The Transmigration of Timothy Archer
by Philip K. Dick
Mariner Books, 1982
256 pages / $13.95 buy from Amazon
1. If Phil Dick were a preacher, I think there would be a lot more interest in religion with his unique blend of fantasy, science fiction, philosophical speculation, ontological conundrums, and church history.
2. I bought the Transmigration of Timothy Archer at a bookstore called the Last Bookstore which gave me an ominous reminder of the apocalypse, or perhaps just the end of paperback books. When I studied the history of Christianity at Berkeley, I was surprised to find out that in the year 999, people were convinced the end of the world would come on 1000 and mass hysteria spread across the world. 1000 came and went and the world is still here.
3. The character of Bishop Timothy Archer is based on a real life American Episcopal bishop named James Pike who was friends with Philip K. Dick. Bishop Pike lived from 1913-1969 and led a huge congregation at the Grace Cathedral. He was a controversial figure who supported the ordination of women, racial desegregation, and the acceptance of LGBT people. He worked in support of civil rights and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. during his march to Selma, Alabama. He was an alcoholic, had a romantic relationship with his secretary, and was brought up on heresy charges multiple times for questioning the virgin birth and the existence of Hell. He was never convicted.
4. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is the third book in a trilogy that includes VALIS and the Divine Invasion. You don’t need to read the first two to understand this one, though it helps. This one also has no science fiction elements in contrast to the previous two.
5. The book starts with the death of John Lennon and is told through the perspective of Angel Archer who is the daughter-in-law of Timothy Archer. Timothy Archer is already dead and she is reflecting back on his life and the fact that he sought “what lies behind Jesus: the real truth. Had he been content with the phony, he would still be alive.” He begins to question the identity of Jesus after learning about the discovery of the Zadokite Scriptures, now known as the Damascus Scriptures. In those scriptures predating Christ by two centuries, there are references to sayings Jesus made, suggesting the message was not entirely original. It’s those implications that drive Archer on his quest.
6. To be more specific: “My point is that if the Logia predate Jesus by two hundred years, then the Gospels are suspect, and if the Gospels are suspect, we have no evidence that Jesus was God, very God, God Incarnate, and therefore the basis of our religion is gone. Jesus simply becomes a teacher representing a particular Jewish sect that ate and drank some kind of— well, whatever it was, the anokhi, and it made them immortal.”
7. Anokhi means Pure Self-Awareness and was eaten at the Messianic banquet. The Last Supper Jesus had with His disciples wasn’t just a sharing of bread and wine, but in a parallel with Zoroastrianism and Brahman, an assimilation and unification with God.
8. Timothy Archer refers to John Allegro, the official translator of the Qumran Scrolls, who posited a theory in his book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. That theory was that Jesus and His early disciples smoked mushrooms that gave them hallucinations and became the basis of their religion.
9. Jeff Archer, Bishop Archer’s son and Angel’s husband, has his own theories. He is particularly obsessed with the idea that “the ills of modern Europe” can be traced “back to the Thirty Years War which had devastated Germany, caused the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire, and culminated in the rise of Nazism and Hitler’s Third Reich.” A prominent figure in those times was the German general, Wallenstein, who “colluded with fate to bring on his own demise. This would be for the German Romantics the greatest sin of all, to collude with fate, fate regarded as doom.” Jeff Archer ends up committing suicide after he falls in love with the woman Timothy Archer is sleeping with.
10. Timothy Archer is sleeping with his secretary, Kirsten.
11. Archer is so blinded by grief from the death of his son, he starts consulting a spiritual medium who communicates as Jeff from the dead. Mysterious phenomena from Jeff are happening to the couple as Kirsten feels needles under her fingernails at night and all the clocks are being set to 6:30- the time he died. Bishop Archer decides to write a book about it called From the Other World. Angela thinks he’s crazy, believing it will ruin his career in the church, but can’t bring herself to argue with him. “What is the difference between believing in a God you can’t see and your dead son whom you can’t see? What distinguishes one invisibility from another invisibility?”
12. Timothy Archer’s transmigration is borne out by an unbearable pain. As Angel points out, there is a difference between pain and the narration of pain. The theme of how to keep living in a world full of death helps bridge the trilogy together. An air of melancholy also pervades throughout this one.
13. “The purpose of my book is to provide comfort to heart-broken people who have lost loved ones,” Archer says. “What could be more reassuring than the knowledge that there is a life beyond the trauma of death, just as there is life beyond the trauma of birth. We are assured by Jesus that an afterlife awaits us; on this the whole premise of salvation depends.” Unfortunately, Dr. Rachel Garrett, their medium, has bad news from Jeff’s spirit. Kirsten is going to die soon and Timothy Archer will also most likely die.
14. Kirsten has an irregular spot that showed up during an X-ray. Consumed by the idea that she is going to die anyways, she commits suicide.
15. “The thinkers of antiquity did not regard death per se as evil, because death comes to all; what they correctly perceived as evil was premature death, death coming before the person could complete his work.” Archer decides he must visit the wadi where the Zadokite Documents were found. He is consumed by the idea that he can find the real anokhi, the pure Consciousness of God, in the Dead Sea Desert of Israel.
16. Timothy Archer’s car breaks down in the middle of the desert and as he hadn’t taken any food nor water, he is stranded without any supplies. Like the real-life James Pike, he dies after he falls off the side of a cliff. Man does not live on bread alone, but can’t live at all without some bread.
17. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer was one of the last books Philip K. Dick wrote. Often, when he is writing about Archer’s obsessions and beliefs, I wondered if he was really talking about himself. Odd, then, that he decided to write the whole story from the perspective of a female narrator.
18. Some critics have speculated that this was in response to criticism by Ursula K. Le Guin that he couldn’t write a strong woman in his stories. He wrote to her in a letter upon finishing Transmigration: “This is the happiest moment of my life, Ursula, to meet face-to-face this bright, scrappy, witty, educated, tender woman (Angela Archer) . . . and had it not been for your analysis of my writing I probably never would have discovered her.”
19. For Dick, religion isn’t an oppressive moral code or a way of focalizing power in the hands of a clergy, but instead, another shade and spectrum through which to view a fascinatingly mysterious and complex world. Or as in this case, a fascinating and complex figure— James Pike. In an interview with Jonathan Lethem, Lethem suggested the reason for the close friendship Dick shared with Pike was that the bishop was one of the few people who could match the breadth and scope of Philip K. Dick’s knowledge during conversation.
20. After Timothy Archer’s death, the story doesn’t end. Instead, Angel is left trying to make sense of her life. A Sufi leader, Barefoot, tells her she isn’t starved for spiritual food, but ‘real meat.’ “The foolish ones listen to my words; the wise ones eat the sandwich.” She resists eating the sandwich.
21. Speaking of food, Angel refers to Mandarin-styled Chinese food as spicy and hot in comparison to Cantonese food. Not to be a stickler, but Mandarin-styled food is a category that doesn’t exist. If she meant Northern style food which comprises of areas like Beijing, then that definitely is not spicy and hot. However, Hunan and Sichuan style is spicy and hot, but centers around the Southern and Western parts of China. I point out this distinction mainly because the Chinese food I ate in the States was nowhere near as good as the Chinese food I had in China (nor did it even taste alike) and I am a stickler about this point as a result.
22. We never find out if Timothy Archer successfully achieved transmigration. Strangely, it seems Angel Archer has gone out of her way to resist change. And yet her change and transmigration is so subtle, it’s easy to miss. She chooses to live and cope with reality, unlike every other character including Timothy Archer. There is no escape into illusion, no religion or philosophy or drugs to hide behind. She takes joy in a simple thing like duping Barefoot out of a rare music record.
23. Sufis “teach that the essence of God isn’t power or wisdom or love but beauty.”
24. My favorite saying by Timothy Archer: “If you wish to conquer us, show us love and not scorn. Faith moves mountains, love moves human hearts. The people opposing you are people, not things. Your enemy is not men but ignorant men. Don’t confuse the men with their ignorance. It has taken years; it will take years more. Don’t be impatient and don’t hate. What time is it?”
The Transmigration of Peter Tieryas Liu sometimes happens at tieryas.wordpress.com