The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick
by Philip K. Dick
Edited by Pamela Jackson & Jonathan Lethem
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011
976 pages / Buy from Amazon
Some authors’ lives are more interesting than their literary output. I’d rather read Ted Morgan’s excellent William S. Burroughs biography Literary Outlaw than any Burroughs’ book other than Junkie. Philip K. Dick led such a grandiose life that he’d belong in this category if he hadn’t written A) so many interesting novels and short stories and B) at least three major novels in Ubik, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and The Man in the High Castle. He also left behind an unwieldy hunk of mystagogic scout work now known as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.
Let’s get some basic facts out of the way. Dick is popularly known as the author who inspired films like Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report. He was mired in the pulp mills of sci-fi for most of his career (44 published novels; 121 short stories). He was prescribed (!) meth-amphetamine and gobbled whatever drugs he could pillage from his mother’s medicine chest. He enjoyed the company of five different wives. Most significantly, he experienced a series of mystical encounters:
1) A beam of pink light told him that his son had a rare, serious birth defect that needed medical attention. This couldn’t have been observed with the naked eye. At the hospital doctors confirmed Dick’s otherworldly diagnosis. His wife from that period corroborates the story.
2) When a delivery girl came to his door wearing a fish sign necklace that was worn by the early Christians, Dick came to believe in an underground network of secret Christians that he was being initiated into.
3) During a period of heavy amphetamine use, he looked into the sky and saw a menacing, metallic, malevolent god. This wasn’t a transitory hallucination. The old triple-M sky-god looked down on Dick for a number of days, serving as inspiration for his masterpiece The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.
4) Most spectacularly, Dick reached the conclusions that:
– Time was an illusion
– Reality was a hologram
– The year was actually 50 A.D.
– The Roman Empire never ended
– Without having read The Book of Acts, he independently recreated parts of it in his novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.
Much of this is revealed as the tractate in his novel VALIS, whichfrequently references Dick’s exegesis, defined as a “critical explanation or interpretation of a text or portion of a text, especially the Bible.” Up until recently, only a truncated version had been published, but self-styled Dickheads were desperate for more. Jonathan Lethem, Pamela Jackson and a team of editors dug through Dick’s cartons of manic exegeting and in 2011 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published a thousand page volume titled The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.
“The title he gave it, ‘Exegesis,’ alludes to the fact that what it really was, was a personal laboratory for philosophical inquiry,” Lethem told The New York Times. “It’s not even a single manuscript, in a sense – it’s an amassing or a compilation of late-night all-night sessions of him taking on the universe, mano-a-mano, with the tools of the English language and his own paranoiac investigations.”
I checked it out of the library in 2011, realized I’d never get through it in three weeks, and promptly gave up. This summer I bought a PS4. I only play sports game, and like to listen to audiobooks while I do. I also happened to have the summer off work, so if ever I would fight through the Exegesis, this was my time. I soon found that Dick’s quest to solve the weightiest questions of existence didn’t mesh well with my quest to keep Mark Buehrle’s ERA under 3.00, and I’d end up switching to a Coast to Coast AM episode or an audiobook like Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone.
Instead, I ended up listening to it between midnight and dawn, usually in the park near my house. I’d be returning home from a full night of Exegesis absorption as my girlfriend left for work each morning. Despite her escalating chagrin, I couldn’t resist those late nights. There was something potent about sitting in a large city park, in complete stillness and silence, and hearing the excellent narrator Fred Stella speak striking sentences like, “Time has stopped.” Or “…if there is a universe of anti-matter there must be a universe of anti-time.” I’d kind of nod. Think to myself, “Maybe that’s true…what do I know?”
I can cheerily say that I’ve failed to grasp the Exegesis beyond even the most superficial level. Outside of the scholars who edited the book, probably few people ever will. One Amazon reviewer said, “Tough stuff, only for the PKD initiate. Took me three month to get through the entire audiobook. But [I’ll] probably have to listen to it again (and again) to grasp it to some level at least. Glimpses of enlightenment, albeit brief and few.”
Hey, a glimpse of enlightenment is better than all the James Patterson in the world right?
Dick’s Exegesis has no beginning or end. I could listen to the 44th hour on one day, and the 8th on the next, and it was coherent as a linear reading would have been. Strange phrases were burned into my brain this summer. “Reticulation and arborization,” came up a lot. “Ratiocination,” “eleusis,” and “surd,” aren’t words you hear every day. “A perturbation in the reality field,” never failed to grab my attention. Dick’s words began to influence my ontological thinking. I’ve always been a sucker for this sort of thing. But Dick was an ideal guide. He brought my attention to arcane subjects like gnostic syzygy, orthogonal time, and the concept of anamnesis.
What I find most relatable about Dick (and I don’t want to relate on a total level because I enjoy my status as generally sane, non-mystic, non-desirous of aluminum-based accessories, etc.) is he attributes messages he heard in a hypnagogic state to an AI voice. Credit the AI voice with the phrase, “A perturbation in the reality field,” by the way. For the past couple years I’ve kept a notebook by my bed and the finest sentences I’ve put to paper, I feel, did not come from me, but from external hypnopompic and hypnagogic sources. This is quite common. Blake, Poe, De Quincey and Sartre are but a few authors who’ve attributed ‘their’ work to hypnagogic voices.
Finally, what fascinates me most is that small vertex where Dick’s seemingly-crazed ramblings intersect with the cutting edge science of today. When Dick was saying the universe was a hologram in the 70s, he was fit for the funny farm. Now you can read about Japanese scientist Yoshifumi Hyakutake’s model of a holographic universe in the journal Nature and in The Guardian, or listen to Leonard Susskind from the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics discuss it on YouTube.
Many of Dick’s 44 novels were written in a mad amphetaminic rush for a paycheque, and don’t hold up today. Even his great works have serious flaws. But what Dick has done with the Exegesis, however high-flown and difficult it may seem at times, is put across a unique and weighty perspective of the cosmos. As Lethem said, “It’s absolutely stultifying, it’s brilliant, it’s repetitive, it’s contradictory. It just might contain the secret of the universe.”
Dick died in his early 50s, so those drug-fuelled nights were not without cost. But I’m reminded of this passage from Heart of Darkness:
“I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself not for others—what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.”
Dick sought out his own reality, worked doggedly to assign meaning to “the mere show,” and documented it for future generations. It’s hard to imagine a more worthwhile literary pursuit.
Mike Sauve has written non-fiction for The National Post, Variety, and Exclaim! Magazine. His online fiction has appeared in Pif Magazine, Monkeybicycle, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and university journals of moderate renown. Stories have appeared in print in M-Brane, Feathertale, Filling Station, and elsewhere.
Tags: Philip K. Dick