Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Full-Length Mirror of Philip K. Dick

Ending today, Simon Critchley has presented a three-part series on Philip K. Dick's Exegesis on the Opinion page of The New York Times. As I have used Dick's writings to illuminate points in each of my books on 'new media' (this, this, and this), in my book on home viewing of movies and even in my one on Quentin Tarantino, I was particularly interested to read what Critchely has to say.

Critchely concentrates on post-1974 Dick and, particularly, on the Exegesis, the thousands of pages Dick wrote over the last eight years of his life in an attempt to come to terms with himself, the world, knowledge and belief. He writes of Dick's view of what he was doing:
In a later remark in “Exegesis,” Dick writes, “I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist.” He interestingly goes on to add, “The core of my writing is not art but truth.” We seem to be facing an apparent paradox, where the concern with truth, the classical goal of the philosopher, is not judged to be in opposition to fiction, but itself a work a fiction. Dick saw his fiction writing as the creative attempt to describe what he discerned as the true reality. He adds, “I am basically analytical, not creative; my writing is simply a creative way of handling analysis.” 
What struck me as I was reading this is that Dick's philosophical work certainly does extend far beyond the Exegesis but that it is rather unfortunate that it is this later, unpublished and unpolished work that draws most attention today.

Dick's consideration of the problems (and his struggles with them) posed in the Exegesis started early in his career. In the second of the installments, Critchely writes:
In the very first lines of “Exegesis” Dick writes, “We see the Logos addressing the many living entities.” Logos is an important concept that litters the pages of “Exegesis.” It is a word with a wide variety of meaning in ancient Greek, one of which is indeed “word.” It can also mean speech, reason (in Latin, ratio) or giving an account of something. For Heraclitus, to whom Dick frequently refers, logos is the universal law that governs the cosmos of which most human beings are somnolently ignorant. Dick certainly has this latter meaning in mind, but — most important — logos refers to the opening of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the word” (logos), where the word becomes flesh in the person of Christ.
Even as early as Time Out of Joint (1959), Dick used the concept of "the word" as the heart of "reality," exploring its relation to received "truth" and our desire to believe. It also has a great deal to do with the idea of the mask, a concept whose implications reverberate through quite a bit of Dick's fiction.

Critchely concentrates on the gnosticism of the Exegesis in his series. In the third installment, he writes:
If you think that there is a secret that can be known that they are hiding from us and that requires the formation of a small, secret sect to work against them, then you have entered into an essentially gnostical way of thinking.
For Dick, as he explores what "they" are, what "hiding" means, what "us" is, what "secret" implies, and much more through his great novels of the sixties and seventies, gnosticism is a means of organization in face of worlds that consistently dissolve into chaos.

The Exegesis, while a stunning attempt at... something, is not the whole of Dick, or even the best of him. It's merely an attempt to finally come to terms with impossibilities that he had been exploring since his first sale, "Roog" (and his first published story, "Beyond Lies the Wub"), where nothing is quite as it appears. Dick himself liked to quote from Gilbert and Sullivan, "things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream."

Rather than starting with the Exegesis, if one is not already familiar with Dick's work but doesn't yet want to attempt the fiction, I would suggest turning to "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later," a talk he gave in 1978. In terms of the fiction, the best starting point is probably his Hugo-winning The Man in the High Castle, though almost any of the books after that (not including VALIS, which is closely related to the Exegesis) could be a reasonable place to begin. The books are often confusing but, then, they are not meant to provide easy answers.

My favorites of Dick's novels are, probably, Confessions of a Crap Artist and A Scanner Darkly. The former isn't science fiction at all, and the latter is probably Dick's most depressing--and optimistic--book.

Dick may have considered himself a fictionalizing philosopher, but he was also a story-teller, and a damned good one. It is through his stories that his ideas are best approached. 


Frank Bertrand said...

Yes, Professor Critchley does concentrate only on Philip K. Dick post 1974, etc., with the so called Exegesis and VALIS trilogy. That is misleading, in that PKD wrote a hell of a lot more novels and short stories that just those, not to mention his essays, interviews, and extant selected letters. I would argue one should start with his first published short story, "Beyond Lies The Wub," wherein can be found precursors for most of his salient themes, in particular what is human-ness. Then one should carefully read The Man Who Japed, wherein PKD gives his best early use of "black humor," to be followed by Time Out Of Joint, his best early take on his other salient theme, what is reality.

Aaron Barlow said...

I would agree, completely.