The Exegesis of PHILIP K. DICK
By Pamela Jackson
Houghton Mifflin HarcourtCopyright © 2011 Laura Coelho, Christopher Dick, and Isa Hackett
All right reserved.
The beautiful and imperishable comes into existence due to the suffering of individual perishable creatures who themselves are not beautiful, and must be reshaped to form a template from which the beautiful is printed (forged, extracted, converted). This is the terrible law of the universe. This is the basic law; it is a fact. Also, it is a fact that the suffering of the individual animal is so great that it arouses an ultimate and absolute abhorrence and pity in us when we are confronted by it. This is the essence of tragedy: the collision of two absolutes. Absolute suffering leads to — is the means to — absolute beauty. Neither absolute should be subordinated to the other. But this is not how it is: the suffering is subordinated to the value of the art produced. Thus the essence of horror underlies our realization of the bedrock nature of the universe.
This passage was written by the American novelist Philip K. Dick in 1980. Taken alone, the handful of lines might seem to be an extract from a lucid and elegant fugue on metaphysics and ontology — an inquiry, in other words, into matters of being and the purposes of consciousness, suffering, and existence itself. This particular passage would not strike anyone versed in philosophical or theological discourse as violently original, apart from an intriguing sequence of metaphorical slippages — printed, forged, extracted, converted — and the almost subliminal conflation of "the universe" with a work of art.
What makes the passage unusual is the context in which it arose and the other kinds of writing that surround it. Despite a tone of conclusiveness, the passage represents a single inkling, passing in the night, among many thousands in the vast compilation of accounts of his own visionary experiences and insights that Dick committed to paper between 1974 and 1982. The topics — apart from suffering, pity, the nature of the universe, and the essence of tragedy — include three-eyed aliens; robots made of DNA; ancient and suppressed Christian cults that in their essential beliefs forecasted the deep truths of Marxist theory; time-travel; radios that continue playing after being unplugged; and the true nature of the universe as revealed in the writings of the ancient philosopher Parmenides, in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, in Julian Jaynes's The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, and in Robert Altman's film Three Women.
The majority of these writings, that is to say, are neither familiar nor wholly lucid nor, largely, elegant — nor were they intended, for the most part, for publication. Even when Dick, who was an autodidact if ever there was one, recapitulates some chestnut of philosophical or theological speculation, his own philosophical and theological writings remain unprecedented in their riotous urgency, their metaphorical verve, their self-satirizing charisma, and their lonely intimacy (as well as in their infuriating repetitiveness, stubbornness, insecurity, and elusiveness). They are unprecedented, in other words, because Philip K. Dick is Philip K. Dick, one of the more brilliant and unusual minds to make itself known to the twentieth century even before this (mostly) unpublished trove now comes to light.
Dick came to call this writing his "exegesis." The process of its production was frantic, obsessive, and, it may be fair to say, involuntary. The creation of the Exegesis was an act of human survival in the face of a life-altering crisis both intellectual and emotional: the crisis of revelation. No matter how resistant we may find ourselves to this ancient and unfashionable notion, to approach the exegesis from any angle at all a reader must first accept that the subject is revelation, a revelation that came to the person of Philip K. Dick in February and March of 1974 and subsequently demanded, for the remainder of Dick's days on earth, to be understood. Its pages represent Dick's passionate commitment to explicating the glimpse with which he had been awarded or cursed — not for the sake of his own psyche, nor for the cause of the salvation of humankind, but precisely because those two concerns seemed to him to be one and the same.
The attempt eventually came to cover over eight thousand sheets of paper, largely handwritten. Dick often wrote through the night, running an idea through its paces over as many as a hundred sheets during a sleepless night or in a series of nights. These feats of superhuman writing are astonishing to contemplate; they impressed even an established graphomaniacal writer like Dick, who had once written seven novels in a single year. The fundamental themes of the exegesis come as no surprise. The body of work that established Dick's reputation — his forty-odd realist and surrealist novels written between 1952 and his death in 1982 — concerns itself with questions like "What is it to be human?" and "What is the nature of the universe?" These metaphysical, ethical, and ontological themes enmesh his work, even from its very beginnings in domestic melodrama, science fiction adventure, and humor, in an atmosphere of philosophical inquiry.
Dick increasingly came to view his earlier writings — specifically his science fiction novels of the 1960s — as an intricate and unconscious precursor to his visionary insights. Thus, he began to use them, as much as any ancient text or the encyclopedia Britannica, as a source for his investigations. never, to our knowledge, has a novelist borne down with such eccentric concentration on his own oeuvre, seeking to crack its code as if his life depended on it. The writing in these pages represents, perhaps above all, a laboratory of interpretation in the most absolute and open-ended sense of the word. When Dick began to write and publish novels based on the visionary material unearthed in the exegesis, he commenced interpreting those as well. So, as these writings accumulated, they also became self-referential: the exegesis is a study of, among other things, itself.
Fully situating this text's genesis within the flamboyant and heartbreaking life story of Philip K. Dick is beyond our reach in this introduction. We commend you to Lawrence Sutin's Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, published in 1989 and thankfully still in print. Sutin's biography finds its limitations only in the sense that neither he nor any other commentator in the years immediately following Dick's death, however persuaded of the unique relevance and appeal of his writing, could have predicted the expansion in its reputation and influence in the subsequent decades.
What will be needed by a reader coming to the exegesis, however, whether familiar or not with Dick's great novels, is a brief encapsulation of what both Dick and Sutin call "2-3-74" — meaning, simply, February and March of 1974 — for the simple reason that Dick's endless sequence of interpretations derive from that initial period of visions and a handful of external experiences that surrounded them (some of which, frankly, challenge credulity).
Whether interpreting a happening, memory, vision, or dream, Dick in his haste rarely bothers to set down the source events as scrupulously as we might wish — testament to his eagerness to begin his fierce private excavation of their meaning. After all, he understood to what he referred. Except for those lucky instances when Dick retraces his steps to their source, or in the letters to others that (mercifully for the reader) represent this wild journey's inception point, Dick explicates events, but rarely narrates them. Sutin observes:
The events of 2-3-74 and after are unusual, even bizarre. There are scenes of tender beauty, as when Phil administered the Eucharist to [his son] Christopher. There are instances of inexplicable foresight, as when he diagnosed his son's hernia. And there are episodes, like the Xerox missive, that foster skepticism. For some, the visions and voices will constitute evidence of grace. Others, both atheists and religionists, will doubt 2-3-74 for these very reasons.
So, what happened to Philip K. Dick in 1974? Among the mysterious events he chews over in these pages, the first, dark precursor to his visions was a break-in at his home in San Rafael, California, in November 1971 when someone blew up the file cabinet in his office. Candidates range from drug dealers to Black Panthers to various clandestine authorities, a few of which undoubtedly had Dick on their watch lists. Dick never settled on a single explanation for the break-in, but his fascinated, terrified rehearsals of this event set the stage for the deductive explosion to follow. It was then that Philip K. Dick's life began to resemble, as many have observed, a Philip K. Dick novel.
Then to 1974: Dick now lived in orange county, with a wife and young child. After receiving a dose of sodium pentothal during a visit to the dentist for an impacted wisdom tooth, Dick went home and later opened his door to a pharmacy delivery-girl bearing a painkiller and wearing a gold necklace depicting a fish, which she identified as a sign used by early Christians. At that moment, by his testimony, Dick experienced "anamnesis" — that sudden, discorporating slippage into vast and total knowledge that he would spend the rest of his life explicating, or exegeting.
Yet that doorway meeting with the fish necklace was only the first vision. in March Dick enjoyed two separate, unsleeping, nightlong episodes of visual psychedelia, the second of which he describes memorably as "hundreds of thousands of absolutely terrific modern art pictures as good as any ever exhibited ... more than all the modern art pictures that exist put together." next, he found himself compelled to perform a home baptism on his son, Christopher. Then he was visited by a "red and gold plasmatic entity," which he came to call, variously, Ubik, the logos, Zebra, or the plasmate. He also heard dire messages on his radio (which played whether or not it was plugged into the wall).
Readers will learn here of the "Xerox missive" — a mailed broadside of some sort, possibly from an ordinary basement Communist organization, which Dick understood as a dire test of his new and visionary self-protective instinct: it needed to be disposed of. Dick believed that he was inhabited by another personality with different habits and character, someone more forceful and decisive than himself — in the exegesis he auditions various candidates for this role — who steps in to fire his agent and field the Xerox missive. Our hero sees "Rome, Rome, everywhere," in a vision of iron bars and scurrying outlaw Christians; he came to call this vision of the world the Black Iron Prison, or BIP for short. A cat died, and the apartment was flooded with memorial light. Most stirring, a pink beam informed Dick of a medical crisis that threatened the life of his son, a diagnosis confirmed by doctors.
Beyond 1974, he endured voices, visions, and prophetic dreams too numerous to list here — all to be enfolded, by the writer, into the cascade of interpretation of those earlier events. A reader will learn how readily and fluently a new revelation transforms Dick's sense of the "core facts" of 2-3-74, which never sit still but adapt to a flux of analysis, paraphrase, and doubt. Illuminating them fully was Dick's subsequent lifework. Why should it be simple for us?
The journey of the exegesis from a chaos of paperwork stored, after Dick's death, in a garage in Sonoma, California, to this (noncomprehensive) publication is still, if not as unlikely as its creation in the first place — what could be? — a saga in itself. When Dick died in 1982, the exegesis was still a pile of papers in his apartment. Dick's friend Paul Williams, then executor of his literary estate, sorted the fragments into the ninety-one file folders that still house it. (Williams's provisional organizational choices, in the absence of other guides, remain evident in the form in which we present the material here.) The exegesis spent the next several years in Williams's garage in Glen Ellen.
It is difficult to overstate the degree to which Dick's reputation had gone underground in the 1970s and 1980s; it had never been very far overground to begin with, and his stature with publishers was nonexistent. Working with Dick's agent, Russ Galen, Williams found remarkable success inventing Dick's posthumous career as we now know it, guiding the out-of-print novels into republication and a place in literary culture more secure than Dick probably ever imagined for himself. A number of unpublished novels — coherent, finished manuscripts that in almost every case had already made the publishers' rounds and been rejected — were also brought to light.
Excerpted from The Exegesis of PHILIP K. DICK by Pamela Jackson Copyright © 2011 by Laura Coelho, Christopher Dick, and Isa Hackett. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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