Monday, September 27, 2010


Thoughts on Philip K. Dick

For the past few months, I’ve been reading the novels of Philip K. Dick, starting with A Scanner Darkly (after watching the film starring Keanu Reeves), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik, and then venturing off with a four-novel set containing his final three novels, VALIS, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.

Ursula K. LeGuin likened Dick to “our own home-grown Borges.” I might agree but for the fact that I’ve never read Borges and likely never will. Still, it’s beyond question that Dick was one nifty novelist. Imaginative, inventive, well-informed, and intelligent—everything that I’ve tried to aspire to as a writer.

Aside: One habit that I’ve tried to develop, largely as a result of reading the über-brilliant and ultra-readable David Berlinski (my hero in all things literary and polemical), has been to read some writer I wish to emulate and make short vocabulary lists from his stuff. Here are some of the snazzier terms I picked up from Dick:

· Phagocytosis
· Hypostasis
· Negentropic
· Armillary
· Plasmate
· Probity
· Vicissitude
· Homeostatic
· Protophasonic
· Atavism
· Sardonic
· Hypnogogic
· Unctuous
· Anamnesis
· Veridical
· Autochthonic

I’ll assume you either already know these, or are willing to look them up in a dictionary and learn them yourselves, or else don’t give a rat’s tokhes WHAT they mean and hence have no need for me to define them for you.

What I find most fascinating about Dick’s work is the extent to which personal experiences influenced his writing, the autobiographical undertones of his work. His novels were almost always centered on the constant conflict between his spiritualism and his mental health (he had attempted suicide a number of times), which was further complicated by lifelong drug abuse, some prescribed by doctors, some purchased from street dealers. He wasn’t particularly religious, but was deeply influenced by his religious studies, which included Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, as well as spiritual excursions into Vedic and Hindu lore, and flirtations with the I Ching. Perhaps his greatest personal influence was James Pike, the Episcopal bishop of California, who served as inspiration for the character Timothy Archer in Dick’s last novel.

Doubtless the single most influential event of his life was what he termed “2-3-74,” a period of some weeks beginning in February of 1974 (2 for Feb; 3 for March). Having undergone oral surgery for an impacted wisdom tooth, during which he was given sodium pentathol, he had phoned his pharmacist for some additional pain-killers. The prescription was delivered by a young woman, who, he noticed, was wearing a gold chain around her neck affixed with an Ichthus character, the traditional symbol of Christianity. Dick asked her what it was; she told him. Not long thereafter he began to have visions which intensified during March and which tapered intermittently throughout the year. At one point, Dick began to claim that a transcendental intelligence had superimposed itself upon his mind, which he identified at times as either Ruah (the Old Testament word for the spirit of God, though to Dick the voice was feminine), Zebra, God, or VALIS (an acronym for Vast Active Living Information System). As the visions intensified, he began to claim a double life, one as Phillip K. Dick, the other as “Thomas,” a first-century Christian persecuted by Romans. He even claimed to have been taken over by the spirit of the prophet Elijah, and believed that one episode from his novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said was a detailed retelling of a story from the New Testament book The Acts of the Apostles, though he had never read Acts.

At that point, Dick began writing what he called his Exegesis, portions of which he reproduced in the novel VALIS. By the time of his death, Dick’s Exegesis had grown to some 8,000 pages. Here’s a sample, culled from the appendix to VALIS:

12. The Immortal One was known to the Greeks as Dionysos; to the Jews as Elijah; to the Christians as Jesus. He moves on when each human host dies, and thus is never killed or caught. Hence Jesus on the cross said, “Eli, Eli, lama Sabachthani,” to which some of those present correctly said, “The man is calling on Elijah.” Elijah had left him and he died alone.

38. From loss and grief the Mind has become deranged. Therefore we, as parts of the universe, the Brain, are partly deranged.

47. TWO SOURCE COSMOGONY: The One was and was-not, combined, and desired to separate the was-not from the was. So it generated a diploid sac which combined, like an eggshell, a pair of twins, each an androgyny, spinning in opposite directions (the Yin and Yang of Taoism, with the One as the Tao). The plan of the One was that both twins would emerge into being (was-ness) simultaneously; however, motivated by a desire to be (which the One had implanted in both twins), the counterclockwise twin broke through the sac and separated prematurely; i.e. before full term. This was the dark or Yin twin. Therefore it was defective.

Perhaps a more typical (and illustrative) passage, though, is found in the foreword to Dick’s novel A Maze of Death:

The theology in this novel is not an analog of any known religion. It stems from an attempt made by William Sarill and myself to develop an abstract, logical system of religious thought, based on the arbitrary postulate that God exists. I should say, too, that the late Bishop James A. Pike, in discussions with me, brought forth a wealth of theological material for my inspection, none of which I was previously acquainted with.

In the novel, Maggie Walsh’s experiences after death are based on an L.S.D. experience of my own. In exact detail…

All material concerning Wotan and the death of the gods is based on Richard Wagner’s version of Der Ring des Nibelungen, rather than on the original body of myths.

Answers to the questions put to the tench were derived from the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes.

“Tekel upharsin” is Aramaic for, “He has weighed and now they divide.” Aramaic was the tongue that Christ spoke. There should be more like him.

Though short, the passage clearly encapsulates a number of Dick’s themes: intense intellectual curiosity, spiritualism, substance abuse, and a reverence for certain Judeo-Christian religious figures. Traces of the themes may be found in virtually all of his writing.

One interesting note from VALIS: the narrator, a schizophrenic with two distinct personalities, identifies himself at times as Philip K. Dick (and by this Dick clearly meant himself, even identifying the character as author of a number of Dick’s books), most other times as Horselover Fat. It seemed obvious to me that any writer who goes to the trouble of naming one of his characters “Horselover Fat” does so for a pretty darned good reason, even if that reason isn’t readily apparent. It’s not until towards the end of the novel that Dick reveals where Horselover Fat gets his name, and I have to tell you, as a polyglot I was plenty miffed with myself for not figuring it out on my own. “Horselover Fat” is just another way of saying “Philip Dick.” Dick is the German word for “fat” (Dick uses an awful lot of German in his writing), while Philip is Greek for “lover of horses”—phil from philos, meaning “love”, and ip from hip or hippo, meaning “horse.” Dang it, I shoulda known. Dang it, dang it, dang it!!

I find in Dick something of a kindred spirit. (Ironically enough, “Kindred” was his middle name.) He seems torn between the physical and the metaphysical—or perhaps more accurately expressed, the material and the spiritual—profoundly engrossed with notions of the divine yet deeply committed to intellect and reason. The principal difference between us is that I am willing to cross a line that he is not. For Dick, as he claims in the above quote, God’s existence is an arbitrary postulate; for me, God’s existence is a necessary prerequisite of an ordered, lawful, and surprisingly rational universe in which information is central to its expression, this despite the fact that the universe is also entropic. The claim that an entropic universe ordered itself strikes me as implausible as claiming that you can climb into a bushel basket and lift yourself ten feet into the air—the very structure of immanent reality prohibits it.

In VALIS, Dick makes an interesting observation: the logic of God-denial is insupportable, as it is an example of “the two-proposition self-cancelling structure” (Dick attributes this nomenclature to Sigmund Freud), which goes like this:

1. God does not exist.
2. And anyhow he’s stupid.

The structure is two-propositional because—count ‘em—there are a total of two propositions, and self-cancelling because the second statement does not reinforce the first but only appears to. In fact, the second proposition contradicts the first. Despite the highfalutin terminology, though, the “two-proposition self-cancelling structure” is a simple restatement of my own contention as to the incoherency underpinning atheism: the atheist claims there is no God, because God isn’t as nice as the atheist maintains God should be. A nice God, claims the atheist, wouldn’t be stupid, and therefore God does not exist. (Note that there’s no objective standard as to what constitutes “stupid,” and thus no way of affirming the atheist’s claim that God is as dumb as he says He is, but don’t bother pointing this out to an atheist; you’ll just confuse him with facts.) That Dick and I have hit upon the same observation independently goes a long way, I think, towards affirming that the observation is correct:

1. God isn’t
2. Because God is (just not as nice as I think he should be).

Dick died in 1982 from a stroke following a heart attack, at the age of only 54, not too much older than I am now. He had never been in particularly good health. For most of his life, his blood pressure was dangerously high; that, and his decades-long use of prescription amphetamines, followed by his experimentation with mind-altering drugs (the guy lived in California in the 60’s—of course he used dope!) and his attempts at suicide, ensured that he was NOT going to live to a ripe old age.

Nevertheless, I seriously doubt that Dick intended The Transmigration of Timothy Archer to be his last novel; it’s just the way it worked out. Archer is indicative of Dick’s mindset in his final days—always on the cusp of that gossamer-thin demarcation between unbelief and belief, but never quite able to cross over. Near the end of Archer, the narrator tells us: “I am a professional student and will remain one; I will not change. My opportunity to change was offered to me and I turned it down; I am stuck, now, and, as I say, know but know not what.” The words strike me as Dick’s assessment of his own life.

Sad, really. To be that close to realizing a transcendent truth, to forever straddle that fence. To see the promised land but not take that short step into it. So miniscule, that distance, and yet so vast. Small wonder, then, that we call it a leap of faith.

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