The Skull


Philip K. Dick

“The Skull” is a story about mis-remembering, mis-recognition. In Conger’s time there are these “Churches,” established by a mysterious and forgotten Founder on the principles of non-violence and de-militarization. Philip K. Dick is adept at atmospherics - think of Blade Runner. Conger’s world has a “fallen” feeling to it, as do many of Dick’s stories. Darkness abounds in a dilapidating urban environment. The interplanetary travel that Conger has experienced does not seem to be the result of utopian innovation but closer to our current idea of dystopian desperation. The world that we know has passed away. In this story Conger is sent to a place which itself seems like another planet: the American Midwest, circa 1960. But his target, however influential he was, will be difficult to peg. Nobody seems to remember his likeness. Conger must do some detective work, and trust his intuition.


The plot - literally the plot to murder the Founder - is a reversal of a familiar time-travel sub-genre, in which one plays around with the idea of going back in time to, say, off Hitler while he is a baby and prevent that evil from entering the world. A kind of self-righteous revisionism. Here, the Speaker wants to assassinate the Founder of a peace movement, in order to eradicate even the most obscure challenge to total warfare and military domination. Conger is game, hunter (and choice-less prisoner) that he is. But it doesn’t take him too long to have a key realization while contemplating the skull, the talisman of the whole enterprise:

What if he [the Founder] could see this, his own skull, yellow and eroded? Two centuries old. Would he still speak? Would he speak, if he could see it, the grinning, aged skull? What would there be for him to say, to tell the people? What message could he bring?


What action would not be futile, when a man could look upon his own aged, yellowed skull? Better they should enjoy their temporary lives, while they still had time to enjoy.


A man who could hold his own skull in his hands would believe in few causes, few movements. Rather, he would preach the opposite.


In an implausibly sudden recognition, Conger realizes, upon closer examination of the skull, that he is indeed the Founder. His meditation on mortality comes full circle:


He turned toward the skull. There it was, his skull, yellow with age. Escape? Escape, when he had held it in his own hands?


What did it matter if he put it off a month, a year, ten years, even fifty? Time was nothing. He had sipped chocolate with a girl born a hundred and fifty years before his time. Escape? For a little while, perhaps.


But he could not really escape, no more so than anyone else had ever escaped, or ever would.


Conger is contemplating existential questions of escape. But literally, he is contemplating escape from the mob that chases him after a tussle the day before. And here he has his next realization, that all this, as the final word of the story conveys, is “foreordained.” He would be killed today, appear again in a few months, and then be born again two centuries hence. His destiny, already transpired, is revealed to him for what it is. The point is that he recognizes it, achieves a new level of enlightenment. With that new knowledge, he embraces his role. He addresses the crowd with the koan-like utterance that would shape generations: “Those who take lives will lose their own. Those who kill, will die. But he who gives his own life away will live again!” Rather than snuff out these originary words, Conger speaks them himself.


Mis-recognition. To speak of “The Skull” as a strictly Christian allegory is perhaps to mis-recognize it. It’s too small a game to play. My students and any reader paying attention will catch the parallels. What I get out of this story is how it uses the mysteriousness of Christianity to point to an even larger existential phenomenon. I am interested in another possible mis-recognition - what if Conger mis-identifies himself as the Founder? What if his ruminations on mortality prompt him to make the mistake of thinking that he is the one? What would this mean? It would mean, possibly, that he is making an even deeper recognition, one that brings us back to Christianity and any other serious peace movement. He is recognizing, perhaps, that we are all the Founder. We bear the seeds of that message in us. We need only to remember that fact, to awaken to it. Once we do, the wisdom goes, we realize that we will not die. “The Skull” at last can be read as a parable of enlightenment.


No parable of enlightenment is complete without its dark side. The broader catalyst for Conger’s awakening is first mob violence. In his own time, the Speaker’s desire to make the world safe for war is a war of all against one. In Colorado 1960, the mob seeks Conger for retribution, a social execution. The collective rallies around itself to destroy the outcast shrouded in difference. This is the deep mythology of the Christian narrative, played out again and again. The Founder’s message is so scandalous as to rouse a mob. To hold fast to the message is to transcend the fetters of cyclical violence.


On the first page of the story, Conger asks the Speaker, “Who do you want me to kill?” The Speaker replies with a smile, “All in proper sequence.” At the end of the story we realize that Conger is not meant to kill “himself,” his physical body. He is meant to kill the killer within himself. Awakening to that realization must occur in “proper sequence,” which includes mis-recognition and recognition, of one’s true nature, and of the violence of the world.

Brian Chappell, Mouse Editor
September 2018