The Nature of Dick's Fantasies
Philip K. Dick. In
Pursuit of Valis: Selections from the Exegesis. Ed. Lawrence Sutin.
Novato, CA: Underwood-Miller, 1991. 277pp. $39.95 cloth, $14.95 paper.
Philip K. Dick. The
Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick 1974. Ed. Paul Williams. Novato,
CA: Underwood-Miller, 1991. 314 pp. $39.95 cloth.
The Selected Letters of Philip K Dick 1974 is the first of a projected series
encompassing all of Dick's letters deemed publishable. In Pursuit of Valis is the
first published selection of Dick's legendary "exegesis" of his visionary experiences of
1974. Given that, for a variety of overlapping reasons--literary, political,
psychological, philosophical, among others--Philip K. Dick has earned a place as one of
the most significant authors of the last half of this century, these books are perforce
recommended for all collections. Edited well or edited badly, any selection of Dick's
letters or journals is automatically of value, particularly to Dick specialists. The
question is, how does this editing work to make this at times brilliant, at times painful,
and at most times difficult material accessible to the non-specialist?
The editing of these volumes is uneven, but their actual content is so important as to
override their editors' mistakes. To their credit the books provide wider access to
hitherto unknown portions of Dick's literary testament. Philip Dick was indeed, as Jay
Kinney says in his introduction to In Pursuit of Valis, a modern gnostic and an
original theologian. Whether one believes that Dick really had glimpsed something
ineffable in 1974 or whether one ascribes his visions to more prosaic psychological
forces, Pursuit provides both food for thought and ammunition for the
controversy. As Dick's visionary "Valis" experience of 1974 provides the basis for his
Exegesis, and as the letter collection provides immediate testimony of that experience,
the two books together provide much useful material for understanding it, even if the
editors themselves miss some of the key points. However much one might wish for
in several senses, of and in both volumes, one is grateful to have so much of what has
long been all but inaccessible.
As William Gibson aptly says in his excellent introduction to the Selected Letters,
"illuminating and embarrassing, brilliant and pathetic, the letters of Philip K. Dick are
the real thing." Certainly Dick's voice is (or voices are) present on every page of this
collection, drawn as they are from the most momentous year of his life. There is Dick the
wit, Dick the philosopher, Dick the paranoid, and Dick the fantast. Delightful or shocking
as he may be, it was virtually impossible for him to write a dull letter.
Like its companion volume and like in fact all the books from Underwood-Miller I have
seen, the Selected Letters is handsomely laid out and easy to read. It falls
short as a scholarly text, however, in that it carries no index beyond an unhelpful one to
titles of Dick's own books. This renders much of its contents inaccessible. Williams also
not only omits some letters but also deletes passages from others without so much as an
This is a particular problem as a handful of these letters--those addressed to the
Federal Bureau of Investigation--have already become a subject for controversy, as glossed
by Robert M. Philmus in SFS #53 ("The Two Faces of Philip K. Dick," 18:91-103, March
1991) and by myself in SFS #54 ("Dick, Deception, and Dissociation," 18:290-93, July
1991). These are of course the infamous letters in which Dick informs the Bureau that
various individuals were part of a worldwide conspiracy directed at him from Moscow. I
have read all 21 of Dick's FBI letters (Williams prints 13 of them), have done some
research into their history, and so can report the following "new" information to
augment the comments by Williams, Stanislaw Lem, and Peter Fitting printed in the
collection as published:
--None of Dick's 1974 letters to the FBI appear in any of the FBI's files on him (in
Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Washington). He received a polite brush-off response to his
first letter, of March 20; it is likely that the FBI ignored his later letters entirely.
--There is, moreover, good reason to doubt that many of these letters were ever sent.
According to his wife at the time, Tessa Dick, "Phil told me he'd only sent the first
three or four letters, and he stopped mailing them, because the FBI had lost interest (or
perhaps never had any interest) in the case..." (letter to author, 6/6/91). Asked why, if
this were so, so many letters existed not in originals but in carbons, she replied that
Dick's procedure was to "write a letter, address and stamp an envelope, go out in the
back alley, and drop the letter in the trash bin." Dick's reasoning was that "The
authorities will receive the letter if, and only if, they are spying on him"
(letter to author 8/2/91).
Dick can scarcely be held responsible for material he never mailed, and bears little
more onus for material delivered in such an elaborate fashion to the trash bin.
Nonetheless the mental state Dick was in when he wrote these letters is illustrative of
his state of mind at the time of his (simultaneous) visions; for this reason alone the
material demands both inclusion and extended comment. It is not sufficient for Williams to
merely say, as he does, that Dick was an "unreliable narrator." It is the nature of his
fantasies that is at issue.
As Dick's literary executor Williams could clearly have suppressed every letter that
reflected ill on their author. That he chose not to do so is to his credit. I only wish
Williams had been yet more open. The eight letters to the Bureau he omits are not
significantly more "scurrilous" than those he leaves in, as he claims in his preface. I
also wish that he had researched the history of the letters, as I have been able to do.
That Dick would look better and not worse from this option should be clear.
Lawrence Sutin, even more than Williams, throws a blanket over Dick's political
paranoia. In Pursuit of Valis omits most of the many examples of such paranoia in
the Exegesis. Sutin's Preface explains that he felt this material shed "much heat but
rather little light" on the material's "literary, philosophical, and spiritual
significance" (ix). To this reader of the original manuscripts, however, Dick's political
obsessions are a key to understanding the material, and is discarded at one's peril. This
is clearly not the place for spelling out my reasoning, but Dick's discussion here of the gnostic
"Hymn of the Pearl" suggests that it was the amnesiac author himself who sent
himself the "Xerox letter" which so terrified him that it inaugurated many of Valis's
key events, including the FBI letters.* [*"So it is he himself who sends
himself the letter which restores his memory (Legend of the Pearl)."--Dick, writing in
1978, quoted in In Pursuit of Valis, 84. See my forthcoming Variable Man:
Lives of Philip K. Dick for an elaboration of my theories about this]
Two other contributors to In Pursuit of Valis--Jay Kinney, editor of Gnosis,
and New Age philosopher Terrence McKenna--point the direction in which Sutin's editing
takes the book. Their commentary is often useful, as both men know a great deal about the
esoteric traditions Dick is working in. At other times, though, it is cockeyed, a
testament to the vacuity of "New Age" thought. McKenna's breezy Afterword "I Understand
Philip K. Dick" is the prime example of this. His comment on Dick as "schizophrenic"--
"Schizophrenia is not a disease at all but rather a localized traveling discontinuity of
the space time matrix"(256)--should give the reader a feel for his effort. He is,
however, so innocently egotistical in his grandiose claims (Dick would have endorsed
McKenna's books about his own visions) that it is hard to get too annoyed. (One also
suspects McKenna might be right.)
What is more troubling is the blithe indifference of Sutin and the others to what can
be determined as factual about Dick's experiences. Even as Sutin's editing ignores the
political context of much of Dick's visionary experiences, so do Sutin and his
collaborators ignore the psychological context. It is far too late, for instance, for the
outmoded notion of "schizophrenia" employed by Jay Kinney to have any currency (let
alone McKenna's!). Kinney quotes discussions of "schizophrenia" from 1936 and 1967
(xxxi-xxxii), seemingly unaware of the revolution in understanding that condition which
has since taken place. He also refers in passing to other suggested explanations for
Dick's experiences, including "even multiple personality disorder." He then writes,
"Ultimately what matters isn't the cause of the shamanistic journey so much as its
Unfortunately for this easy attitude, multiple personality disorder is caused by the
rape and torture of young children. I believe that Dick was a multiple and I also believe
that he was an abused child. This volume unwittingly supplies much support for this
thesis, including Dick's commentary on and identification with the tortured child-god
Dionysus (Zagreus), and including as well comments such as Sutin's "It is striking that
Dick was capable of reading his works--and be surprised by them--quite as if they had been
written by someone else." Evidently not striking enough.
On the other hand it was not Sutin's charge to present a definitive explanation of the
meaning of Dick's experience. His charge was to present the material as cleanly as
possible. This granted, the Exegesis proves in its published form a very illuminating
document, written by a man willing to tax himself to the utmost in his search for the
unknown. Thanks in large part to Sutin's editorial skill, the very dense original texts
are now readable by non-initiates. Sutin deserves credit for sorting through the 90-odd
files of largely handwritten notes Dick left behind, selecting and gathering them with
some sense of order. His glossary and particularly his footnoted explanation of difficult
terms are on the whole very useful. Particularly pleasing is the inclusion of Dick's own
diagrams illustrating his ideas.
Sutin divides his chosen extracts chronologically within eight thematic chapters, and
it is here that he runs into trouble. While sometimes it is obvious why one extract will
be in a chapter headed "Direct Accounts of Personal Experiences" or "Political and
Ecological Concerns," at other times the selection seems arbitrary. (Sutin's selection of
"Two Self-Examinations" and "Three Closing Parables" evade this stricture and are
highlights of the book.) Moreover the fact that each chapter jumps back again to Dick's
early musings works against an understanding of the growth and flow of Dick's thought from
year to year.
Sutin also fails to cite the sources of his extracts. Rather than specifying the file a
passage is pulled from, he merely gives his estimate of the year in which it was written.
Granted that Dick's Exegesis files were arbitrarily numbered (by Williams when he pulled
Dick's papers together in 1982), still Sutin's procedure throws a roadblock into the path
of any future Dick scholar who would want to trace Dick's comments in the original.
One must be grateful that these books exist at all. They could, however, have been
better. If we consider these volumes a shadow of more definitive editions of Dick's papers
yet to come, rather then themselves definitive, it is easier to be indulgent of their
faults and to relish the encounter they give us with one of SF's most provocative minds.
Inadequate as they are, they will do until the real thing comes along.
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