Darth Vader Is Palmer Eldritch/Palmer Eldritch Is Darth Vader

Well, isn’t he?

In Philip K. Dick’s novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, published in 1965, Eldritch possesses stainless steel teeth; slotted, artificial eyes; and a black, mechanical arm — his “stigmata.” Star Wars‘ Darth Vader wears a metal breath mask with large eyes and a grille of artificial “teeth” and he sports an artificial arm.

Can each character’s attributes come from the same sources, those that are visual and, perhaps, subconscious?

Dick’s inspiration for Eldritch came one day in 1963 as he walked along a country road to the shack in which he wrote. He saw a vision in the sky, as recounted in Lawrence Sutin’s biography, Divine Invasions:

“… I looked up in the sky and saw a face. I didn’t really see it, but the face was there, and it was not a human face; it was a vast visage of perfect evil…. It was immense; it filled a quarter of the sky. It had empty slots for eyes — it was metal and cruel and, worst of all, it was God.”

The vision had its basis in the time when Dick’s father, Edgar, put on a gas mask while telling four-year-old Phil stories of World War I. Later in life, it became grist for the character mill.

“That metal, blind, inhuman visage appeared to me again,” Dick said, “but now transcendent and vast, and absolutely evil.”

Eldritch is an industrialist who has been gone for ten years in the “Prox” system and crash lands on Pluto. He brings back the substance Chew-Z, which imposes a hallucinogenic experience on its users that becomes all-pervasive. He appears to everyone. He is God and the creator of hallucinogenic worlds. And everyone takes on his “stigmata.” These are prosthetics given to Eldritch after crashing on Pluto, but become signs of his hallucinatory world.

All this from a gas mask?

The gas mask was iconographic at the time that George Lucas was composing his first drafts of Star Wars in 1974. The Viet Nam War was still going on and the gas mask was a pervasive symbol at the time. Take, for instance, the cover of the book Project Survival — which, nonparenthetically, contains the article “The City of Tomorrow” by Buckminster Fuller — published in 1971. A gas mask is indeed frightening — in 1963, in 1971, in 1974, and today.

In other words, the frightening aspect of a gas mask was not lost on George Lucas, either.

These are coincidences, surely, but that makes them all the scarier. What do these “stigmata,” these images, tap into? And what about the mechanical arm? The characters share that, too. To what do we account the frightening aspect of an artificial limb?

Further, Eldritch was meant as a father figure, both as a god and a reflection of that gas mask-wearing man.

“In the novel my father appears as both Palmer Eldritch (the evil father, the diabolic mask-father) and as Leo Bolero, the tender, gruff, warm, human, loving man,” Dick wrote.

And we know how Darth Vader is the father ultimately redeemed.

OK. All of this is just to say the following:

Darth Vader possesses the three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

But:

Palmer Eldritch won. He did indeed infect our minds, our artificial worlds, with his iconography. He was transubstantiated into the figure of Darth Vader — transubstantiation being a theme of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch anyway. Did he not, then, leech into our reality, from fiction, as he does in the book, in which he goes from reality into one’s hallucination — but he was always fictional, wasn’t he? Yet Darth Vader’s image is on countless products throughout the world — very real, substantial products — and perhaps one may see Vader glaring from a packet of Chew-Z, if you find yourself one day wandering past a storefront window in a daze ….

Eldritch succeeded in infesting our minds with his image, as that gas mask did in the mind of Philip K. Dick, as the character does to the chewers of Chew-Z. And if anyone on the planet is not familiar with Darth Vader, wouldn’t they still be afraid of that image, because it is tapping into something — maybe ancient, like tribal masks, or modern, with the creeping of poison gas — to which all can relate; and wasn’t that the point of both characters, to trigger a mythic iconography, at least subconsciously, as fiction can do?

Oh, very well. It’s all a coincidence, or, at the most, zeitgeist this or that. But let’s not look too closely at the Jane Austen phenomenon and how it is slowly taking over everything. She certainly didn’t have big eyes, or write with one hand or have bad teeth, now, did she?

(Vader image: promotional photo from Return of the Jedi.)