The Power of Objects and Art in “The Man in the High Castle”Books . Materiality
So, I’ve been thinking of reviving this blog for some time, but I’ve been struggle with exactly what to write about here. As some readers may know, my current research relates to Roman and early Christian pilgrimage, and specifically the role of objects and space in the shaping pilgrimage experience. Over the past few years, I’ve also been reading works of fiction in which objects come to exert powerful forces on the characters and narrative. I’ve decided to dedicate at least a few entries to my thoughts on some of these works of fiction, all of which have served to stimulate my thoughts about the power of objects and space in late antique religion.
My first essay is inspired partly Bill Carahers’s blog and his discussion of the role of objects in Philip K. Dick’s novels, as well as by the Amazon series based on “Man in the High Castle.” After watching the Amazon series, I decided to read Dick’s novel of the same name. The Amazon series diverges from the original book in many ways, which is to be expected, but I found one point of divergence to be particularly enlightening as to the role of art and objects in the book vs. the adaptation, the function of the art that Frank Frink produces.
Viewers of the Amazon series will recall the bendy-heart-shaped necklace that Frink produces for Juiana, which she takes to Rocky Mountains and back to San Francisco before it eventually ends up on the desk of Mr. Tagomi, the Japanese Trade Minister. Tagomi seems to recognize something of its merits, declaring that the pendant has great “wu” and meditating on the pendant at his desk. In the series, the production of new American art appears to be outlawed, and only American art of the past can be bought and sold — as happens at Mr. Childan’s store. The implication is that Japanese authorities recognize the power of art as a potentially subversive force and have thus banned the creation of new American art. Frink’s creation, and Juliana’s and Tagomi’s possession of it, is therefore illegal, and perhaps an act of resistance.
The book describes Frink’s creation of a similar object, along with others. Ed McCarthy assists Frink with his creations, and (unlike in the series) Robert Childan agrees to sell their creations at his store on consignment. As in the series, a Japanese man recognizes the great “wu” of Frink’s creations. However, it is not Tagomi who recognizes it here, but Paul Kasoura, an attorney who (along with his wife) is an aficionado of Americana. Kasoura’s and Childan’s relationship is similar in the book and the movie — with Childan trying to ingratiate himself with a powerful Japanese couple by presenting them with American art. In the book, however, Childan takes a risk and gives Kasoura one of Fink’s consignment pieces as a gift, thinking that perhaps the Japanese collector will like it, even though Childan himself doesn’t seem to think much of it. Childan only sees the new American art’s merits when Kasoura perceives it, describing the appearance of new, American, art and marveling at its existence. Kasoura’s pronouncement that new American art exists is met with incredulity (at first) by Childan and by Kasoura’s Japanese colleagues.
The impossibility of American art is a revealing divergence between the book and series. In the series, such art is illegal because Japanese authorities recognize its power. In the book, it is not that American art is illegal, it is simply inconceivable. Dick’s descriptions of Childan’s and Kasoura’s dawning recognition of what they are seeing in Frink’s work are evocative of how one learns to “see” art and recognize the power of objects to shape and transform. Soon after this recognition, Childan begins to believe in a new, authentic American material culture and (it seems) in the idea of America as well.
The appearance and recognition of Frink’s new American art builds along the same time-line as Juliana’s journey towards her apparently anticlimatic meeting with the Man in the High Castle [Hawthorne Abendson], who consults the I Ching to discover that the book (yes, here it is a book, not films) he has written about the Allies winning the war is true — although this would seem not be so, as Germans and Japanese have divided up much of the world. As he and Juliana say regarding the Oracle’s response:
Raising his head, Hawthorne [the man in the high castle] scrutinized her. He had now an almost savage expression. “It means, does it, that my book is true?”
The book ends rather abruptly after the meeting of Juliana and the Man in the High Castle. The reader is left to wonder in what way Germany’s and Japan’s loss is “true.” One possibility is a multi-verse, a idea borne out more fully in the series than the book. However, the role of Frink’s art in the book suggest other possibilities, such as the re-appearance and re-emergence of an authentic America in the midst of occupation. Frink’s art suggests that the story of allied struggle against Japanese imperialism and European Nazism is not over. Rather, America lives and that, is spite of appearances, Germany and Japan may have already lost the war.