Science Fiction Studies

#56 = Volume 19, Part 1 = March 1992

Gregg Rickman

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 "more," 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 ellipsis mark.

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: The 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 effect" (xxxvii).

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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