Refuting the Metaphor of Self

Becoming a Symbol: A Reading Response to Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

by Karen Hamilton Silvestri, 2004

“The old man said, “You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity” (156). This statement made me recall several essays that I read by William Butler Yeats. The central idea in Yeats essays was that we are all raised in a myth. We are all taught to exist as metaphors, as symbols of something supposedly greater than ourselves, and, as Dick says, “violate your own identity”. My response to this supposition is to wonder how are we to find that identity when we have been taught to be something other than that individual identity? And what happens to those who refuse to be ‘symbols’?

If we are, as Yeats postulates, merely symbols of something greater then how are we to uncover first what that symbol represents, and second, how that symbol represents our true self? It seems to me that as people become symbols they become abstract, something ideal rather than real. Thus, we are all living an illusory existence, an existence created by others. Dick says further, “At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe” (156). I agree with Dick’s assertion that every person who lives is handed a metaphor but I also believe that the majority of those persons do not even recognize or acknowledge that they are living as a metaphor.

It seems to me that the key to self-discovery is to recognize and acknowledge that you are living a lie that was encoded into your psyche before and after your birth. How does one continue to live as a mere symbol after acknowledging such a thing? Of course, millions do just that. But there are those people in the world that refuse to be metaphors, refuse to be symbols. It is in these people that we receive the wellspring of truth, whether we want it or not. Which brings us to Dick’s next statement that, “Once pegged as special, a citizen, even if accepting sterilization, dropped out of history. He ceased, in effect, to be part of mankind.” (13).

Now in Dick’s interpretation of ‘special’, he is referring to those that society deems less than perfect – those that do not meet the specifications of the metaphor. It is true even in today’s society that we tend to forget those who are ‘special’, we relegate them to la-la land, they cease “to be part of mankind”. But is it not also true that a portion of those that society deem to be ‘special’ are actually giants in their own right? How many scientists, authors, philosophers, etc. were first regarded (and discarded) as ‘special’?

So, those who fail to recognize their lives as metaphor constitute the larger population, and those who do recognize their lives as metaphor constitute the smallest population. But it is in that smallest population that redemption and truths are found, because you cannot find truth while living the lie. To be special means to accept and then refute the metaphor – either of your own accord or someone else’s. And the danger in discarding the ‘special’ is that we may very well be discarding the one person who can teach us the truth.

Works Cited

  1. Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. 1968.