-D. Eldritch lets it slip that everyone goes to their own alternate reality, so the experience is solitary and solipsistic. The fact that Palmer Eldritch is occupying Leo's reality makes Leo suspect that he isn't under Chew-Z at all.
Leo escapes on a staircase back to P.P. Layouts, but it turns out to be just another part of the alternate world. Eldritch soon reappears, and demands the use of P. P. Layouts' ad satellites, transports, and plantations on Venus. Leo responds by killing the manifestation of Eldritch.
Since time is distorted under Chew-Z, Leo has no idea when he will return to reality. He wanders for a while, until he runs into a group of people from the future. They recognize him as the savior of the human race from the Proxers, the aliens who used Eldritch and were behind the global warming, and they show Leo a monument to his achievement. They also tell him that this is not a hallucination or an alternative reality, claiming that Chew-Z can make you a non-corporeal entity at a point in the future.
When Leo finally wakes up back on Luna, presumably done with his Chew-Z experience, Eldritch tells him that the monument exists in 45 percent of the possible futures and that he was merciful in not trying to kill Leo to avert that possibility. If Leo does not accede to his demands, however, he may change his mind.
Leo returns to Earth and promptly fires Barney for not coming to his aid. Barney tries to reunite with his wife, then tries to get a job with Chew-Z Manufacturing. When both of those fail, he briefly contemplates suicide, and then decides to volunteer for the draft. After making that decision, Icholtz calls him with a job offer from Chew-Z Manufacturing, but Barney finds that he can't accept, knowing what Eldritch did to Leo Bulero.
After passing his physical and mental exams and getting his assignment to Fineburg Crescent on Mars, Leo comes to him with a plan. He asks Barney to go to Mars and take Chew-Z, and then file a complaint with the U.N. about the side effects. Barney considers it, knowing full well that Palmer Eldritch may try to kill him if he agrees.
En route to Mars, Barney meets Anne Hawthorne, an attractive Christian missionary. She claims that Can-D has brought many people into established churches, though her goal is to convert the colonists away from Can-D to more traditional Christian practices. She considers the translation experience of Can-D as inferior to the spiritual and eternal transformation of wine and wafers to the blood and body of Christ. He wonders where she found her convictions, since only the colonies would be so desperate for the hope that religion provides. He also compares his emigration to Mars to being born again.
Barney moves in with Sam Regan, Tod Morris and Norman Schein. After the group votes to switch to Chew-Z, he rebuffs their Can-D dealer for them. He declines to participate in the group's last Perky Pat ritual. While the rest of group is in a Can-D stupor, Anne comes to visit. She is distraught, convinced that she will not convert the colonists to religion, but be converted by them to mind-altering drugs and promiscuous sex. She winds up taking Can-D and joining the other colonists, leaving Barney to brood over the collapse of her ideals.
When Anne wakes up, Barney walks with her back to her hovel. She comments that becoming Pat Christiensen was like being born again. He proposes marriage to her, and they make love on the surface of Mars.
On the way home, Allen Faine, a disc jockey from an orbiting broadcast satellite, lands and gives Barney a code book and a test tube of a drug that will simulate epilepsy. Allen tells him to take the drug after sampling Chew-Z, then go to a U.N. doctor for an examination, and then get an attorney. Barney agrees to the plan but rejects his reward, free passage off Mars.
The next day, Barney works on his garden, thinking that the drugs have made everyone else give up on a normal, productive existence. Then a simulacrum of Palmer Eldritch arrives, to sell Chew-Z to the colonists. He appears as a tall, gaunt man with an artificial arm, Jensen eyes and steel teeth. Eldritch asks Barney about his chat with Allen Faine, and hints that their plans to stop him will fail.
Barney takes the drug and finds himself back with Emily, but their relationship is still awful. Eldritch chides him for fixating on his ex-wife, and then Barney is in bed with Roni Fugate. Barney returns to Emily, but this time Richard Hnatt is there. Richard starts to display the arm, teeth and eyes of Eldritch, and then metamorphoses into Eldritch completely. Eldritch tells Barney that it can take many tries to chip away reality.
Anne wakes Barney up, presumably to reality, and he feels a massive craving for another dose. He thinks that the Chew-Z experience is like hell, an illusory world where Eldritch is god, and you are forced to repeat your worst experiences again and again. Anne smiles at him with steel teeth. He tries to execute the plan, but Allen Faine claims to have never spoken to him, the code book is nothing but blank pages, and the test tube of toxin is empty, and mocks him with Eldritch's voice.
Leo Bulero confers with Felix Blau, trying to determine whether or not Barney is executing the plan. He has not made contact and Felix says the Anne Hawthorne, their spy, hasn't reported either. Roni Fugate convinces Leo to go rescue Barney, to prove that he is more honorable than Barney was in the same situation. Leo has an attack of paranoia, thinking that Roni may actually be Eldritch, and that it is possible that he is still under Chew-Z. Leo prepares to go to Mars, but the captain of the ship has a metal arm, and speaks with Eldritch's voice.
Barney swipes another dose from the entity that is either Anne or Palmer. He winds up in Leo's office in the future, where Emily is divorced, Eldritch is dead, he is the head consultant, and Roni has his previous job. Then Eldritch appears and tells Barney that he took an overdose and is now a ghost, stranded in the Chew-Z reality. Barney compares his situation to the afterlife, and considers the possibility that he was manipulated by Palmer in the form of Anne into taking an overdose in order to thwart his plans.
Barney goes and talks to his future self, who tells him that people who take Chew-Z appear as phantasms in the future, that the effects of the drug wear off gradually, and that he was right about Eldritch manipulating him. Barney wants to return to his own time, but no one has discovered how to make that happen. Palmer offers to help him, then tricks him into switching bodies. Barney realizes that the Palmer that Leo will eventually kill is actually himself, and that the Barney Mayerson of the future will be Palmer Eldritch.
Eldritch tells Barney about his desire to occupy and control the lives of every colonist on Mars, and offers him the opportunity to fuse with him. Barney refuses, so Eldritch dumps him on the ship that Leo is about to shoot down. As he is about to die, Leo and Felix Blau wake him back on Mars. He refuses to take the drug that will cause epilepsy, knowing that as long as he doesn't take Chew-Z again, Eldritch's plan will fail. Leo and Felix leave him to spend the rest of his life on Mars.
From their time together, Barney has come to understand Eldritch better. Eldritch had been possessed by something on his long voyage, something ancient, who devised the plan to insinuate himself into the lives of the colonists in order to end its solitary brooding. The other colonists also felt that presence in their altered states. Barney labels it God.
Anne and Barney discuss the nature of the being that possessed Palmer Eldritch. Barney believes that it was God, but not as we know him, and while God may be understanding and want to help, his power to do so is limited. Anne replies that, as the map is not the territory, that creature in Palmer Eldritch is not God. Barney states that the artificial hand, the Jensen eyes and the steel teeth are symbols of inhabitation, similar to the stigmata of Christ, and Anne compares Chew-Z to the apple in the Garden Of Eden. Barney realizes that the fact that the creature tried to substitute a man for its own death, rather than die for mankind, made it at least inferior to the God of Christ, and perhaps even evil.
Alone again in his garden, Barney confronts a telepathic predator that calls him unclean and unfit to eat, because he displays the stigmata. Later, Eldritch stops by, and Barney recounts that event. Eldritch responds that the primitive mind often confuses the unclean with the holy. He say that after three centuries of contemplation, he decided to let Barney go. The whole scheme with Palmer Eldritch and Chew-Z was an attempt by the creature to perpetuate itself.
En route back to Earth, Leo Bulero and Felix Blau start to plan the attack that will eventually result in the death of Palmer Eldritch. Leo sees the stigmata on Felix, and considers the possibility that he is still under the effect of Chew-Z. Felix tries to reassure Leo by telling him that he also sees the stigmata, even though he has never taken the drug. Leo thinks that he will defeat Eldritch because there is something inside him not touched by the alienation, blurred reality, and despair that came with the creature. Humanity has lived for thousands of years under one ancient blight that has spoiled our holiness, and if that plague couldn't obliterate our spirit, how could this creature? Despite these thoughts, he mistakes himself for the creature in a moment of confusion.
Revelations and Hallucinations
Religion And Drugs in Philip K. Dick's "The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch"
There are two substantial challenges that must be addressed in any interpretation of this work. The first is the frequent shifting between objective reality and the often indistinguishable experience achieved through the drug Chew-Z. Two of the focal characters, Leo Bulero and Barney Mayerson, sample Chew-Z over the course of the tale (in chapters 5 and 10, respectively) and the veracity of all subsequent scenes told from their perspective is somewhat suspect. There are instances when the true nature of an event is fairly clear, such as Bulero's first attempt at escape from the Chew-Z reality to his office at P. P. Layouts, which is explicitly revealed to be just another facet of the drug experience. On the other hand, the period between Barney's awakening and his subsequent overdose (chapters 10 and 11) is slightly less clear. During the overdose, Eldritch tells Barney that he was never awake, and was manipulated into overdose, but if he wasn't awake, how did he overdose? And was it really Eldritch, or did Barney hallucinate that explanation for his own benefit? Another example is Bulero's vision of the stigmata on Felix Blau at the end of the book, which is a startling interruption to a period where Leo appears to be experiencing objective reality. Deep within a drug-induced vision, Barney is given the explanation that Chew-Z causes phantasms in the future but, unsatisfying as it may be from a storytelling perspective, there is a consistent interpretation of the book where neither Barney or Leo ever return to sobriety.
It is difficult to extract a coherent statement from the outcome of the story when the outcome itself is not clear, other than to say that Dick holds drugs, religion and confusion as integral parts of the natural human state. Any possible value judgments about the characters' actions and beliefs with respect to drugs and religion are subsumed beneath the systemic ambiguity of the book. This theme of questioning the nature of reality is common to much of Dick's work; in this case, that theme threatens to overwhelm the nuances of plot elements, forcing the reader to derive conclusions from the structure of the story rather than the content.
The second difficulty is that, with respect to religion, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is something of a Rorschach test. Dick provides sympathetic characters at both ends of the spectrum, in the devout Anne Hawthorne and the derisive non-believer Barney Mayerson. As an atheist with libertarian leanings, I was more sympathetic to Barney than to Anne, and had to strain to keep from assigning more relevance to her descent into drug use than to his reevaluation of his atheist beliefs, even though those two events are similar in many ways.
Despite these confounding factors, however, some conclusions can be drawn. It is clear that Dick is claiming that religious experience and drug use are, if not interchangeable, fundamentally similar at some level. In the book, this is true not only to the Buddhists who control the United Nations, who saw Chew-Z as the realization of the karmic circle, but also to the more rational Barney, who starts off considering both of them as merely escape mechanisms, necessary only in the harsh world of the colonies, and winds up a grudging believer in their power. There is a distinct parallel between Anne's fall from grace, using drugs because religion is not sufficient to bring her happiness, and Barney's fall from a different grace, accepting religious beliefs because atheism is not sufficient to bring him a coherent explanation for his Chew-Z experience. In the end, Barney can't even tell the difference between religious phenomena and drug-induced hallucinations, believing that the methods of the Christians may purge Eldritch's stigmata from him (page 225), and that the appearance of the stigmata saved him from the jackal (chapter 13) because they represented the presence of god.
By the end, the book has described a template for mankind's relationship to a superior being. In the final chapter, Leo Bulero plots to kill Eldritch, and winds up unsure about whether he is himself or whether he is now Palmer Eldritch. By dethroning god, man creates a vacuum, and nature abhors a vacuum. This statement can be read to imply that a supreme being must exist even if that role is not filled by a supernatural force, because in the absence of a supernatural force, we will fill that gap with whatever is handy. Although, in light of the rest of the book, the depiction of Leo assuming the role of Palmer Eldritch is overly optimistic; in the future of Philip K. Dick, we have not filled the gap with ourselves in an uplifting humanist manner, we have filled it with commercialized clutter, dolls and totems and psychoactive chemicals. These two possibilities bookmark the extremes of human nature, and in this work, Dick is nestled in his traditional home, near the extreme that is most dark, pessimistic and bleak.