La Machine Infernale, The Three Stigmata Of Walter Bishop, Or: Out Of The Gnostic Frying Pan And Into The Fire
By Count Screwloose 1/31/2012 06:04:00 AM
Know all things to be like this:
As a magician makes illusions of horses, oxen, carts, and other things, nothing is as it appears.
– The Buddha
Not everything is as it seems.
– Secretary Bishop
Once again, Peter seems to have placed himself in the best of all possible worlds, a world even better and more emotionally fulfilling than the one he remembers. Like the first vision, it begins as a heavenly idyll but ultimately collapses, the first time because of Peter and this time because of a machine. Anyone seeing a pattern?
There’s one thing that I think is important to keep in mind, though, and that is that it’s not just Peter’s dream. These visions reflect the lives that all three characters aspire to and long for. Consider the fact that two of these people started to similarly visualize the third before they even knew who he was. In other words:
All three characters are dreaming the same dream.
Wherever or whenever Walter, Peter, and Olivia are, they are slowly finding each other on the playing field of lucid dreaming. Call it quantum entanglement, if you want. Under the present circumstances, the term “reality” is beginning to mean less and less. The show’s forward movement has always been towards a world in which three damaged individuals are repaired by binding themselves into a successful makeshift family. What is this second vision other than the destination that all three journeys have been struggling towards?
We’re shown FRINGE’s mission statement at the beginning of every episode: putting shattered pieces back once again into a whole.
Imagine if you somehow found a way of changing everything you ever regretted doing. The world of FRINGE is now a strange elastic one wherein characters can cross back and forth meeting themselves, in the past and in the future, getting second chances, trying to right previous wrongs or correct their behavior. It’s practically a literal demonstration of karma now as individuals get the opportunity to balance themselves out and, by extension, remake the world they live in. What “reality” and “universe” they’re in now may be beside the point.
A few other things:
If last season was about Space, this one is about Time.
If last season was Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, then this season is his The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. And if the two great themes of his work are the questions What Is Human? and What Is Reality?, consider that these are also the biggest questions at issue here as well. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the show answer the one question with the other:
What is Real is What is Human.
Lastly, this is all about Amber. I think we’ve all been as wrong as we can be about the so-called “Amberverse.” There have been enough hints dropped, one way or another about Amber in this timeline. Riots, nighttime vigils, etc. Remember this conversation?
SECRETARY BISHOP: Sixty three civilians were trapped in amber that day... and all the hundreds since. It sickens me.
COLONEL BROYLES: Sir... It's a tragic, but a small price to pay for the greater good. People understand that.
SECRETARY BISHOP: Perhaps. But if they were to find out that the amber victims could be removed and resuscitated, I'm afraid the outcry would be akin to revolt.
COLONEL BROYLES: Quarantine victims are alive?
SECRETARY BISHOP: Theoretically. But to remove them would weaken the structural integrity of the amber.
The Secretary’s worry about the breakdown of society is awfully similar to the new Walternate’s concerns about the shapeshifters:
SECRETARY BISHOP: If word got out that elected officials and other authorities were not who they claimed to be, it would cause widespread panic, and society would collapse.
The callback is very interesting, I think. It begs the question of whether or not the people there are aware of the terrible truth about Amber and have made peace with it to some extent, but continue to protest against it.
Take DAVID JONES’s name out of the recent episode glyphs and you read:
STILL LIVING. LIVING DEATH.
We are being pointed towards the Amber again and again. But why?
This isn’t the first time Walter has inveighed against an “infernal machine.” Perhaps that’s why Peter’s dream used the phrase: his father angrily referred to The Vacuum as “this infernal device” in 6955 kHz. But it’s worth taking a moment to see what the phrase refers to.
La Machine infernale was the name of Jean Cocteau’s 1934 reworking for the stage of the story of Oedipus, which certainly suggests that we’re somewhere in the vicinity of Greek tragedy (and it’s Greek, of course, that Olivia speaks upon recovering from her visit to William Bell).
Spectator, this machine you see here wound up to the full in such a way that the spring will slowly unwind the whole length of human life, is one of the most perfect constructed by the infernal gods for the mathematical destruction of a human life.
In the sense Cocteau is using it, The Infernal Machine is Fate and the story we’re about to hear is that of a tragedy that was set in motion years ago. Malcolm Lowry in his Under The Volcano used the phrase similarly when he placed his tragic hero The Consul, who is doomed to die at the end of the novel, on a fairground ride called the Máquina Infernal. Its applicability to FRINGE is obvious, although it may differ insofar as we hope as we watch that the spring of this machine doesn’t have to unwind the way it’s intended to.
It is, as it has always been, our responsibility to insure events play out, as they were intended…
But there is another meaning for “infernal machine” that’s far more literal, and it should frighten anyone who holds out any hope for the fate of the characters:
A machine or apparatus maliciously designed to explode and destroy life or property; especially a concealed or disguised bomb.
A time bomb.
Many viewers made much of the fact that Walter Bishop’s hands bore the mark of the stigmata after his hotel room temper tantrum in Subject 9. What they may have overlooked, however, was that at the end of the previous episode, Alone In The World, Walter self-administered a third stigmata, a wound to his head.
Which brings us back once again to Philip K. Dick.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is one of Dick’s great novels, along with Ubik and The Man In The High Castle, among others. As in so many of his works, the reader quickly finds himself trying to find something to hold onto as the rules of Time and Reality as we think of them become a hallucinatory maelstrom in which the main characters try to find the thread that might lead them back to some kind of recognizable home.
Let me say that if you enjoy FRINGE at all, you owe it to yourself to read it, especially this season. I can’t think of any task more thankless than trying to create a synopsis of a PKD book, but here goes (with help from Lawrence Sutin’s Divine Invasions):
It’s the early 21st century. Climate change is advancing so rapidly (in a novel from 1964!) that citizens are being sent off to live in Martian colonies, but the trouble is that life there is incredibly dull and tedious. Perky Pat Layouts offer miniatures (think Barbie and Ken in their Dream House) which, in tandem with the use of the hallucinogenic drug “Can-D” (Dick was not always subtle) “translate” the men into “Walt” and the women into “Perky Pat” which, for a short time, relieves the boredom by allowing them to escape their mundane lives.
Barney Mayerson is a “precog” (a term which, if not invented by PKD, was certainly adopted and popularized by him to the extent that he may as well have coined it) whose predictive abilities allow him to know what accessories will or won’t be popular with the bored colonists. His boss Leo Bulero, who owns Perky Pat, is undergoing “E-Therapy” to expand his frontal lobe, thus becoming more precognitive himself. Uppermost in his lobe at the moment is the mysterious Palmer Eldritch, who went off to the Prox system for ten years and crash landed on Pluto on the way back. He’s reportedly alive but secluded and Bulero suspects he’s brought something back with him.
“I used to think,” Miss Jurgens said…”I actually thought maybe by going that far he’d – ” She ducked her head, not meeting Bulero’s gaze. “He’d find God.”
Leo thought, I thought so, too. And I was an adult, then…And, he thought, I still believe that, even now.
The truth, of course, is infinitely stranger and more complicated.
After quizzing Mayerson’s latest mistress on the subject of the secluded industrialist, Bulero learns that he is destined to murder Palmer Eldritch.
“You mean I’m going to murder him?”
She nodded. “But – it’s not a certainty; I only pick it up in some of the futures … do you understand? I mean, we precogs see – ” She gestured.
“I don’t think you ought to try to contact Mr. Eldritch in view of this possible future … the risk is there … about half the possibilities.”
If this begins to remind you of the film Minority Report at all, keep in mind that that was based on a PKD short story.
Rumors of a competitive drug and layout system only convince Bulero further that Eldritch has returned with some kind of substance that will revolutionize their particular industry. Their slogan:
GOD PROMISES ETERNAL LIFE. WE CAN DELIVER IT.
When Eldritch finally reveals himself at a press conference, the description makes clear where the novel’s title comes from:
He had enormous steel teeth, these having been installed prior to his trip to Prox by Czech dental surgeons; they…were permanent: he would die with them. And – his right arm was artificial … except for its metallic shine it might have been organic.
And he was blind … But replacements had been made … (they) fitted into the bone sockets, had no pupils, nor did any ball move by muscular action. Instead a panoramic vision was supplied by a wide-angle lens…
Eldritch has returned with an even more potent substance he calls Chew-Z, but what few understand until it’s too late is that, quite unlike Can-D, this drug allows Eldritch (who has been taken over by an alien life form) to enter their minds and souls as he fractures the realities of their users:
That’s who and what he is, he realized. The owner of these worlds. The rest of us just inhabit them and when he wants to he can inhabit them, too. Can kick over the scenery, manifest himself, push things in any direction he chooses. Even be any of us he cares to. All of us, in fact … Eternal, outside of time, and spliced together segments of all dimensions …
He can even enter a world in which he’s dead.
Palmer Eldritch had gone to Prox a man and returned a god.
To call this brief sketch of the novel any kind of real synopsis would be ridiculous. You have to read it to truly appreciate what it does (and to see how much more is going on). But I hope it gives anyone unfamiliar with it a general idea of why I think it’s so important to FRINGE right now.
As the book concludes, Mayerson and Bulero notice that they can identify people who have become Eldritch by his “three stigmata”: the teeth, the eyes, and the arm. And although things seem to be going badly, the novel does conclude on a note of hope as the two men, already exhibiting symptoms of the stigmata, promise each other that they won’t forget who they are, won’t forget the human being that still lies behind Eldritch’s cruel and evil mask. The idea for the book, in fact, came from a vision Dick described having in 1963:
It was not a human face; it was a visage of absolute evil … It had empty slots for eyes – it was metal and cruel and, worst of all, it was God.
The entire book, aside from the inspiration of Dick’s “vision of evil,” was very much inspired by his interest in Gnosticism. Wikipedia helpfully says of Gnostics:
They saw the material world as created through an intermediary being (demiurge) rather than directly by God. In most of the systems, this demiurge was seen as imperfect, in others even as evil.
The demiurge is responsible for creating the material world, a world full of corruption and chaos. It may not even understand that it is not God.
After all, the creature residing in deep space which had taken the form of Palmer Eldritch bore some relationship to God; if it was not God, as he himself had decided, then at least it was a portion of God’s Creation. So some of the responsibility lay on Him. And, it seemed to Barney, He was probably mature enough to recognize this.
Getting Him to admit it, though. That might be something else again.
As Lawrence Sutin put it in his biography of PKD, “For Phil, the Gnostic view that our world is an illusory reality created by an evil, lesser deity was utterly compelling.” And Three Stigmata plays with the ideas of good and evil, transubstantiation, eternity, and what it means to be (a) God.
Now if we take very seriously the idea that FRINGE is interested in playing out a Wizard of Oz scenario this year, it means a few things: one is that there must be a Wicked Witch. I’m sure you noticed her Flying Monkeys with their case of Cortexiphan a few weeks ago.
The other is that there has to be a Wizard and what was the original so-called Wizard other than a sort of Gnostic demiurge?
What I’m proposing is that the Wizard, when he shows up, is going to have a great deal in common with Palmer Eldritch, fake deity and warper of Reality. And I think that’s when things are going to get really, really bad.
Curiously, in light of what FRINGE is about, Dick said this about Three Stigmata:
In the novel, my father appears as both Palmer Eldritch … and as Leo Bulero … they come from the deepest part of me: yearning for the good father and fear of the evil father, the father who left me.
Just to be clear, I think there’s plenty of other evidence that Stigmata is being referenced if you’re not quite convinced by the above: in the last few pages alone there’s references to plague and blight, plus Leo Bulero considering banding together with other evolved beings to create a “guild of Protectors.” But I don’t want to spoil any more. My point is that this season is something like White Tulip on an enormous, cosmic scale (as if the original wasn’t cosmic enough!) and the questions it raised about God and Science and Reality are now taking center stage. The entire series has challenged us to consider what happens when Science and Morality meet, what we as a species should take responsibility for, and what can and cannot be forgiven. Consider this handful of lines from the current season:
Some things are not ours to tamper with. Some things are God's.
By the Judgement of God, Let Justice be Done.
God has a purpose for all of us even if we can't understand it.
I forgive you, Walter. I forgave you a long time ago. And if I can ... God can.
To paraphrase FRINGE’s showrunners, God is being mentioned frequently for a reason.
So what is the endgame?
One guess: Something Eldritch This Way Comes. And in the same way that the tracers on Mr. Jones’s money seemed to point to an abundance of Joneses, whatever it is wants to become everyone in every possible timeline. It’s behind the shapeshifters and is using them to replace every human being with itself. It will become more and more difficult to identify who is real and who isn’t. As long as Elizabeth Bishop can recognize Peter through his eyes (which called back to Peter being fooled by Bolivia as well as Walter examining Peter’s eye in the very first episode), and as long as Humanity can continue to recognize itself, we may have a chance.
And what about the Amber?
Well, what if this new timeline is not an “Amberverse” at all and the old one is? What if Peter stopped the deterioration between the universes he knew, but did it by Ambering them? Or, depending on how you look at it, he Ambered an entire timeline and everyone in it. This would mean that everyone we knew in the first three seasons is suspended in a sort of living death. It would explain why the new credit sequence appears to show us Amber with a little bit of Blue hidden behind it. And, since Peter obviously believes he has some place to return to, he wasn’t aware that he did it, i.e., it was a choice The Vacuum made based on the outcome Peter desired.
Another guess: What if this new timeline is not aware that Amber victims are alive and can be resuscitated? Certain unsavory parties could make this known, leading to the societal breakdown that Walternate fears most.
What if The Infernal Machine fulfills its destiny as a sort of time bomb and threatens to Amber the entire world? What would that gain Jones, Sharp, et al? And now you can add DEATH MARCH to the recent glyph sets mentioned earlier.
God and Amber. Here we go.
The earliest Gnostic sects ascribe the work of creation to angels … we are told that our world was made by the angels who occupy the lowest heaven; but … the prophecies are ascribed not to the chief but to the other world-making angels.
The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.
– 1 Peter 4:7
"Take me to your leader," Leo said. "An old joke; you wouldn't understand it. Went out a century ago."
- The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch