Philip K. Dick’s The Galactic Pothealer is one of his late 60s novels dealing with a powerful alien god and containing many of the same themes as the other novels of that time period such as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, Our Friends from Frolix 8 and The Faith of Our Fathers. The book has been neglected in critical commentary, which is unfortunate because although it is not Dick’s strongest novel it contributes to his career-long concern with metaphysics and theology and develops into a Jungian allegory, which is unique among Dick’s works. Pothealer is funny and satirical, reminiscent of Hitchhiker’s Guide or Kurt Vonnegut; nonetheless it has serious points to make about government, human dignity, and spirituality.
At the beginning of the novel the protagonist, Joe Fernsworth, is a typical Dickian character. Instead of being a capable Heinlein protagonist, or a Van Vogt superhero, he’s an average Joe who fixes ceramics for a living like his father before him; however, he’s not even successful at that job since he has not been given a pot to heal in months and lives off the war veteran’s dole.
Joe’s frustration over his empty life is heightened by the society he lives in, an overpopulated socialist dystopia where he is harassed by the police for walking too slow, where everyone shares a common dream at night and he is arrested for giving coins to strangers on the street—apparently only government charity is allowed. The wasteful socialist government does not provide enough work for everyone—many live pointless lives drawing a government check—and even people who have jobs rarely find meaningful work. In Cleveland there is a mass of unemployed choking the sidewalk, and inflation has made the government money almost worthless.
Divorced and alienated from his hostile ex-wife, Joe attempts to fill the holes in his life by playing trivia games with other underemployed people. He fantasizes about killing the ruler of his world, which demonstrates the depth of his alienation, but even that act he feels would be pointless.
Joe’s life is "merely expiring, like a magazine subscription" (10). Dick has stated in an interview that he designs his characters partly from people he knows, throwing ordinary people into extraordinary situations, for example making the owner of a local store the world’s dictator in Our Friends from Frolix 8. Joe certainly fits into that pattern; he could easily be the local loser working as a store clerk until he is contacted by Glimmung, a powerful god-like alien who offers him a great deal of money to help raise Heldscalla, an ancient cathedral on the alien world Plowman’s Planet.
Heldscalla is the ancient cathedral of the Fog Things of Sirius Five, a now vanished race whose religious structure sank into the ocean. Joe immediately feels the exotic name Heldscalla draws him out of the drab world of the dole, his work cubicle, and the trivia games. Repairing and raising the cathedral requires a wide range of skills, including healing the ceramic pots buried with the structure, which will give Joe’s life meaning and significance. Glimmung becomes Joe’s savior as well as the savior of all the other myriad characters that he brings to Plowman’s Planet. But he is a problematic savior.
Glimmung manipulates Joe and the other characters into going to the alien world by getting them in trouble with the police; in effect, giving them little choice but to emigrate. He also threatens the characters to make them cooperate, manifesting himself in a terrifying form like a wrathful deity. The characters Glimmung brings to his world—and they are a motley lot including several interesting aliens—are losers and failures, most of whom have attempted or contemplated suicide. Glimmung apparently is trying to save them, offering them a chance to achieve something with their lives by raising an ancient cathedral which will outlast all of them including Glimmung himself, allowing them to reach their potential, to be instead of merely to exist (49).
Glimmung is certainly not an omnipotent god, despite impressive powers such as teleporting Joe and communicating with thousands of workers and artisans simultaneously on different planets. He communicates with Joe in odd ways: speaking to him through an old record or putting a message in the water closet of a toilet or in a bottle floating on a lake. When Glimmung appears to his followers on Plowman’s Planet, he falls through the floor to the basement because his true manifestation weighs 40,000 tons and is too heavy for the floor to support. It’s not clear whether Glimmung intends to appear to them in this way—as a gesture of solidarity for their failed lives?—or if he displays a lack of foresight. Regardless, an omnipotent being would not fall through the floor. Glimmung is a limited being just like his supporters, and Dick uses Glimmung’s oddities and mistakes to add humor to the novel.
Prophecies and predictions play an important role. Joe and his lover Mali Yojez look at their future on the SSA machine, which reads people's minds, and from pooling the data, tries to predict their future together. It extrapolates that Mali and Joe will be happy together, but this machine has been wrong in the past, making a grossly inaccurate prediction about Mali’s previous relationship. The Book of Kalends is another prophetic device, an everchanging book written in many different languages—like the I Ching (the book of changes) or an infinite book from Borges—which predicts the future on Plowman’s Planet. The book is sold by various alien races on the planet and is constantly changing with a new edition every day. Unlike the SSA machine, it accurately predicted that Mali’s previous relationship would end with her boyfriend Ralf trying to kill her and then killing himself. The difference is that the SSA machine did not factor in one piece of data: that Ralf would have a psychotic reaction to barbiturates. The Book of Kalends predicts that Glimmung will fail to raise Heldscalla and that Joe will find something in the sunken cathedral that will cause him to kill Glimmung. Aspects of these predictions come true, but in ways that show the book is not infallible. The Kalends play the odds, which means in the long run they are generally correct, but in particular instances they are often wrong. One of the novel’s themes is that individuals can defeat fate through creativity and drive.
Heldscalla rests at the bottom of the Mare Nostrom, in the Aquatic Sub-World, a place of entropy and death where everything turns to rubbish, a concept similar to kipple in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Kipple is the useless trash that everything is reduced to by entropy. Negentropy, life, rebuilding, and order stand against entropy. Joe is a pothealer, a force of negentropy, healing, and rebuilding. If Glimmung and his followers can raise Heldscalla from the ocean, then the positive forces of rebuilding can counteract the slow decay into nothingness that the cathedral is subject to.
Entropy takes broad meaning in the novel and is quite different from the scientific meaning of the term. Joe suffers from the effects of entropy early in the novel when he complains that he has no energy left to live a meaningless life. A mundane existence is a slow decay into nothingness, expiration like the aforementioned magazine subscription.
Caritas—the ability to care or empathize with others—is significant in Pothealer and is a theme that runs through much of Dick’s fiction. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep the primary difference between androids and humans is the ability to empathize. However, Dick complicates that theme because as Androids progresses it becomes clear that some humans display a lack of empathy—which is a form of insanity or a willingness to conform to an inhuman political order—whereas some androids develop the ability to emphasize. The difference between humans and Artificial Intelligence narrows as humans sometimes become more machine-like and machines often become more human-like. The robot—Willis—in Galactic Pot-Healer demonstrates this process. Willis displays more understanding of Caritas than Mali Yojez does; he is fascinated with theology and has ambitions of becoming a freelance writer, displaying more humanity than some humans.
The novel’s central episodes owe a great deal to Jung’s psychological theories. In a variety of books and articles, Jung argues that modern man is in search of a soul (see Selected Writings). Because of the decline of religion and religious symbolism, humans have lost touch with the collective unconscious and spirituality. This description fits Joe who lives a meaningless life, does not meet his potential, and has no awareness of spirituality. According to Jung the only way for modern man to regain his soul is by descending into the collective unconsciousness, encountering his shadow, and then reintegrating the conscious and unconscious mind. Jung points out that this journey is often portrayed symbolically in myth and literature as descending into water or the underworld (the unconscious) to try and salvage a treasure (spirituality).
The last third of the novel traces this process, since Glimmung’s goal is to have the other characters aid him in raising the treasured cathedral Heldscalla from underwater. Even the ways Glimmung manifests himself reflect the Jungian themes. When he first appears to Joe, he assumes the form of a hoop of fire and a hoop of water with the face of an immature girl. According to Jung, water represents the unconscious and fire spirituality. The young girl indicates that Glimmung has not fully matured mentally and has still not integrated his conscious and unconscious mind.
Joe descends into the Mare Nostrum with Mali where he encounters his corpse, his future dead self, which is a manifestation of his shadow. Mali urges him not to listen to the shadow because she mistakenly believes it is evil when in fact it’s another aspect of Joe’s psyche that he needs to come to terms with. Joe’s corpse advises him to stay and work to raise Heldscalla because raising the cathedral and bringing spirit into his impoverished world will allow Joe’s shadow to escape the underworld.
Jung points out in his famous essay "Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious" that encountering the shadow is a trial by fire that few people have the courage to face. Unlike Joe, Mali fails this test; she flees in panic, terrified of encountering her shadow self.
Joe’s encounter with his corpse serves as a symbolic death, whereas his return to the surface as a more knowledgeable and complete person constitutes a rebirth. Symbolic deaths and rebirths permeate the novel, each one bringing the characters closer to the spiritual stage they seek.
When Glimmung fights his shadow, the Black Glimmung, he nearly dies, only surviving with the aid of Joe and the other characters. Glimmung is reborn by absorbing the others into his body in an encephalic fusion that results in a group mind; the characters can communicate telepathically and work together to raise Heldscalla.
Although they fail to raise the cathedral, at Joe’s suggestion Glimmung releases them from the fusion and descends again into the Subworld to heal. When Glimmung rises from the water—which is again the symbolic death and rebirth—the characters fuse for the second time and manage to raise the cathedral. Glimmung asks the other characters to remain in fusion with him because together they are greater than any of them are individually.
While the fused characters raise the cathedral, Glimmung transforms from a neutered gender to a female. Although the change seems bizarre and forced, it fits within the Jungian allegory: Glimmung becomes the anima, and it is by placing themselves in touch with the anima and the collective unconscious that the characters can raise the spirit from the mire and restore the cathedral to the outside world.
The goal of the Jungian journey is individuation, becoming of the self, reaching one’s potential. Individuation involves maintaining a sense of one’s individuality while reuniting with the shadow (the personal unconscious) and the archetypes of the collective unconscious. Joe fails to achieve this when he leaves the encephalic infusion. (All the characters except Joe and one alien—a gastropod—remain part of Glimmung after raising the cathedral.)
Joe is traumatized after leaving the fusion and his lover Mali. He cannot bear being part of Glimmung’s group mind even though the alien tells him that he is the best of their group. The gastropod tells Joe that he should create a pot rather than merely healing them; by creating he could emulate Glimmung and work against fate and entropy.
Joe attempts to create a new pot "his justification for leaving Glimmung and all the others" especially Mali, whom he loved (177). When the pot leaves the kiln and he examines it to assess its artistic worth he realizes "The pot was awful" (177), the novel’s last four words.
In the critical study Philip K. Dick, Douglas A. Mackey misreads this ending suggesting that Joe "takes a new step forward in re-creating himself: instead of being a healer of pots, he will be a pot maker. Even thought the first pot he makes is "awful," it represents a breakthrough. For it is better to strive, Faustlike, and fail, than not to try. With the act of creation comes self-knowledge. Joe is not a god like the Glimmung, but he has awakened. He is on his way to becoming an enlightened human being" (98-99).
I see nothing in the text’s conclusion to justify Mackey’s interpretation. The last sentence emphasizes Joe’s failure: the pot is awful. Joe has returned to isolation and failure, the state he was in at the beginning of the novel. The characters that remained with Glimmung are part of a group mind that makes them greater than they were before; they retain their individuality and remain in touch with their deeper collective unconscious. Joe cannot create art because he has returned to a spiritually impoverished existence. Joe is the "hero" who does not complete his quest and cannot ultimately accept the integration of conscious and unconscious. Dick’s ending is an unusual take on Jungian style allegories, but it coheres with his desire to depict ordinary people in extraordinary situations; after all, an ordinary person might be overwhelmed by the attempt to recover spirituality in the modern world.