Fear of the East: Othering in Man in the High Castle and Death of Grass

Fear of the East: Othering in Man in the High Castle and Death of Grass

Fear of the East: Othering in John Christopher’s The Death of Grass and Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle

The fear of the East manifests as a fear of the Taoist Japanese in Dick’s novel, and a fear of the spreading Chung-Li virus that originates in the East in Christopher’s novel. The fear of the East is inextricably related to the Western ideology of Capitalism and an ignorance of the Eastern philosophy of Taoism. Furthermore, the very fact that the famine-causing virus of Christopher’s novel is given a Chinese name, Chung-Li (Christopher, 13), highlights a fear of the East. Outlined by Patricia Warrick, the ideology of Taoism is polyvalent, but derives from Chinese philosophy regarding the all-controlling principle of the universe. Reality is considered a web of time and chance, in a constant state of flux, akin to the chaos theory of Western physics. All events are the interplay of two forces: ‘yin’ and ‘yang’; action contrary to nature is considered ‘wei’, whilst action in harmony is considered ‘wei wu’. The latter can be achieved through non-action and spontaneity (176-179).

The East is portrayed as the ‘Other’, Edward Said’s term for the emphasis of certain cultures and races as inferior and marginalised. In his seminal work, Orientalism, Said portrays the Western view of the ‘Orient’ as “irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, “different”; thus the European is rational, virtuous, mature, “normal” (40). The West attempts to disassociate and distance itself with the East, creating a dichotomy between the values of the different cultures; Kerslake expands on Said’s concept, describing the ‘Other’ as “marginalised by definition: they cannot be us” (9). By establishing the West as the standard or pinnacle for civilisation, this restricts the view of human nature, discouraging a polyvalent and tolerant view of cultural differences. Identifying anything that is not Western as ‘Other’ encourages a homogenous ideal.

‘Othering’ is exemplified in The Death of Grass by the character of Roger Buckley. Early in the narrative, Buckley describes the riots in Hong Kong through a comparison with the Australian rabbit-plagues, describing “[w]ire-netting fences ten feet high, and rabbits – hundreds, thousands of rabbits – piled up against them, leap-frogging over each other until in the end they either scaled the fences or the fences went down under their weight” (Christopher, 12). By dehumanising the Chinese, Buckley implicitly elevates the British, alluding to the binary between human and animal that is transgressed by post-humanism. Buckley marginalises the Chinese beyond civilisation by refusing them a place within humanity itself, reducing them to the status of animals. Buckley creates a conglomerate mass, emotionally distancing himself and encouraging the other characters to do the same, by refusing to distinguish individuals. Christopher keeps the reader distant from the East by centring the narrative in England with exclusively British characters, prohibiting reader empathy through Buckley’s overt refusal to empathise with the Chinese. The imagery of the contained frenzy of the rabbits “piled up” and “leap-frogging over each other” evokes Darwin’s theory of natural selection, emphasising competition for scarce resources and the necessity of adaptation for survival. All the characters in The Death of Grass alter throughout the narrative, and arguably morally deteriorate. Therefore, Buckley’s ‘Othering’ of the East is ironic, as his insistence on British superiority is undermined through the individuals’ own actions.

Said highlights the association of the ‘Oriental’ with the “delinquents, the insane, women, [and] the poor” of the West, possessing a “lamentably alien” common identity and seen as “problems to be solved or confined or (…) taken over” (207). The concept of ‘Othering’ associates the outcasts of Western Capitalist society with the Taoist East, highlighting the estranged nature of anyone who falls outside these value systems. This is a misguided form of self-preservation, perceiving threats to ‘racial purity’ from multiculturalism. The use of the word “alien” to describe these marginalised parties is akin to the Science Fiction concept of the alien, and Kerslake suggests the “exchange of term ‘East’ for ‘extra-terrestrial’” (15); this works as form of cognitive estrangement, allowing the reader to interrogate post-colonial theory outside the framework of imperialism.

‘Othering’ is linked to the troubling concepts of eugenics and genocide through the association with the Nazi regime. Whilst Christopher’s novel takes place following World War II, Dick’s novel presents an alternate history if the Axis powers had succeeded. Therefore, it is necessary for the reader to acknowledge the colonialist legacy of the West in the twentieth century, as Kerslake does, noting how “the peoples of India, Africa and the South Americas had been ‘discovered’ and assimilated into a Western Weltanshauung years before an incessant Capitalism demanded the full-scale deconstruction and mutations of non-Western cultures” (11). Kerslake’s makes an overt reference to German epistemology, and direct allusion to the European invasion of Africa throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, colloquially referred to as a ‘scramble’; these events can be directly linked to the narrative of Dick’s novel.

In The Man in the High Castle, Robert Childan expresses his mingled horror and awe with regards to the Third Reich, remarking how “it had taken two hundred years to dispose of the American aborigines, and Germany had almost done it in Africa in fifteen years” (Dick, 30). The use of the term “dispose” links to Said’s concept of ‘Othering’ as perceiving subordination and inferiority, objectifying non-white races and reinforcing the idea of them as unwanted and bizarrely not indigenous to these territories.  Furthermore, the German genocide of Africa is the considered more efficient than the European destruction of the American aborigines; Childan’s racism is two-fold, as he exploits stereotypes of German efficiency and logic and, as an American, he is also mocking his own European ancestors. Childan’s attitudes are a contradictory mix of self-loathing and hatred of the ‘Other’, as he is an American artisan whose livelihood depends on commodifying American cultural artefacts for Japanese consumption. As a product of colonialism, Childan’s national identity is a source of patriotism but also cultural dissonance. Furthermore, Childan’s mockery of German rationale is deeply ironic in light of Said’s Orientalism, as Europe’s status as rational is an elevating quality. The implication is that genocide has been brought about by the collective Germany mentality of unfeeling progress, and the comparison of the timeframes of the obliteration of the aborigines and the destruction of the African people is a perverse advancement of European superiority.

The fear of the East is not only expressed through ‘Othering’, but also through the legacy of colonialism. The expansionist vision of ‘discovery’ was in fact a policy of exploitation, both of the resources and culture of the ‘new world’. Differing cultures were assimilated or suppressed, resources appropriated and countries re-mapped. The undiscovered was enigmatic, and therefore by creating geographical borders and disregarding indigenous place names, the colonisers advocated the denial or subjugation of native culture. After the discovery of new cultures, there was a prevalent attitude of the necessity to ennoble and civilise the ‘savage’ or ‘primitive’ races by imparting Western Capitalist values. However, there persists the underlying sense of ‘Otherness’; the idea that despite the West’s best efforts, the non-white races will remain inherently different, and therefore inferior.

Robert Childan expresses his fear of the East by referring to the Kasouras as “not exactly human”, insisting that “[t]hey don the dress but they’re like monkeys dolled up in the circus. They’re clever and they can learn, but that is all.” (Dick, 114 – 115, author’s emphasis). Dick overtly dehumanises and ‘Others’ the Japanese, referring to them as “monkeys dolled up at the circus”. Childan portrays the Japanese as performing Western values, denoting the superficial “dress” and alluding to the Western voyeur of the exotic spectacle of the East; reference to the circus evokes the grotesque and carnivalesque. The Japanese culture is not allowed to exist in and of itself but can only be tolerated as a form of entertainment for the Western consumer.  Carter notes the merging of Eastern and Western cultures through Dick’s Japanese characters “speak[ing] English, fetishiz[ing] American cultural objects and hav[ing] Christian names” (333); they therefore reflect values instilled in them by the previous colonialism of the West over the East. The Kasouras are as much a symbol of the legacy of colonialism as Childan’s own internalised racism. Childan’s insistence that the Japanese are “clever and they can learn, but that is all” implies the flow of knowledge from the superior West to the inferior East, praising the Japanese power of imitation, limiting their potential beyond mimicry into original thought.

Childan refers to the Japanese “pilfer[ing] customs right and left” and is adamant that “only the white races [are] endowed with creativity” (Dick, 112). This statement creates an arbitrary dichotomy between the “white races” of the West and the ‘non-whites’ of the East. The “endowed with creativity” contains connotations of lineage and virility, alluding to the threat to racial ‘purity’, and aligns innovation and originality with the white West. Childan’s racism is deeply ironic considering his livelihood is based on accommodating the Japanese penchant for American culture. Furthermore, Childan’s internalised prejudice is expressed in Japanese idioms; despite his inferiority complex and hatred of the Japanese, Childan has nonetheless subconsciously adopted Japanese customs. Childan uses an internal monologue to express his contempt for the Kasouras, remarking that their “powers of imitation are immense (…) you could paste together out of tin and rice paper a completely artificial America” (Dick, 113). The use of “tin and rice paper” highlights the merging and borrowing of cultural identifiers, alluding to the consumer culture of America with disposable packaged foods. Furthermore the image juxtaposes the industrial strength of tin with the fragile organic matter of rice paper. The construction of a “completely artificial America” works both to highlight the replication of the Japanese, as well as the inherent inauthenticity of American culture as a product of colonialism.

Childan’s condemnation of the Kasouras’ American cultural identifiers is later subverted by a conversation with Paul Kasoura regarding Edfrank jewellery. Earlier in the narrative, Frank Frink and Ed McCarthy express a disgust at mass-produced “goddam tourist trash pieces, all alike. Supposedly native art” (Dick, 50). The deliberate use of the term “native” evokes the legacy of imperialism, alluding to the debasement of aborigine cultural objects to be mass-produced for travellers, eventually not even being made by aborigines themselves. The insistence on “trash pieces, all alike” refers to the basic quality of the items as inextricably linked to their impersonal and standardised creation, and evokes the Marxist theory of worker alienation as a result of the division of labour. Frink and McCarthy’s fear of becoming consumerist trinket peddlers rests on the conversation between Robert Childan and Paul Kasoura, which takes place later in the narrative. After being perplexed by the object, Paul suggests their profitability as “[g]ood-luck charms. To be worn. By relatively poor people. A line of amulets to be peddled all over Latin America and the Orient. Most of the masses still believe in magic (…) It’s a big business, I am told” (Dick, 174). Kasoura’s reaction is purposely indifferent and neutral, as he places the power over this American enterprise in Childan’s hands.

This passage demonstrates the complex and shifting relationship between the coloniser and the colonised, as the power dynamic alters between the two men. Kasoura’s allusion to the belief in magic amongst the masses underpins the ‘Othering’ of the East as regressive and irrational, dichotomising science and folklore. Kasoura’s deliberate use of the word “Orient” acknowledges the patrimony of imperialism and Western ‘Othering’ of the East. As a member of the elite Japanese in America, Kasoura re-appropriates the word in a detrimental manner, distancing himself from the “poor people” in “Latin America and the Orient”. By establishing a clear boundary between the affluent Japanese in America and the poverty-stricken Japanese still living in Japan, Paul’s justification of artisan Americans profiting off the working class Japanese is a perverse act of ‘Othering’; he fears the East from which he has originated.

Warrick highlights Childan’s refusal to “bastardize authentic art, turn it into trinkets” as “[t]he wu, the authenticity, will be lost” (184). Warrick’s use of the term “bastardize” relates to Childan’s misguided view of racial and cultural purity, alluding to America as a child of European imperialism and evoking the language of patrimony. Childan believes he ultimately chooses to reclaim American culture over exploiting a profit; however Edfrank jewellery is redeemed solely by possessing “wu”, a Taoist value. Childan’s heroic advocacy of American originality is in fact partially borne of his desire to assimilate with Eastern values. Through Childan’s complex value system, Dick uses cognitive estrangement to allow the Western reader to question the fear of the East.

By creating a dissection between two factions, both authors employ the in-group out-group bias, establishing an opposition and desire for distance and defamilarisation.  Early in the narrative in The Death of Grass, Roger Buckley underscores this division: “[t]hey told us that we were different from the Asiatics, and by God they were right. The belt tightens notch by notch, and no one complains” (Christopher, 43). The unknown “[t]hey” authorise and reinforce this concept of British superiority through an emphasis on “difference”. Buckley refers to “the Asiatics”, highlighting his intolerance and ignorance, as he invents an amalgamation of several cultures and races. This works to remove cultural identifiers for these various nations, reducing them to a group of outsiders, anything other than British. The imagery of “the belt tighten[ing] notch by notch” alludes to the rationing of World War II and stereotypical British stoicism in the face of hardship. The image of the tightening belt can be likened to the image of a noose, slowly suffocating the individual over time. The restriction of food parallels a restriction of freedom; the physical reduction of the person is related to the destruction of selfhood, with the individual prioritising the needs of the community through their participating in systematic rationing. This image of a tightening belt is parallel to Christopher’s earlier portrayal of the Hong Kong riots as akin to the Australian rabbit-plagues; whilst the caged rabbits highlight the frenzy of confinement and the desperate need for survival, the tightening belt is an overtly civilised image. The individual himself is responsible and active in their own restriction, rather than passive and restrained. The image of a slowly starving person uses food as the definitive resource and symbol of affluence, and relates to the West’s complex relationship with the excess and purging of consumerist goods.

Dick’s novel takes place in an Axis-controlled America, where the East has already conquered the West; in Christopher’s novel the commonwealth countries are places of relief and refuge for European political leaders and royal families (Christopher, 117).  Christopher uses images of territory and conquest in relation to the spread of the Chung-Li virus.  It is described as “a Rome. If the counter-virus had been even a France or a Spain it would have been all right. But it was only a Sweden” (Christopher, 46). By using the explicit imagery of empire, Christopher emphasises the significance of geographical borders and historical victory. The comparison of the Chung-Li virus to Rome refers to the Roman Empire, which engulfed most of Europe. The counter-virus is aligned with Sweden, whose neutrality was notable during World War II. By assigning nationalities to the virus and anti-virus, Christopher intrinsically links the natural disaster to cultural and national identities, transforming the rightfully feared virus to an emblem of the East as a whole.

The description of the increasing riots as simultaneous with the spread of the virus emphasises the concept of ‘Othering’ and underscores the legacy of colonialism. Christopher describes how

[f]irst India, then Burma and Indo-China relapsed into famine and barbarism. Japan and the eastern states of the Soviet wave went shortly afterwards, and Pakistan erupted into a desperate wave of Western conquers which, composed though it was of starving and unarmed vagabonds, reached into Turkey before it was halted. (Christopher, 30)

The use of the word “barbarism” harks back to the colonialist view of the native peoples as ‘savage’ and ‘primitive’, and the term “relapse” implies the recurrence of a past issue or habit, as though these races were made ‘civilised’ and then reverted to their original inferior form. The description of an “erupt[ion] into a desperate wave of Western conquers” is “halted”, and Christopher employs language of the militia to describe the disasters in the East in an indifferent tone. The overt fear of the Eastern invasion of the West is portrayed in the word “halted”; the desperation of these “starving and unarmed vagabonds” is ignored in favour of self-preservation and re-enforcing borders. The term “vagabond” itself is multi-layered, as it refers to both a nomadic vagrant, but also contains negative connotations of poverty and degradation.

Both authors portray a Western fear of the East through a fear of the unknown and intolerance to cultural differences. The reader experiences cognitive estrangement through Christopher’s dystopia with a post-colonial sub-text, and Dick’s alternate history which subverts historical fact and the reader’s familiar world view. Through the coding of ‘Othering’ and acknowledging the legacy of colonialism, both The Death of Grass and The Man in the High Castle portray a fear of the East; the former through a fear of the Chung-Li virus and the latter through the spread of Taoism in Capitalist America. The power of ‘Othering’ lies in differentiating oneself from another, creating an in-group out-group bias and establishing an arbitrary dichotomy. By exploring Christopher and Dick’s work, this essay exemplifies the futility of ‘Othering’ and fearing this ‘Other’ by examining cultural overlaps and highlighting the complex relationship between the coloniser and the colonised.


Works Cited

Carter, Cassie. “The Metacolonization of Dick’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’: Mimicry, Parasitism, and Americanism in the PSA.” Science Fiction Studies 22.3 (1995): 333- 42. JSTOR. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.

Christopher, John. The Death of Grass. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009. Print.

Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2001. Print.

Fritzsche, Sonja. “Reconceptualizing East German Popular Literature via the Science Fiction Niche.” The German Quarterly 77.4 (2004): 443-61. JSTOR. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.

Kerslake, Patricia. Science Fiction and Empire. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2007. Print.

Le Guin, Ursula K, ed. Susan Wood. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993. Print.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2003. Print.

Warrick, Patricia. “The Encounter of Taoism and Facism in Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’” Science Fiction Studies, 7.2 (1980): 174-190. JSTOR. Web. 04 Mar 2015.

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