Saturday, June 22, 2013

Frank Herbert, The Santaroga Barrier


Opening Passage:

The sun went down as the five-year-old Ford camper-pickup truch ground over the pass and started down the long grade into Santaroga Valley. A crescent-shaped turn-off had been leveled beside the first highway curve. Gilbert Dasein pulled his truck onto the gravel, stopped at a white barrier fence and looked down into the valley whose secrets he had come to expose.

Summary: Let's start with a little Heidegger -- don't worry, we won't need much, or need to get deeply into technicalities. Each of us finds ourselves existing in the world' conscious of the world, living in the world, I am Dasein, being-there. We should be careful not to assume at this point that Dasein is individualistic or atomistic. Indeed, more of Heidegger's account of Dasein makes the most sense if we take Dasein not to be some isolated consciousness but to be at the same time our being in a community. Dasein finds itself in the world. Mostly this consists in finding the things in the world handy, ready to hand, insofar as we use them, or else merely present and at hand, when they are detached from use. When we talk about the world of Dasein, we are talking about the totality of Dasein's involvement with handy things. What these handy things are will depend on a number of things: what's handy for a carpenter is different from what's handy for a teacher.

This involvement with handiness, however, has to be traced back to something, rather than just taken as primitive, and in particular we have to find its roots in the being of Dasein itself -- human nature, as we would often say. Heidegger isolates three key aspects of the being of Dasein, which he calls Befindlichkeit, Verstehen, and Verfallen. Dasein finds itself in the world, we are always already in it, and this is what Heidegger calls Befindlichkeit. One important way in which we find this expressing itself is in mood (Stimmung). Mood is our sense of how we find ourselves in our world. Verstehen or understanding is expressed in interpretation of the world; it is how we confront the possibilities of our world. And Verfallen or fallenness is our everyday-ness; we usually find ourselves in an everyday world, with everyday possibilities. These three together are aspects of one things, which Heidegger calls concern or care: Sorge. Sorge is the being of Dasein.

The Santaroga Barrier is story of Gilbert Dasein trying to uncover the mystery of Santaroga. The Santarogans report no mental illness, advertising has no effect on what goods are bought and sold in the town, all businesses are locally owned, any trade at all with the outside world is very limited. Because of this, major business concerns have approached the Department of Psychology at UC-Berkeley to try to figure out what creates this Santaroga Barrier between Santaroga and the outside world. Two men were already sent to try to figure it out, and the result was just another puzzle. Both men died, which is suspicious, but they seem to have provably died of natural accidents.

Dasein himself has a connection with Santaroga; he has feelings for Jenny Sorge, who had been Santarogan. The full nature of this background relationship is never completely revealed, which I think was the right move to make. We do learn that Jenny was a former student; at some point he had a relationship of some kind with her; and he had proposed to her. She had responded by asking him to come back to Santaroga with her. When he refused, she turned him down. Thus Dasein has personal as well as professional reasons for trying to figure out what the Santaroga Barrier is: it came between him and Jenny.

Coming into town, Dasein finds that people in the town are quite unfriendly. The hotel is actively hostile, only grudgingly giving him a room, and he has reason to believe that the hotel clerk wants to snoop around his papers. Sitting in the hotel restaurant, he meets the waiter, Winston Burdeaux, called Win; Win soon learns Dasein's name and knows who he is. "You're the fellow Jenny's sweet on." Win brings him some of the local beer and roast beef with potatoes Jaspers; he gets in trouble for bringing him Jaspers cheese, which Dasein at the time simply chalks down to the local xenophobia. The food turns out to be excellent -- a strange tang throughout, but very good. Because Win can't get him another mug of local beer, he brings a bottle of commercial beer, and after the local beer, the commercial beer tastes flat and metallic.

The reference to Jaspers (named after existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers) is to the Jaspers Cheese Co-op, which is central to town life. The city limit sign on the way in refers to Santaroga as "The Town that Cheese Built", and Dasein quickly learns that the Santarogans put Jaspers in everything, and that they refuse to sell it. The whole town is concerned with it; they talk about Jaspers at the oddest times.

Going back to his room, Dasein has the first in a long string of accidents that nearly kill him; the gas had been left on in his room. It's obviously quite suspicious, but at the same time, it doesn't make much sense except as an accident. Jenny and her uncle, Dr. Lawrence Piaget, help him to recover. He begins to look around town and discovers that everybody in town knows who he is, and that the town isolationism is more considerable than he had previously thought. There are strange things going on at the Cheese Co-op, things that are at the bottom of the mystery of the Santaroga Barrier. And Dasein's life, as well as his relationship with Jenny Sorge are at stake.

The handling of mood throughout the work is quite well done. Sometimes the Santarogans seem menacing and sinister, sometimes warm and friendly, and the shift can take no more than a bite of Jaspers. At the same time, they are plausibly both. The Santaroga Barrier is an ambiguous utopia/dystopia, and exactly the same things look utopian or dystopian depending on the main character's mood. At the same time, the Santarogans serve as a negative reflection of us. After all, why do the Santarogans seem so xenophobic? It's because they are different, they are Other, and the surrounding American society has difficulty tolerating these people who refuse to watch television unless they have to and who are immune to advertising and commercialism. We tend to recognize xenophobia by contrast, which means that we tend to recognize it by contrast with ourselves. But this means that our interpretation of something as xenophobic may well be xenophobic itself. Because Santaroga has two different interpretations, depending on the mood in which Dasein approaches it, our society is shown also to have two different interpretations, depending on the mood in which Dasein approaches Santaroga. One finds oneself in the Santarogan world or outside it; and everything looks differently depending on which you are thrown into.

Favorite Passage:

His hands trembled as he lifted the cup.

All the time and matter had been reduced tot his moment, this cup, this Jaspers rich steam enveloping him. He drained the cup.

It was a sensation of rays spreading out from a pinhead spot in his stomach. Dasein groped his way to his bunk, wrapped teh sleeping bag around him. He felt supremely detached, a transitory being. His awareness moved within a framework of glowing nets.

There was a terror here. He tried to recoil, but the nets held him. Where is the self that once I was? he though. He tried to hold onto a self that bore some familiarity, one he could identify. The very idea of a self eluded him.... (p. 153)

Recommendation: An underappreciated science fiction classic. Recommended.

Frank Herbert, The Santaroga Barrier, Berkley Medallion (New York: 1968).

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